Asian documentary filmmakers worry about the human cost of their work

Documentaries may bring about social and political changes in Asia but filmmakers worry their subjects maybe negatively affected by the exposure

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm

Indian filmmaker Balaka Ghosh seems to be summing up the predicament faced by so many documentary makers in Asia when she says it wasn't so much the making of her most recent production that gave her sleepless nights, but the thought of the impact its release might have on its subjects once she had packed up her cameras and gone.

"You point your camera at these people, and in many cases, they open up to you and let you into their lives," she says. "But the worry for us - particularly in Asia - is what we leave behind when the film is screened. We are often dealing with such sensitive subjects and cultures that can often be quite secretive. What will the film's impact be on these people who have been so generous with their time? How will it affect their standing in their own society and the people they have to deal with every day?"

Ghosh has been making documentaries out of her base in Calcutta for the past 20 years and her latest production, Footprints in the Desert from 2013, is a prime example of not only the diversity of subject matter being explored across the genre in Asia, but also the lengths these filmmakers sometimes go to get their projects made and the problems they face while doing so.

Her film trains its focus on the communities divided by the demarcation line that splits the sand in Rajasthan and was brought in following the second world war to separate India and Pakistan. Nation-building and security formed the bigger picture of that event, but in the details, families and simple traditions that dated back thousands of years were disrupted and in many cases destroyed.

Ghosh wanted the very personal stories of those involved to be revealed. To do that, she first had to spend time with the communities that would form the subject of her film. It ended up being more than five years, off and on.

The documentary provides a fascinating insight into how the modern world impacts on the ancient, never more so than in the story of 85-year-old Abdul, who reads those footprints in the desert as he helps local police solve crimes and local communities solve disputes. He can tell, it seems, through the comings and goings who has done what and who is going where and for what purpose - and these days that includes such activities as people and drug smuggling across the border.

"These people opened up to me as I wanted to show how a bigger incident - the creation of this border - affected the smaller players in this piece of history," says Ghosh. "But you are very aware at the same time that in many cases they are revealing the secrets of their own societies, and that was the case here certainly as this area of India and Pakistan is still acutely political."

Ghosh's film screened at the Busan International Film Festival last October. Although this festival has grown to become Asia's largest and arguably its most important, it was almost overshadowed by a controversial documentary that looked at South Korea's Sewol ferry disaster, which claimed an estimated 300 lives last April.

The decision to give Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong's The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol its world premiere at Busan sparked an outcry from some families of the victims.

They demanded the documentary be withdrawn from the programme, while a collection of South Korean filmmakers used the attention being focused on the film to call for the government to reveal all it knew about the disaster. But the film festival's management stuck to their decision - bravely, some might say, given that local politicians joined the chorus of disapproval and they are the ones who decide the event's funding.

As a matter of record, there were politically and emotionally charged films throughout the festival's Wide Angle documentary programme. French-Cambodian filmmaker Guillaume Suon's The Storm Makers picked up the main prize for Asian documentaries and was a thoughtful, often harrowing, look at human trafficking in Cambodia. The winner in the Korean section was Lee Won-woo's Collapse, an experimental-style production that uses various disasters to examine how humans react to them and then set out to seek the truth about them.

"I think documentaries are the most effective way to represent the relationship between human beings," says Hong Hyo-sook, Wide Angle programmer and sometime documentary filmmaker.

In Asia, there is not such an established tradition as there is in the West to open up society through films

"Many countries in Asia share similar backgrounds, and many have in the past been rebuilding their societies after things like colonisation. But these days the stories being told are more personal. People want to examine what has happened more closely, and that is leading to diversity and topics that question what happened before."

Ironically, among the jury members for the Wide Angle competition was Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, whose own To Singapore, With Love - which looks at Singaporeans living in exile - had just been banned in the city state, and who would not be drawn into the subject during her time in South Korea.

But one filmmaker also in Busan and vocal about the Sewol ferry documentary controversy and the state of the documentary filmmaking industry itself was American director Joshua Oppenheimer, whose look at Indonesia's brutal political purges of suspected communists in the 1960s through the recollections of its perpetrators, The Act of Killing, was nominated for an Oscar last year as well as garnered awards at film festivals such as the 2013 Berlinale.

Oppenheimer's follow-up film, The Look of Silence, won the Busan Cinephile Award and was screened at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. The film turns its attention to the families of victims of the massacres that left at least 500,000 dead and the director says the fallout has been such that the character at its centre - a man whose brother was among those killed and who goes around asking those responsible to explain what happened - has been forced to move with his family to another part of Indonesia for safety since the film's release.

"We knew and he knew when we made the film that there was a chance it would lead to trouble, so we thought the best thing was to get him out with his family and get him to a safe place," says Oppenheimer.

"It is a dilemma all documentary filmmakers face: what will the impact of your film be on people who are innocent and who are opening up to you, basically allowing your film to be made?

"But telling the truth is what making documentaries is all about. In Asia in particular, there is not such an established tradition as there is in the Western filmmaking world to open up society through films. The nature of many societies here is traditionally more closed, but that is changing."

Oppenheimer believes the Busan International Film Festival risked losing its credibility if it had bowed to pressure and withdrawn The Truth Will Not Sink With Sewol from its programme. "All that credibility built up over 20 years would have been gone, so the festival should be commended for standing by its decision in the face of all that pressure," he says.

"Documentaries are about truth, and film festivals are about providing a platform through which these films can find an audience."

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