The Film Southasia Festival, hosted by Portland State in April and May, showcased rare documentaries and nonfiction films from South Asia. The films brought forth ongoing social and political issues from several countries within the region, including concerns for poverty, press freedom, violence and resistance.
The mainstream isn’t always the most accurate depiction of a society, which may be why independent foreign films are important, according to Professor Bishupal Limbu, one of the festival’s organizers. Independent films have a tendency to focus on social issues and provide a more intimate portrayal of the lives of people.
“We wanted to increase the presence of topics related to South Asia on campus,” Limbu said. “That’s why we thought having this film festival would be a great way to engage students and the community and use this as a way to provide a broader perspective on Asian society.”
Hannah Latimer-Snell, research assistant to professor Priya Kapoor and another festival organizer, explained the importance and relevance of these films on the PSU campus.
“There isn’t a big South Asian focus here [at PSU] and yet we have so many international students from India and Southeast Asia and all over that region,” Latimer-Snell said. “These films and works of art that come from that region showcase what people don’t always know about; these films are less of a presentation and more of a documentation.”
The films were part of the 2016 Southeast Asian film competition. The films selected for this festival were chosen by a panel of judges in Nepal. All the films were made by South Asian filmmakers and cover a range of social justice issues in Southeast Asia.
Although this is the first time the departments have hosted a festival such as this, they hope to have it again in future years.
“These independent films are important and give us a more complex vision of life in the various places in South Asia, one that we don’t often get to see,” Limbu said.
Two of the films played at the festival were Cities of Sleep by Shaunak Sen and News from Jaffna by Kannan Arunasalam.
Cities of Sleep directed by Shaunak Sen
“Poverty means you can’t choose what wears you down,” Ranjeet said. “Poverty means you can’t be a human being in every sense of the word.”
Ranjeet and Shakell are homeless men living in Delhi. The documentary follows their lives as they seek sleeping spaces in India.
It’s an understatement to say that Cities of Sleep placed me in a world outside of my own; instead, it jerked me awake, as though I’d momentarily forgotten about the existence of poverty. Set in Delhi, India, Cities of Sleep reminds the audience of exactly what poverty looks like.
The film is an in-depth look at poverty and its effects on sleep in overpopulated spaces. It follows the lives of two impoverished individuals as they navigate overcrowded shelters, sleep spots and the sleep mafia.
The documentary shows how some sleep on the center divider of a highway in order to keep the mosquitos from biting, the wind of speeding cars helping to blow them away. It shows how people beg on the road in order to pay for night shelters run by the sleep mafia. It shows how there are shelters just for children, but that adults often try and sneak in, desperate for shelter themselves. Sometimes people search all night and don’t find an open place due to overpopulation. Sometimes people get kicked out of shelters, have their meager belongings stolen, or get beaten by guards for sleeping on roads. And sometimes, a storm blows the whole damn place off, sending people scattering.
Cities of Sleep doesn’t only examine the difficulty that impoverished people have securing a place to sleep for the night, but follows all the ways poverty affects functionality and health.
“How will we sleep when we’re hungry?” Shakeel asked.
It’s not easy to sit and watch something I was oblivious about, but that’s the whole purpose of documentaries and films such as this. It awakens you and reminds you that there’s this whole different world outside of your own.
News from Jaffna directed by Kannan Arunasalam
A professor once told me that journalists have a big hand in uncovering the truth, in finding answers to questions people may be afraid to ask. He reminded me of the importance of journalism in not only exposing the truth, but in informing and inspiring the population. And it’s in this documentary that I’m reminded all over again of the influence of journalism.
Set in Sri Lanka, News from Jaffna follows one woman’s quest to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of a controversial journalist; the missing journalist followed a story of his own, one that would expose governmental corruption. In an attempt to investigate his disappearance, the woman sacrifices her own security and goes against warnings from her family and even her editor to tell what she believes is the true story. In a place that’s afraid to report the truth about government, she risks her well-being for what is just.
Journalists who dig too deep are often attacked in an attempt to dissuade other publications from reporting on controversial topics. But it doesn’t stop Uthayan, the publication that eventually ran the investigative piece.
“They have guns, we have pens,” the editor of Uthayan said. And he wasn’t scared.
To be a journalist in an area where attacks against the press are a looming threat is one thing; to be a female journalist, unafraid, is another. Once the documentary ended, I was only left wanting to know more. Where is she now? Is she safe? Is she still pursuing journalism despite the danger? It’s rare that a film leaves me with a sense of obligation and appreciation—an obligation to know more, and an appreciation of our own freedom of press.