By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The new Seattle South Asian Film Festival, put on by the Tasveer organization, will be running from Oct. 31 to Nov. 9. Festival director Rita Meher took some questions over e-mail.
NWAW: Please describe your childhood adolescence in Odissa, India. What were your favorite memories of growing up? How does Odissa compare and contrast to other places in India?
Rita Meher: I actually grew up all over India, barely staying in one place, not longer than four years at a time. My last years in India were spent in New Delhi due to school and work. My favorite memories were traveling on a two-day train journey ride to Odissa from wherever we lived at the moment, having chai with my family every morning, crouching on the floor, and having dinner, too. I miss authentic Indian food on the street, so very cheap, and also the fact that you can buy anything on the street. I also miss all the people, and all the many festival celebrations.
NWAW: When did you come to live in Seattle? How have your impressions of the city changed over time?
Meher: I came to live in Seattle in the fall of 1997, after living in Japan for some time. I lived in seven or eight different neighborhoods of Seattle, all great – busy and bustling. When I first moved here, I didn’t like Seattle or the U.S. I didn’t find it a very fun place to live. I thought Tokyo or New Delhi was more fun. But I have grown to love every day of living here. Coming from living in highly urban cities, I didn’t appreciate the green very much, and I certainly wasn’t a hiking person. But now I love to go for a walk in the woods, and I love all the trees. The city of Seattle is gradually changing all the time. There is always something new to discover.
NWAW: What inspired you to create the Seattle South Asian Film Festival?
Meher: Soon after I became a U.S. citizen, 9-11 happened. Many South Asians in the United States experienced discrimination at that time, and stereotypes that had been hidden came to the surface – often in an ugly way. I had a very difficult personal experience with this. A friend encouraged me to document my experience, so I picked up a camera and made my first-ever short film, “Citizenship 101.” I wanted to find a platform to showcase that film and I couldn’t find a place to show it. My friend and I rented a screen space and set out to tell the stories of South Asians – who we are and who the South Asians are – because there was so much misrepresentation in the mainstream media. The festival became an annual event, and we are now in our ninth year.
NWAW: Who were your early collaborators on the festival? How have people joined in and/or dropped out?
Meher: My dear friend Farah Nousheen is my fellow co-founder of Tasveer and SSAFF. She no longer lives in the Northwest, which limits her involvement with running the festival, but she is still very supportive in her role as an honorary member of our board. I could not have founded Tasveer without her and I still rely on her encouragement very much.
SSAFF has always relied on our incredible corps of volunteers, which continues to grow each year. I am always amazed at their enthusiasm and dedication. They are able to accomplish so much through their organizational and grassroots efforts. This year, we are able for the first time to bring a couple of additional staff members on to support the festival’s marketing efforts. It is a great milestone and we are confident it will pay off as more and more people in the area come to realize the great films and conversations Tasveer brings to this region. And of course, we couldn’t do without our community partners, who help us get the word out and provide cash and in-kind sponsorships.
NWAW: What is significantly different about this festival, over previous festivals?
Meher: By far, we received more submissions this year than ever before. The number of submissions for 2014 was 100 percent greater than in 2013. The quality of submissions also continues to grow. Sometimes a theme emerges from among the films, and this year, the common thread was clearly a theme of daring. Film after film tells the stories of people who defy their circumstances to pursue their dreams – whether that is shedding the roles imposed by caste and gaining education (“Fandry”), leaving behind a life of crime for a life of promise (“Titli”), marrying one’s true love (“Soongava: Dance of the Orchids”), following a screenwriter’s dream to the doorsteps of Bollywood (“Sulemani Keedea” or “Writers”), or joining in athletic competition despite disabilities (“Goonga Pehelwan”). Our theme this year is stories that dare . . . , and we hope to spur many conversations about the vision, determination, and resilience we see in our main characters’ lives, whether in narrative films or documentaries.
NWAW: Please describe four or five of your favorite titles from this year. What were your first impressions of them, where do they come from, and are they similar/different?
Meher: It’s really hard to choose favorites! “The World of Goopi and Bagha” is a delightful children’s film that every Indian kid will recognize because we grew up with this story of two wandering musicians. It’s animated and very funny – a very joyful tale. This film made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to thrill audiences young and old alike at the world-renowned festivals in Busan, Dubai, and Mumbai.
“With You, Without You” is the first Sri Lankan film I have seen in a long time that is not a war story. Because of the terrible civil war that lasted over 25 years, the narratives coming out of that country have consistently been concerned primarily with conflict. Now, we see this beautiful love story that does not ignore the war, but lets it paint the characters in a realistic way. In addition, we are incredibly honored to have director Prasanna Withanage, Sri Lanka’s veteran statesman of cinema, joining us for the final weekend of our festival. He will be presented with the Tasveer Emerald Award during our closing night reception in recognition of his incredible achievements and advancement to Sri Lankan film.
We have a remarkable number of LGBTQ-related films this year, which is noteworthy in and on itself — and the timing makes it even more so. With a late-2013 decision of the Supreme Court of India, homosexuality is now practically illegal in that country. South Asians around the world are divided on the issue, but SSAFF takes a stand by presenting stories from South Asia about people of all sexual orientations. “Soongava: Dance of the Orchids,” the first-ever Nepali lesbian feature film, was that nation’s submission to the 2013 Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.
“In Between Days” is an Indian film about two young transgender friends and the methods they employ to get by from day to day on the difficult streets of Kolkata. “Frangipani,” another Sri Lankan film, displays through a love triangle in a sleepy village the humanity of all people, regardless of sexual orientation – their ability to laugh and cry, and to love.
We also have an amazing multi-award winning short film that will be featured among others at our Opening Night Gala on Friday, Oct. 31. “Jaya” is based on the true story of a young woman who dresses like a boy in order to survive on the streets of Mumbai. It was a semi-finalist for the Student Academy Awards and has been a finalist and winner for many other student film awards.
NWAW: What are the plans for the Tasveer organization in the immediate future?
Meher: In addition to the SSAFF, which is held each autumn, Tasveer continues to present Aaina, a South Asian women’s focus arts festival, and the South Asian International Documentary Festival (SAID) each spring. Aaina 2015 will be our 10th annual celebration. Once again, we will feature a program called Yoni Ki Baat, a kind of South Asian version of the Vagina Monologues, which always sells out well in advance. SAID 2015 will be our third annual celebration and we look forward to inspiring more deep conversations and inquiry into the state of our world.
As always, the mission of Tasveer remains “to curate thought-provoking artistic work of South Asians through films, forums, visual art, and performances that engage and empower the community.” (end)
For more information, visit http://ssaff.tasveer.org/2014/.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.