PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am

If the sign of a young film festival's growing importance lies in the quality of the productions that are submitted for awards, then the Asian Festival of First Films is being taken seriously indeed.

Now in its fourth year, the Singapore-based festival, which began its week-long run on Thursday, is showing several films already in competitions and making waves internationally.

Among these are Khastegi (Sex My Life), the debut production from Iranian theatre director Bahman Motamedian, first shown earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival's Horizons section and already picked up for international distribution.

Little Zizou, the directorial debut of Sooni Taraporevala, the screenwriter for all of Mira Nair's films including Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala, has already won two awards at the 8th Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival in New York. And the romantic film Ploning by director Dante Nico Garcia, is the Philippines' official entry for the best foreign language film category at the Oscars.

'Measuring success is always a difficult process [but] given that the festival is only four years old it has, over the past few years, attracted some outstanding content,' said festival director Sanjoy Roy, adding he was surprised this year by some of the films' innovative storytelling formats, astute direction and challenging themes.

For example, Khastegi mixes documentary and staged fiction to explore the world of seven transsexuals living in modern-day Tehran, as they battle for acceptance with their families, while Little Zizou is narrated by a soccer-mad young boy and explores Mumbai's small Parsi community, pitting two families against each other with an underlying message of hope and understanding without being overly mawkish.

Firaaq, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this summer, is a powerful first-time film by Nandita Das, an award-winning Indian actress and a member of the jury for the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. Her film uses the violence that flared in the state of Gujarat in 2002 - when 3,000 Muslims died in communal riots - as the background for a day in the life of several Muslims a month later.

Away from the direct physical violence of the riots, the film's characters still feel the aftershock in their own way. A middle-class, Hindu-Muslim couple fear for their lives in Mumbai and want to move to New Delhi to start afresh, while a young boy, Moshin, is still trying to find his father. Aarti is a housewife traumatised by the sight of Muslim women begging for sanctuary in her house, pleas that she ignored.

Roy says more than 600 films and documentaries from 26 countries were submitted for the festival. They were whittled down to 28 films in 11 categories.

While entries from India and China continue to dominate - unsurprising given the prolific filmmakers and well-established industry in both countries - this year there are first-time entries from Iran and Pakistan.

Khuda Ke Liye (In the Name of God), the first Pakistani film in 43 years to be released in India earlier this year, tells the story of a British Muslim of Pakistani origin who is appalled by the fact that his daughter is in love with a white Christian. His solution is to take her to Pakistan and force her into a marriage with a cousin so that her offspring will remain Muslim.

Hong Kong is represented by A Decade of Love, an omnibus film commemorating 10 years since the handover, with 10 short stories by different Hong Kong directors who explore their feelings and interpretations of love, Hong Kong and the mainland.

Cassandra Tay, communications director of Singapore's Media Development Authority, believes the festival is helping to raise the profile of budding filmmakers and puts Asian cinema in the spotlight. It is also an opportunity to showcase the country's vibrant media and entertainment industry, she says.

The festival coincides with the beginning of the annual Asia Media Festival (it takes place from Tuesday to Saturday); the event is attended by international film buyers and distributors.

Many of the nominated and award-winning films in previous years have gone on to find success both in terms of other awards as well as world sales and distribution. '[This] is what really counts,' Roy says. 'That in itself is a measure of its success.'