The seventeenth edition of the Asian Women’s Film Festival will be held online due to restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic – which only opens out the annual event to a far wider viewership.
Organised by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television’s Indian chapter to mark Women’s Day, the festival is a reliable barometer of the concerns and styles being pursued by female filmmakers. The programme typically showcases feature-length and short documentaries, short fiction, animation and fiction films from across Asia. Master classes and discussions round off an event dedicated to giving women both a platform and a voice.
This year, the festival will be held virtually between March 5 and 7. Over 30 titles will be available for a 48-hour period for free. The master classes and discussions will be live-streamed. Delegates need to register on the IAWRT website.
“… the experiences of living through the pandemic have shaped the underlying thread of uncertainty that runs through the voices and practices that the festival presents,” a press note stated about the 2021 edition. “Through a mix of fiction, non-fiction, animation and experimental films, the festival encourages viewers to look at the challenges facing the world as they manifest in individual and collective lives and draw from the stories of hope, to imagine new possibilities.”
Apart from screenings, the programme typically includes master classes. This year’s classes will be conducted by editor Jabeen Merchant and sound designer Amala Popuri, both of whom have vast experience in their fields.
Among the most compelling feature-length documentaries is The Art of Living in Danger from Iran. Mina Keshavarz’s documentary follows a remarkable group of lawyers and activists that has been pressuring the Iranian regime to criminalise domestic abuse.
The film shows how the Iranian Revolution of 1979 – in which scores of women participated – led to severe curbs on gender parity, including the rollback of a law that made violence in the home punishable. “Like a film in reverse, our lives went back into history,” Keshavarz’s voiceover notes.
Through the framing device of the story of her grandmother, who endured years of abuse by her husband, Keshavarz chronicles the attempts of the group of women to break the silence around domestic violence. The women collect testimonies to add to a draft law that they hope to present to Iran’s lawmakers. The dangers involved in their endeavours lend this film its sobriety and sense of dogged purpose.
Another absorbing saga of sisterhood is Tamara Stepanyan’s Village of Women. Stepanyan visits Lichk in Armenia, a village filled with lush fields and fruit-filled trees, rosy-cheeked children and beautiful women – and very few men. Able-bodied fathers, husbands, brothers and sons spend the bulk of the year working in Russia, returning to their homes for only a few weeks at a time. In their absence, the women run households, raise children, cultivate the fields, bake bread and pick fruit.
Our women are smart and they manage, one of the elderly men tells the filmmaker. And yet, the women yearn for their families to be whole. They talk to their spouses over scratchy phone connections and fondly remember fleeting visits. They describe the migration, which can last decades, as the “exile”, but their spirit and sense of humour shine through the tears and grimaces.
A Rifle and a Bag, by Arya Rothe, Cristina Hanes and Isabella Rinaldi, approaches the political participation of women from the perspective of a surrendered Maoist. Somi and her husband Sukhram struggle to meet the demands of a world that is far removed from the one they strove to transform.
In Songs of the Soil, Aditi Maddali documents the tradition of Uyyala songs among the women of Telangana. The songs, whose lyrics are updated depending on the adversary, are used in popular movements, from the agitation for a separate Telangana state to a protest against an irrigation project.
Risa Morimoto’s Broken Harmony examines the impact of China’s draconian laws against protest and the free use of the internet. By blocking websites, conducting surveillance and threatening, jailing or placing dissidents under house arrest, China seeks to maintain its version of “harmony”, the documentary reveals. And yet, brave activists, filmmakers and lawyers find ways to highlight uncomfortable truths, often at the risk of incarceration or exile.
Two documentaries examine disability: Lam Yari Yue’s And I, And I, about the daily routine of a single mother who has been caring for her son for 45 years, and Maanvi Chowdhary’s About Mumma, which explores the relationship between paraplegic architect Shalini Chowdhary and her daughter.
Among the feature films is Geetha J’s Run Kalyani Run, a sensitive chronicle of a young cook, her ailing aunt, and the people at whose houses she works. Kalyani, played winningly by Garggi Ananthan, is caught up in her own dilemmas and veers between duty and flight.
Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage is set in Kabul in 1989. A love for Hindi films – particularly the ones starring Amitabh Bachchan – eases the trauma of poverty, civil war and endemic instability among the film’s teenage protagonists. The cast includes mostly untrained actors alongside Anwar Hashimi, whose diaries have inspired both The Orphanage and Sadat’s debut feature Wolf and Sheep (2016).
The programme includes a host of short fiction and animation. Among these is Amanda Nell Eu’s vivid and uncanny Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu (It’s Easier to Raise Cattle), in which two teenage girls become fast friends over a terrible secret.
In Saakhya, Kunika Kharat brings out the drudgery of housework and family duty through a miniaturised portrait of a housewife.
Prachee Banajia’s The Spell of Purple examines the travails of a women who owns a field and is branded a witch for her independence.
In Shazia Iqbal’s award-winning Bebaak, an architecture student finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place – a scholarship that comes with strings attached.
Among the animated films is Aditi Chitre’s A Can of Fish, about the effects of overfishing. In Sawanti Das’s student film Retirement, a railway employee confronts the prospect of entropy. In Kshipra Dhavle’s Amepa, a curious boy spots an Eastern Hoolock Gibbon.