a research blog by Lotte Hoek
Last week, the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy hosted the second Dhaka Art Summit. Bringing an international art crowd to town, the three-day contemporary art festival organised by the Samdani Art Foundation showcased contemporary South Asian art and artists. Among the many gallery stands, curated shows and solo projects, the Summit also featured an experimental film program.
The experimental film program brought together films from across the South Asia region. The thirteen selected films included short experimental fiction, such as Akifa Mian’s Unknown, traditional documentaries like Ganadabi (Saiful Islam Jarnal) and the much acclaimed From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf in which Mumbai collective CAMP innovatively montaged ‘found’ mobile phone footage to recount the life of the sailors braving the Persian Gulf on wooden boats.
Ostensibly, the program presented a fantastic opportunity to showcase experimental film from across South Asia. But much of the most exciting experimental film and audio-visual works were to be found elsewhere at the Summit. Among the solo projects in the exhibition were a selection of 16mm works by Afghani artist Lida Abdul shown digitally and the mesmerizing three-panel animation Parallax by Shahzia Ahmed. Elsewhere, DAS exhibited Runa Islam’s 2008 work Untitled (After the hunt), presenting a short 16mm projection of the blurring of a family photograph from Bangladesh. This work resonated with the Rankin Street work by Naeem Mohaiemen in the curated B/Desh segment of the Summit, which explores a series of family photographs from mid-20th Century Dhaka taken by the artist’s father.
But it was when watching the Bangladeshi films in the experimental film program that the discrepancies with audio-visual work elsewhere in the exhibition became disruptive. All four Bangladeshi films curated in the experimental film program were documentaries. They picked up the staple topics of Bangladeshi documentary: the liberation war, labour struggle, migration and minority issues. Its forms too strayed little from expected formats and classical execution; even if the 8 minute Anika’s Home (Saiful Wadud Helal) would have been at home in a TV magazine program. Baffling for a transnational show with a strong international audience, the Bangladeshi films were only patchily subtitled, as if to say that these films would be of little interest to those who do not speak Bengali in any case. Taken together, this selection of films from Bangladesh lacked both imagination and the experimentation that ostensibly held the entire program together.
This in sharp contrast with some of the other audio-visual work from Bangladesh on offer at the summit. As part of the B/Desh curated exhibition, Omar Adnan Chowdhury’s Torsions opened up in extended and precise observation, and nearly ethnographic detail, the ritual energies and movements of two religious festivals in Dhaka. Screened in a loop over its almost two hour duration, the video project played across time and sound by drawing the spectators’ attention alternately to the soundscape and the visual textures of the rituals and processions as they unfolded chronologically. Aesthetically striking and visually absorbing, many spectators lingered and let themselves be taken along this beautifully crafted extended video work. Elsewhere in the gallery booths, Naeem Mohaiemen’s United Red Army was screened. Piecing together an account of the 1977 hijacking and subsequent negotiations of a Japan Airlines Flight that landed in Dhaka, the film relies heavily on the sound recordings of the negotiations between the Dhaka control tower and the Red Army hijackers. The documentary not only brings a forgotten episode of Bangladesh’ early history into a thought-provoking context. Visually texturing the faded sound recordings with text and image, it is in this innovative use of sound recordings and the weaving together of various forms of archival footage that United Red Army breeches the boundaries between documentary and visual art most productively.
The Dhaka Art Summit succeeded in bringing a wealth of experimental film and innovative video work to a broad audience. Unfortunately, the experimental film program did not match the energy and innovations that could be found elsewhere in the Shilpakala galleries, especially with regard to the Bangladesh related works. Perhaps this is merely a question of programming but more likely it speaks to the ways in which visual artists and filmmakers are utilizing new sites and forms to make and screen their works. For those watching the world of innovative and experimental film in Bangladesh, it might be good to explore this new field coming together across different sites and practices and reimagine the boundaries of Bangladesh’ film culture.