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Sound takes over images at IAWRT's 15th Asian Women’s Film Festival

In its special curatorial segment started in 2014, AWFF’s Soundphiles focusses on sound technologies and the ‘affect’ of sound.

Shikha Jhingan (right) at the Soundphiles segment of AWFF 2019.

Prateek Rawat

Imagine a cinema hall enveloped in its conventional darkness, but without moving images playing out on a screen; they are instead supplanted by sound to which the audience is listening intently. Such was the format of the segment Soundphiles on day 3 of the recently concluded IAWRT 15th Asian Women’s Film Festival (AWFF).

Curated by JNU’s associate professor Shikha Jhingan, Soundphiles is the festival’s segment – started in 2014 – which investigates the affective force of sound as an element of cinema often superseded by the image. Jhingan, whose work focusses on sound studies, music and technologies of sound dispersal across diverse media platforms, curated five short ‘films’ out of 10 entries to investigate the relationship between women and sound technologies.

The 27-minute segment included five entries: Sindhu Thirumalaisamy’s Plosives, Madhuja Mukherjee’s Ratan Bai vs. New Theatres, Radhika Sood Nayak’s Buriyan/we bad folk, Aishwarya Bindana, Rayna Batavia, Sonia Arthur and Sowmya Sridhar’s The First Wave, and finally Srijaa Kundu and Srinjita Biswas’s My Sister in a Dystopian World.

From recordings used to produce ‘hand-made bombs’ to a reimagined cover of a Sufi mystic’s subversive song, the letters of Ratan Bai to the thrashing waves of tsunamis and earthquakes, and the unintelligible conversation with an AI in a cacophonic material world, the five films attempt to create an aural sensorium of history, modernity, the everyday and femininity.

Commenting on the primacy of visuals over sound, Jhingan says, “We are fixated with the image. I think sound and what it does to cinema in terms of an inter-sensory affect has not been seen carefully. With the coming of mobile media technologies, sound has become all pervasive in our daily lives. Digital practices have made it easier for artists to intervene in sound and create art. IAWRT is doing a great job by focussing on sound and making one listen. Much like Michel Chion said, in this segment we enter a state of reduced listening – we stop thinking about the cause and meaning of sound and instead focus on listening, the experience of which can take you anywhere.”

Jhingan relegates the relationship between women and sound to the early history of modernity – from the women and gramophones to the femininity of AI bots today. She believes that sound is evocative and often leaves behind a trace of experiences.

Soundphiles is an undoubtedly interesting part of AWFF’s curatorial practice. With an exclusive focus on the element, the section opens up new questions about what constitutes cinematic practice, the specificity of the medium and the space it occupies in theatres and festivals. However, the 2019 segment itself may be inspired from high tone conceptual possibilities, but often fails to create an impactful environment out of that concept into practice.

Perhaps, the issue may be relegated to the interfering degree of amateur-ness in the quality of most of the productions. For a segment that focusses exclusively on the meditation on sound, the quality of voice acting, sound-mixing and clarity was subpar at best. Perhaps, another issue could be the choice of the cinema hall as the exhibit space itself. The sound technologies of the auditorium do not cater to the sensitivity oaf sound that such an exercise requires while the segment itself falls more into an art-gallery or new media art spatial requirements rather than those of a cinema theatre.

One may argue that the intervention of collective listening in a hall creates an eclectic experience of these sound films in a theatre and transgresses the understanding of what is cinema itself. However, with issues of quality of production and exhibition, such an intervention conceptually and exhibit-wise appears to be awkwardly stretched to its seams.

Nevertheless, Soundphiles holds the possibility of creating new manners of understanding the relationship between elements in cinema, and the politics of sound that surround us on a daily note. AWFF may like to reimagine the concept and reinvigorate it with more radical experimentation, than a simple exhibition of sound pieces in the hall.

The Asian Women’s Film Festival was held from 5-7 March 2019 at the India International Centre in Delhi. The theme of the 15th edition was The Female Gaze. The festival screened over 50 films from 20 countries by female filmmakers in several formats, along with workshops, panels and an art installation.

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IAWRT Asian Women's Film Festival