South Asian cinema’s ascent on the global stage | Sunday Observer

South Asian cinema’s ascent on the global stage

10 September, 2023

Paolo Bertolin is a film programmer, writer and producer. He has been part of the programming team of Venice Film Festival since 2008. In 2019, he also joined the selection committee of Cannes ‘Directors’ Fortnight’. Since 2016, he is the Artistic Consultant of Locarno Open Doors. He has worked for several international film festivals and institutions, including IFFRotterdam, the Doha Film Institute, Udine Far East FF, Torino FF, Mumbai IFF, Beijing IFF, IFFBratislava. As a Film Critic and Journalist, he wrote articles for Italian and international publications, including II manifesto, Cineforum, Segnocinema, The Korea Times, Cahiers du cinema, Positif and Senses of Cinema. Furthermore, he has production credits on such films as Phan Dang Di’s ‘Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories’, Lav Diaz’s ‘A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery’, and Amit Dutta’s ‘Chitrashala’, and all entries in the Berlinale competition. He is a member of the European Film Academy and of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards Academy.


In the realm of international cinema, certain figures shine brightly as beacons of inspiration and change-makers in the industry. Paolo Bertolin, renowned for his pivotal roles as a consultant for the Venice Film Festival, Locarno Open Doors program and many other international film festivals, standsout as an exemplary force. His journey through the intricate tapestry of South Asian cinema began in decades ago, when he embarked on a mission to discover fresh talent and explore the uncharted territories of filmmaking in the region.

Through the years, Bertolin has been instrumental in bridging the gap between South Asian cinema and global audiences, striving to break the stereotypes that have sometimes confined it to a limited perspective. His insightful observations and recommendations have played a crucial role in shaping the path of filmmakers and their works within the international film festival circuit.

In an exclusive Zoom interview with Paolo Bertolin, the Sunday Observer had the opportunity to talks about his experiences, challenges, and vision for South Asian cinema. During the interview he unveiled profound insights into the world of film programming and discussed the boundless potential of South Asian storytelling on the global stage. He highlights the Nepal-Sri Lanka co-production, “The Red Suitcase,” which has embarked on its journey to the Venice Film Festival this year, exemplifying the collaborative spirit and the rich diversity of narratives within the international cinema landscape.

Q: Reflecting on Locarno’s Open Doors program from a few years ago, which centered on Southeast Asia and included the participation of filmmakers from Sri Lanka, do you believe that as a country, we effectively capitalised on the opportunities offered by this initiative?

A: The Locarno Open Doors program, now in its 21st edition, is an industry platform organized by the Locarno Film Festival and Locarno Pro in partnership with the Swiss Agency for development and cooperation. In the past, it focused on different regions each year, offering a co-production market and screening from that region at the festival.

Before 2016, Open Doors used to jump from one region to another each year, essentially providing a co-production market for a different region annually, along with screening select films from that area at the festival. However, we realised that this approach didn’t provide the continuous engagement needed to truly support the independent film industry in regions where it was less developed.

So, starting in 2016, we introduced a lab or workshop aimed specifically at producers in the region of focus. This workshop was designed to offer training, increase awareness, and create a space for meaningful discussions among industry professionals. What surprised us the most was how bringing people from various countries within the same region together led to the realisation that many of their challenges were similar. Despite differing resources and opportunities, there was potential for collaboration and mutual support.

One of our thriving achievements has been fostering collaborations among producers and filmmakers within the same region. A standout example is the Nepal-Sri Lanka co-production “The Red Suitcase,” premiering at Venice Film Festival this year, with its producer, Ram Krishna Pokharel, being an Open Doors participant. This regional collaboration mindset, rather than solely seeking resources from the West, is a valuable outcome of Open Doors.

Personally, I’ve visited Sri Lanka several times, especially during the South Asia focus years, connecting with Colombo’s filmmakers and understanding their challenges. It’s been rewarding to witness Open Doors’ positive impact on the global film community’s growth and evolution.

Q: Looking back, what are the key observations and recommendations from the experiences with Sri Lankan filmmakers within the context of the Locarno Open Door’s engagement, and how might Sri Lanka overcome its challenges to better integrate into the global film industry?

A: It is a difficult question to give a direct answer. However, reflecting on our experiences with Sri Lanka and its filmmakers, it’s clear there’s a deep interest in cinema there. Sri Lankan filmmakers have impressive concepts, and I believe there’s potential for them to engage more with the global film industry. However, Sri Lanka may have certain challenges, possibly due to historical factors and its island geography, which might make it somewhat insular in its approach.

Working with international partners isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but it can be beneficial for specific projects or filmmakers. I wish there was more awareness and information sharing, along with a willingness to project oneself onto the international stage. For instance, initiatives like Busan’s academy for producers are vital, and I hope Sri Lankan filmmakers can benefit from them.

I’ve observed that other countries in the South Asia group that participated in Open Doors have made progress and gained international visibility. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan have had films recognised at major festivals. It’s perplexing that Sri Lanka hasn’t achieved similar recognition yet. There’s undoubted talent and a filmmaking tradition, but perhaps exploring different avenues and embracing new approaches could help Sri Lankan filmmakers break through on the global stage.

It’s quite exciting news that the Sri Lankan co-production, ‘The Red Suitcase,’ has been officially selected for this year’s Venice Film Festival competition section.

Q: How does the success of this regional co-production between Nepal and Sri Lanka, exemplify the significance of regional collaborations in the global film industry?

A: I believe “The Red Suitcase” is an encouraging example for filmmakers in the region and beyond because it’s a collaboration within the region itself. While the project did participate in the Asian Project Market in Busan a few years ago, it didn’t become an international co-production with Europe or receive substantial funding from institutions like the World Cinema Fund or the Hubert Bal Fund. Despite this, the producers successfully forged a collaboration between Nepal and Sri Lanka.

This example is significant because it demonstrates that a film can maintain its native identity and still make it to international festivals without compromising its essence. In terms of artistic style and narrative, “The Red Suitcase” draws inspiration from Japanese cinema, particularly Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic “Ugetsu Monogatari.” Even though it’s a Nepali film with some contributions from Sri Lanka, it’s clear that the filmmaker was influenced by Japanese filmmakers. This showcases the universal language of cinema – it transcends borders.

While “The Red Suitcase” retains its Nepali identity and addresses Nepalese history and current issues, it demonstrates that cinema can tackle local and specific topics in ways that resonate globally. The international audience can appreciate and understand stories that are both unique and universal in their presentation.

Q: Can you elaborate on the difference between national cinema and films that can be global?

A: Discussing the distinction between national cinema and films with global appeal is a complex and frequently debated topic within the film industry. It’s a matter that revolves around finding the right balance between preserving cultural identity and reaching a broader international audience.

In my perspective, the key isn’t solely about thinking globally; it’s about maintaining the authenticity of the film’s vision. When a filmmaker intends to transcend their national borders, they may need to consider specific aspects of their work. For instance, I recently watched a film from an Asian country with a diverse range of languages spoken. Initially, the subtitles didn’t distinguish between these languages, which were integral to the characters’ identities. To enhance accessibility for international audiences, I proposed using different subtitle colours to highlight this linguistic diversity. This approach can be relevant to films from any nation, including Sri Lanka, where multiple languages are spoken.

I found myself in a similar situation while discussing the subtitles of a Tamil film. Although I don’t understand Tamil, I reviewing the English subtitles, which repeatedly referred to certain terms used in Tamil to address a friend as ‘brother’. I thought, ‘if you keep using that word, only Tamil speakers will understand.’ I questioned its meaning since it was being used to refer to a friend, not an actual brother. It was a term of endearment, indicating a close relationship. I pointed out that English subtitles should cater to a global audience, not just the Tamil-speaking community.

So, we needed to find a way to translate this colloquial language accurately. We discussed a solution, which I suggested: in European languages and English, it’s common to call someone by their name. Therefore, instead of saying, ‘hey brother’, you could use the person’s name, like ‘hey, Paolo’. The choice between ‘brother’ or a name depends on the local or personal relationship and intimacy with the individual in question.

In essence, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for making a film globally appealing. It often comes down to practical considerations, such as effective translation and cultural sensitivity. While some cultural elements may remain obscure to outsiders, there are universal aspects within all cultures that can serve as bridges. It’s a beautiful aspect of cinema that it can connect people across cultural boundaries, allowing diverse audiences to find common ground through storytelling.

Q: What are the key challenges and considerations involved in curating a diverse lineup for the Venice Film Festival, and how does this process reflect the dynamic nature of international cinema?

A: As part of the Venice Film Festival’s selection committee, we faced the challenging task of curating a diverse lineup from a substantial number of film submissions. Every year, the volume of submissions increases, adding complexity to our selection process. We, the team, together with our artistic director, dedicate a considerable amount of effort to this task. However, we are aware that we are only human and may sometimes overlook exceptional films. Selecting the right films from such a vast pool is a demanding and intricate process that requires patience from both our team and filmmakers. Unfortunately, due to limited slots, some outstanding films don’t make it to our lineup, which is always regrettable.

Our program, I believe, can be viewed as a snapshot of the international cinema landscape from our team’s perspective. It’s important to recognise that if the selection committee were from a different region, such as Chile, Japan, or Sri Lanka, the results might differ. This variation is inevitable due to the dynamics within the Italian, European, and global film industries. Certain regions may be more active and exciting in a given year, while others experience fluctuations in their cinematic output. Competition among festivals for the best films is another factor we must contend with. Some films end up at different festivals or postpone their release due to various reasons, which we must accept.

For example, our opening film, Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” had to change its release date due to a strike by actors. While it was a challenging moment for our artistic director, we understood the situation and chose an alternative film. However, I can’t disclose too much about the films before the festival.

Nonetheless, I want to highlight two inspiring selections. “The Red Suitcase,” a Nepali-Sri Lankan collaboration, is a significant inclusion. This film, produced entirely within the region by a first-time filmmaker, showcases the beauty of regional cooperation. Another noteworthy film is “Stolen,” an Indian production in the Orizzonti Extra section. It’s the debut feature film by Karan Tejpal, and it made its way into the festival without any special recommendations. These films exemplify how strong films with a distinct identity can shine on the international stage, even without international co-producers or established connections. I hope they find success after their premieres at Venice and enter the international arena.

Q: In the context of Euro-centric international film festivals, South Asian cinema, has often been predominantly approached from an anthropological perspective. This perspective tends to prioritise exploring issues, community dynamics, and identity politics, rather than emphasizing character-driven narratives that delve into the depths of human subjectivity. Regrettably, this limitation of Southeast Asian cinema is not only prevalent among festival circles but also influences the artistic choices made by filmmakers in the region. How do you explain this prevailing anthropological perception and the tendency of filmmakers to conform to these limitations?

A: I find this to be a complex issue with no easy answers. The perception of Southeast Asian cinema in Euro-centric international film festivals often revolves around whether thematic, subject-driven films or those centered on style and film language are favored. However, there isn’t a clear dominance of one over the other. Festivals aim to strike a balance between these approaches.

Film selection for festivals such as Venice or Cannes is a challenging process. With thousands of submissions and a limited number of slots, it’s not uncommon for some excellent films to be overlooked. What defines a “mistake” in selection is subjective and can only be judged in retrospect based on a film’s performance.

I’ve witnessed the unpredictability of audience reactions. Films I thought would excel sometimes didn’t, and vice versa. Festival juries occasionally make surprising choices. It’s a part of the dynamic nature of film festivals.

It’s essential for filmmakers to understand that festival selections are not about imposing political statements or post-colonial agendas. Taste is subjective, both in artistic creation and evaluation. There’s no universal formula for success.

In the Sri Lankan context, I’ve encountered questions from filmmakers about whether certain topics like war or specific characters are necessary for selection. However, I’ve emphasized that it’s more about storytelling and cinematic quality. Films like “Joyland” by Saim Sadiq from Pakistan and Rehana Mariam Noor by Abdullah Mohammad Saad from Bangladesh and both selected in Cannes last year, demonstrate that strong storytelling and cinematic techniques can make a film stand out, irrespective of its theme.

It’s crucial for filmmakers to focus on delivering their stories effectively and with artistic integrity. While thematic exploration is important, it’s equally vital to showcase strong cinematic skills, as this plays a significant role in achieving success at international festivals.

Q: Can you briefly discuss the available opportunities for South Asian cinema to gain more visibility in Eurocentric festivals, and what advice would you offer to Sri Lankan filmmakers?

A: I’d like to highlight that there are numerous opportunities available for South Asian cinema to gain visibility beyond its borders. It’s essential not to confine oneself and blame external factors for a lack of international recognition. The world offers plenty of opportunities, and resources are more accessible than ever. While I can’t list them all, I can certainly provide some advice.

First, explore the various film funds and grants available. While they might not provide huge sums, they can be instrumental in kickstarting your projects. Look into regional and international labs that offer training and networking opportunities. These initiatives help you connect with potential partners across Asia and beyond.

It’s important to recognise that this process takes time and effort, but the rewards are worth it. Take, for instance, the Nepalese producer behind “The Red Suitcase,” who actively participated in international training programs. His ability to collaborate with a neighboring country to bring a film to Venice is an inspiring example.

If institutions in Sri Lanka organise workshops or labs, consider involving experts from nearby countries like Nepal or the Philippines. These professionals can provide valuable insights into film production, international collaborations, and navigating the complex world of festivals. Building such connections can significantly benefit your filmmaking journey.