Is there a particular measure with which a film jury determines the quality of films that they view? Most probably, in certain film festivals, there is. Festivals that have been happening for some time now and have matured, probably, have a code for viewing and determining the merit of the wares that they scrutinise. This code might not be overtly stated, but could be discernible as a pattern in the kind of films it has viewed and honoured through the years. But as soon as one talks of a code, it smacks of a certain kind of dogmatism, or almost a pre-conception of what is wrong and what is right, that the jury would bring with it to the screenings.
Happily, Film South Asia (FSA), the biennial festival of South Asian documentaries in venue Kathmandu, is too young to be constrained in any such fashion. It is robustly teething, and has a youthful exuberance. My own experience as a jury member in both the first (in 1997) and the recently held second Film South Asia, has shown that above all, it is the films themselves that determine the method of rating them. Change a few of the set of films, and the response of the jury changes overall. In fact, the body of the 50 or so films play upon one’s senses as a single unit. At least at a certain level.
Of course, the responses are also determined by the preferences and the prejudices of each member of the jury. One can only hope that these are not archaic, or do not stake any of the qualities of film-making because of certain other factors, simply because it is fashionable to do so, and so forth. The jury holds in abeyance its decision till the last moment of the festival. Despite a large number of good films viewed, they can only give a few prizes to any number of hopefuls.
The jury knows that now the moment has arrived when they themselves will be judged. The entrants themselves have their own set of preferences and prejudices. They are, if anything, no less competent than the jury to whom they have graciously offered the bounty of their effort for judgement. In the same way that different films combine to influence the jury as a single unit, the jury also perceives the films as a single unit. Change any one member of the jury, and its performance changes. An activist will always focus more on films of social relevance, an aesthete on form, and so on. My own view of the films I saw were influenced by the films as well as by the other jury members. I’m sure the others responded in the same manner to these stimuli.
There were 45 films for competition this year. The bulk, as always, from the vast and diverse cultural mosaic that is India. The others, from the adjoining and not very dissimilar worlds of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These films represented over a billion people of South Asia.
There are only three top awards to be given at FSA using the criteria of “general excellence”. However, there are always films that are worthy of attention and do not fall in any of the top award categories. A tradition has, therefore, emerged of honouring some of these films. In Film South Asia ’97, the Bangladeshi Mukhtir Gaan was awarded a “Special Mention”. This year the brilliant five-minuter animation Do Flowers Fly would have been overlooked without a “Special Mention”. Then there was The Forgotten Army about Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), astounding in its sweep and incredible in how the producers had managed to unearth heretofore unseen archival material related to the INA’s emergence in Singapore and its heroic confrontation of the Allied forces. The film was awarded a Grand Jury Prize.
As if that were not enough, the first and second prizes were shared by two films each. The third ‘best’ was Buddha Weeps in Jadugada, an investigative report on the despoliation, as well as economic and human misery caused by uranium mining and related waste in Bihar. I was quite amazed to later learn that the film was made using ordinary home video equipment, and transferred to Beta for the purposes of the Festival. The film was also one of the few shown in competition whose commentary was in the local vernacular, and not in English.
Pure Chutney shared the second prize with Three Women and a Camera. The former deals with the Indian diaspora in Trinidad and Tobago—the question of identities in a mixed society; the problems related to clinging to one’s cultural ethos in a hybrid world, and the tragedy of being uprooted from one’s soil because of the colonial holocaust. Three Women and a Camera, on the other hand, is a meticulous exposition of the way three women photographers related to different periods of contemporary Indian history, and had wittingly allied themselves with the various epochs of the women’s movement, which in turn moulded their art. Unlike Pure Chutney’s romping, casual style of storytelling, Three Women has been executed with extreme cinematographic care, echoing formalistic concerns, ideals and questions that the three extremely gifted and eloquent protagonists of the film posed for themselves.
The first prize went to Thin Air and No One Believes the Professor. Thin Air is remarkable for numerous reasons. Like Three Women, it deals with three lives. Three magicians’ lives. The distinguishing feature between Thin Air and Three Women is that the protagonists of the former are victims of a fate that they cannot possibly contrive to re-fashion. They are not eloquent in the manner that the three women are. They are the victims, not the masters of their fate. When they speak, we discover the folly of their words. When they act, we discover the folly of their motives. They do not even have the relief of sighing into retirement, instead they gasp for life towards the end of their years. Denuded even of their own image of their elevated art and their self-respect.
The premise of No One Believes the Professor is almost similar. He also lives in his delusions. A man who oscillates between sanity and insanity, the Professor has not even confronted his delusions. Instead, he has elaborated them into a fine madness. The remarkable thing about the film is that it has found in its protagonist, a metaphor, which transcends his and our own earthbound existence. And remarkably, his insanity is what is enlightening, transcendental and spiritually edifying. The director keeps us constantly aware of the fact that what he has before us is documentary evidence. This is done through the use of hand-held camera, unsteady shots, jump cuts and his own voluble (recorded) promptings and intercessions. But the Professor has made such a fiction of his life that his very presence defies the formalities of documentary, stretching the genre to the limits and almost seeming to defy the division between fictional works and documentary.
There were also other works of excellence at the Festival. FSA happily has another method of rewarding some of these: by inclusion into a travelling exhibition. A total of 15 films travelled through South Asia, Europe and North America after the first Festival. A similar number will take a wider route this year and throughout the next.
The travelling festival is a window on South Asia as well as a tribute to the development of the documentary genre in our part of the world. I wish the travelling festival a happy and auspicious voyage. I am sure it will present the case of South Asia more truthfully than the self-serving official handouts of the various governments of this region.