A documentary about the fraught relationship between elephants and humans in agricultural India. A feature film about a young girl’s suicide. A short about Islamophobia. These are part of the varied–in genre and subject matter–offerings of the sixth annual DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF), which will take place from Sept. 8 to 10 on Montgomery College’s Rockville Campus.
In addition to its curated screening program of features, documentaries and shorts, the festival hosts media presentations, retrospectives and special tributes. Post-screening discussions, industry panels and networking events are targeted to both professionals and film enthusiasts.
“DCSAFF provides filmmakers with the opportunity to reach out to a potential 600,000 South Asians living in the tristate area of D.C., Maryland and Virginia,” said Manoj Singh, the force behind the festival. He is executive director of the festival’s hosting organization, the nonprofit DC South Asian Arts Council.
In an area rich in cinematic festivals–including FilmFest DC, DC Short Films Fest, DC Black Film Festival and DC Independent Film Festival–the DC South Asian Film Festival is a relative “newbie.” DCSAFF emerged only in 2012.
“But it is already known in D.C. and has a niche, which is independent, award-winning films from South Asian countries or from South Asians living elsewhere,” said Singh. “That includes stories about the immigration issue.”
An IT consultant by trade, Singh said he has always had a passion for the arts. A member of the Actors Center in D.C., he has performed in plays and, with his wife, festival director Geeta Anand Singh, launched Ceasar Productions, a company that hosts South Asian theater, music, film and book-reading events.
Initially, DCSAFF contained only alternative cinema from India and Pakistan. That mandate has expanded to include work from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Some of the films are in English, but all have English subtitles.
Echoing other film festivals, DCSAFF features a red carpet as well as formal opening and closing night galas. Film stars Zeenat Aman, Adil Hussain and Tannishtha Chatterjee will make appearances.
For the past two years, Montgomery College has been a sponsoring partner for the film festival; this year, it is the sole venue. The festival’s diverse nature ties in well with the student body of Montgomery College, with students coming from more than 180 countries, said Debra Fyodorov, theater manager of the college’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, where the films will be screened.
Some student-created short films have will be presented before the festival’s featured films, added Kimberly Kelly, vice president and provost for Montgomery College’s Rockville Campus. The college provides the film festival not only with a facility, but also with support and equipment, and helps organize the workshops and talkbacks. And, Kelly said, it is proud to “offer the community something that is culturally distinctive.”
Over the years, the South Asian film festival has grown in some subtle ways, Fyodorov said. “We’ve added technological changes–such as screening in DCP format and encrypted computer files (for further protection).”
After a call by Montgomery College for volunteers to offer workshops during the festival, Joanne Carl jumped on board. For the past 12 years, she has been teaching and upgrading the TV/Radio/Digital Media curriculum at the college. Calling herself “as much a production manager as a filmmaker,” Carl will lead “From Inception to Invoice,” a workshop about the production process as well as the aesthetics of making movies. With an audience expected to include experienced filmmakers as well as those who “just love films,” Carl plans to gear the workshop to various skills levels. “I want to give those who attend real-world experience. There’s a business side to everything creative,” she said.
Thomas Grant, an assistant professor of journalism at Georgia’s Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, is one of the filmmakers in the 2017 festival. He co-created the documentary “Elephants in the Coffee” with professional filmmaker D.K. Bhaskar.
Winning several awards, including best documentary at the Doc Sunback Film Festival earlier this year and featured in several other film festivals as well, “Elephants” examines the conflict between coffee farmers and endangered elephants in South India.
“The areas where farmers grew the most coffee were also the ones where half the wild elephants came to live,” said Grant. “Elephants were killing farmers, and people were killing elephants, but the government has severe restrictions as to what can be done with elephants.”
Farmers have been putting the elephants into cages, which isn’t always effective or humane. Grant is hoping the documentary will spark better ways–such as building an elephant-education center and encouraging coexistence between the species.
Saila Kariat has lived in many places, including India, the United States and Canada, but considers herself Indian. She is very interested in the arts, especially film, but earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and has worked at a start-up company in Silicon Valley. Now a full-time filmmaker with her own company, Wavefront Productions, Kariat has written and directed her first feature film, “The Valley.”
“The movie is about an Indian American entrepreneur living in Silicon Valley who is wealthy by all external standards,” Kariat explained. “One daughter is in medical school. The other commits suicide in her first college semester, and he wants to find out why.”
The fact that the young woman was depressed is “no reason” for her father, because, Kariat said, “there’s no place for weakness in his universe. So, he looks for another explanation. I think the story is a commentary on modern society and our values.”
Although the plot is fictional, one school in Silicon Valley has four times the national average rate of suicide, Kariat noted.
“The Valley” won numerous awards in the Long Island Film Festival, and Kariat was nominated as “Best Emerging Film Director.”
In the short film “Clash of Morality,” Vinay Pujara, a Hindu born in Mumbai, confronts the phenomenon of people in the United States and around the world being increasingly “scared” of Muslims. “I had the idea of uniting against hate, bringing diverse people together in peace and love, regardless of race, color or religion,” Pujara said. “I’m an optimist.”
Pujara originally was an assistant director in Bollywood. Since studying at New York University, he has made nine short films and become a full-time writer, producer, writer and director with his own production company, Sun Om Productions.
The DC South Asian Film Festival will take place Sept. 8 through 10 at Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. Tickets can be purchased at www.montgomerycollege.edu/pac; prices vary according to the package. The sale for Festival Passes ends Aug. 31. For information about the festival, visit www.dcsaff.com. Thinking ahead to submitting films for next year? Visit www.filmfreeway.com.