Last week screenings of Jashn-e-Azadi took place in Beijing and Shanghai. This was part of the West Heavens initiative, developed, as its website tells us, ‘to foster closer understanding of India through contemporary art and scholarship, and develop cross-cultural dialogue based on visual culture and notions of Asian modernity’.
It’s probably appropriate that a contentious film on Kashmir should be part of a section called “You Don’t Belong”! (To be fair, the full title of the event goes on to say: Pasts and Futures of Indian Cinema & India-China Dialogue on Film and Social Thought.) Curated by the film-scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha, the film event saw more than 30 films screened across 4 cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guanzhou, Kunming – and at multiple venues in each city. Most remarkably, all the films had Chinese subtitles allowing the audiences a remarkable level of access.
In Beijing Jashn-e-Azadi was shown at the Beijing Film Academy, which hosted the section on The Documentary: Testimony, Home, City. The BFA, like everything that we encountered in this brief week in China, is huge, has massive infrastructure, and although modelled rather closely on the film school in Moscow (more properly known by the acronym VGIK), seems very much to be riding the boom that China is currently experiencing. First world facilities, and more than 3000 students. What was surprising for the documentary screenings was the turnout: students, faculty, and members of a film club that the BFA hosts, all showed up from the first day, and the vast auditorium (it was the “medium” one we were told) was always comfortingly full. The Jashn-e-Azadi screening was followed by what was billed as “Filmmakers’ Round Table 1: Documentary Images and the Language of Rights”, hosted by Zhang Xianmin, who is a professor at the BFA, teaching Screenwriting and documentary, and highly respected for his work in promoting the independent Chinese film. The other panelist was the very successful documentary film-maker Zhao Liang. (For more on him, you could read about his much applauded five and a half hour film Petition, or turn to this interesting profile in the New York Times).
In Shanghai Jashn-e-Azadi was screened at the Shanghai Film and TV Literature Library, a remarkable public institution where people are already queing up at 10am to enter, read periodicals and books, watch films… In a city made almost grotesque by its spectacular success with capitalism, its these last vestiges of a former socialist experiment that made one a little less despondent. The audience here was mixed too, some students, but a lot of what we would call ‘ordinary’ people. The post-screening discussion was hosted by the theatre director Zhang Xian, one of the earliest independent Chinese playwrights in the Post-Mao Era. (In the discussion he identified himself as an anarchist…)
While the audience at both back venues had negligible background on Kashmir, they responded with a remarkable openness, alert not just to the particular historical event they were witnessing, but also to the aesthetic form through which the film was trying to address it. One of the most remarkable conversations I have had about Jashn-e-Azadi was with a journalist from the Chinese language newspaper Oriental Morning Post in Shanghai. The paper has done almost a full page feature on the film, and although I would definitely NOT suggest Google Translate as a way of approaching the text, the incredibly nuanced questions put by Shen Yi made me feel that this piece of writing would really open out the film to a Chinese reader.