Thursday, June 4, 2020

16th IAWRT ASIAN WOMEN’S FESTIVAL – celebrating women in cinema By Surabhi Sharma, Festival Director & Priya Thuvassery, Co–Director

Fifty-two films directed by Asian women filmmakers representing 15 countries were showcased at the 16th edition of the IAWRT Asian Women's Festival held in partnership with India International Centre (IIC)-New Delhi from 4 - 7 March, 2020.

March 4 – Workshop – We make Cinema
The festival kicked off with a robust day-long workshop titled – We Make Cinema. The workshop provided an open space to discuss and deepen the understanding of the myriad paths women take to make the films they want. Many of the films being made by women offer a glimpse of lives and histories that remain unrecorded or under-represented. This prompted the design of the workshop which was divided into two sessions.

Session 1: We Archive Stories

While making films are we archiving histories, lives, labour or art? How can we seek stories hidden in archival material? Ideas around the archives that filmmakers create and unearth were presented by filmmakers, academics, an archivist and an arts research foundation director. Their presentations prompted a rich and engaged discussion around ethics and erasures in the practice of filmmaking and building visual archives. 

This session was moderated by Navaneetha Mokkil, academic and women’s Studies Scholar and writer. She connected the ideas and insights presented by Sameera Jain, filmmaker and film Practice teacher, with the presentations on the theme of archiving hidden histories put forward by Ozge Calafoto, Photography Archivist, Arundhati Ghosh, director of India Foundation for the Arts and Nina Sabnani, animation filmmaker, illustrator, researcher and academic.

Session 2: We Produce Films

What are the myriad opportunities, strategies and struggles that women filmmakers negotiate while shaping their films? How do we produce films? This session began with three filmmakers presenting their works in progress. Two documentary projects and one fiction feature at the scripting stage were presented by Farha Khatun, Subasri Krishnan and Prachee Bajania.  This prompted robust feedback and discussion amongst the participating film producers, festival curators, representatives of an arts funding organization, camera equipment manufacturers, women collectives working in film and individual filmmakers. Participants of the round table discussion put forward their experiences as producers, festival curators, funders and filmmakers. Both their experiences as being women and their experiences of the networks and industries they worked within. Members of the Women in Cinema Collective and Indian Women Cinematographers’ collective spoke from a slightly different perspective and spoke about the need to self- represent as a women’s collective and not just as individuals fighting for space and visibility.

For the three filmmakers who had presented their work, this became an excellent space to discuss not only their own work but to engage with different stakeholders who could possibly support different stages of their filmmaking. Shilpi Gulati, Filmmaker and PhD scholar on Independent film funding was able to bring together the many strands of discussions into a comprehensive frame within which to understand independent filmmaking and its challenges.

Participants of the round table discussion: 
Farha Khatun, Filmmaker
Prachee Bajania, Filmmaker
Subasri Krishnan, Filmmaker
Aditi Anand –Producer, Red Cart Films
Miriam Joseph- Independent Producer
Priyanka – Producer, Holy Rights Films
Deepti Gupta- Filmmaker and co-founder of IWCC**
Shilpi Gulati- filmmaker and researcher on film funding
Gaurav Markan and colleague, Canon India
Arundhati Ghosh, Arts and Culture Funding Practice
Deepti Dcunha- Festival Curator, Film Bazaar
Ozge Calafoto, Phd Scholar, Photography Archivist, Festival Curator
Miriam Chandy- Filmmaker, Independent Producer
We got very positive feedback on the workshop with the suggestion that the session of filmmakers sharing their work in progress become a regular feature at the festival.
The workshop was curated by IAWRT members Bina Paul, Aparna Sanyal, Surabhi Sharma and Priya Thuvassery.

March 5 – IAWRT Asian Women’s film festival begins.

Screening of films began at the C D Deshmukh auditorium at the India International Centre (IIC) from the morning of March 5. Day one showcased films by women directors from different countries. Most screenings ended with a Q and A with the filmmaker in attendance and good discussions with the audience. The apprehensions regarding participation in the festival due to the communal violence in certain parts of the city the previous week were thankfully dispelled as the auditorium began filling up as the day progressed. Many audience members and participating filmmakers shared with us how healing it felt to be in a collective space with positive and creative energy.

The much-awaited opening ceremony of the festival started with a four-minute delightful film from Iran – Granddad was a Romantic by Maryam Mohajer, setting the perfect mood for the evening. This was followed by the formal inauguration in the presence of partner institutions, attending filmmakers and a large number of IAWRT members. Nupur Basu, Managing Trustee, IAWRT, chapter India, underlined the vision and commitment of the network of women members of IAWRT both globally and in India in highlighting the work of women in TV, radio, film and media research. Festival Director, Surabhi Sharma and Co-director Priya Thuvassery shared glimpses of the specific highlights of the current edition of the festival. The chief guests for the evening were IIC director K. N. Shrivastava, Sandeep Marwah, founder of Marwah Studios and Dr.Kapila Vatsyayan, Chairperson, IIC-International Research Division, IIC. They lit the ceremonial lamp and officially opened the festival with encouraging words about IAWRT’s activities and the festival into its 16th edition.

At the inauguration, the IAWRT - Shaw fellowship was formally instituted by IAWRT member, Padmaja Shaw, in the memory of her late husband Rajendra Shaw, a filmmaker who had devoted his life to socially conscious media interventions The bi-annual fellowship will fund a scholarship to a Dalit student studying media or film.

Suresh Chandiram, the brother of late Jai Chandiram, Founder of IAWRT, Chapter India, was presented with a book –“The Dotted Lines- Bhuri Bai- the Bhil artist” by Debjani Mukherjee, a previous recipient of the Jai Chandiram Memorial Fellowship (JCFM).

The group photo on stage with all the participating filmmakers and IAWRT members has become a cherished, mandatory event with its celebration of women in cinema and media. This year was no exception!

IAWRT office bearers Aparna Sanyal, Secretary and Deepika Sharma, Treasurer welcomed the guests and filmmakers on stage and gave the vote of thanks.

A heavy downpour that evening had us worried about attendance but the opening film Shut up Sona by Deepti Gupta saw a packed auditorium. Filmmaker Gupta and her protagonist, singer Sona Mohapatra, were present. The screening was followed by an animated conversation with Gupta and Mohapatra moderated by IAWRT board member and filmmaker, Samina Mishra. The evening closed with Sona Mohapatra treating the audience by singing some of her popular songs.

This was followed by the opening dinner- although this had to be moved a the last moment from lovely IIC Rose Garden to an indoor hall due to the heavy rain - it did not dampen the invitees and IAWRT members who came in large numbers and enjoyed the networking dinner.

We received over 700 entries and the number of excellent films we could not include in the festival almost equalled the number of films we did select. That indicates the quality of entries and gives a sense of the exciting films that women are making. We were proud to screen not only films which have already been recognised at prestigious international film festivals but also ones which had their World premieres at our event. The selection committee included film scholars and practitioners - Deepti Khurana, Kavita Carneiro, Navaneetha Mokkil along with the festival directors. Screenings were followed by question and answer sessions moderated by the selection committee. Animations, short fiction, feature and documentary films screened at the festival. 

We saw some key themes emerge at the festival giving a good sense of the themes that women filmmakers are working with. A dominant theme was the coming of age stories with female protagonists. Set in different cultural contexts, these films were evocative of both the anxieties faced and possibilities explored by young women. Women filmmakers looking at environmental concerns brought a significantly different perspective even within the developmental debates informing our understanding of the climate crisis. Films like Jaadui Jungle, Mod Bhang, If She Built a Country, Kere Mattu Kere were some of the films that provoked rich conversations around ways of thinking through the environmental crisis. 

Another theme that emerged in some of the Indian films was on the issue of the erasure and marginalization of communities in the current political context.  Iq Rah, Noor Islam, Makhfi, Memories of Saira and Salim were curated into one session and together the films evoked a deep and nuanced narrative. All four films were student film that engaged with the form to tell stories that are not easy to tell in a literal and investigative manner. The Turkish film, Amina and the Chinese-UAE film Vicky, I and Herself presented a view of women migrant workers and issues around identity and visible/invisible labour.  The Iranian film, Portrait of Ms.F and the Indian film, Holy Rights spoke about two very different contexts in which women asserted their rights within an Islamic state and within families governed Islamic law. Mother of Fire and Honey, Rain and Dust were two films from the UAE that challenged the outsider’s stereotype of Emirati life.

There were a range of genres- Feature-length documentaries, short fiction, animation films, hybrid genres that blurred fiction and documentary and self-reflexive films. The discussions and conversations that followed the films created an engaged and exciting space that IAWRT Chapter India has been able to create year after year at the India International Centre, New Delhi through this festival.

The festival had a curated session Her Upside Down Gaze by multi/new media artist Afrah Shafiq. This section included five hybrid films set in India that leak across film genres, mixing the conventions of documentary, narrative, fiction and poetry. These films that stretch and jostle the genres that tend to box film practice. This is a selection of Asian filmmakers who are not merely experimenting but are shifting and shaping a distinct film language.

This editions country focus was UAE curated by filmmakers Subasri Krishnan and Surabhi Sharma. Three films in this package bought with them a cast of unexpected characters from the UAE. Audacious and hilarious, immersive and meditative, intimate yet distant- all three films allowed for a dense engagement with women filmmakers from the UAE. They offered multiple lenses for the audience to get a glimpse of lives in the UAE that go beyond the stereotype that the rest of the world have about this region. 

The festival invited both national and international filmmakers whose films had been selected to participate in the three-day festival. Due to the COVID pandemic restrictions, many filmmakers had to cancel their trips last minute but these filmmakers made it to the festival and made the festival meaningful.
Renu Savant - Mod Bhaang 
Prachee Bajania – Makhfi
Deepti Gupta- Saboot 
Lakshmi Marikar- Blackhead
Rhea Mathews - Stains
Shireen Ghosh - Maa Tuki 
Nabina Chakraborty - Iq Rah-one Path, Many Journeys
Maheen Mirza and Richin - If she built a country
Mehvish Rather - Kandurwan, Baking History
Archana Chandrashekar - Jaadui Jungle
Rebana Liz John’s parents & protagonists of the film - Ships Outside My Window
Farha Khatun - Holy Rights
Priyanka More- Producer of Holy rights 
Deepti Gupta - Shut Up Sona
Devshree Nath - Noor Islam
Priya Sen - Yeh Freedom Life  
Hansa Thapliyal - The Outside In
Suborna Senjutee Tushee - Meenalaap

Women and photography 

Another highlight of the festival was the Women and Photography section where we looked at stories embedded within the single still image by inviting photographers and a photography archivist to present their work. Özge Calafato, Masrat Zahra and Sanna Irshad Mattoo to presented their work as part of this. Twelve photographs including four by Roanna Rahman in partnership with OXFAM India on the women tea plantation workers were exhibited in the premises of IIC during the festival.  


Özge Calafato presented the work of women photographers from Turkey with a focus on 4 pioneer photographers between 1910 and 1960. The representation of women changed through the transition from the Ottoman empire to Turkey, and family albums and studio photographs bear witness to these transitions.

Masrat Zahra and Sanna Irshad Mattoo are photographers from Kashmir and they presented their most recent works documenting the transitions in the lives around them. They were in conversation with IAWRT board member, Subasri Krishnan

Cinematography and photography technology 
On the second day of the festival, Canon India conducted a workshop on Cinematography and photography technology at the Conference room of IIC. An experience zone exhibiting latest Canon Cinema EOS cameras, DSLRs and printing machines were exhibited at the workshop venue and film festival attendees and students got hands-on experience. Unfortunately, COVID scares with sudden university closures affected this programme as students were unable to attend though they had registered.

The closing film for the festival was Honey, Rain and Dust a documentary film by UAE filmmaker poet, artist Nujoom Al Ghanem. The filmmaker was unable to attend at the last minute because of the travel restrictions imposed in the UAE due to COVID-19.

Overall the festival received an overwhelming response amidst the chaos in the capital and a global pandemic fear. Most of the screenings were attended by cinephiles, media students, media professionals, academicians, feminists, researchers, IIC members and representatives from various organizations. The major highlights continued to be the active participation of the audience in post-film discussions.

Our thanks to:
The 16th IAWRT Asian Women's Film Festival would not have been possible without the support of our valued principal partner of over sixteen years - the India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi. 

Our special thanks is due to IIC Director K N Shrivastava, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, Chairperson, IIC-International Research Division, IIC and Lalsawmliani Tochhawng, Chief, Programme Division and Secretary, IIC Film Club and all the supporting staff at IIC who helped us coordinate all the logistics over months and gave us all the support we needed.Our other partners for this edition of the festival were: Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung,India (FES), Oxfam India, Jamia Bank, UN Women, Canon India, Marwah Studios and Cinestaan. There are also some individuals whom we must thank personally – Sunita Dhar, Akhila Sivadas, Meenal Manolika, Sanya Seth, Nishtha Satyam, Debasish Mazumdar , Sandeep Marwah ,Tejas Patel, Gaurav Markan. Arundhati Ghosh and Sukhpreet Kahlon.

This festival would also not have been possible without the active support of the former managing trustee Reena Mohan and our entire IAWRT Chapter India Board – Nupur Basu, Aparna Sanyal, Deepika Sharma, Ananya Chakraborti, Bina Paul, Mausumi Bhattacharya, Paromita Vohra, Samina Mishra and Subasri Krishnan. We are also very grateful to the help extended by IAWRT members Afrah Shafiq, Aradhana Kohli Kapur, Aruna Vasudev and Imrana Khan. A big thank you to you all! 

We can't thank enough to Zoya Riyas for her work on the logo, poster and publicity material design. And a special thanks also to Valson, our chief projectionist who ensured uninterrupted screenings with top-class projection over the three - day festival.  Thanks also to our festival assistant Nabina Chakraborty, Pallavi Paul and the volunteers from Delhi University and Vishwabharti University, Shantiniketan who worked tirelessly to guide the festival attendees.In the end, it was teamwork that got us through this wonderful 16th edition.