After decades of objectification and subjugation, the portrayal of women in films is being questioned and voices raised on the need to ensure gender parity in films. So, when the 15th edition of International Association of Women in Radio & Television (IAWRT) Asian Women’s Film Festival opened in New Delhi, with the theme of ‘Female Gaze’, it was bound to put the public eye on issues that long been hidden under the carpet Showcasing more than 50 films from around 20 countries directed by Asian women filmmakers from Armenia, Bangladesh, Estonia, India, Iran, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey and other countries during March 5-7, the three-day festival was an eye-opener in terms of urging the audience to start questioning the prevalent social norms and look beyond the conventional schools of thought on gender relations and start seeing things from a female perspective as well. .
Besides the general category, the film selections included curated segments on Female Gaze, Childhood, Seven Sisters (films from North East of India) by IAWRT's pool of talented filmmakers - Bina Paul, Samina Mishra, Iffat Fatima, Jerro Mulla, Anandana Kapur, Supriya Suri. Among the films that stood out are a special country focus on Georgia curated by Smriti Nevatia and Soundphile by Shikha Jhingan.
Nupur Basu, Managing Trustee, IAWRT Chapter India and veteran journalist pointed out to the four-hour long discussion on the #MeToo movement that she co-chaired with celebrated film editor Bina Paul in stating the importance that such festivals play in bringing the women together and voicing out their opinions.
"The 15th edition of the IAWRT Asian Women's Film Festival is being held at a time when women in cinema are central to world discourse in many ways. Discussions about women's participation in cinema and the Me Too Campaigns in the film industry from Hollywood to the 900-film-a year Indian film industry - has put women in cinema at the heart of several critical discussions. It is not surprising therefore that Female Gaze organically became the theme of our festival's 15th edition," she added.
The discussion that the panelists and audience had was a stark reminder that women still have a long and ardous path ahead to make the society understand their choices – be it personal, professional or sexual – should be just theirs.
Freedom of choice and consent were issues that were debated at length throughout the festival. The films time and again reminded that women need to fight patriarchy and the resultant toxic masculinity at all stages of their lives. The highlight of the festival was 'Little Directors' workshop, conducted by Nina Sabnani and Samina Mishra, held for girls between the age group of 11-13 years hailing from less privileged backgrounds. Encouraged to come up with story ideas of their own, it opened the minds of everyone present in the gathering to view gender from a perspective that otherwise gets ignored in the everyday elite discourse. .
Little Payal who is just 11 years old asked in a short-film conceptualized by her, “Why is it that women still do not have the freedom of choice?”. As the world celebrates another Women’s Day, the fact that freedom still translates to choice for many girls and women is a dismal reality check on how little things have changed despite women making their marks felt in various fields in the past few decades.
A riveting short film exhibited by the kids, "Azadi Soch ki" (freedom of thought) in the most simplistic way brought out the double standards prevalent in society. It tells the story of how a woman who has a successful career hates having to spend the whole day in heels. She begins questioning the societal norms that have set more difficult standards for women in every sphere and decides to break free from the invisible chains that have bound her for so long. The last scene where she throws away her heels and walks towards freedom was perhaps the best symbolism of how women are still trying to carve an identity for themselves without being subjected social and consumer standards of looks and apparel.
The films exhibited at the festival also had the same underlying theme of the various hierarchies in society and the struggles that are always unique to women. Inspired by the French play, "The Maids", "The House Maids" portrays the class differences that are so widely evident even in today’s times was not an easy film to watch. It tells the story of two sisters who work as housemaids and are forced to live their whole lives in submission with their desires unfulfilled. Another equally disturbing movie was "Hope" which talks about child marriages in Sri Lanka and how consent still sounds alien to many.
Even while highlighting the problems from a nuanced perspective, the spirit of resilience was not forgotten. "Under Construction" told the story of how a Muslim theatre actress in Bangladesh is burdened by the expectations of family and society to be a ‘good wife’ and her resultant struggle to reclaim her identity and sexuality in the process. Displacement and Resilience which was an anthology of how women refugees across the world have shouldered all the responsibilities to give their families a better future was arguably the perfect ode to the grit and determination of women.
Empowerment of women in its truest sense still seems like a far-fetched reality. But it is festivals like this that give women the hope and courage that they are not alone in their struggles and the end goal will be achieved, no matter what the sacrifices are.
(The writer is a Researcher, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi)