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South Asia Human Rights Fest

Held for the second time at New York’s prestigious Asia Society from February 26 – 28, the SOUTH ASIA HUMAN RIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL reflects the trend towards specialized subject oriented festivals with limited programs and small audiences. Most of the recently produced nine features and documentaries screened originated in India with Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan contributing one film each. Organized by the Asia Society, the non-profit “Breakthrough’ group’, and Syracuse University, the festival’s aim is to enhance human rights in the Asia region through the screening of relevant productions imitating discussions and, hopefully, actions. In the words of Vijay Nambiar, India’s ambassador to the United Nations, the use of these films, representing the ‘power of the media’ will help to promote ‘human rights and social justice’ , an aim to which the upscale audience, including a large proportion of Indians, certainly subscribed. The contrast between the human misery depicted on the screen and the status of the audience was readily apparent.

The productions focused on issues such as corruption, discrimination, child abuse, the rights of women and the clash between traditional customs and human rights. Though most of the productions have archival merit and some could be used in non-theatrical distribution, provided they are adapted to American classrooms, few excelled in terms story telling, dramatically moving and convincing representation of an issue, and effective staging. With all due respect to different viewing habit in Asia, Western audiences are not at home with slow pacing and redundancy of messages provided.

Though there were some editing problems with sections apparently not clearly connected RESILIENT RHYTHMS by Gopal Menon (India, 2003, 64 min.) provided a well documented demonstration of how in the largest democracy the untouchables, the Dalits, are economically exploited yet brutalized and kept in bondage and misery and how they act on this condition, even in the face of likely death.. Pallav Das’ THE UNSEEN (India, 2000, 24 min.) covers effectively in a brief and tightly edited documentary how homeless children, of whom there are several hundred thousands in India, are likely to become victims of sexual abuse and eventually HIV/AIDS. The most impressive gem of a film proved to be the tale ANAAHT (Eternity) by Amol Plakal (2003, 90 min) set in a royal court in 10th century India when custom dictated that the Queen selects a mate for one night if the King proves impotent over numerous years. Filmed in an old palace, the story is enacted through dialog with action taking a second seat and broaches modern issues such as sexuality contradicting customs, duty confronted by individuality, and the emancipation of women impaired in traditional settings. This most reflexive film is well paced and set and clearly shows its origin – a piece of theatre.

Claus Mueller

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