Feasting on documentary films

Chair of Film South Asia Kanak Mani Dixit with musician Amrit Gurung. Photo: FILM SOUTH ASIA

From the inaugural documentary Indus Blues, it became evident that a lot of the documentaries at the Film South Asia 2019 festival this week in Kathmandu could not be shown in their home countries. Such is the state of free expression in the Subcontinent that Kathmandu became the relatively free space where the screenings could happen.

The documentary genre evolved to use film to explore, explain and expose facets of modern society largely missed out by fictional cinema or mainstream journalism. It has got new life in the post-truth, alternative-fact age by daring to dig deep and shine a light into the dark, hidden corners of our societies, so that we can see, hear and act on the concerns of people and places in the periphery.

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At a time when democracy, freedom of expression, pluralism, inclusiveness and non-violence are all under threat from elected demagogues in South Asia and beyond, the work of these courageous documentary makers is more important than ever.

Whether or not it was deliberate, Film South Asia also delivered a number of striking pairings. Abu and The Next Guardian for instance, were screened on consecutive nights at Yala Maya Kendra, and both trace a family’s hope for their son and provide reflections on cultural attitudes towards sexual orientation.

Abu is a portrait of a patriarch, and the tale of the ebbs and flows of family relationships seen through the eyes of filmmaker Arshad Khan. However crippling the undertow of misunderstandings, secrets and lies that exist in his family, its members still draw close, bound by love but tethered in pain as they explore life as migrants and grapple with the politics of religion, sexuality and family expectations.

The oppression felt by the filmmaker in his youth is palpable: we feel his father’s disapproval or his mother’s avoidance in the recordings of his well-documented childhood. In the end, fear and oppression might dissolve into love and forgiveness, but the family secrets and lies remain, settled deep into the fragile stillness of resignation and silence.

Silently too, and nodding to sleep, a young Bhutanese boy deigned to be the next guardian of his family’s monastery suffers his father’s gentle verbal lashings and pressure to take on the role and become a monk. His sister’s sexual orientation is pragmatically and matter-of-factly attributed to her past life in a half-comic spiel the father delivers to the camera.

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A well-paired set of observations on India’s diversity was served with Chai Darbari, followed immediately by Growing up in Ladakh. Both are exquisitely filmed, and capture the inherent beauty of India’s varying lands: Ayodhya and Ladakh. Where Chai Darbari features heated masculinity of various political positions jostling for a voice amidst the moments of clamour and calm in an ancient city and hotbed of conflict, the latter follows two young girls growing up in isolated desert mountains, nourished by familial love and community and supported by their school and elders as they undertake a gruelling pilgrims’ progress called Gotchak.

In another thematic pairing, Janani’s Juliet and Badshah Lear are adaptations of two of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and with aplomb they bring the Bard’s humanist dramas to life in two different Indian contexts. Janani’s Juliet follows director Koumarane Valavane and his actors as they adroitly weave the story of star-crossed lovers from warring families into the fray of India’s caste system and the warped tragedy of so-called ‘honour killings’.

Two films featured bamboo. The one from Bangladesh, Bamboo Story, won the main trophy at FSA 2019. A multi-layered ethnographic study using outstanding cinematography, the film provides empathy and respect for an unnoticed floating population shuttling between a forest and an urban jungle. The other bamboo film from Nepal, Winter Tap, co-winner in the student category, is a small-is-beautiful tale of how not to waste resources in the process of accessing water in a remote mountain village.

The festival closed with a screening of two films, one about a rooster running amok in a Mumbai household’s small flat, and the other featuring four dog-loving eccentrics in Kolkata. The humans who adopt them exist precariously, whether on the cusp of life and death, sanity and madness, or crammed in cages and tethered to things they cannot fathom.

Pariah Dog cleaves into the underbelly of Kolkata, to show a world where people live isolated, desperate lives. Those caring for community dogs are doing so as much to assuage their consciences as to address a yearning for companionship, purpose and recognition in a world fast atomizing into anonymity, where they themselves may be considered pariah. Tungrus is darkly comic as it traces the fate of a handsome broiler rooster who seemingly has it good, ruling the roost and terrorising the family. His fate is painfully bleak, in a scene at once comical and horrific.

Life and art are one. Art exists only with life and life thrives only with art. Film South Asia 2019 was a documentary feast where the mind could thankfully still be free.

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