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© Neena Bhandari, Women's Feature Service

Films exploring the lives of women in volatile situations bagged top honors at the inaugural Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA), held recently at Sheraton Mirage Resort and Spa, Gold Coast. APSA, touted to be the region's highest accolade in filmmaking, showcased varied talent - actors, filmmakers and technicians - from over 70 countries. Be it the stylized horror flicks of Japan, the allegorical tragedies and comedies of Korea, the extraordinary tapestry of Chinese cinema, the multifaceted industries of India, the poetry and reality of Persian cinema or the visionary narratives of the Middle East, all were part of this celebration of cinema. 

"Cinema has the great ability to rise above cultures. APSA is an idea whose time has come, both politically and culturally. ...Over the years, the Oscar awards seem to have become the definitive award (that) filmmakers aspire for. We are going to create an alternative to that so that Asian cinema gets the recognition it deserves," said Shabana Azmi, Indian actor and activist and president of the awards jury.

An initiative of the Queensland state government, in collaboration with CNN International, UNESCO and FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Associations), APSA presented regional filmmakers with a global screen and the opportunity to broaden their market appeal.

While APSA did not specifically focus on the works of women filmmakers, APSA's Executive Director Jane Hickey said, "We were extremely pleased to see a high representation of women nominated across all award categories, from countries including Armenia, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Malaysia, Australia and Korea."

In fact, half of the independent Nominations Council, responsible for shortlisting nominees for each award, comprised women. Soheir Abd El Kader, Vice President of the Cairo International Film Festival; Anne Demy-Geroe, Executive Director of the Brisbane International Film Festival; Jeannette Paulson Hereniko, Founding Director of the Hawaii International Film Festival; Aruna Vasudev, Founder-Director Osian's Cinefan; and Azize Tan, Director International Istanbul Film Festival were just some who brought in the female perspective.

The finalists were drawn from across the Asia-Pacific region with 34 films nominated from 19 countries: Armenia, Australia, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

'Secret Sunshine' (Miryang) from Korea, produced by Kim In-Soo, Lee Chang-Dong and Hanna Lee, was adjudged the Best Feature Film. It is the story of Shin-ae's struggle to fit into the altogether unfamiliar town of Miryang, where she relocates with her son after her husband's untimely death in an automobile accident.

An interesting nomination in this category was Anne-Dominique Toussaint's 'Caramel' from Lebanon. Giving a rare insight into the minds of women of that country, the film revolves around five women, who meet in a beauty salon in Beirut and between haircuts and sugar waxing with caramel, share intimate and liberated conversations about men, sex and motherhood.

The Best Documentary award was bagged by 'Beirut Diaries: Truth, Lies and Videos' ('Yaoumiyat Beirut: Hakaek wa Akatheeb'). Through the story of a young woman from Beirut, the film, produced by Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masari and her Lebanese-filmmaker husband Jean Chamoun, explores the role of youngsters in the critical transformations underway in Lebanon from the time of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to the recent Israeli attack.

Dedicating the award to the Lebanese and Palestinian people "who are going through most difficult times in their history", Masari said, "Cultural films have to put us on the map. It is very important not to lose culture and an event like this makes us appreciate each other's culture. It is a continuation of my previous work... the human stories that never get told on news."

Masari, who was only 16 at the time of the 1975 civil war in Lebanon, said, "I have been exposed to conflicts, people living in refugee camps, vibrant student and cultural movements and questions of identity... I found films as a medium through which I could portray realities, express myself and tell the stories about people around me."

Indonesia's 'Denias, Singing on the Cloud' ('Denias, Senandung di Atas Awan') won the Best Children's Feature Film award. Based on the real life story of a boy, Denias, who travels from a small village in Western Papua Island to attend senior high school in Australia, the film captures the hardships and the riot of emotions he goes through.

A strong contender in this category was 'Mother Nanny' ('Inang Yaya') from the Philippines, which is the story of Norma, who straddles between two worlds, as mother to Ruby and nanny to Louise. Every day is a balancing act for her as she deals with a demanding ward and a headstrong daughter, in a desire to have a better life.

The UNESCO Award for outstanding contribution to the promotion and preservation of cultural diversity through film was given to the Israeli film, 'The Band's Visit' ('Bikur Hatizmoret'). "It is an exquisite film that demonstrates how cinema has the ability to touch hearts across all cultures and classes. There is something universal about it," said Azmi.

"Working in the Israeli film industry is not very much different than other countries," said Orna Noy, Post & Festivals coordinator for 'The Band's Visit'. "The Israeli industry has been very productive in recent years. The commercial TV channels are obliged to produce local productions and that has given a lot of work to the production crews. The TV channels are also investing in films productions and that has helped the local industry."

At the ritzy Sheraton Mirage, it was riot of color as filmmakers dressed in their national dress raised a toast to the diversity of culture manifested through cinema. "The most important thing about APSA is that as the world shrinks and becomes a global village, it is important that cultures are understood within their own paradigms and not as yardsticks imposed by the West on the East," said Azmi.

"Something we heard again and again from the filmmakers was that despite the extremely difficult circumstances in their countries, telling the stories of their countries through film was a compulsion they could not ignore. This tenacity and commitment to craft, has been exemplified by Mai Masari of 'Beirut Diaries' and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, one of Iran's leading female contemporary filmmakers, who shared The Best Achievement in Directing Award with Mohsen Abdolvahab for 'Mainline' ('Khoonbazi')," said Hickey.

Each recipient received a vessel, urn or vase - symbolizing different cultures of the region - to mark their achievement. Australia's leading Brisbane-based glass artist Joanna Bone created these exquisite pastel-shaded pieces especially for ASPA. 

December 16, 2007

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any www.india-voice.com content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.

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