AAIFF 2023: Documentary Section

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The films in the All Asian Independent Film Festival’s Documentary category provide a dexterous display of journalism and artistic expression year on year, and 2023 was no exception. This year’s selection explored vastly different subjects (music, martial arts, race, education, forced marriage) in a broad range of countries, yet, interestingly, all shared a common thread: the intersection of personal identity with cultural legacy.

If you missed the live screenings last weekend, relish a good documentary, or are simply interested in finding out more about the nuances of culture and identity in different countries across Asia and beyond, take a look at the recaps below…

Santa Fe Resident Too

James Butler in Santa Fe Resident Too

The second part of Terry Ngo’s examination of racial, social and cultural identity in Santa Fe, this documentary explores the life of James Butler, a retired black opera singer who resides in the city. Snippets of interviews with Butler himself provide the narration; a charismatic story-teller, his passion for music pulses through each line. He generously opens up about his journey to being a musician, and describes the struggles he has faced as a black man – outlining in particular how the prospect of a career in the arts was not seen as realistic within the black, working-class community in which he grew up.

Ngo explained that the driving force behind her filmmaking is the desire for her own children “to be exposed to diversity and know that representation does happen”. Indeed, whilst this documentary alone demonstrates a strong commitment to platforming diverse experiences, it is when watched in conjunction with its predecessor Santa Fe Resident (which explores the Asian experience in New Mexico’s capital) that it is at its most powerful. Ngo has taken a small slice of US geography and revealed the rich layers of diversity within. It will be interesting to see whose experiences are dissected in any future instalments in the series.

Ask Wing Chun

Directed by Ding Haoran, this documentary is not a portrait of an individual, but rather a portrait of a specific tradition: the Chinese martial-art of Wing Chun. Weaving together interviews with footage of the martial-art in practice, Haoran uses this film as both a testimony to the origins of the art form and an attempt to preserve it into the future.

Still from Ding Haoran’s Ask Wing Chun

Despite the use of interviews to craft the film’s narrative, it is the camera’s capturing of the practitioners’ movements that most effectively paints a love-letter to this art form. Carefully poised stances, deft strikes of limbs and smaller nuances of movement are repeated throughout the documentary to build up a visual motif that links together expert and novice, teacher and student, old and young. So, whilst the film is most likely to appeal to practitioners of martial arts, as an in-depth, educational account of a little-known niche in Chinese cultural heritage, it is a valuable painting of how tradition can bind together different communities and different times.

Women of Melody

This documentary similarly aims to preserve an ancient tradition – this time, an endangered folk instrument from the Hunza region of Pakistan, the Xhighini. One of the highlights of this year’s festival, the film explores the significance of the instrument through the story of a young girl, Asiya, who is one of the few remaining players of Xhighini. Asiya hopes to preserve the heritage of her land by sharing her beloved instrument with the world around her. 

Directors Amna Maqbool and Beenish Sarfaraz have crafted a quietly powerful film. The strings of the Xhighini provide the score – rich, melodic, and at times hauntingly beautiful – against the backdrop of the vivid green landscapes of the mountainous Hunza region. As the film progresses, the sounds of the instrument become deeply woven into the terrain, and it becomes clear that music, land and identity are one and the same for this community. 

Most interesting, though, is the way in which this instrument becomes a means of exploring the female experience. Maqbool explained in an interview that this area of Pakistan’s Hunza region is one where girls and women are particularly empowered. Indeed, the repeated motif of Asiya and other women from her community walking the meandering mountain paths to play the Xhighini in remote corners of the landscape is perhaps the film’s most powerful image: one of female independence, curiosity and adventure.

Asiya plays her beloved Xhighini. Still from Women of Melody.

Maqbool described the privilege of being able to “gain such intimate entry into the lives” of Asiya’s family and the female community in this region, and expressed her strong wish that “women in general in Pakistan could get the same support as  Asiya from their family to pursue education and music”. This documentary is therefore about far more than musical heritage: the Xhighini becomes an instrument not just of sound, but of female agency and sisterhood.

The Winner: My Mother’s Daughter

This leaves us with the final film – and worthy winner – of this year’s AAIFF documentary category. My Mother’s Daughter is the perturbing yet compelling story of Mehak, a teenage girl who was abducted, raped and forced into marriage. In the present day, following her escape, she is back living with her family and has a two-year-old daughter from her time in abduction. A primarily observational documentary, directors Ahmen Khawaja and Mariam Khan interweave interview footage with quiet domestic scenes of Mehak’s current life amongst her family. 

The film’s first line, “we don’t intend to tell her the truth” (referring to Mehak’s young daughter), powerfully summarises the tragic predicament of this family and the strain that has since been placed upon the relations between them. Repeatedly through the film, Mehak seems to retreat into herself, her eyes fixed ahead yet unfocused whilst her young daughter plays on the floor around her. Recurring images of innocence – bottle feeding, the baby sleeping, a toy doll – provide a striking contrast to the brutal account being narrated through interviews with Mehak, her mother, her aunt, and her lawyer. 

This is a very different version of Pakistan to the one explored in Women of Melody, which saw women moving freely through sweeping landscapes. Here, the only safe space for the film’s subject is inside the confines of her home – an idea encapsulated with cutting honesty by Mehak towards the end of the film, when she repeats her mother’s request that “as long as I am breathing, [I] cannot step outside the house alone”. Such intimate insights into Mehak’s thoughts are a result of a particularly sensitive filming process, which included Khawaja and Khan occasionally asking their camera operator to leave the room after setting up the equipment, to ensure that Mehak felt as comfortable as possible. This tactful approach reflects the directors’ broader treatment of the topic of forced marriage, which remains nuanced throughout the film:

When we went deeper into the story we realised that this isn’t just a religious matter. There are so many issues intertwined in this story that definitely need help from a legal level, an institutional level, a systematic level.

Ahmen Khawaja and Mariam Khan
Mehak and her daughter in My Mother’s Daughter.

Next year awaits…

To be able to platform such nuanced examinations of personal identity and cultural heritage has been a great privilege for the team here at the All Asian Independent Film Festival. We sincerely hope that, by bringing these films to life on the big screen, meaningful discussions have been enkindled and a whole new range of documentary projects will be set in motion.

For any budding documentary filmmakers out there, keep an eye on our website and Instagram page for news on when submissions for next year’s festival open…

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