Sunday, January 07, 2001

REVIEW: FILM SOUTH ASIA '01, Festival of South Asian Documentaries

New Abilities
REVIEW: FILM SOUTH ASIA '01, Festival of South Asian Documentaries

By Sushma Joshi

Nepal is a country known more for its mountains and trekking trips than for its film festivals. You'd imagine that budget travelers would be more likely to be seen downing an apple pie en route to Everest than catching the latest at a documentary festival. But Film South Asia, the film festival of South Asian documentaries, has been drawing an eclectic crowd of residents as well as travelers since its debut in Kathmandu in 1997. The first four-day film festival, held in the cosy new theatres of the Russian Cultural Center in downtown Kathmandu, drew crowds of people for the latest documentaries from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Fifty-five documentaries were shown at the first festival, including Nusrat Has Left the Building, But When? Pakistan's Farzad Nabi's experimental docu-drama, and The Spirit Does Not Come Anymore, the first-ever prize winner by Nepali filmmaker Tsering Rhitar. The works spanned the spectrum, from human rights and activist work to ethnographies and experimental. The FSA traveling film festival, which was organized to bring the films to audiences in North America and Europe, has put documentaries from South Asia on the global circuit.

The concept of independent film production, especially independent documentary, is almost unknown within Nepal. With the exception of a
few isolated cases, filmmakers within the country have concentrated on low-budget Bollywood remakes for commercial consumption. The film festival, which is held every two years, has created a heightened interest in low-budget, independent productions from the subcontinent that has not existed before. Kanak Dixit, who is senior editor and founder of Himal magazine as well as the founder of Film South Asia, attributes the success of the film festival to the fact that it is organized by non-film people like print journalists. "We have been doing serious magazine-length journalism, and documentary
filmmaking comes closest to that, which is probably why we went for it," he says.

India, with the largest film industry in the world, still has no significant festival or movement around independent documentary. While small clusters of activists produce their work within their own communities, these usually do not find the distribution they deserve. Film South Asia has filled this void by providing the subcontinent with a major film festival which has highlighted work on an international level. While the festival has done a lot to open up audience access to independent productions from South Asia, problems still remain.

The festival is dominated by works from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, with a few works from Nepal and Bhutan. Works by women are underrepresented, primarily because women outside the activist circuit do not have the funds to create their own productions. As Kanak Dixit concludes: "We need to consider why more documentaries are not being made, and look at the real challenge of expanding the audience for the documentary all over."

Film South Asia [] accepts applications from South Asian filmmakers and filmmakers of South Asian descent from around the world. The next festival is being held Oct. 4-7 in
Kathmandu, Nepal. Submission deadline: June 30.

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