The 15th International Short & Independent Film Festival of Bangladesh took place in Dhaka from 7 to 13 December 2019. I had been fortunate to visit Dhaka on different occasions a few times earlier. It allowed me to differentiate and compare the two sides of contemporary Bangladeshi film industry: the official - most of the time state-supported - and underground filmmaking. The underground film movement which was started by some independent Bangladeshi film activists in the 80s, eventually shaped into a foundation of Bangladesh Short Film Forum in 1986, and it is this Forum which has been running the biennial Short and Independent Film Festival till today.
The film festival is characterised by a long tradition of an independent spirit and film activism, and even now, most of the festival duties performed by its staff are on a voluntary basis. Owing partly to this, the ISIFF manages to screen films publicly, films which would otherwise be almost impossible to watch uncut in Bangladesh.
It is no surprise that the context of film festivals determines the award results because it creates a microenvironment that embodies the spirit and concept of a particular festival and is a perfect place for the reception of the curated films.
It was my pleasure to serve on the jury along with Dr. Zakir Hossain Raju from Bangladesh and Mr. Sam Ho from Hong Kong. There were six short films, including fiction and documentaries from Bangladesh, India, Armenia and Korea nominated for the NETPAC. After some meaningful discussions, Meenalap, a fiction film by Suborna Senjutee Tushee, an India-Bangladesh co-production, was selected for the NETPAC Award for its intimate reflection of the current social-economic situation in South Asia. Carrying strong feminist comments, the film tells the story of a woman from West Bengal, who is a migrant worker and works in a tailoring factory in another Indian state, Maharashtra. The woman is pregnant, and her daily journey to and from work becomes a monologue about urban alienation - a consequence of global challenges.
Two other films in the NETPAC section need mentioning: The Ballad of a Geek, a Bangladeshi short fiction by Debashish Das, which approaches filmmaking as a meditative yet investigative practice. The film narrates the story about a strange protagonist living in an large medieval temple in the middle of a jungle. Inspired by a real character the filmmaker had met, the film fictionalizes and constructs the missing fragments of the real story as if these take place inside the labyrinth of the protagonist’s mind; another short film worth mentioning because of its stylistic experimentation is Jyoti and Joymoti by Mehdi Jahan from India, a film which refers to the first Assamese film Joymoti (1935) which had marked the appearance of the first women-centred story as well as the first sound dubbing in Indian cinema. Via muted dialogues and inter-titles that take you back to silent cinema, Jyoti and Joymoti conveys a folklore-like story about a son missing in war even as a mother waits for his return.
In addition to the NETPAC nominated films, we jury members decided to watch the Asian films from the two main competition sections. Two films stood out: the documentary And What is the Summer Saying by Payal Kapadia from India - an impression of a visit to rural areas; and a more socially and politically oriented short fiction Roqaia by Diana Saqeb Jamal from Afghanistan. It is gratifying that eventually these two films were awarded in their relevant competitions. Worth mentioning here is that Roqaia is produced by Arifur Rahman Bijon, a young Bangladeshi film producer, and is therefore an example of the transnational co-production Bangladeshi cinema has been moving towards of late.
It is no surprise that almost all the films awarded at the 15th ISIFF in Dhaka were made by women-directors. This is reflection of the shift taking place in the male-dominated film industries of Bangladesh and Asia.
-- by Sharofat Arabova (Tajikistan)
-- Edited by Latika Padgonkar