The documentaries screened at the recent Film South Asia 09 in Kathmandu are a powerful comment on dislocation, death and love.

Flying over the snow capped mountains on the Himalayas before landing in Kathmandu Valley there is always an air of awe and expectancy. The September weather is brilliant as is the non-fiction ambience at the Film South Asia (FSA) 2009 .

Over the next four days audiences queuing up to watch documentaries at the Festival venue in downtown Kathmandu is a sight to gladden the heart of non-fiction filmmakers whose marketing venues continue to be limited. “Documentary films are the litmus test of a free society and documentary filmmakers are the climax species of the media – if no restrictions are placed on them, all of society can bloom” remarked Kanak Mani Dixit, Chair, Film South Asia (FSA) setting the tone for this unique South Asian festival that happens every two years. “We had 320 film entries this year but we selected only 35 films for the Festival in order to raise the bar on quality.” The films came from Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and a large chunk from India.

Various topics

After the lights dimmed following the upbeat opening ceremony it was time to see the “real” images from South Asia. Images of a region divided by bitter borders and stateless people, fundamentalism both of the Islamic and Hindu varieties, forced migrations to look for livelihood, the harmful effects of globalisation , dire poverty that dehumanises even little children — but most surprisingly, the sheer resilience of the victims.

Indian filmmaker Rajesh S. Jala’s film Children of the Pyre and Korean filmmaker Yi Seung-jun’s Children of God were on children who make a livelihood from the rituals of death at the burning ghats of Varanasi in India and Pashupatinath temple in Nepal. Both sets of children are abused and live on the edge and yet the filmmakers deftly bring out not their victim hood but their sheer sense of survival. A Nepali child’s testimony in Children of God: “I am 13 and I will be dead by 14” is a haunting indictment of our governments and societies.

The issue of statelessness was a strong theme. In The Promised Land Tanvir Mokammel sensitively documents the plight of the Urdu-speaking community of Bangladesh. Indian Bihari Muslims who had migrated to Bangladesh in 1947 wanted to move to Pakistan after 1971. But they were never allowed to enter Pakistan and still live without any citizenship rights across 116 poorly maintained camps in Bangladesh. The camera follows haunting personal stories from Bangladesh to Pakistan to India and finally we are left with one moving lyric by a “Bihari” refugee that encompasses their pain: “We gave our blood to the garden… But the gardener now asks, who are you?” The theme recurs in the expelled Bhutanese refugees who now live in Nepal in The Forgotten refugees and also in the search of Gorkha identity in Machis ko Sinka.

The migration mood is also firmly etched through several films like Kathmandu-based Kesang Tseten’s In Search of the Riyal. The documentary traces the journey of poor Nepali migrant workers from the lush paddy hillsides of Nepal to the stark deserts of Qatar to tend camel or work on difficult construction sites. One million Nepalese work in the Gulf and many return in coffins, dead due to ‘heart attacks.” There are no post-mortems and the families have no way of finding out what happened to their loved ones. Indian filmmaker Savyasaachi Jain’s Shores Far Away traces the migration of young men from Punjab to E.U. countries and the dehumanising pitfalls of that journey/migration.

Silent but powerful

Closer home a different sort of disenfranchisement is taking place following globalisation. And Yasmine Kabir’s film The Last Rites is a silent and extremely powerful testimony to the hundreds of impoverished workers who work on the ship-breaking yards of Chittagong. “The ship has to die and man has to help it die as if man and vessel were united in common bondage,” says Yasmine “I decided to tell the story just as I saw and experienced it.”

Finally the three member jury — Sadanand Menon (Chair from Chennai), Lalsawmliani Tochhawng (from Delhi) Isa Daudpota (from Islamabad) — was unanimous in its assessment that “one of the shortest films eminently qualifies for the biggest award”; Yasmine Kabir’s The Last Rites lifted the prestigious Ram Bahadur Trophy. The jury described the FSA as an amazing trip through South Asia

In the end FSA 09 allowed a potpourri of images to question our faulty democracies in South Asia and raised tough questions regarding divisions, inequity and injustice in the troubled subcontinent.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012