Traveling Film South Asia opens eyes by moving across borders
Last October in a crowded auditorium in Kathmandu, Shyam Benegal took the stage to announce the winners of the biannual Film South Asia (FSA) documentary competition. Of the hundreds of documentaries submitted from across the region, 45 had been selected to compete at FSA 2001. As Benegal, the chairman of the threemember jury panel, rose to announce the winners, a hush fell over the over-capacity crowd, which spilled into the aisles. “And the winner is…”
FSA’s origins date to 1997, when Himal Association, a Kathmandu-based group, and Himal magazine decided to organise a regional documentary film festival. Since that time, the competition has grown to involve hundreds of filmmakers from across the region. Most significant has been the evolution of a traveling festival that takes FSA’s best documentaries to audiences small and large in South Asia and overseas.
The latest Traveling Film South Asia (TFSA) set out immediately after the awards ceremony ended last October and has traveled so far to venues in Pakistan, India and the United States. TFSA Coordinator Archana Bhandary explains that the focus of the organisers is to promote a “screening revolution” in the region by ensuring that not only film buffs and elite urban audiences but also lay viewers and those in smaller towns get to enjoy the films. “The non-fiction films being produced now have a lot of variety, and many are rather slickly made. And we believe there is an audience for these documentary films all over – the only problem being that no one has taken it to them.” Bhandary says the organisers encourage groups all over South Asia to screen TFSA. “The package of films comes for free for South Asia venues, subsidised through a modest charge for all overseas screenings.”
“We encourage prospective organisers in cities, towns and even village communities to get in touch with us. The films are all on videocassettes and it is very easy to screen them.” (Information about hosting TFSA can be obtained from Himal Association’s website at www.himalassociation. org/fsa, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Because of the relatively low cost of documentary film production, the festival has been able to open its doors to hundreds of aspiring filmmakers, as well as to already-established professionals. The festival’s guiding principle is that local filmmakers can bring local issues and concerns to life on the screen much more effectively than high-cost television programming meant for general audiences. While the organisers are happy to see TFSA making its way around South Asia and to communities overseas, the ultimate goal is to build filmmaking skills at the local level, which first requires and appreciatve local audience, says Bhadury. “Now that non-fiction filmmaking is encompassing entertaining themes rather than developmental or artistic themes alone, the audience is bound to grow,” says Manesh Shrestha, director of the FSA organisation. As technology costs plummet, it may soon be possible for hundreds of small towns throughout South Asia to host TFSA as well as support their own documentary filmmakers.
My Migrant Soul, a documentary telling the tragic story of a Bangladeshi labourer in Malaysia who does not return home, won the Ram Bahadur Trophy for Best Film at FSA 2001. The film is produced by Yasmine Kabir, also known for her earlier FSA entry, Duhshomoy: A mother’s lament.
In addition to My Migrant Soul, TFSA includes 16 other jury-selected documentaries and a collection of five ‘silent-shorts’, less-than-five’ minute long experimental films where the ‘handicap’ is the prohibition of ambient sound. The short were part of a “festival within a festival” at FSA ’01 called ‘Kathmandu Silent Night”. Other award-winning films in the TFSA lineup include A Rough Cut of the Life and Times of Lachuman Magar, a humourous look at a lascivious 58-year-old Nepali pensioner, and Jari Mari: Of Cloth and Other Stories, which examines life in Mumbai’s sweatshops. One of the most powerful presentations in the traveling group is The Killing Terraces, by Dhruba Basnet, which takes a searing look at the rise of the Maoist movement in the mid-western hills of Nepal describing the situation of a peasantry caught between the insurgents and the police.