Big Screen Movies

The world according to women

A still from ‘Velvet Revolution’.  

V. Indira Priyadarshini and E. Bharathi Yendapalli are two women journalists not many in India would have heard of. They work for Navodayam, a Telugu newspaper brought out by rural women, almost all of them Dalit, in Andhra Pradesh. The paper began with a small government fund and now has a circulation of about 2,00,000. It is entirely the product of first-generation learners: from writing on child rights and livelihood to editing, sourcing visuals and designing the pages. And it wasn’t an easy road. They faced taunts—“now even women have become reporters”—they covered stories of the upper castes while standing outside their homes; and they saw their numbers dwindle because of the lack of a support system.

At the other end of the spectrum is the champion of free thinking and speech, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, talking eloquently about her dream to go back and work in Bangladesh. But she has to now live in exile after fundamentalists killed her blogger husband, Avijit Roy, in Dhaka. In her first appearance in a documentary, the editor of Muktamona recounts her memories of their last moments together—of holding hands, joking and then being blood-soaked, with stabs on the head, a severed finger and crying for help. Three months after her recovery, she was back countering the “virus of faith” and working towards safe shelters for atheist, liberal Bangladesh bloggers. “I couldn’t leave my co-warriors in the middle of the battlefield,” she says in the documentary Velvet Revolution that will have its world première at the 13th edition of IAWRT (The International Association of Women in Radio and Television) Asian Women’s Film Festival in the capital next weekend.

There is a common thread running through the stories featured in this film on women journalists from Afghanistan, Syria, India, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Philippines: of living on the edge yet persisting, of facing war and dictatorships with courage, of questioning authority, resisting and dissenting. Be it a Malini Subramaniam carrying on with her coverage of human rights violations in Chhattisgarh despite being forced to move out of Bastar; Najiba Ayubi continuing with her broadcasts even as radio stations were bombed in Afghanistan; Moussa Marandata reporting from the Boko Haram-infested frontlines of Africa; or Khadija Ismayilova facing harassment and imprisonment in Azerbaijan for her role in the Panama Papers investigation.

A unique collaborative effort by five women directors and helmed by executive producer and project director Nupur Basu, the film offers critical facts and figures and also looks at issues of wage disparity, sexual harassment and social media threats that women journalists face. However, the greater resonance is in the individual narratives.

“I didn’t want the stars. I wanted to cast the net wide for characters,” says Basu. So she has Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim, now living in exile in southern Turkey, who calls herself an accidental war correspondent, saying “I did not want to be a war correspondent... but the war came to my doorstep”. Or Kimberlie Ngabit Quitasol, a young woman journalist from Philippines, bringing out the nuances of corruption with her rhetorical questions: “The President is wrong when he says that journalists are being killed because they are corrupt—who corrupts whom… who holds the power to corrupt?”

For Basu, who was herself a journalist for three and a half decades, making the film was like coming full circle. “The film is very relevant in our contemporary times given the attacks on media the world over,” she says. But the stories of women journalists are about more than media and gender. Under the bigger umbrella of gender are encompassed issues as diverse as class, caste, environment, ecology, corruption, politics, religion and bigotry.

IAWRT is about giving primacy to the woman’s gaze. “The lens with which the women filmmakers view the world is dispersed,” says festival director Subasri Krishnan.

Playing a woman

In fact, one of the most remarkable films in the festival is the one that casts a gender-bending look at the world of art and reality—Ananya Kasaravalli’s Kannada film, Harikatha Prasanga. It is the story of Hari, a Yakshagana artiste who specialises in playing women on stage, and is mocked and humiliated offstage. Playing a woman is not as simple as it appears. It’s about his own identity crisis. “I doubt if I am a man playing a woman or a woman playing a man,” he says. What defines him then? The skirt-sari or the shirt-dhoti? The nose-ring or the hair he deliberately cuts? The gentle, non-intrusive, non-voyeuristic camera looks on, observes and empathises. So do we.

The festival opens with Inja Sandaliha Khalist/ Here the Seats are Vacant from Iran, about Shahrzad a cabaret dancer who became the first woman director of Iran but was imprisoned and forced to stay out of work after the Islamic Revolution.

This year’s edition showcases 56 films from 17 countries, apart from the general programming consisting of feature fiction, short fiction and documentary films (curated by Bina Paul, Deepika Sharma, Surabhi Sharma and Krishnan herself). There will be animation films and ‘Artists’ Film and Video’ (curated by Iram Gufran). The latter “showcases single screen works in documentary cinema, experimental film, animation, performance and contemporary art. The artists offer an aesthetic exploration of the political and personal, and the spatial and temporal,” says Iram Gufran in the curator’s note.

So you have Hansa Thapliyal’s playful short Ghar, Studio Hai/ The Home is a Studio, which is about turning her own family, the daily routine of the home, the everydayness of her parents’ togetherness into a film. It is about making actors out of her parents, having her mother sing a favourite song—’Tumhare bina jee na lage ghar mein’—and a singer, a performance and a film are born.

Then there is Untitled by Pakistan’s Yaminay Chaudhuri, an abstract videography of a beached ship, the sea, a city, its people, the road and traffic.

One of the highlights of the animation section is Flood of Memory by Anitha Balachandran. The film was made in the aftermath of a flood in Rajasthan’s Barmer district in 2006. It revisits it through the memories of survivors, their recollections of loss and tragedy. The film uses the unique technique of sand animation and combines it with live footage. “Each frame was drawn using a sharp stick on sand, which was on a backlit piece of glass, shot with an overhead camera and then erased to create a new one,” says Balachandran. The slow and painstaking process tooksix months to finish.

The festival also explores sound. Five aural works are showcased in the fourth edition of Soundphiles, curated by Samina Mishra and Parvati Balgopalan, including Agent of Ishq’s ‘Hum Tum Ek Kamre Mein Band Ho Aur’, the tale of a young couple discovering love and sexuality. ‘An Ear for Cinema’ section features works that are so eloquent in their communication that “it is like going to the movies with our eyes shut,” say curators Balgopalan and Mishra. “It journeys through stories exploring many soundscapes and many emotions, and drawing attention to the critical role that sound plays in making the magic of cinema.”

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 10:18:06 AM |

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