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Video South Asian video festival explores identity with flashes of humour, terror and anxiety

Monitor 7: New South Asian Short Film and Video

Presented by South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC)

March 24, 7:30 p.m. Innis Town Hall, 2 Sussex Ave., Toronto

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The seventh annual Monitor: New South Asian Short Film and Video festival is a revealing peek into the variety of presentation strategies, filmic styles and sociopolitical concerns of contemporary South Asian artists, those living in South Asia and in the diaspora.

Monitor 7 programmer Ayesha Hameed, herself a performance and video artist currently based in London, worked with a team of Toronto-based film artists - including Pablo de Ocampo, artistic director of the Images Festival, Dinesh Sachdev, founder of Filmi, members of Monitor 7's sponsoring collective, the South Asian Visual Arts Centre, and Erik Martinson, V tape's outreach co-ordinator - to select a dozen short works from a pool of more than 50 submitted and requested works.

The common thread in the chosen works, Hameed notes, is the interest exhibited by the filmmakers in "taking inventories," in examining the role of everyday objects (props, if you will) and their varied functions within time-based media.

Were I a columnist with The Economist, I might scratch my valet-shaved chin and hold forth on the booming South Asian economy, and then suggest that the artistic interest in commodities, in purchasable objects, was an obvious byproduct. But that is too simplistic a reading. It is also important to note that "South Asian" is a flawed catch-all term, one that should be read as South Asian(s).

However, granted all provisos, it is arguable that South Asian film/video has had a long fascination with the totemic, with idols (of all descriptions), talismans and treasured objects, from family photographs to lavish fabrics.

One need only look at works made by South Asian video artists in Canada in the 1980s, the dawn of the video art era, and witness said films' near universal employment of bolts upon bolts of glittering textiles. Props have always played an important part in the South Asian dialogue between viewer and creator. For whatever happy reasons, the artists in this community have, by and large, dodged the life-denying curse of minimalism.

Monitor 7 is an especially lively assortment of new works. Among my favourites are Vivek Shraya's Seeking Single White Male, a searing 1-minute video that juxtaposes changing images of a young man of indeterminate heritage against ugly, chat-room style messages about what is or is not attractive about "Indian boys." Self-hatred and shadism, taboo subjects in progressive Indian circles, are bluntly, and literally, turned face-front toward the viewer.

Ambereen Siddiqui's Lying In Wait is a sombre, haunting meditation on terrorism, in particular its effect on those left behind to wait for news. As a collection of voiceovers repeat and overlap, the various forms of information the speakers are waiting to gather - such as "waiting for text messages" and "waiting for phone calls" - build to a quiet howl. Meanwhile, the viewer is confronted by an empty, mausoleum-like balcony, a stone cube lit only by streetlamps. As the voices grow louder, flashes appear in the horizon. Bomb flashes? Lightning flashes?

Like the plaintive narrators, we cannot know exactly what is going on, can only share in their perpetual, cyclical anxiety. Only three minutes long, this video convincingly portrays hours and days worth of anxiety.

Capsule, by Shereen Soliman, unfolds gently but is far from soothing. Comprised almost entirely of close-ups of things found in a typical suburban home - everything from salt shakers to abandoned toys, and then, chillingly, on to medical apparatus and hoards of medications - Capsule is a narrative film conveying a story the viewer must partly make up him or herself.

Without spoiling it for you, I will say that Capsule lives up to its title - you come away feeling you have just rummaged through someone's home, opened a time capsule and found an entire family. Concise, moving and gorgeously filmed, it's no wonder Soliman's film has been a hit on the international film festival circuit.

Sure to be crowd pleasers are Md. Hasan Morshed's Protocol, and How To Be A Brown Teen by the collective known as The Torontonians.

Protocol is a ticking, intentionally wonky stop-motion recording of a public performance. A man in a two-toned outfit (white on the front side, black on the back) tumbles around a huge mandala, one decorated with alternating black and white pie slices. As the man tries to co-ordinate his movements (white, face up on the black slices, black, face down on the white parts), he begins to get lost in his movements, to stumble and roll, and soon the whole black/white system collapses. All performance art should be so amusing.

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How To Be A Brown Teen is a deliciously rude instructional video made by a handful of schoolchildren, the leader of whom repeatedly tells his fellow classmates that anything less than perfect grades, perfect fiscal responsibility and absolute chastity will "equal beatings" from a "brown teen's" parents.

When one of the kids is asked what he has learned, he replies "it sucks to be a brown teen." The stereotype of the overachieving South Asian immigrant kid is simultaneously engaged and dismissed in this video - if anything, the very making of this video would probably, according to the rules laid out by the kids, "equal beatings." Russell Peters, meet your competition.

While chatting with programmer Ayesha Hameed, several core questions kept coming up, all surrounding the current state of South Asian art production. Hameed describes the art made today as generally lacking "nostalgia or a sense of loss, the artists are more interested in looking ahead."

The works in Monitor 7 are very different from the first wave of South Asian video art. Identity still informs the work, but it is not the sole determinant of the work.

I think there's less trying to figure out what it means to be South Asian. There are more questions of self, individual identity, not collective - and, yes, collective identity plays into that, but the artists are coming at the questions in a more lighthearted way.

The early identity-focused work paved the way for people now, allowed them not to have to talk about who they are in the same ways.

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Can we read this shift away from the foregrounding of identity as a kind of progress model?

Yes, somewhat, but I also think that now, in cultural production, there is a much stronger contemporary tradition, a South Asian tradition, for the South Asian community to draw on, one that frees artists up.

There is still a shared edge, a frustration with social justice issues, but it is quieter. I'm not sure this means we've "arrived," but there is an assuredness in cultural production, a confidence, that was not always there before.

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