15th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival

Asian Women's Film Fest Full schedule.jpgIt was a privilege to attend some films at this year’s festival. I will be sharing my writing about a few here. 


Rubaiyat Hossain | 87 min | Bangladesh | Fiction

Asian Women's Film Fest - Female GazeThis film is a striking mix of life and theatre, the meeting of different classes, the common ground and the clashes of tradition and modernity. Set in Dhaka with the cityscape, the traffic jams and high-rise apartments as characters in themselves, it explores relationships, from the complexity of the familial, focusing on mother-daughter and husband-wife to that of the high-class woman and her maid. It explores a woman’s need to feed her creative self and pursue an acting career challenged by the pressure to adhere to gender norms. The metaphor of a building under construction that grows as the film progresses, her husband the big business man, who designs those buildings next to the workers who bring them to life. Dreamscapes that sit next to the harshness of the outer world. This film doesn’t just skim over class differentials, but examines them thoughtfully, without washing over complexity. The boys approaching the protagonist’s car in order to sell flowers, a working mother alone and making ends meet next to a daughter who has financial security through her husband.  The generation gap and the clashes in identities of a mother who does it all on her own and advocates for the traditional family and a daughter who is economically dependent on her spouse but free to pursue her desired creative work. The deconstruction of a character on stage that is not relatable and how she is pulled into modern times. The clash between those that want to hang onto tradition as something stagnant and unchangeable and the push for change, for re-writing the narrative in the face of modernity. This film does not try and put a shiny finish on the realities of underprivileged lives but does not shy away from them either, gazing at them long enough for an audience to engage with those scenes and be drawn into their realities.



Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon

(Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis)

Hindi | Film | Director: Anamika Haksar

This is my belated first post about experiences at the Kochi Biennale in December 2018. I am starting not at the beginning of my journey there, but rather with this striking film whose images haven’t really left my mind.

A whirlwind of images that cycle from dreams to reality as we are drawn into the lives, desires, of remembering and forgetting of residents of Old Delhi. A woman describes having eaten only one chapati in a number of days and then the constant ache in her stomach as she sorts rubbish, picking up a tiny boat figurine as she talks of her father who worked as a fisherman. The smallest snapshots of dreams that touch on issues greater than life. The woman who dreams of lying with her female friend and them laughing, joyful. The man who thinks of his tribal community from his homeplace Jharkhand and the injustices committed against Adivasis. The labourer who imagines his boss as a lizard in a jar while being verbally abused by him, the woman who dreams of her and her husband in fine clothes, sipping cool drinks. Mr Jain’s famous tour is hijacked by the pickpocket played by Ravindra Sahu, whose use of physical theatre on the screen is striking. His alternative tour that weaves through the spice markets, to an old woman preparing aloo methi, where the workers eat sabzi, dal, chawal for 10 rupees. The story of the woman and the pin, who as a child would pick up every grain of rice that fell with a pin in order to eat it. Walking with a foreign tourist who doesn’t want to hear the stories of the woman whose son died when he fell in a well or the man whose father was a communist and suffered the consequences. A doorway that closes, hiding the face of a boy. Police targeting the vulnerable. In a fighting ring with authority. Failure of the health system. Set up of a ‘temporary hospital’. A woman who has been repetitively abused, treatment with special water and lighting of a lamp. To the ‘real’ tour with fresh meat and bread, jalebi. The alternative tour with jeera water and the offer of the 10 rupee meal amongst the locals, denied by all. The pickpocket turned tour guide holds the gaze of a young woman. Begins to reminisce about love that was lost. No linearity but an intoxicating swirl with the use of animation and paintings. Every shot striking and provoking, continuing to swirl long after the screen is out.

Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon screened recently at Sundance. It has not been picked up for a general release at the time of writing, but I did read that Haksar and team are hoping to take it to the theatre. 


Sadgati (Deliverance)

Sadgati timeline

Satyajit Ray | India | 1981 | Hindi

In a village, it begins. A man called Dukhi chopping grass of the chamar (untouchable) caste. He is exhausted, depleted, but determined to set in place the arrangements for an auspicious date to be chosen for his young daughter’s marriage. Quickly, his wife Jhuria reveals that he has been ill. And he has not yet taken food. But he is determined to move off in this pursuit. He instructs his wife to buy atta, chawal, dal, ghee, namak and haldi and to create plates from leaves. He will fetch the Brahmin and return with him, he says. His wife tries to get him to eat before his departure, but he is determined to get on his way. She is left standing with cup and plate in hand, deep concern embedded in the shot of her face. He makes way into the village, to the Brahmin’s house and throws himself to the ground as he greets him, the caste delineation demarcated. He reveals his request, to which the Brahmin replies by sending him to work, taking advantage of the opportunity for free labour. First to sweep, then to fill sacks of husk and transport it to the shed and finally to chop wood. The detail and care of his sweeping is captured along with the weight of those sacks of husk through a shot from behind and side of a man hunched over, shuffling along as he struggles to bear the undeniable weight. He goes to ask the Brahmin where the axe is to begin the third task, pausing outside, allowing us to become privy to the conversation that the Brahmin is having with a man who just lost his wife. Telling him that his task is to remarry and see his lineage continue, that the Brahmin himself is up to his third wife. When Dukhi arrives before wood, the shots tell us that this hunk is immense, impenetrable. It is dry, knotted, a solid block not unlike the body of the Brahmin that moves with great heave and effort. Back in the village, his daughter picks the leaves, creates the plate. In one telling shot, she is standing solemnly, gazing outside to check if anyone is coming then returning to a child’s game, reminding us of her age. Another lower caste man approaches Dukhi and asks what he is doing and why. The protagonist explains the situation and the man suggests to ask the Brahmin for food. The man says he doesn’t want to ask anything else of him as he needs the auspicious date. Dukhi says he would like tobacco, and the man obliges. He goes to the Brahmin’s house to seek fire. The Brahmin is eating a hearty lunch, his wife fanning him. The Brahmin’s wife tells her husband off for allowing him to come to the house to which he points out that they are getting free labour. She hurls the hot coal outside toward Dukhi, some of which lands on his feet. He returns, he smokes. A juxtaposition of activities, as the Brahmin eats paan, spreads himself out and sleeps. He wakes up, goes out of the house and finds the protagonist asleep under the tree. He shouts. Dukhi wakes. He explains he is feeling weak, that he hadn’t eaten. The Brahmin tells him he can eat when he finishes working and shouts at him to hit the wood harder. And harder. Dukhi begins, still unable to penetrate it. Then power builds in him and he hits the log harder and harder. The Brahmin moves inside while his son watches on, horror in his eyes. Dukhi collapses onto his face. A powerful shot of devastation in the man who witnessed his beginning with that wood, now also witnessing his end. He speaks to other men from the community and tells them not to move the corpse. The Brahmin goes to ask them to move it. They meet him with strong stares of disapproval, devastation, unwavering stares that see him retreat.  The newly widowed Jhuria weeps as cattle move behind her in the background. Tears roll down their daughter’s face. Jhuria goes to his body. A storm has arrived, the sky is weeping soaking them through as she kneels over his body in desperation, before going to the Brahmins house. Her calls are shut out by walls and doors. Then it is dawn and the Brahmin is outside, attaching a rope to the ankle of the corpse. He begins to drag it, his effort visible as he climbs an inclination, a plain with only a scattering of trees. And he leaves the body to rest, a shot of it amongst animal sculls and bones. Finally, he performs a ritual around the hunk of wood, axe still in place. This film offers superb acting and brilliantly captures the characters’ states, from desperation and pain to immense cruelty. An arresting portrayal of inequality and suffering that is as relevant today as it was at the time this film was made and at the time Premchand wrote the short story on which the film was based in 1931.

Screened as part of Revisiting Ray at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 15-16 May 2018. 



Raoul Peck | France, USA | 2016 | English | Documentary

Advanced screening @ Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), 11 September 2017

ACMI. A giant screen. A glass of red in hand. Drawn in at the beginning and let go only at the end. The story of James Baldwin. James Baldwin the writer, the visionary. He who dared to challenge racial divisions. Institutionally inbuilt racial discrimination. Along with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X. One by one, we are presented with the stories of these assassinated men. We learn that James was not aligned to Black Panther ideology. He didn’t hate whites. He had a white teacher as a child who he talks fondly of. Nor was he with the black church. Who didn’t condemn racist acts against their people. James and the words from the 30 pages of his unfinished manuscript Remember This House are our window into the continuation of white supremacy and racism in the USA. This film is a blaring reminder of how art can reflect and propel attitudes and norms. With the series of historical clips it shows. From films, cleverly, eloquently selected and cut to pinpoint the sociopolitical climate of the day. From footage of direct state suppression where black people are injured and killed in various protests around the country over the decades. Racism distinguished articulately in the open forum afterwards. Interpersonal in the overt everyday and the historically created institutional racism that is structural. That pervades the systems under which we live. Baldwin articulates down forms of institutionalised racism on stage. At one point, we are shown an interview with Baldwin who is joined by a white philosophy professor from one of the ivy league institutions. The professor argues that we should be concerned about other categories rather than race, like the fact that as an academic he connects more with fellow academics than other people. Baldwin points out the race discrimination within institutions, for example the church being segregated into white and black, blacks not being part of unions, the way schools are run, the way history is taught. In Australia too. On this night, Nayuka Gorrie and vocal members of the audience raised that they should not have to give examples of experiences of interpersonal racism so that whites to believe it exists. Also how seemingly innocent images are given a depth in this documentary in terms of what they reinforce. Thin white women smiling and prancing around. The ‘perfect’ white family with their house, garden and picket fence. Because historical segregation has resulted in a gigantic ignorance. I am reminded of older generation white people of this country who tell me ‘we didn’t know’. And apathy. I agree, that it’s sad to think that it is necessary. To show images of hanging black bodies, as this documentary does in its final stages. In order to push a predominantly white audience into a silence of shame. That a display of such violence may be required. To reach people. But I guess if it does. If this time, whites talk to whites about it. People find words to explore these realities and the conversation really flows. Then art here is not to reinforce. To romanticise already indoctrinated ideas. It becomes about making change. So that we cannot dismiss it at the level of ‘oooo…ahhhh. That’s happening over there (but not here). How horrible, atrocious, shameful.’ But rather. Look deeply into our own backyard. And see how. And why. It is happening here. Very different historical events. But parallel underlying issues. How many more times will we hear the excuse, ‘but I am not a racist’. Well you are. We all are in a sense. As long as racial demarcation exists I see the inevitability there. And it’s not just about you. Or me. But what we as a collective say and do (the interpersonal). But besides that. What we do about the structures. The structures on which our nation has been established (the institutional). And how we can question them. How we challenge them. And ultimately change them. And we can start by facing up – as James says – to our history. Talking openly about our past and learning from it. In order to make a future to the benefit of fellow humans, the diversity of peoples in this country and especially the First Peoples, who continue to bear the brunt of the fact that we still have a long way to go.


16-20 Aug

Documentary | Germany | 2016 | Spanish, German, English

This documentary ultimately questioned for me how we behave at sites of mass atrocity, as well as the contemporary need to capture everything on one device or another. The camera is always stationary. It does not follow particular people but rather remains still at particular sites within the Auschwitz concentration camp. People move across the sites with their SLR cameras and mobile phones capturing the place and themselves left, right and centre. Perhaps these images are even more jarring because of the skin on display. Obviously this was filmed in high summer so people are roaming through in their shorts, t-shirts and singlet tops. Is such a site of mass atrocity being reduced to ‘the place to be’?

Sounds that we are given include overlapping spiels from tour guides. Amongst those we hear references to ‘the prisoners’ or ‘the bodies’, rhetoric that dehumanises the people who were subject to horrific forms of torture and mass murder. And I don’t recall hearing the word ‘genocide’. An example of the way stories are constructed to make them more digestable for audience. While I found myself cringing or gasping at certain displays of behaviour, this also raised greater questions of the tourist or visitor as voyeur and as a passive consumer of information and vistas. And perhaps how this differs from active engagement with such places or engaging in rituals of mourning for example. But at a greater distance, as we were sitting in a cinema as voyeurs watching this all transpire. It too interrogates how and what we consume as viewers. All in all an uncomfortable and hard-hitting multilevel interrogation.


16-20 Aug

The Lost Voice / Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela / 2016 / Spanish, Guarani

Insights through women speaking from Paraguay where we are told and hear radio reports on campesinos who have been murdered in Curuguaty in the leadup to the fall of the Socialist Government. Deaths that were never investigated.

Girls and Honey / Belgium, Ukraine / 2017 / Russian

Bees feeding off nectar from roses. From giant sunflowers. The beauty and tranquility of a Ukrainian village. In juxtaposition with the neighbouring activity of the Ukranian army. Frame following gunshots. The sense of home that remains strong despite the invasion of war.

Chinese Obama / China / 2017 / Chinese

This one left me with a beautiful warmth. A character who offers a witty honesty.  He tells us how he has been able to pay his family’s debts thanks to rising to fame as an Obama impersonator. And life beyond Obama.

A Life Together / Australia / 2017 / English

We follow the lives of an Aboriginal woman/Anglo man couple living in poverty in Melbourne. It certainly raised some questions. What was the director’s motive? Is it about showing a bunch of privileged people (festival attendees) how underprivileged people are living? Trying to ‘humanise’ them? To put on display another reality? I am not sure, but the outcome seemed quite disrespectful and judgmental to me.

Connection / Cuba / 2016 / Spanish

The failures in connecting, the disconnections and the connections of the free internet service in public spaces. People gathering in parks trying to connect. The conversations, videos and photos in exchange. A snapshot and not much more.

The Rabbit Hunt / USA, Hungary / 2017 / English

We follow a group of African American young people as they go hunting for rabbits. Tractors move through fields and rabbits run out with the falling of crops. Rabbits run out and are caught. Or not. We return with the characters and their catch to their home. Once again, I was not really sure what the purpose of showing all this was beyond a voyeuristic exposé.

Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals / Australia / 2016 / English

Words from a text intermingled with interviews with miners on the search for the rare black opal. Shots of the landscape that has been invaded by mines. One tells us how success will take him and his mates to the pub. A reminder of Australia’s mining history still striking in the present. But there are moments that once again feel voyeuristic. The shots around one man’s place of residence presumably to show what his living conditions are like. The short is aparently being developed to feature length but once more, I’m not so sure about the why.


16-20 AugDocumentary | USA | 2017 | English, Hindi

Here’s a charming man. His name is Dr. Mahinder Wasta, he is in his 90s and has dedicated his life to sex education. He is a gynaecologist, a father and a widower. And he has been encouraging Indians to ask questions about sex for decades. Most recently via a column in The Mumbai Mirror. This is not a one-sided story though. We are presented with Dr. Watsa, who is witty and pointed in his responses to everything from voiced insecurities to the weird and wonderful. We are also introduced to those who oppose an open forum like this, such as Pratiba Naittani, who has filed cases against both Watsa and The Bombay Mirror, whose editor says, ‘Obscenity like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder’. Naittani’s main concern is that Watsa is promoting sex, which goes against the values of traditional Indian society. Dr. Watsa’s concern stems from the fact that if people are going to engage in sex anyway, it is better that they are educated in safe and respectful practices. For a while I thought Watsa was being glorified, put on a pedistool. But then he was humanised, when openly stating that he had sacraficed family time in order to give more to his work. He also questions whether what he is doing is right, considering that in the case of young people, the families are not engaged at all. The sensation at the end for me was one of behind-the-camera integrity to an intriguing and humble man as the central character as well as to the greater debates around sex education in India, a country with a hugely young population. A good dose of humour is the masala of this documentary. We are offered an urban perspective, with Watsa’s column reaching only those who can read English and it doesn’t explore the challenges faced by the largely rural population of the country. What it does present is a brief lesson on the development of sex education and its opposition as well as the passion that drives Dr. Watsa and those around him who remain dedicated to it.

It premiered at Hot Docs in Canada, but I’m wondering if and when it will be screened in India.