Riots in Manipur By Rüdiger Suchsland

in 9th International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films

by Rüdiger Suchsland

At the beginning, there is a “simple” event: The Manorama Devi, a 32-year-old woman is arrested by soldiers of the “17 th Assam Rifles” Regiment from her home. Later she is found dead under suspicious circumstances, her body raped and shot. In the region of Manipur, one of the “seven sisters”, seven smaller federal states in the very northeast of India, events like this are usual. But the desperate fate of The Manorama Devi was the last straw. It provoked protests throughout the state against the excesses of the so-called “security forces”. This people’s movement was very strong and spontaneous. There was no leader, no political party behind the protestors, nobody forced them to do what they did. After a few days, and after the indifferent reaction of the federal government, as well as after new army excesses, the protest grew into riots and the aim of the demonstations was not just the case of The Manorama Devi, it was the general conditions in Manipur and the “Armed Forces Special Powers Act” which had been in effect since 1958, and which gave special rights to the army.

The young filmmaker Haobam Paban Kumar, born and raised in Manipur, and studying film-direction in his final semester at the SRFTI-film school of Calcutta, immediately went to Manipur, when he heard the news of the riots. From the first days, he followed the protests with his digital camera. His fabulous documentary AFSPA, 1958 is the first exciting result of this journey; with astonishing footage, this promising director shows a part of Indian reality, which has been hidden for years. Kumar gives a voice to the mute, to the ordinary people of his home region.

One remarkable aspect is that the film shows that the movement was led by women. They were the first to spontaneously react to the rape-murder. Stripping in front of the army headquarters, they shouted, “Here we are, rape us too”. They forced the authorities to react and mobilized the population. They were the first people, who embarrassed the new Indian government in such a manner. Also in Kashmir, where, in the past, there were many cases of molestation, rape and murders. But in the north-eastern part of India, the matriarchy works very well. In the demonstrations, the men are always behind the women.

Even more thrilling is the material in the second part of Kumar’s movie. He shows the brutal reaction of the challenged military, and the very common and almost incidental brutality of the daily life in Manipur. Even when we can see that some soldiers help and save people from their army comrades, we see others molesting and beating the people without any reason. We knew it in theory, now we see in practise that the troops in the border areas of India molest, torture, rape and sometimes murder. These pictures are extraordinary, they show events which are still dangerous to shoot and to publish. So it is a huge cinematographic accomplishment for the director, but it also honours the 9 th MIFF-Festival of Mumbai for giving an important international platform to a movie like this, despite some political pressure and attempted censorship in the past.

So, AFSPA, 1958 certainly deserves the award of the International Critics Jury for its humanistic approach and its obvious human rights engagement, just as much as for its point of view on women’s empowerment, its encouragement of women standing up against the repressing forces of society and for its open accusation of the army’s crimes over the people of Manipur. With an international award, it could come to the notice of the entire world.

But that is not all. When judging a film, some political and humanistic guidelines may play its role, but in the end a FIPRESCI-jury should always give the award for cinematic qualities. And cinematographically, AFSPA, 1958 definitely convinces in its approach and style. The movie is a raw, frank, direct piece of cinema verité.

Director Haobam Paban Kumar narrates and observes. He knows the difference between a film and a political manifesto. Besides his personal partisanship and engagement, he is, as a filmmaker he always stays behind the camera. This makes the great difference in comparison to another film in this year’s MIFF-competition, The Black Road on the civil war in Aceh by the American filmmaker William Neesen, which has been praised by many, including the international jury. Here the presentation of the important subject and the amazing footage is always disturbed by a narcissistic approach involving the filmmaker in a Michael Moore-like manner. He becomes a part of the film. But the film itself has to impress us, not the director in person.

Overall, Haobam Paban Kumar’s AFSPA, 1958 is an impressive piece of cinema, and the outstanding winner out of a very good selection. For the jury, the job was tough and difficult to fulfil, because their job was to judge around 70 movies overall – some of them just a few minutes, others more than one and a half hours, some animation, some short-films, fiction features an documentaries. Like the other juries, the FIPRESCI-jury of this year criticised the mix which impossible to compare in a satisfying way, as well as the division between the national and the international program of documentaries. But the films shown in the MIFF with its cinéphile audience were intellectually stimulating and often very strong, and there was more than just one candidate which was worth an award.