11 Asia themed films from the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival

We were quite overwhelmed with the array of films showing as part of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Film Festival (their website says 101 films!). As a result, we spent many hours over the weekend and evenings to sort through some of the most intriguing (in our opinion!) films to recommend you watch before the festival is over this Sunday 28 March.  

Main Competition Features

Contemporary ethnographic cinema. These three films are certainly worth watching, and all share a common theme revealing the personal stories of those affected directly by cultural expectations or political upheaval.

I am Belmaya, 2021, Dir Sue Carpenter and Belmaya Nepali

Belmaya is desperate for independence. Born a dalit in Nepal, orphaned aged 9, barely educated, and trapped in an abusive marriage with a baby daughter, Belmaya, 21, has given up hope of finding happiness. When a chance to train in documentary filmmaking arises, she grasps it. But are her resentful husband and conservative community ready for this? The film follows Belmaya as she grows in confidence and ability, and she turns from subject to co-director of her story. In an inspirational and moving tale of rebellion, courage and hope, shot over five years, Belmaya battles to take charge of her story.

The Two Lives of Li Ermao, 2019, Dir Jia Yuchuan

Filmed over 17 years across Southern China, this remarkable film is an intimate and heart-wrenching portrait of Li Ermao, a transgender migrant worker, who performs in clubs looking for love and acceptance. Living as a “ladyboy” with a string of boyfriends, she faces repeated encounters of prejudice and aggression with equal measures of resilience and vulnerability. With a flair for the dramatic and her budding career as a popstar, Ermao’s story takes many dramatic twists and surprising turns as she moves between the urban and the rural, searching for identity and fighting for a better life.

Ayouni, 2020, Dir Yasmin Fedda

Bassel was a successful open source developer and hacker in Damascus. Paolo was a well-known priest based in Mar Musa monastery. Both men were active in the 2011 Syrian revolution, and witnesses to crimes before they were forcibly disappeared. This film follows these two high-profile figures of the Syrian revolution through their family members, Noura and Machi, as they search for their loved ones. Faced with the limbo of an overwhelming absence of information, hope is the only thing they have to hold on to. ‘Ayouni’ is a deeply resonant Arabic term of endearment – meaning ‘my eyes’ and understood as ‘my love’. Filmed over six years and across multiple countries in search of answers, Ayouni is an attempt to give numbers faces, to give silence a voice, and to make the invisible undeniably visible.


There are 13 shorts collections as part of the festival and we found these great films within them. Each one gives a glimpse into a day in the life of their protagonists.

Fathima the Oracle, 2020, Dir Geleck Palsang – as part of Shorts 2 – Women, empowerment and religion

“A young Muslim girl from a small village in northern India is possessed by a Buddhist deity. As she becomes a recognized medium, she struggles to balance her personal life with her new calling. Can she continue to be a medium for a Buddhist deity to help people in need of both spiritual and mundane guidance in their lives? Will her future husband and in-laws accept her embrace of two religions?”

From There to Here, 2019, Dir Teo Qi Yu – as part of Shorts 4: Migration at the crossroads

The film is an intimate documentary creating a portrait of grandfather through a series of anecdotes by people from different phases from his life. It follows him towards the end of his life as his last wishes is to have his body returned home.

Shorts10: Environmental crisis, the entire sequence of three films, all hailing from parts of Asia:

  • Mountain of Trash, 2020, Dir Primrin Puarat

As the provincial capital of Chonburi has become a central part of the growth of the Thai economy, a growing environmental catastrophe of waste has followed in its wake. An enormous trash mountain now looms large over the locals of Beung District. More than municipal waste this trash mountain also holds buried secrets that are far worse than its notorious stench stretching across several kilometres.

  • The People Next to Coal Power Plant, 2019, Dir Hyweon Choi

Vegetable crops are contaminated, fish have disappeared, illness is rife. Life in the shadow of a Korean coal power plant is difficult, but the locals have no choice but to struggle on nonetheless.

  • Don’t Let the sunny weather fool you, 2019, Dir Guusje Meeuwissen

The everyday lives of a farmer and a fisherman in the Philippines, and their capacity to adapt to a changing natural environment and climate.

Werbner Award

In true ethnographic form, these films are ‘fly on the wall’ style documentaries, with extensive fieldwork, they give us a glimpse into dying cultural traditions and lost lands. They remain important documents of our world.

A New Era, 2019, Dir Boris Svatrzman

In 2008, local authorities evicted 2,000 villagers from Guanzhou, a river island in Southern China, to make way for new urban planning projects. In spite of the demolition of their houses and police pressure, a handful of inhabitants returned to the island. For seven years, Boris Svartzman filmed their battle to save their ancestral land, from the ruins of the village where nature is slowly reasserting itself, to the worksites of the mega city which inexorably advances towards them. Will they share the same fate of five million Chinese peasants expropriated yearly?

Broken Gods, 2019, Dir Dakxinkumar Bajrange (Chhara) and Alice Tilche

Set among the Rathava and Bhil Adivasi communities of western India, Broken Gods documents the social impact of Hindu religious evangelism among India’s Indigenous groups. As Indigenous people join Hindu religious sects, their old gods are literally becoming broken – devotional mural paintings are being whitewashed from homes, and the earthen figurines in honour of village gods and ancestors are being left to fall apart. While for those who convert, joining a Hindu sect offers the allure of a better life, those who continue to follow their old ways have been ostracized by their communities. Their broken gods have lost the power to protect them from illness and scarcity.

Death of the One Who Knows, 2020, Dir Dana Rappoport

In the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi (Indonesia), Lumbaa is one of the last masters of ritual speech. After his forced conversion to Pentecostalism, he is compelled to stop all his ritual activity and oratory. Concerned by the disappearance of “those who know”, a young Catholic priest named Yans Sulo sets out in search of the society’s ancient oral genres, seeking to invent new forms that would keep them alive. The two men meet, but it is too late. By recounting the life and death of Lumbaa, the film shows how the intrusion of a world religion disrupts a Southeast Asian society.


– Compiled by Chelsea Pettitt, Head of Arts, Bagri Foundation

Image credit: Film still from ‘A New Era’, 2019, Dir Boris Svartzman.

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