New Delhi: Child sexual abuse, the shame of menstruation, hate crimes against lesbians, cross dressing and honour killings were themes that the Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s (PSBT) recent international documentary film festival on “Gender and Sexuality: Identities and Spaces” focused on. Many of these documentaries had their South Asia release, albeit a low key one.
PSBT was set up to create and sustain an independent, pluralistic and democratic space amongst media, a cross-section of people and policy makers. Under Chairman Adoor Gopalakrishnan, it allows film makers to bring to fruition causes they feel strongly about, issues they want to be taken up at public fora as they expand the circle of committed seekers who feel angry about traditions, customs and norms which are regressive not just to women but to humanity.
The festival poignantly brought home the fact that however distant and diverse cultures may be and riddled with barriers like language, ultimately they are bound by feelings, emotions and human right issues which are universal.
Rape and racial violence
A young woman in South Africa is raped and battered by a South African white teenager. She survives the attack and gets a reconstructed new face. Yet, not for a moment can she put the attack behind her, especially since she must live with the knowledge that the perpetrator has gotten away scot-free. Though she migrates to Australia in search of a new life, peace eludes her. Till her daughter in an attempt to heal her, makes a journey into the past. She tracks down the attacker who lives in denial and gets him to look his crime in the eye. He finally confesses to his daughters and apologizes to the woman whose life, his one act, changed forever. The movie brings out the supreme power and place that “love”, “tolerance” and “forgiveness” have in our lives.
“The man who stole my mother’s face” made by the daughter Cathy Henkel win the best documentary award of Discovery Channel, Australia and Best Documentary Feature, Tribeca film festival.
Hate rape and human rights
Touching upon different aspects of rape, series of films spelt out statistics: in South Africa every 29 seconds a woman is raped and world over there is one rape every second. Vulnerabilities of women, especially when they admit to being lesbians or HIV positive is much higher.
A disturbing film shot in Uganda, “Rape for who I am” by Lovinsa Kavuma took viewers through households, market places and back lanes, across income groups where young women, tormented by alternate sexuality were learning to craft out their life paths. Along the way, they are dealt with severe blows by society’s conscience keepers who take it upon themselves to “teach them a lesson” and “make them see they are indeed women” telling them they deserved to be called pigs, raped and thrashed.
With a socio-legal system twisted against homosexuals (blacks), justice seemed as distant as did hope. Yet, there were shots which captured their joy and lightness of being as they crammed into their life, little acts of choice and personal freedom.
What the films clearly brought out was that education, development, growth and achievement were not indicators of society’s moral and spiritual upliftment. Old prejudices were still part of the mental make up as was the huge resistance to make any alteration a reality.
Disconcerting subjects like menstruation
“Blood in my hands” by Surabhi Saral, Manak Matiyani and Anandana Kapur saw
young and brave Indian film makers touching upon taboos associated with menstruation and how women in Modern India continue to suffer humiliation as they get ‘quarantined’ within their own homes, denied participation in pujas and entry into kitchens. A Delhi-based lecturer who is a US scholarship holder wanted to break free from her suffocating household which held on to these ‘rituals’ but was unable to do so.
Child sexual abuse
The uncomfortable truth about child sexual abuse being an integral part of our lives was brought out by films, some by Indian filmmakers. The alarming message that emerged was that today, the safest place you consider for your child is home but given increasing crimes and profile of the criminal, you couldn’t be further from the truth!
During discussions, it was pointed out that the mother’s reaction in such incidents often unwittingly encouraged the silence of shame and suffering. Unlocking that can take an entire lifetime, as the child grows up, going through painful emotions of shame, guilt, embarrassment and an inability to trust those around him/her.
Not for the faint hearted
Surely, most of these films were not for the faint hearted nor were they meant to be entertainers. The panelists were prepared for some reactions that pointed outrageously to “these films appealing to a decadent human psychology” or “that they went beyond B and C grade films”.
A beautiful movie from United States, which won numerous awards is Loving Annabelle, a deeply moving tale of forbidden love between a teacher of a Catholic girls school and her student. Filmed delicately it scored on every count – dialogue, acting, direction, background score, personality sketches and story line. Indian films in the recent past have dealt with this subject and have done everything to titillate, sensationalize and revolt sensibilities, exactly the opposite of what Annabelle does. You do not have to be a lesbian to understand the emotions, love and anguish that they feel. It helps establish understanding and compassion, dollops of which are needed if we want an egalitarian society.
The barely half-filled hall of India Habitat Centre’s Magnolia auditorium could have done with more people. Perhaps their not being heavily peppered with doses of triple X-rated sexual masala or not catering to populist tastes resulted in the poor turnout. Also the feeling that “these things do not happen to us” gives us our distant, observer status, not realizing they do and will continue to impact our lives, in stronger ways, as society goes through a phase of transition, where sexual freedom, deteriorating law and order, changing gender roles and power centres begins to take firm root.
These films may have evoked shock and disbelief but nowhere did they leave you cold and unresponsive. By having a complete festival spanning three days with involved panel discussions on topics that could not have been comfortable to research and shoot, deserve kudos.
Last week saw Barry John pack his bags and leave for Mumbai after having made his home in New Delhi for three decades. While the debate over Delhi not having a vibrant theatre culture can continue to evoke heated response, one hopes it is not a reflection of its apathy to issues that kindle values and energies of the creative community - in other words, perpetuating a socio-cultural climate of hypocrisy and insensitivity.
The festival was organized by PSBT in partnership with Prasar Bharati Corporation, MacArthur Foundation, UN and IHC.