Documenting the Subcontinent for a generation

A still from My Childhood My Country

The biennial Film Southasia documentary festival is back in Kathmandu celebrating 25 years since its inception to promote documentary film-making in the Subcontinent.

Aside from film screenings, panel discussions, exhibitions, the event this week will be a hub for those interested in the power of documentary films for social reform.

When the first Film Southasia was held in Kathmandu in 1997, the theatres were thinly attended by a dedicated audience. But soon, with better and more relevant selection of films, there were more and more viewers.

The festival has not only survived but thrived for a generation, telling visual stories with honesty, showing the diversity of the region and exposing injustices and wrongdoing. Some of its alumni have moved on to become big names in filmmaking, and even migrated to commercial movies.

Around the world, documentary series have now become an even more popular genre with streaming services screening films on everything from Wild Wild Country to 14 Peaks.

This year, FilmSouthasia will be held from 21-24 April at Yalamaya Kendra in Patan, and will showcase 71 films from Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma.

The festival will start musically with Shut up Sona about Bollywood playback singer Sona Mohapatra, and her unrelenting fight for equal space in modern India. It will conclude with a documentary by Pa Ranjith, Gaana, about Dalit percussionists who play at funerals.

Although the documentaries will focus on themes like partition, migration, changes time brings, the common thread running through them all is the humanity and tolerance that shines through.

“We always have films where people are fighting over each other, over borders, over lands. But we have films coming out that show what we have in common, where we  can cooperate and move forward”, says Mitu Varma, director of Film Southasia. “Our aim is to bring the region closer.”

The films show truth and emotion that mainstream media and feature films usually lack or overlook. This year there are films focused on partition such as Longing where a daughter traces her father’s journey when he was chosen in the first Indian hockey team that broke up after the partition.

Another, Ghar ka Paata, shows a girl tracing her roots to Kashmir after fleeing in the 1990 insurgency. FSA also has climate migration stories such as a documentary on a shaman and a dead tree, and displacement of two locals after building the Baglihar dam.

While the audience for documentaries is growing, screening opportunities are still limited. And although filmmaking has become less expensive, making a profit is still difficult, and most documentary makers have to make commercials for a living.

“Non-fiction is something that needs a lot of encouragement,” says Varma, “because even today if youngsters are going into it as a career, they need a lot of dedication because the money lies in either features or advertisements.”

The pandemic did not make it any easier for filmmakers. Many faced economic problems or were affected psychologically. Film Southasia mentored six filmmakers in their films themselves and tried to organise backup and support for the first time.

Compared to the past, platforms have slowly emerged for documentary makers. Stories can be marketed at OTT (Over-the-Top) and filmmakers can receive money from it.

The films will vie for five awards. The Ram Bahadur Trophy will go to the best film, along with a cash prize of $2,000, and the runner-up will be awarded $1,000. The best debut film will merit the Tareq Masud Award and $1,000, while the UNICEF Award will go to the Best Film on Children’s issues ($1,000) and the award for Best Student Film will merit $500.

The festival’s jury comprises of filmmakers Sumathy Sivamohan from Sri Lanka, Ayisha Abraham from India, and Tshering Ritar Sherpa from Nepal.

Sneak Peak

Blues of Pink

Shot in Janakpur, Nepal, Blues of Pink seeks to portray transgender culture and practices that are an integral part of their identity and work, linking them with the rest of the community

Still from Blues of Pink

Gaine

A man who wandered through towns with his Sarangi, spreading information through song. A journalist of the old days. With time, many Gandharvas have migrated and found new ways to sustain themselves, whereas others still maintain loyal to their caste, to the occupation, and to the music of their Sarangi.

God’s Buffalo

Homan Singh Shivabhakti ekes out a living, farming in the hills of Sindhupalchowk district, east of Kathmandu. All is well till devastating floods ravage the area and Homan Singh’s buffalo disappear.

Still from God’s Buffalo

The Riyalists

The Riyalists traces the trajectories of the four Nepali men who left their village for 12 years, illuminating the experiences of up to three million Nepalis who have been in the Gulf at any given time in the last three decades.

My Childhood, My country

My Childhood, My Country: 20 years in Afghanistan is a moving tale of Mir, a little boy when the filmmakers first met him, growing up to be a young man in one of the most embattled corners of the globe.

Still from My Childhood, My Country

Family Going Live

The film follows two children of the Mahalle family, both very excited when online school starts, giving them all the freedom and time to explore new things. New problems arise with the new learning platforms, and the family has to come together to respond to them.

Ghar Ka Pata

Six years old when her family had to leave the Kashmir Valley due to armed insurgency in 1990, Ghar Ka Pata is the director Madhulika Jalali’s personal account seeking to understand loss and identity, and to reconstruct a place and a time that exists in her and her family’s collective memories.

Still from Ghar Ka Pata

Stories from the Second Floor

From the second floor of his coincidental new home, the filmmaker wonders whether there could be a space in the absence of stories or whether the camera forces spaces to create stories for its own survival.

Human Cost of the Baglihar dam

This short character driven film explores the enormous human costs associated with the project while following the lives of two locals displaced by the dam caught in a web of poverty, debt and mental health issues.

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