The South Asian Feminist Film Festival (SAFFF 2020), curated and organised by Kriti Film Club in collaboration with Sangat held virtually from November 27 to November 29, screened 29 short and long films, fiction and documentary, focussing on issues related to women across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Israel, Nepal and Afghanistan.

However, the selection was not confined to women filmmakers alone and a few films directed by men also featured at the festival. Over 20000 hits and almost 4000 people are reported by the organizers who watched the film spread out over the entire day peppered with panel discussions on varied areas of women’s cinema.

Among the films that this reviewer could manage to watch, stood out for their unique choice of subject, treatment or perspective. These are – Bebaak directed by Shazia Iqbal, If you Dare Desire by Debolina, Eeb Allay Oo directed by Prateek Vyas, and Have You Seen the Arana? By Sundanda Bhat. One notable film from Bangladesh, Ontorjatra directed by Tareque Masud and completed by his wife Catherine following the sudden death of her husband in a car crash also featured at the festival. The seven-minute short film Listen to Her directed by Nandita Das failed to get its message against domestic violence across.

Yasmin Kabir’s Tazreen from Bangladesh is a hard-hitting documentary that places the camera in close-up of the victims of the deadly fire at Tazreen Fashions, Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 24, 2012. She also speaks to the relatives of those who lost their lives in the tragedy, most of them from very poor families in Dhaka.

While many were scarred to death, others leapt to their deaths below, and scores were left severely wounded. The fire blazed for over 17 hours. It was estimated to have killed 117 workers.The film focuses on the grief, trauma and helplessness suffered by the survivors as well as of those who lost their loved ones.

If you Dare Desire is a 92-minute-long documentary by Debolina Mow. The documentary that evolves into a scathing indictment of the cruelty, oppression and social ostracism persons with alternative sexual preferences must face. Directed by Debolina Mow, it narrates the true story of the joint suicide of Swapna and Sucheta, two young girls who lived in Tekhali village in Nandigram.

One of them left a five-page suicide note unfolding their tragic story that forced them to end their lives. When faced with the prospect of Sucheta's marriage to a man who forbids her to see Swapna, the women decide to die in each other's arms.

Tragically, their story is not unique. The entire village, including the immediate families of the two girls refused to perform their last rites and the bodies were left to rot unclaimed in the morgue. This happened in February 2011. Taking a cue from a newspaper report, Sappho for Equality decided to follow up the story and produced the film.

Bebaak directed by Shazia Iqbal (India) won the Best Short Film Award for Short Fiction at the Mumbai International Festival of Short, Documentary and Animation films, 2020. The citation states, "This debut film offers a very authentically designed sequence of events to manifest the reality of a young Muslim girl’s striking reaction to religious constraints. Her upholding of freedom is enacted through a very convincing performance by the ensemble cast."

The film also won the Best Cinematography Award for "Fluent imagery with effectively designed emotive visuals express the poignant mood of the theme of empowerment with stark realistic tone." The film also won the award for Best Short Fiction at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, 2019.

Unable to rely on her cash-strapped family to further her education, Fatin, an ambitious Architecture Student from a lower middle-class Muslim family, seeks out a scholarship from a conservative Muslim Trust. During the interview, she gets reprimanded by the interviewing officer for not following the religious tenets meant for women.

According to the young director, “at the tomb below the trust office, Fatin meets two young girls who are students at the local Madrassa. One of them, Rafiya has fixed notions+ of being a 'good girl' by following the set rules of the religion; the other, Shireen seeks freedom from the same. Fatin has to choose between reinforcing Niyaz's misogynist ideas and live with the burden of her own muddled morality or stand up for what feels right. In the process, Shireen, who largely represents girls who are systematically indoctrinated into losing their identity, becomes a catalyst of change for Fatin.

Eeb Allay Oo directed by Prateek Vats follows the seemingly absurd journey of a young migrant as he struggles with hoards of monkeys in the heart of New Delhi. He gets a contractual job as a monkey repeller whose job demands that he mimic the call of these monkeys which is eeb alay oo in order to shoo them away.

The monkeys are a nuisance for the general public and also to important people whose offices are in the locality. The monkeys have turned more aggressive since the ban on the use of captive langurs – their natural enemy. The film captures the journey of this migrant through his terribly impoverished existence, through his failure to mimic the monkeys’ calls and his encounters with the police and so on.

This has a male director and does not deal with any gender issue except in a subtle and marginal manner. Yet, as Prateek Vats says, “I am not very sure of the exact motivation really but the very idea that it was possible to create an entire universe while making a film and also within the film you have created was very exciting and there is a strong element of intrigue structured into it too. It never ceases to fascinate me.”

Awakening of the Goddess, a very short, two-minute film by Debjani Mukherjee is a brilliant comment on nine different kinds of violence against women pointing out that they often overlap. The film is a collage of still images of a bare-breasted women held in medium close-up with a voice-over in different women’s voices revealing different facets of domestic violence.

The young woman’s body is used as a canvas for different symbols that are metaphors of violence – hand prints in black across her body, graffiti and comments till the face of the young woman turns into a black woman with her red tongue sticking out. The culmination of the woman into the powerful and angry image of the Goddess Kali is a note of hope and perhaps, revenge.

Ontojatra means ‘Inner Journey.’ This explores both the physical as well as the inner journey of a young man who returns from England to Bangladesh with his mother. He had left as a child 15 year ago and the mother-son decide to come home after his father’s death. This experience of returning “home” is different for the mother and the son who has no memory of his homeland and has no feelings of this being his home. Yet, he is faced with the identity crisis of coming to a place he has no knowledge of and also does not know the language, the culture and the lifestyle of the people while for his mother, it is an experience in nostalgia.

Ticket Please by Anantha Ramanan of Sri Lanka is about a Tamil boy who cannot either understand or speak Sinhala Language. He Visits Colombo to arrange his shift abroad. His journey by bus in Colombo with a conductor, who speaks Sinhala and Hindi, but not Tamil a vernacular language, causes him mental stress. The indifference of the conductor towards the passengers illuminates the importance of bilingualism for co-existence In Sri Lanka.

Ask The Sexpert by Vaishali Sinha offers an is an insightful look into sex education (or the lack thereof) in India, and one man's fight to educate people on some of the most basic concepts dealing with sex and human anatomy. It is a documentary that expresses a series of informal and candid interviews with Mahinder Watsa who was then the 93 y/o Sexpert who has been educating and counselling people about sex over decades and ran a very popular column in a daily tabloid for decades.

The film takes a very candid and no-nonsense approach without looking down either on the counsellor or on his specialised subject and makes for quite entertaining viewing. The film also places forth the views of people who approach him for counselling and advice, both at home and through his column.

Sunanda Bhatt’s Have You Seen the Arana is on the forefront of many awards and outstanding citations. She not only believes in direct feedback from her subjects but also admits how community screenings of the film has given her a different way of looking at the film.

Among a string of highly prestigious awards, Have You Seen the Arana won the Golden Conch for the Best Documentary in the National Competition at MIFF 2014. The citation states, “This film is elegant, patient, meditative and subtle. The director gently moves her audience towards a deep appreciation of the tribal, mythical connections between humanity and ecosystems that sustain us all.” The award was shared with Invoking Justice by Deepa Dhanraj. The film also won the Best Cinematography for Saumyananda Sathi and Best Sound to Christopher Burchell.