Dare to Documentary: South Asian Film Festival

With the slogan DARE TO DOCUMENTary, the South Asian extravaganza of non fiction films kicked off in Kathmandu today. Four dozen South Asian documentaries “for the people of South Asia, by the people of South Asia, to the people of South Asia” will be screened in four days.

a still from Living Goddess

A still from Living Goddess, a film about the Kumari girl of Bhaktapur and the culture that is slowly dying in a society that is increasingly demanding a republic Nepal.

Every alternate year, around this time, non fiction films from all over South Asia come to Kathmandu, many of them accompanied by their producers and directors, to be screened in front of an enthusiast and interactive crowd. The event is called South Asian Film Festival, celebration of best documentaries from the region, where filmmakers not only interact with themselves but also take part in direct Q and A with the audiences. Almost all of the documentaries in the festival also take part in a competition that sees the best, judged by a panel of eminent film makers and critics, crowned the Ram Bahadur Trophy at the end of the event.

The sixth edition of the festival that began in 1997 kicked off yesterday in Kathmandu’s posh Kumari Cinema Hall saw a well attended crowd even as the traffic was disrupted in some parts of the city because of the Maoist-organized rallies. Over the past ten years, the festival has not only created a forum for the filmmakers of the region to showcase their talents and express themselves but also created a documentary craze, so to speak, among the people of Kathmandu. Such was the love towards documentaries in Kathmanduits that the first show of the festival, after the inaugural one, experienced some audiences sitting on the floor an aisles of the theater to see a documentary film about two rebellious Bangladeshi sisters born and raised in London but are forced to go back to their parents’ motherland for arranged marriage. I was among those who felt lucky to find space to sit on the aisle and was thrilled to see audience (including myself) erupting in laughter as the film progressed.

Much more such laughter is expected in the next three days because the four-day long festival will screen 48 films. According to the chair of the festival committee Kanak Mani Dixit, a prominent Nepali journalist and activist, this year’s collection of films is the best the festival has showcased so far because, he said, the quality of the filmmaking has increased incredibly over the past decade thanks largely to the improvement in technology involved in making films.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the festival provides a wonderful opportunity for filmmakers and audiences to interact with each other. “It provides space for South Asians to meet,” said Farjad Nabi, a filmmaker from Karachi, Pakistan who was attending the festival as a member of the jury. One of his films- Nusrat has left the building… but when?- was screened in the inaugural show of the first edition of the film festival and he shared the Ram Bahadur Trophy for his film No One Believes the Professor in the second edition of the festival with Ashmin Ahluwalia (Thin Air). So when he said that the festival “has created a whole generation of filmmakers” in the region, audience saw the example in Farjad himself.

The best thing about documentaries that are shown in Film South Asia is that they tell the stories that we don’t always hear in the mainstream media. And this festival provides, to use the example of a super market, many such stories on the same screen! Plus, it’s a pleasant experience to watch movies with other people and sharing laughter or sadness with them.

Indian filmmaker Saeed Mirza, who is the jury leader for this festival, said that the festival has provided young people in the region a forum to express themselves. “Despite all the struggles they end up making beautiful films,” he said about the struggling filmmakers of the region. And he gave his “quotable quote” that went something like this: “Documentary is good for the sanity o all society.”

The Kumari Story: “Living Goddess”, a documentary about the Kumari of Bhaktapur and the Nepali tradition of worshipping a pre-puberty age virgin girl, was screened at the inaugural function. I saw the audience giving mixed reactions: rare shots of the daily life of Kumari Sajani Shakya but too long (90 minutes), repetitive and confusing as director tries to relate the tradition with the public sentiment on the street. Kumari, the living goddess, is considered the source of power to the ruling king but the tradition is slowly waning and the public’s trust in Kumari is disappearing because the people on the street are shouting slogans against “thief king” and they are increasingly demanding Nepal be declared a republic. I felt the connection was a beautiful idea but found the execution slightly dull.

The film by Ishbel Whitaker, originally from Glasgow, gives a fresh perspective to an age-old Nepali tradition and I was thrilled to see those footage of April revolution (2006) and anti-regression movements in Kathmandu again. My verdict is: it could have been better. I will come up with more on the film tomorrow in a separate post and if you are planning to see the film, go to Kumari on Sunday at 1 PM. The film might get repeat screen because I am sure many people will want to see it especially because of the news it and Sajani made a few weeks back in American and Kathmandu press. Just to kill the curiosity: Sajani had gone to the US in connection to the screening of the film there. The Guthi, an organization that oversees the Kumaris (there are many) of Kathmandu valley and works closely with the royal palace, sacked the girl because Kumari is not allowed to travel like that. Protests followed and she was restored!