Unlike most 20th anniversaries, Rome’s Asiaticamediale Film Festival (Oct 2-10 2019), founded by Italo Spinelli (and actively supported at its inception by the late Bernardo Bertolucci) dispensed with the glamour, the red carpets and the harsh stage lights in favour of what it had always done. It savoured Asian cinema with relish. It brought in a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks who created and deconstructed a mandala over the nine days of the festival. It looked at curious Asian cinema gems that bigger festivals had passed up on.
It was therefore so moving for Indian filmmaker, Sajin Babu, when the world premiere of his film, Biriyaani, won the NETPAC award. Babu was so choked up with emotion that he could only gasp for breath and nervously grin when he took the stage for his award. Biriyaani is that rare film to tackle female sexuality from a Muslim point of view. We have seen so many films that deal with issues such as child marriages, polygamous relationships and powerless women. But it is more unusual when a religion-bound Asian woman can throw off her shackles. Babu cast Kani Kusruti in the pivotal role of a woman forced to take control of her life and her sexuality and the film tracks her transition from despair to self-awareness that is perfectly embodied in Kusruti’s electric performance. The film’s title refers to the spicy signature dish of simmered rice and meat that provides the film’s coup de grace. The pivotal opening and closing scenes of lovemaking that reveal her character’s transformation may not survive Indian censorship.
Parallel to the festival’s main screenings was a daily section of talks, performances and special screenings. Among them was Anand Patwardhan’s Reason, a nearly four-hour magnum opus that documents the rise of President Narendra Modi and Hindu nationalism and the subsequent retreat of reason and common sense. Here is an India that has also become increasingly dogmatic in its expression of religion. Dating back to the murder of Mahatma Gandhi, the film shows ideologues taking center stage by rejecting non-violence and assasinating those who argue for a more rational approach to social behaviour. This film sparked such a debate that the audience discussion lasted over an hour.
Other notable films were James Leong’s and Lynn Lee’s Umbrella Diaries (Singapore/Hongkong) that documented the umbrella movement that began in 2014 during Hongkong’s democracy protests, Daniyar Salamat’s Our House, a Kazakhstan world premiere that portrayed the absurd situation of being homeless, Reza Mirkarimi’s Castle of Dreams (Iran), a taut situation drama, Bo Wang and Pan Lu’s Many Undulating Things (Korea/Hongkong), a documentary that unconsciously tackles the rage of the current Hongkong riots by showing the uneasy relationship between land and freedom, and Dominic Sangma’s Moan that contemplates an elderly man’s wish to find his wife in the afterlife.
Asiaticamediale’s own 20-year journey has been a bittersweet one. The festival has remained faithful to its deep and wide interest of Asian cultures and society, showing a considered respect for all the many issues. But while it has held on to its intellectual idealism, it also reveals a deep chasm between that generation’s social values and the current millennials who are following other media platforms. Italo Spinelli’s parting shot at the Closing film of “maybe next year” can only be felt positively. Yes sure, why not?
-- Philip Cheah (Singapore) – Chairperson of the Jury