November 5, 2008

Himalaya Film Festival Tokyo 2008: The Himalayas as a Microcosm of the World

Environmental problems in India, the persecution of Tibetans, poverty in rural China--these are the issues that find their way into the media. Often treated as disparate topics, it is easy to forget that these countries are inextricably tied to one another, both historically and geographically. The Himalaya Film Festival Tokyo (HFFT), which was held from October 31st to November 3rd, showcased 30 films that focused exclusively on the mountainous region that extends from China, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, India and Pakistan, shedding light on the political, cultural, and environmental issues that, all too often, go unacknowledged.

Held in conjunction with nonprofit organization Himalaya Archive Japan and Himalaya Archief Nederland, this marks the second year for HFFT, following the inaugural festival in 2006. The primary objective of the festival, says Himalaya Archive Japan director Kunihiko Tanaka, is to create opportunities through moving images. This applies not only to the audience, who can expand their knowledge of the Himalayas, but also extends to the filmmakers, who receive the necessary exposure that will hopefully lead to future projects.

You don't need to be a cynic to see the potential for disappointment behind these remarkable intentions. The HFFT had to confront its fair share of stigma, beginning with the fact that all of the films shown were documentaries. For many people, watching documentaries, with their often pedantic tone and grim depiction of mankind's failings, do not constitute a good time. Yet, in the absence of any recognizable names or faces, the stories are what take hold.

One such example is The Forbidden Team, which follows a Tibetan soccer team formed within a refugee camp in India. Despite China and FIFA's refusal to declare them a national team, they head to Denmark and take part in a landmark match against Greenland. While essentially an underdog story, the harsh reality of Tibet's ongoing struggle for autonomy gave the film an urgency and vitality that few studio films could achieve.

The specialized content of documentaries may also frighten away viewers who feel that being familiar with the subject is a prerequisite for watching them. This assumption can be debunked by a film such as Call it Karma. In the film, director/narrator Jeoff Brown recalls how a fortuitous encounter with Gyalten Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk, in Vancouver led to his interest in the Tibetan faith. Karma is ostensibly Rinpoche's life story, but running parallel to his tale is Brown (and the viewers') crash course on Tibetan Buddhism.

Another prejudice HFFT was up against was the old "preaching to the converted" argument: the people who have come to see the films are already somewhat invested in the issues it addresses, but those who have no interest or knowledge of these topics will never see them. While the number of attendees for some of the screenings were despairing, patience is imperative when showing films that receive little or no promotion other than word of mouth. Some of the films in the selection, such as The Forbidden Team, were originally aired on television. Others, such as Tibetan Refugees: A Struggle Beyond Generations (the work of HFFT's own Kiyohiko Tanaka) have made rounds at various film festivals, in the world effectively amassing a modest but growing audience.
Finally, there is the ultimate pessimistic reaction: even if the films are shown and people are moved, they will resign themselves to their everyday lives, not knowing how to take action. Having observed the audience over two days, it struck me that if the films provoked any sort of emotional response from them, they could be called successful. These documentaries highlight an area of the world that Japanese education merely skims over, and the mainstream media, while occasionally expressing interest in their ethnographic cultures, is reluctant to rock the boat.

Although the ultimate goal of screening these documentaries would be people becoming personally vested in the issues, one cannot ask viewers to ingest a host of information in one sitting and then immediately becoming politically active. We must first be informed enough to be able to ask questions. It is when we are equipped with the facts that we become most powerful.

To borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin (!), the Himalayas are a microcosm of the world's biggest issues. Human rights, democracy, the environment--these are all interrelated topics that gain significance when told through different perspectives. In the upcoming posts, I would like to focus in particular on a number of films that I viewed at the festival, playing my small role in spreading the word.

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