15 March 2015

Things I learned at the Asian Women’s Festival

Why should gender be a factor in our viewing any form of art? My report on the IAWRT's Asian Women's Film Festival, for Yahoo Originals
(Click on the hyperlink for images.)
A week before this year's edition, the 11th edition, of their Asian Women's Festival, the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) showed three short films at the South Asian University, whose campus in New Delhi's Chanakyapuri houses a mix of students and faculty from the various South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries. One was an observational film about an Afghan family of carpet weavers, another an exquisite Indian animation called Journey to Nagaland. The third was called Two Women and a Camera, a documentary shot by a pair of radio jockeys in the Pakistani town of Mardan, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The two young women, Madiha and Nazish, are the first female presenters on their FM radio channel, Radio Burraq.
The film offers a conversational, perhaps deceptively sunny take on their lives: they chat, they go to work, they cut birthday cakes, they laugh about a man calling to demand a Pashto song in the middle of an Urdu program. But things are not quite as rosy as they seem. We meet a video shop owner who describes how the Taliban first threatened them with anonymous letters, and then burst a bomb near their row of shops. We visit the Gajju Khan Bazar, where “shopkeepers consider it their duty to call out to every woman who walks through”. (SAU's female students laughed in recognition, and then watched gravely as not one of the women in the market agreed to come on camera.) Several times, we see Madiha dress with great care, her long open hair flowing down her back as she puts on her lipstick and eyeshadow, before covering up with the white chadar she must drape over her head and upper body when outside the house. “Take a thick one,” advises her mother on one such occasion. “You know what kind of people they are where we're going.”

The film's last scene shows the girls walking with the video camera when they encounter a large crowd on the street. They pause, but for barely an instant. Then they gather their wits and their courage, and walk right through the mass of men. It is a dare, of sorts, but also a kind of strategy. The camera turns into a weapon, one that allows these young women to shed the defensive strategy for an aggressive one. The crowd parts for them, like the Red Sea for Moses. The camera captures not the women walking, but the men's gazes on them, transfixed but somewhat baffled.

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It is now a truism that the camera changes our relationship with the world, with each other. But I came away from the Pakistani film with the distinct feeling that wielding a camera is somehow a more primal experience for women. It can change our relationship with the spaces in which we live and work, making us somehow more sure-footed in the everyday. If you have a camera, you have a reason to loiter. If you've grown used to being the object of the gaze, film-making offers a way to reflect the world back at itself.

The Asian Women's Film Festival, held at the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi every March, is a celebration of women with cameras. Organized by the Indian chapter of the IAWRT, the festival began in 2005 under the IIC-Asia project, envisioned by two cultural doyennes, Kapila Vatsyayan and the late Jai Chandiram. Why did an organization named for radio and television get involved in starting a film festival? “Jai herself and some of the other Indian IAWRT members were greatly interested in films, and felt it was a great idea to celebrate Women's Day with a film festival,” explained filmmaker Anupama Srinivasan, who has been festival director for the last three years, along with Uma Tanuku as co-director. What began as a two-day festival of mostly Indian documentaries is now a vibrant three-day affair which shows films of any duration, any genre, any theme: animation, documentary, short fiction, feature fiction and what was, in this year's edition, dubbed 'experimental'. In 2010, there was a focus on films from Japan, in 2013, from Iran, and in 2014, from Sri Lanka. Though India still has the largest number of entries, countries represented this year included China, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Israel, Myanmar, and Afghanistan, apart from Japan and Iran. “There is no other Asian Women's Film Festival in the world as far as I know. The idea is that there is much in common between experiences in Asian countries, and [this offers] a platform where these can be shared. And now we 'show' sound works as well, thereby questioning what a film is,” says Srinivasan, speaking of the 'Soundphiles' package initiated in 2014. 
But while the camera might alter women's experience of the world, the question remains: do women alter our experience of the camera? Is there anything specific about films made by women? Why should gender be a factor in our thinking about/viewing any form of art? Anupama Chandra, film editor and IAWRT member, argues for a simple reason. “Because gender does exist – just like the caste system. To say that it doesn't is to deny its realities. If thousands of women had not become artists, political writers or philosophers, a massive part of human experience would be still underground – neither expressed, nor acknowledged.” 

Couldn't the films at this festival have been made by men? “Of course,” says Chandra, “If the men were feminists.” As Chandra points out, the films shown are not necessarily polemical or radically political, but they represent a wide range of feminist philosophy and a recognition of feminist political issues. “So there might be deeply thoughtful films about the problems of old age, or a first person account of bringing up three small children while trying to survive as a filmmaker (Ryu Mi-rye’s 
My Sweet Baby, at IAWRT two years ago), or natural outrage at the suicides of cotton farmers in India (Kavita Bahl's Cotton For My Shroud, also shown two years ago).”
I might add to Chandra's list: a children's film marvellously sensitive to the frailties of adults and the enchantments of place (Batul Mukhtiar's Kaphal, shown this year to a rapt audience of schoolchildren), a stunning rhythmic envisioning of the life of the saltmakers of Kutch, from the dancerly unison in which the whole family shuffles their feet through the salt pans, to the steady chug-chug-chug of the pump (Farida Pacha's My Name is Salt, shown this year), a 'long take' in which one ranting, distraught doctor reveals the faultlines between state institutions and the poor (Priya Sen's Noon Day Dispensary), or a quietly brilliant film set in a school for the blind, using deliberate blurriness, bright lights and the power of sound to evoke the children's world (Koi Dekhne Wala Hai? by Shilpi Saluja).

“We are not aiming to show films about so-called women's issues. There are no thematic restrictions in the festival,” says Srinivasan. “I found that liberating.” Rather than the predictability that might have crept in if the festival were “about women”, the free choice of subjects makes for a wonderful variety and opennness. Apart from the multiple genres, lengths and languages, I was struck by the number of student films and first films that were included – a package of five films from the Yangon Film School, Myanmar, two Israeli diploma films, one film by a graduate from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata, and at least three by alumni of the recently initiated documentary filmmaking course at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication (SACAC). What is perhaps even more remarkable is that none of these were segregated into a section for students or first-time work. In fact one of the Israeli student films – 
Good Stuff by Neta Braun, an exceptionally well-acted, harrowing piece of short fiction which begins with a woman coming to in the toilet of a nightclub – opened the festival. Another, Maine Dilli Nahi Dekha – a gently humorous 19-minute documentary by Humaira Bilkis, a SACAC diploma student from Bangladesh – was part of the closing program.

That absence of hierarchy is central to the festival's relaxed vibe. Screenings are non-competitive, and almost every film is followed by a great deal of conversation and questioning from an engaged audience that consists of students, filmmakers, journalists and members of the general public. “As all the organizers are filmmakers, we keep the films and the filmmakers at the centre of it; so no dignitaries, politicians, corporates, event managers. We are also a very small core team, so end up doing multiple tasks; no time or scope for hierarchies. When I went to pick up [Iranian filmmaker] Sahar Salahshoor from the airport, she was amazed!” says Srinivasan.

There is certainly something different about the perspective women bring, a comfort with the personal, familial and intimate that alters even 'masculine' subjects. Mithila Hegde's SRFTI film on the 105-year-old classical musician Rashid Khan, for instance, approaches the matter of his deformed hands quietly, by showing his daughter feeding him. We laugh as she tricks him into a final mouthful, the way one might with a child. And we are forced to think again about the reversals of age when Khan Saheb talks about how he “cooked and cleaned and washed dishes” for fifteen years, after his wife died early. Mya Darli Aung's 
Share, a student film about the monks of Chaung Daung Monastery in Myanmar, tracks their daily routine, placing at the film's center not their prayers or studies, but the slow cooking in a single pot of whatever food items they received as alms. “Very often the topics that women choose are ones dismissed as being tuchcha (low-level) by male filmmakers, yet they are the stuff of life, the life that women work very hard to sustain,” says Chandra.

The festival also offers a clear sense that women filmmakers, being at the margins, get to the marginal stories first. “It would be so boring if everything was like a lead essay in a famous international journal. Where would the fun of it all be without irreverent bloggers, tweeters and so on?” Chandra laughs. Srinivasan offers another example. “I used to run the Iranian Film Club in Delhi in the early 2000s. Based on that I had an idea of Iran and Iranian cinema. In 2013, I curated the IAWRT section on Iranian films and got to see works only by women: many documentaries, animation, short fiction and some feature fiction. The films were very different in form and content from the ones I had seen before, which were mostly made by male filmmakers, and all feature fiction. For me this was fascinating. Even within alternative cinema, I had been exposed to only one part of it before, the 'mainstream' part.”

Both this year's Iranian films were documentaries, and both were magnificent, astutely crafted pieces of filmmaking. Paris-based Sanaz Azari's 
I for Iran uses her learning of the Persian alphabet as a device through which to enter Iran's contemporary history. The history of Iran's present is also interwoven with the lives of filmmakers in the much more autobiographical Profession: Documentarist. Using old family photos, grainy home videos, and footage that ranges from video games to concert recordings of once hugely popular women singers like Gougoush and Sousan, the film's seven directors shape their childhood memories and contemporary working lives into a thoroughly arresting vision of what it is like to produce cinema in a country where women can no longer sing. As RJ Madiha said, in a different film, in a different country, “Yahan par aisa kaha jaata hai ki aavaaz par bhi parda hona chahiye.”    

“It's the way women look at things. There's very little grandiose posturing – at least none that I've noticed, not too much obsession with auteur-ism, and no fear or mistrust of interiority, while being rigorously intellectual at the same time, as artists and thinkers,” argues Chandra. Certainly it was striking how often films at IAWRT exhibit a comfort with speaking in one's own voice, rather than feeling compelled to speak from what might be considered a 'neutral', up-high position. This tendency showed itself most strongly in this year's many self-reflexive documentaries – Maine Dilli Nahin DekhaProfession: Documentarist, Kyoko Miyake's Beyond the Wave, Zhang Mengqui's moving meditation on local memory in her village in Self Portrait: Building a Bridge at 47Km, Shabnam Sukhdev's The Last Adieu, about her legendary filmmaker father S Sukhdev and her relationship with his memory, and Radhika Fatania's funny but entirely serious account of her family's reaction to her filmmaking in her SACAC diploma film, Raah.

“Why is self-reflexivity much more common in women's work than men's?” asks Srinivasan. Why, indeed? I don't know, but the question seems worth asking. What I do know is that self-questioning always makes for affecting cinema.

Published by Yahoo Originals.

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