South Asia on the Big Screen

Pakistan, August 31, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Image courtesy of the Himal Association  </span>
    Photo: Image courtesy of the Himal Association

What was it like to live through the violent separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971? Has recent communal violence in the Indian state of Gujarat soured relations between young Muslims and Hindus? How has Sri Lanka's on-and-off civil war affected everyday life there?

Entries in this year's edition of South Asia's largest documentary film festival posed these and other beguiling questions about life on the subcontinent. Mercy Corps sponsored the Islamabad stop of "Traveling Film South Asia 2006," along with two other nonprofits also devoted to strengthening the region's civil societies.

The biennial Katmandu-based movie extravaganza, which began in 1997, is meant to spread knowledge about South Asia's vast and varied cultures. Most of the 15 documentaries in the 2005-06 festival touch on issues pertaining to human rights, peace and violence — issues that intersect with the civil-society work Mercy Corps is tackling across South Asia.

That's a primary reason Mercy Corps' Pakistan office accepted the invitation to help cover the projection-equipment rental costs and other fees associated with the festival's weekend in Islamabad, says Nadeem Iqbal, the office's public affairs officer. He says the agency also wants to encourage a documentary filmmaking tradition in the country, and particularly to stoke interest in filming regions impacted by last October's earthquake in northern Pakistan.

"Since the international media's focus has shifted away from the earthquake, now is a good time for a well-researched documentary that helps people understand the earthquake reconstruction issues from a ground-level perspective," he says.

Katmandu's Himal Association, a 19-year-old nonprofit devoted to helping Nepalese become aware and responsible national and global citizens, spearheads the event. It describes the festival as a "mobile campaign to promote and popularize South Asian documentaries," which typically plays at more than four dozen venues around the world.

An exhibition of photographs from the quake zone accompanied the screenings at Islamabad's Nomad Centre and Art Gallery. Director Nageen Hyat says the Centre is interested in fostering a South Asian solidarity movement that raises awareness about issues pertaining to human rights, peace and nonviolence.

Iqbal says Mercy Corps looks forward to cosponsoring the festival's planned return to Islamabad in 2008 as well as other similar endeavors.