Whoever said documentaries had to be soporific and only an exclusive club of documentary filmmakers became excited about the genre?
The enthusiastic crowd that turned up at the recent four-day Travelling Film South Asia 2014 -- A festival of South Asian documentaries, proved otherwise. For four days, Delhi audiences had a taste of finely nuanced non-fiction films from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India. Bangladesh went unrepresented as the acclaimed; “Shunte Ki Pao!” had to pull out from the festival at the last moment.
The films made strong social and political statements -- be it through the lens of human rights, migration or gender. So there was “My Punjabi Love for You” from Pakistan, “No Burqas Behind Bars” (Afghanistan), “No 62 Pansodan Street”( Burma) that won the Tareque Masud Award for Best Debut Film at Film South Asia 2013. Then there were Sri Lankan films based on the Sri Lankan civil war, “The Story of One” and the hard to watch “No Fire Zone”, an investigative documentary of the gross human rights violations in the final weeks of the Sri Lankan civil war.
No, there was no running theme at the festival, says Mallika Aryal, the young adviser to the biennial Film South Asia (FSA) that precedes the Travelling Film Festival of documentaries from South Asia. “Film South Asia tries to include all kinds of voices from South Asia. 'No Burqas Behind Bars' is a balanced, objective view of the lives of women who have been put behind bars in Afghanistan for petty offences like eloping with the wrong guy. 'Who Will Be a Gurkha' from Nepal is about young boys recruited by the gurkha regiment in UK through a rigorous process with hints of a colonial mindset,” says Aryal.
The much-applauded “Invoking Justice” from India had an unusual theme -- women Jamaats in Tamil Nadu, South India that apply the Islamic Sharia law to different cases.
But the documentary film movement is clearly at the crossroads. On one hand, dramatic cutting-edge technologies make for more affordable and easier filming, editing and screening, but on the other are major lacunae. Says the Kathmandu-based Kanak Mani Dixit, well known editor of Himal and chairperson Film South Asia: “The documentary movement has been derailed in South Asia. The craft of filmmaking has suffered while technology has advanced. Non-fiction films need to win audience's hearts, convey important messages and look at issues in new ways”.
However, opinion is unanimous that documentaries occupy a niche all their own. “Documentaries afford more space for saying things that can't be said in the mainstream media,” says Mitu Varma, director Film South Asia.