Whoever thinks that art, entertainment and politics don't co-mingle is only going to be disgruntled by looking at the contemporary film scene. Even the biggest Hollywood houses have been unable to stave off the allure of 'current affairs' in recent years. But whereas the mainstream keeps on with tentative, wishy-washy innuendos, documentary films have set off a global movement with a watchful, moral authority.
Home-grown film festival Film South Asia, which this year brings an assortment of 48 documentary films, is part of that movement. There is a wide selection, and the festival directors have made sure that the sundry joys and miseries of the South Asian experience are adequately represented.
One not to miss is a highly moving and exquisitely made documentary by Helene Klowdawsky, No More Tears, Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, which chronicles the life of the brave Sri Lankan activist Rajani Thiranagama. An unwavering commitment to human rights and a definite disillusionment with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) probably caused her assassination in 1989.
Through sensitive enactment (Rajani's role is portrayed by her youngest daughter) and deeply personal testimonies, the film traverses both the private tragedies of Rajani's family and the public scars of Sri Lanka's ongoing civil war. The story of Rajani, particularly her relationship with her radical sister Nirmala Rajasingam, is a heartrending account of how the world-shaking optimism of the 1960s New Left succumbed to brutally narrow nationalisms and ethnic struggles.
There's a sense of that betrayal in Syed Ali Nasir's documentary The Miseducation of Pakistan, which wisely begins with Jinnah's cautionary words about the importance of education in independent Pakistan and then plunges into the deplorable state of contemporary public schools.
The statistics come fast and heavy and the organisation is messy, but the message of the utter disarray, mismanagement and corruption that plague most of the public school system is made abundantly clear with some excellent footage and reportage. Admirably, the filmmakers still seem to hold steadfast to the indispensability of public schools. And the film delights with plenty of delicious scenes of politicians squirming at the pointed questions of our reporter, Naziha Syed Ali.
A very different film, Moustaches Unlimited is a charming, irreverent entry from Kolkata. Made by Vasudha Joshi, the film is an assemblage of interviews, opinions, poetry and story that explores the stubborn legacy and allure of the eponymous facial feature of men and some intrepid women. Somehow both celebratory and satirical, Moustaches' exploration of the male body politics is amusingly illuminating. It will take the bushiest of moustaches to hide the grins that this film elicits from its audience.
The ironies of gender politics in India get more serious treatment in Thomas Wartmann's Between the Lines. The documentary follows photographer Anita Khemka, whose ambition of comprehending the alien lives of Mumbai's hijras may appear presumptuous but is ultimately endearingly compassionate. The kind of connection she manages to establish with the hijras, and the intimate access through which the film permits us to know the characters, testifies to the capacity of documentaries to reveal the power of human empathy.
And such instances of insight and genuine empathy are what Film South Asia promises with its packed roster of documentary films.