Asia comes to its senses

Osian’s film festival is a testament to Asia casting off the colonialist shackles of an East-West paradigm.

Samir Farid at OCFF 2012
Samir Farid receiving a lifetime achievement award at Osian's 12th Cinefan film festival [Photo: Osian - OCFF 2012]

New Delhi, India –
 Between July 26 and August 6, I was a member of the jury at the 12th Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival in New Delhi. The theme of the festival was “freedom of artistic expression” – and films, filmmakers, cultural critics and film scholars from all over the world had been brought together to celebrate the best that Asia and the Arab world had to offer. 

The largest film festival in the world devoted to Asian and Arab cinema, Osian’s Cinefan celebrated its tenth anniversary in July 2008, and, after a two year hiatus, it returned full throttle. 

The festival was the hot and humid site of the screening of more than 175 films from 38 countries, opening on July 27 with Japanese director Keiichi Sato’s animation Asura and closing with Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada. Indian cineastes and their foreign guests looked like kids in colourful candy stores. 

In addition to its world premieres, this year the festival was paying homage to the exquisite Indian filmmaker Mani Kaul (1944 – 2011), who had been the Creative Director at Osian’s since 2006. To celebrate his legacy, Cinefan also instituted the Annual Mani Kaul Memorial Lecture, which was delivered this year by the eminent film festival director Marco Mueller, presently director of the Rome Film Festival.

As part of the Festival, a “Cinefan Film Memorabilia Auction” was also held, focusing on some of the rarest artifacts from Hollywood and World Cinema.

This year Cinefan also gave a lifetime achievement award to the prominent Egyptian film critic Samir Farid, who had come to New Delhi in the company of Egyptian director Magdi Ahmed Ali, who was also a member of the jury. Also from Egypt was Ahmed Rashwan, who brought with him his film, Born on the 25th of January. Over breakfast and dinner tables and between screenings, the Arab Spring was on all our minds. 

On Sunday August 5, the festival concluded with an awards ceremony that honoured the best of Asian and Arab cinema. 

The Audience and FIPRESCI Awards went to Manav Kaul’s Hansa, a film about a young girl living in a Himalayan village, while the Indian competition section awarded the best film to Ajay Bahl’s B.A. Pass, a noir drama about a young man’s traumatic adventures in the rambunctious cosmopolis. 

Ajita Suchitra Veera won best director for her film Ballad of Rustom – an exquisitely shot film about a telephone repairman in a remote Indian village. The Indian competition Special Jury Award went to Prashant Bhargava’s Patang, a competently crafted film about an annual kite-flying ritual taken as a metaphor of meandering family dramas. A group of gifted young Indian filmmakers had come to their capital with the best of their cinema, sharing their visions with Asian and Arab filmmakers from a world that had now come to its full senses. 

Perhaps the most fantastic aspect of this festival was the fact that it had categorically discarded the ghastly colonial concoction code-named “the Middle East” and termed it appropriately “West Asia”. That very simple turn of phrase had liberated a whole habitat of humanity from a colonial legacy. 

The best film for the Asian and Arab competition went to the Turkish director Zeki Demirkubuz’s Inside, while the best director went to Faouzi Bensaidi for his Death For Sale

Other films from other Asian countries received other recognitions: The Iranian film Modest Reception by Mani Haghighi received two prizes for best actor and best actress. The special jury prize for the Asian and Arab competition went to the Indonesian film Postcards from the Zoo, directed by Edwin. Milocrorze: A Love Story, directed by the Japanese filmmaker Yoshimasa Ishibashi, received “the special mention” award. Asia as a continent was here on full display for the cosmopolitan worldliness that it entailed – and it was “the East” to no one’s “West”.    

The best film in the shorts competition went to Silent by the Turkish director L Rezan Yesilbas, with another “special mention” going to another Turkish film, The Bus by Olgu Baran Kubilay. Turkey continued its winning streak with a best film win in the first features competition for Beyond The Hill by Emin Alper. Before the festival ended, the Turkish ambassador to India had thrown a party in his residence for the festival participants. It was beautiful to see Turkey in the full embrace of its Asian belonging. 

Another special mention award went to Thailand’s In April The Following Year There Was A Fire.

As, from Asia to Africa, we are witness to a renewed democratic uprising to which the Arab Spring only signals but does not exhaust; it will become increasingly significant for cultural events of the sort that Osian’s Cinefan film festival best represents to become the emerging sites of reflection on the transformative imperatives we face beyond the tired and useless clichés of “East and West”. 

When looked at from the Indian vantage point, there is nothing more boring than yet another futile US presidential election, nothing more pathetic than yet another racist rampage of a mass murderer – this time against a Sikh community in Wisconsin. The world is full of unprecedented perils and promises far beyond the blinding limits of these banalities. 

We as Asians or Arabs are no longer located to the East of a colonial officer who once drew an imaginary line to his East and called its vicinities the middle, near, or far of his East. Asia has long awaited its moment of full self-recognition, as has Africa – and, by extension, Latin America. Upon this axis, there is no longer any “West”, nor, a fortiori, any false hostility between “the East and the West”. Transcending these destabilising metaphors is the threshold of our emerging liberation geography. 

What the Arab Spring faces is a crisis of imagination. Pro-revolutionary forces are paralysed by a pathological fear of counter-revolutionary machinations and thus retort back to a legitimate but arrested dread of imperialism. The fear is generic and lacks detailed knowledge of the courage and imagination that made the Arab Spring possible in the first place. Like all other revolutions before it, the Arab Spring was not caused or even predicated by professional revolutionaries. They are trying to fly on it – but alas with broken wings. 

The very same people who caused the Arab Spring are the people who give birth to the effervescent imagination of their poets, dramatists, artists, and filmmakers. My recommendation: If you wish to understand and to partake in the revolutionary momentum of this age, and imagine a way beyond the current stalemates in Syria or Bahrain, or the way ahead in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya or Egypt, read fewer pro-revolutionary and counter-revolutionary pundits and pay far more attention to people’s visionary artists. You will be far – infinitely far – better off. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University where he teaches comparative literature and world cinema.