Mrudula Monday January 22, 2024

On the threshold of its third decade, the Kolkata International Film Festival held on 5-12 December 2023 returned bigger than ever, with over 200 films across 22 programs shown on 23 screens around the state cultural capital, along with talks, masterclasses, exhibits, and the annual Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture.

From the festive opening night at the Netaji Indoor Stadium befitting the incomparable movie fandom in India through the daily long lines and packed screenings to the emotional closing ceremony at Nandan, the droves of people—the culturati alongside the adoring mass audience—enthralled by the diverse selection of world cinema were a sight to behold for a first-time observer like me.

KIFF’s deep appreciation of regional formations in cinema particularly interested me. Apart from the International Competition, the festival promoted overlapping notions of regional cinema: the documentary and short forms competing on a national scale, filmmaking in subnational regions in various Indian languages, and a special interest in the festival’s home region’s proud Bengali cinema tradition.


Even the Asia Select, awarded by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC), whose jury I chaired, featured seven films that projected a broader imagination of Asian cinema, a region all too often typified primarily, if not only, by East Asian films. Interestingly, in this case, East Asia is not represented.

From Central Asia came Kyrgyzstani Asel Zhuraeva’s God’s Gift; from South Asia, Bangladeshi Syeda Neegar Banu’s Barren Waters, Indian Pranab Aich’s Nanda School of Tradition, and Nepalis Rajan Kathet and Sunir Pandey’s No Winter Holidays, from Southeast Asia, Filipino Joel Lamangan’s Walker and the Burmese collective Ninefold Mosaic’s Broken Dreams: Stories from the Myanmar Coup; and from West Asia, And, Towards Happy Alleys, a documentary about repression in Iran made by Indian filmmaker Sreemoyee Singh.

NETPAC Jury at the Kolkata International Film Festival
NETPAC Jury at the Kolkata International Film Festival



Some films looked back on the formal traditions of their respective film cultures and retraced them anew. They opened windows for their viewers to witness often literally remote, socially marginalized, and figuratively hidden places.

God’s Gift derives its power from the folktale structure, reflecting on a society’s capitalist present, soviet past, and still deeper Kyrgyz cultural memory in a deceptively simple tale of an old couple finding a baby on their doorstep. Deftly, it depicts the avarice of this generation, which looks at an abandoned infant and sees an opportunity to make money, the state bureaucracy’s regimentation of people’s domestic lives, and, in these contexts, the capacity of the elderly to choose a new path and draw new life from age-old stories.

Both multicharacter narratives centered on vulnerable women, Barren Waters and Walker turn to the long-popular episodic melodramas of Bangladesh and the Philippines, respectively, to depict harsh social realities and women’s plight.

In Barren Waters, a restrictive culture in a disenfranchised community, prejudiced against migrants, transwomen, and the displaced, is unveiled. It combines the familiar song-and-dance interludes with the weepies and theatrical performances, punctuating the plot and providing space for emotional expression.

In Walker, it is police brutality that poor women must suffer that is exposed. Daringly referencing state corruption and inhumanity during the recent Duterte regime, the film unflinchingly uses the idiom of social realism, a political form with a long history in the country, as an artistic protest and means of revelation.


Three works illustrate the versatility and intensity of the documentary, each one showing the great lengths documentarists take to accomplish their work and explore new styles.

Nanda School of Tradition combines creative reenactment and daily observation to examine a centenarian guru’s exemplary life. The work, filmed over many years, is, in parts, a lighthearted drama, an existential-religious meditation, and a proud celebration of an exceptional man from the living culture of the filmmaker’s homeplace.

For No Winter Holidays, the filmmakers braved deathly winters. They visited their subjects on and off for months and stayed with them in the deserted Himalayan mountains for over a hundred days, cut off from contact with the outside world. The documentary masterfully portrays nature’s cycles, a village’s customs, and two elderly women’s personal histories and inner lives in affective, ethnographic, and figurative ways. 

In And, Towards Happy Alleys, a young woman—a cinephile and a singer—follows the trail of Iranian artists for years, learning their language and immersing in their culture. She interviews Iran’s leading filmmakers, among others, until her journey becomes a means of self-discovery and lending her voice to the cause of a people oppressed by their government.


The profound need for freedom—political, cultural, and personal—expressed as unsung songs, hushed murmurs, and anguished weeping—is the theme that weaves together all the films in the Asia Select category.

Broken Dreams captures these many sentiments and the current travails of different Asian societies and peoples today. Composed of nine short films—some non-narrative experiments, others documentary-like in their treatment, and still others straightforward stories—this omnibus is directed by eight political émigrés and refugees who fled the iron-hand rule of the military junta in Myanmar. Remarkably, despite the dangers to their lives and loved ones, they continue to make films that reveal and record heinous injustices and rally and clamor for freedom.

With screenwriter Ilgar Guliyev from Azerbaijan and filmmaker Modhurima Sinha from India joining me to complete the jury, we awarded the prize on 12 December to Broken Dreams and offered this citation:

“For its daring narratives and poetic visual language, weaving together multiple perspectives of protest against oppression and hope against all odds, produced collectively by freedom-fighting artists in exile despite limitations, restrictions, and threats, using the unique platform of film for social justice, the Asian Select Prize is given by the NETPAC jury in solidarity with Ninefold Mosaic to the omnibus Broken Dreams: Stories from the Myanmar Coup.”


Written by Patrick F. Campos

*A different and shorter version of this was published by The Telegraph India.

Patrick F. Campos is a film critic, programmer, and associate professor at the University of the Philippines. He is a member of NETPAC and FIPRESCI.

Permalink: https://netpacasia.org/blogpost299-UNCOVERING-ASIA-AT-THE-KOLKATA-INTERNATIONAL-FILM-FESTIVAL
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