Monday, October 03, 2005

"Barrel of a Gun": Film South Asia 2005

3 October, Kathmandu: Today's intended blog about the South Asian film festival (subtitled "Barrel of a Gun") has been darkened by news about the Bali bombings. My friend Kat is in Bali right now and I am waiting to hear news (several foreign tourists were among the victims). Bali has always been one of my dream destinations.

Evidently this is the work of Islamic terrorists who want all of Indonesia to be Muslim. Bali is the last outpost of the formerly all-Hindu archipelago. This attack was certainly targeting Hindus and aiming at the heart of their economy, the tourist trade on this otherwise completely peaceful island. Such people seem determined to involve a land like Bali in the violent sphere the rest of Indonesia occupies.


Yesterday, I spent all of a beautiful fall day sitting in the dark, at the Film South Asia documentary festival. This annual festival screened films from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Burma and Pakistan.

I was struck repeatedly by what an international crowd turned up. Even at the Kolkata (Calcutta) International Film Festival, a world class event, there are so few foreigners and the ones who do attend are very high-profile. Even I, a random visitor, was interviewed there on Bengali television and listed as "an American film critic"!

Here, no one batted an eye at me...or any of the other expats, mostly trekkers on a day off, or students of Buddhism. Then there were the long-term expat residents, NGO and charity workers and English teachers.

The young urban Nepalis turned out in great numbers, and seem extremely well informed. I was glad to see them taking a break from throwing rocks at the riot police (the usual occupation of college students in Kathmandu).

The Day My God Died (Nepal) has received the most attention, probably thanks to its narration by Winona Ryder and production sponsorship by Tim Robbins. It's a harrowing look at child trafficking from Nepal into India and how these girls are raped, tortured and forced into indentured servitude.

City of Photos (India) - anyone who's visited India know the extreme reverence with which photos are treated. This was a look inside the business of photo studios, past and present, and what the various poses, backdrops and costumes reflect about the aspirations and longings of the subjects.

Particularly moving were accounts of deathbed photos, retouched to make the eyes open and produce an after-the-last-minute portrait of someone who'd never had a photo while alive; and the role the neighborhood photographer played in documenting the devastation during the Gujarat genocide.

In the Shadow of the Pagodas (Burma): this filmmaker took a great risk by lying to the govt. authorities in order to shoot footage of the various rebel movements within Burma and on the Thai border. She told them they were making a promotional film about Burma as the "new" tourist destination, and how nice and safe it is. Truly it is an amazingly beautiful land, and one effect of its political isolation has been to shelter it from the overdevelopment, pollution, traffic and sprawl that has affected India. The filmmaker (Irene Marty) ventured into several different rebel territories and illustrated how various ethnic groups (the Shan, the Karen) are arrayed sometimes one against the other, as the Burmese government tries to subdue them all into a "unified" Myanmar. Footage shot from a hot-air balloon, floating over the jungles and golden pagodas, is enchanting. It was a real feat to smuggle this footage out of the country. The very real fear these people live in showed in their reticence to speak with the filmmaker, even while hiding deep in the jungles. I appreciated the Apocalypse Now style upriver boat ride-into-forbidden-territory sequences ("That's Cambodia, Captain!"). About a third of the entire country appears to be living in jungle refugee camps, really makeshiftbamboo hideouts at risk of being sacked at any moment by the Burmese armed forces. Most touching was a young boy who lost both parents in the pillaging of his village. He tried so hard to make the best of it. "I am glad I can go to is good that I can continue learning. But it is not like having my parents."

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