Montréal demonstration against Bill 21, April 2019 – Photo by Jody Freeman

 

I am nobody else’s version
of who I am
You cannot set your mind
based on my looks alone
There is no language
that defines me
Do not box me in

Because I am my own

I choose not to be enslaved
by your presumptions,
your sweeping remarks,
your thoughtlessness,
your disregard
By your anger
By your orientalist stare

Because I am my own

Your language
is not neutral,
steeped in prejudice
Your voice is privileged,
harbours rancour
towards me, my race
my colour and my face

Because NOW I am my own
And I shall remain so
My own

 

 

Photo by Rahul Varma

 

Actor, director, playwright, poet, intellectual and activist Habib Tanvir founded Naya Theatre, India’s first professional theatre that brought together tribal and urban artists. Tanvir created an impressive body of plays blending tradition, modernity and tribal creativity with critical consciousness and relevance. He has received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1969), the Padma Shri Award (1983), the Padma Bhushan Award (2002), nine honorary doctorates, and many more national and international awards. 

 

Sometimes it takes just a moment to realize that one is in the presence of greatness. Meeting Habib Tanvir was one such moment.

In 1992, I went to India to visit my parents.  My husband Rahul Varma, who runs Teesri Duniya Theatre in Montréal, had asked me to bring back the script of Habib Tanvir’s play, Jamadarin (The Sweepress). The main premise of the play is that a ‘sweepress’ wishes to enter a temple (whose grounds she sweeps each day) to venerate the deity inside. Despite her devotion to the grounds, the priest does not allow her to enter the temple as she is ‘of lower caste/an outcast.’ She remains on the grounds outside, thinking about and imagining the deity she wishes to worship. As the play proceeds, the sweepress brings five rupees of her hard-earned money and begs the priest to allow her to enter. He succumbs to his greed and allows her the entry, despite his earlier insults and threats based on her being from a lower caste.

The long tradition of the caste system has created huge divides in Indian society, adding the unfair complications of hierarchies in the everyday existence of many. Habib Tanvir wrote this play as a strong criticism of the caste system and to point out the hypocrisy of institutions that are dictated by monetary greed. Jamadarin was banned in certain cities at the time, yet Habib continued to perform it.

When I called Habib to see if I could take the script back with me to Montréal, it was early in the morning. I heard a very calm, deep-drawn voice on the other end. He explained that while he’d very much like to share the play with me, there was no written ‘script’ of this play. His troop was mainly from Chattisgarh (a state in Central India) and its members were largely illiterate. They depended more on the rich oral storytelling tradition that exists in India and in many other parts of the world. He explained that those who acted in this play often improvised the story as they went along.

I was taken aback and felt that I must see it for myself. Without hesitation, he asked me what my plans were for the evening. When he found out that I had none, he invited me to see the show. I took down the address he gave me, in an area of South Delhi I was familiar with, and headed there that evening along with my brother.  I thought I would be going to a theatre and was surprised to find instead several rows of small, government-built houses. One of these was Habib’s home. It was full of books with minimalist, low furniture. The home consisted of two rooms. Habib was working in one of them and the scent of tobacco emanating from his pipe filled the air. In the other, his wife, who apologetically excused herself, was resting.  My brother and I were ushered in by one of his assistants.

Habib looked up as we entered slowly. I remembered him from the movies I had seen, and immediately felt that the camera had well captured his presence. He was all I had witnessed him to be in the movies, small-statured and regal, with a commanding personality. He had an assistant working with him, and after greeting him, I sat down. He continued to smoke his pipe. I felt awkward and kept quiet for the first few minutes so as not to disturb him from the task at hand. He noticed my discomfort and assured me that he was just taking care of finances, mundane matters, and that I should not hesitate in sharing my interests with him.

This was my first meeting with Habib. He was in his 70s at that time, and regardless of his own accomplishments, he showed genuine interest in my life. For the next half hour we spoke about our interests: of politics and the political agendas of governments, of Montréal and theatre, and of people and stories.

My younger brother seemed unsure about what was going on. I had brought him to see a play, but instead we were chatting in the playwright’s home. Habib, reading his body language, asked us if we were ready to see the play. I was surprised at his query and did not quite understand what he meant. He then gestured to his assistant that he could accompany us to the ‘performance site.’

The stage was literally behind his home – a verandah that could not have been more than 14′ x18′ with just two walls and a huge rectangular mat spread out on the floor. On one side of this mat sat three musicians (one on tabla, one on harmonium, one with a percussion instrument), and a singer who would join the chorus as they sang certain parts of the narrative. The play began, and the three main actors performed brilliantly. As they acted, the stars came out and streetlights lit the stage. We soon realized that they were performing just for us!

Photo by Dipti Gupta

In all my life thus far, this was the most magical theatrical experience I had ever had. It was a stellar performance in Hindi and Chattisgarhi, with improvised dialogues punctuated by a few songs that the Jamadarin sang as she went about her day, hoping to be able to see the deity in the temple – without a single lag at any moment during the hour-long performance!

After the riveting show filled with great messages, my brother and I thanked the artists. We learned that they had all come to Delhi with Habib, from the interior of Chattisgarh. Many of them were farmers or had been doing small jobs, but were now being trained by Habib to perform. Their memory was incredible and they could recite several songs and dialogues. They all had dedicated their lives to bringing awareness of diverse issues affecting the downtrodden and the forgotten in a democratic nation. Not only were these actors from rural parts of India, they also varied in age, which made these productions even more dynamic.

After the performance, when we returned to Habib’s living space, I asked him why he had staged the entire show just for my brother and me. He replied, “You were sincerely interested, and for me, an audience of one or a thousand is as important.”

In later years, there were times when Habib’s shows were targets of fundamentalist groups in India and quite often he performed only for the security guards that were left on the premises. His respect for the principle that ‘the show must go on’ was undeniably a commitment to the arts, to politics, to bringing about necessary change.

Habib Tanvir was the director of the Naya Theatre Company, which he founded in 1959. Besides being a director, actor, composer and storyteller, he was also a member of parliament for six years. His work reflected a fusion of traditional and western theatre practices.

After this experience with him in India, my husband and I managed to bring Habib Tanvir to Montréal three times, where he gave workshops with members of Teesri Duniya Theatre. During one of these trips, I asked him what he felt was his driving force toward theatre. He said, “Theatre has the power of performance which can enthral, envelop [and] excite people, draw them in and change their future, impact their way of thinking, and incite them to tell their own stories, in their own language.”

 

 

 

This issue of Serai, “Beyond the Pale” (Vol.31, Issue 3), is one that resonates with me deeply. Hence, I am very happy and honoured to write this editorial. The issue looks to the many changes in cinema across both production and distribution and from big studio films to independents. It also has a special focus on work by and about artists from minority or marginalized communities.

Almost everyone can remember the first film they ever viewed or a film that had a huge impact on their life. My personal journey with cinema began with watching Hindi or regional films on a huge football field in a small town in India. Most of these films were from Bombay (now Mumbai) and were ‘popular mainstream’ films. It was not until I was exposed to documentaries and foreign language cinema in my teens that I began to recognize the power of this form and other national cinemas as well. It was directors like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Anand Patwardhan and Suhasini Mulay, and stars like Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri, who first ended up leaving a mark on my psyche and made me want to study and work in the cinematic field.

During my formative years in India, I rarely watched foreign films in regular theatres. Instead I watched them at special screenings at Alliance Française or the Max Mueller Bhavan/German Centre during my visits to New Delhi. These were almost always in French, German or English. It was later, while studying at Concordia University in Montréal, that I developed a better appreciation of this art form and studied the work of Kurosawa, Pasolini, De Sica, Bergman, Kiarostami, Makmalbaf and others. I became familiar with genres, styles, and auteurs. I came to appreciate the technical genius of filmmakers who were able to create remarkable pieces with the lowest of budgets bringing human conditions and human-interest stories on screen. But I was also aware of the lack of Indigenous and women directors in this cluster of films being taught, the only exception being Alanis Obomsawin.

Despite all the developments of arts in this part of the world, we must be aware that there has been a serious gap of knowledge when it comes to Indigenous issues and stories in Canada. Foreign films are not screened or distributed as they could be. Our theatres in this city continue to screen a majority of Hollywood films. We rarely hear from Indigenous communities or watch global cinema. Here in Montréal, Cinema du Parc, Cinema Politica and other alternative spaces for screenings continue to struggle.

Just in the last decade, there have been many shifts and developments in the form and spectatorship of cinema. People are watching films, television shows, YouTube videos and other media on small handheld devices. They can use the same devices for shooting their own films. Despite these changes, there are very few studies on what most people are watching or enjoying.  Although our engagement and approach to this medium has changed remarkably, challenges in funding, production and distribution continue to affect many in this field. This is particularly true for those from minority or marginalized groups. More recently, the scandals around Weinstein, Ghomeshi,[1] Spacey and others have brought prominence to the inherent institutional misogyny and gender biases within the media industry. Concurrent reckonings with both gender and racial disparities are just the beginning of a long path that we all will be traveling on in the next few years.

Having taught for over seventeen years at both Dawson College and Concordia University, I realize how fortunate I am to not only be exposed to this world but also to work in it. I do, however, recognize that the number of students who come to the discipline of cinema from diverse ethnic or diaspora communities is still very low. In all these years, I have had exactly five students from South Asian backgrounds in our production classes at Dawson, and only one whose parents were extremely supportive of their choice. This leads me to understand a larger overarching issue of how arts are perceived by many. Particularly in the case of parents who migrate to Canada for better lives, aspirations for children are almost always for professions that can provide stable livelihoods. The arts continue to be associated with struggle and have an aura of instability associated with them. Most people appreciate the arts; in fact, it is often art that sustains the soul. However, the majority of institutions devote far more funding to courses in technical and scientific fields. This leads to a struggle for artists to be supported, whether by family or academic institutions. Only a small group of artists end up managing to achieve real visibility or success.

This issue of Serai weaves together a variety of pieces that address just these questions, and push us to look at several important issues and journeys that take us “Beyond the Pale.” It continues in Serai’s tradition of choosing themes that pose challenging and provocative questions to fill in gaps and redress exclusions, exposing a number of practices and attitudes that continue to be deplorable and unacceptable in our society, through the lens of cinema.

Diana Goldberg’s feature essay on three Mexican films (La Negrada, Sueño en otro idioma and El Violin), describes forms of exclusion among marginalized Indigenous populations and Mexicans of African descent. She raises questions about loyalty to a community vs. loyalty to a nation state, and asks: Who has the right to narrate local history? What is meant by historical identity? How does a community deal with the loss of a language, the denial of racism?

Sharon Bourke reflects on Julie Dash’s groundbreaking 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, which explores the memories of cultural practices and traditions kept alive by Gullah women who are members of the Peazant family living on an isolated sea island with little or no contact with others. “In making her film, Julie Dash has acted as one of the griots, traditional storytellers of her culture, narrating through cinematic poetry as a way to preserve history in the face of change.”  Julie Dash also wrote a book about the experience of making her film in the face of daunting obstacles. “I always knew I wanted to make a film about African American women. To tell stories that had not been told. To show images of our lives that had not been seen…”

Jody Freeman’s interview with Catherine Bainbridge and Ernest Webb (Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World) is teeming with reflections on respectful collaboration, and looks at their work dating back more than twenty-five years in bringing Indigenous perspectives to the fore.

Kerry McElroy’s piece situates the #metoo movement historically and in various parts of the world by reflecting on the experiences of women performance artists of all kinds, including courtesans. She makes an impassioned appeal to record the memories of surviving elders as a way of preserving women’s stories and history.

In an insightful critique of Spike Lee’s recent film BlacKkKlansman (the story of an African American policeman infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s), Rana Bose challenges any caricaturing of the civil rights movement and highlights its dignity and organizational strengths.

Karan Singh’s article exposes the slow yet continual homogenization of cultural representation in South Asian cinema, spearheaded by Bollywood. The essay contextualizes how the current political climate in India, led by the Hindu right, has created a framework that continues to support and benefit from a doctored image of India’s cultural and national identity.

Writer and filmmaker Jesse Noah Klein, and writer and editor Durga Chew-Bose reflect on John Cassavetes’ 1971 film Minnie and Moskowitz, which brought them together many years ago and which they’ve since returned to. Their reflections take us on a journey with them on love—first love—relationships, and romantic comedies. It is a poignant piece about hope and letting people in.

In a series of photographs, Anne Bruneau depicts her urban environment and reflects on the symbolic significance of the colours red, blue and white in Montréal.

My own contribution to this issue is a short review of Pallavi Somusetty’s film Escaping Agra, which was shown as part of the diaspora panel for the 2017 edition of the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal. The film will soon be circulated in schools and colleges in North America. I hope that many will view it and gain an understanding of how gender and sexuality issues manifest for youth from families who do not accept them.

Also, as this issue was taking shape, Cinema Politica celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in Montréal. Raphael Cohen and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct a short interview with Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton, co-founders of the organization, who have been so instrumental in screening truth to power over two decades. A video of our interview is included in this issue.

Finally, look out for Mirella Bontempo’s in-depth analysis of films shown at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Her piece will be added to the issue in the next few weeks.

 

 

The South Asian Film Festival will be opening in Montréal October 26-28 and November 2-4, 2018. As the current director of the festival, I, along with a wonderful team, have attempted to bring forward a strong selection of films from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. This is the festival’s eighth year in this city. In addition to film screenings, we offer panel discussions with invited experts. The festival affords film enthusiasts the opportunity to have an engaged discussion after each screening with the filmmaker, film experts and the audience. We are also going to present a diaspora panel slated for November 3, in which filmmakers will be present to share their work with the audience. The festival is our attempt to expose a variety of issues and films from South Asia. It seeks to encourage younger participants to consider entering into cinematic fields – imagining and creating films that tell their stories and speak to their issues. I sincerely hope that many who are reading this issue will attend the festival and help us spread the word around the community at large. For more information, please visit the website: https://www.saffm.centrekabir.com/en/

I thank all the writers who have contributed to this issue and the editorial team – Rana Bose, Lisa Foster, Jody Freeman, Nilambri Ghai and Maya Khankhoje – for guiding me through this issue. Thank you for all your support.

Enjoy the issue!

 

 

[1] Jian Ghomeshi was a CBC radio host from 2007 to 2014. In 2014-2015, Ghomeshi was the subject of allegations of sexual harassment or assault and was later arrested. In 2016, he was acquitted of all charges.

 

 

 

As Cinema Politica turns 15 in Montréal, Dipti Gupta and Raphael Cohen-Demers interview co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton to walk us through their accomplishments, challenges and vision.

 

“If it’s still just a few profit-driven corporations that control all the platforms, venues and channels, then the radical work, the work that is process-oriented and not product-oriented, the work that is about community and not about the market, then those works are still going to be pushed out, and that’s definitely the case in Canada. It’s not even just the radical edges, it’s actually documentary as a whole, struggling to find venues, platforms and channels whether on television, online, anywhere.”

 

“One of the biggest problems for documentary in Canada is that people really cannot survive off of making documentary films. Documentary filmmakers as well as producers have a really hard time breaking even, have a really hard time sustaining a career dedicated to that noble profession. Many young people that we know resort to corporate jobs and non-sustainable gigs and different types of work that have nothing to do with documentary in order to be able to subsidize and fund, even self-fund, a lot of the work that they are doing.”

 

“Another enduring problem that is being addressed but has a long way to go is that the documentary financers and people making decisions around curating and what plays/what doesn’t, what gets in the festivals/what doesn’t, what gets funded, largely still do not reflect the diversity of the audiences and the subjects of the films.”

 

“Currently there’s a big move towards gender parity… but gender parity is not enough. There needs to be a lot more work done in terms of representation and participation that is truly reflective of the body of media makers and documentary makers.”

 

“Good documentary filmmaking is, for us, about building reciprocal, equitable relationships that are framed around equitable social justice.”

 

 

 

 

 

[Note: The film was featured in the diaspora panel at the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal (October 2017) and generated a dynamic discussion, with the director in attendance.]

  

“Egalitarianism isn’t always a by-product of education and upbringing.”[1] This thought kept surfacing as I watched Pallavi Somusetty’s film Escaping Agra. The 23-minute short documentary allows us to view the challenges that Naveen Bhat faces to simply live a life of dignity – a basic human right for all.

From the outset, the title of the film intrigued me. Having grown up in India, I was familiar with a phrase often used by people for anyone acting a little crazy: “You will end up in Agra’s asylum/loony bin!” I therefore came to associate Agra with its huge mental asylum even though the city is most known for its beautiful mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, a symbol of eternal love. The title offers viewers multiple levels of interpretation as they engage with this work. In the film, the city becomes a scary confinement for Naveen. What does one do when their own family thinks they are crazy?[2] Where do they find solace?

The film is a bold portrayal of Naveen’s strength in overcoming various obstacles to express their sexual orientation. I was struck by the confidence of this young person who, at the age of five, immigrated with their parents to the west. Naveen is later taken back to India by their parents under the pretext that their grandmother is sick. All this occurs when Naveen is of legal age. Naveen is detained in their home in Agra once the family learns of their sexual orientation and thinks “treatment” is necessary! In the course of the film, we are introduced to a queer feminist activist, Rituparna Borah, who helps Naveen escape and gives them house protection in India. During that time there were threats, and the police detained some of the activists for no reason other than the fact that they were not straight.

 

 

The film documents Naveen Bhat’s point of view interspersed with some exchanges with Madi Kuss (Naveen’s friend and partner) and their family. It is clear that Naveen has not had any positive parental figures, and parenting was introduced to them more through an authoritarian method than a relationship where one could find support and strength.

The exchanges with Madi Kuss’ parents provide insight into how conversations can and should be held when one is trying to understand unfamiliar issues. Madi Kuss’s parents politely ask about the various terms used in relation to gender constructs, allowing Naveen to elaborate on their understanding of gender and their body. The scene towards the end where Naveen goes through medical treatment is captured very poignantly.

In 23 minutes, Pallavi Somusetty unravels the challenges that this young person faces in battling their parents in and out of court in India, and shows how Naveen later pieces a life together in California. I see this film as an engaging tool that can be used to pique people’s interest in such struggles, whether or not they’re sure of their beliefs, to start important dialogues and discussion.

At the end of the film, we learn that the mother had not agreed to provide any interviews with the filmmaker and are left wondering about her stance and her own journey. I also wondered why Naveen Bhat mentions meetings with their mother and siblings, but not with their father.

Somusetty succeeds in capturing a range of emotions felt by Naveen, their friend and their family, but unfortunately doesn’t manage to bring Naveen’s parents and family members on camera. This leaves viewers with unanswered questions and unresolved concerns.

As I wrote this review, Article 377 of the Indian penal code that criminalized same-sex activities in India was finally scrapped by the Supreme Court, cracking open one of the legal barriers against those who felt trapped within their own country. But cases such as Naveen’s remind us that bigotry and prejudice still prevail in many societies.  We need to remember what Naveen impresses upon us: “there is no wrong way to have a body – I know my body cannot be wrong.”

 

 

 

 

 

[1] From a quote by Suprateek Chatterjeein the article, “A crisis of Indian Masculinity”(Hindustan Times, July 22, 2012).    https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/a-crisis-of-indian-masculinity/story-a2eqtNekCs515i5TaG2mEL.html

[2] Editorial note: the film’s main character, Naveen, is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.

 

 

The South Asian Film Festival of Montréal (SAFFM), launched by the Kabir Cultural Centre in 2011, has grown year by year in scope and reach. This year it runs over two weekends: October 27-29 and November 3-5.

http://www.saffm.centrekabir.com/en/

 

Veena Gokhale spoke to Dipti Gupta, member of the programming committee. Gupta teaches at Dawson College in the Department of Cinema and Communications. She curated the SAFFM with Karan Singh, a Montréal-based writer and filmmaker.

 

V.G.   The films chosen for this year look really interesting and innovative, taking on various issues. They include short films and feature-length movies. What, for you, are the highlights?

D.G.   We have a diaspora panel with four Montréal-based, South Asian filmmakers (Eisha Marjara, Arshad Khan, Karan Singh and Ameesha Joshi) and one from San Francisco (Pallavi Somusetty). Our aim is to encourage and engage with the diaspora filmmakers, and start the conversation on the kinds of films they have been making, what more can be made, and the stories that are part of this community. I hope we learn more about their journey.

We are celebrating the work of Ali Kazimi, a distinguished filmmaker based in Toronto who has made some very important documentaries. We will chronicle his work and show one of his latest films – Random Acts of Legacy.

We have award-winning films, and films that are premiere presentations in Canada. The wide range of stories include refugee camp uncertainties and longings in Northern Pakistan in A Walnut Tree, observations on the Maoist movement in the mountains of Nepal in Kalo Pothi, deep insight into North American immigration in From the Land of Gandhi, and a film that celebrates colour but is shot in pristine black and white, A Billion Colour Story. Also on the program are films like A Ballad of Maladies, which captures the struggles of artists and their survival in highly militarized Kashmir, and Mukti Bhavan (Hotel Salvation), a comedy about family and relationships, the rigidity of religion and the demands of blind belief, while debating life and death.

Some of the Festival’s bolder films include Lipstick Under My Burkha, the story of four women who attempt secret acts of rebellion to break the monotony of their lives. The film attempts to shift the male gaze in cinema and was censored for several months, finally receiving clearance from the Censor Board in India. There are also films sponsored by Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival’s Global Initiative, focusing on LGBTQ issues in and around South Asian communities: Transindia, Normalcy and Any Other Day, along with Escaping Agra.

 

V.G.   I noticed quite a few LGBTQ films featured this year. Can you speak about them? Was it a conscious choice to include LGBTQ films?

D.G.   I beg to disagree. Of the total 19 screenings, we have only 3 short films that speak to LGBTQ issues. Our aim is to bring in a variety of issues, and we like to explore themes that are underrepresented or have had no visibility in the past years. There are several artists/filmmakers in South Asia who are focusing on marginal communities and identities that had been taboo in the past, including LGBTQ, migrants’ stories and stories of people who have not been part of the mainstream. If you look at our program, you will see a lot of these voices represented.

 

V.G.   One of the films you are opening with is Manto. You are screening an extract from this bio-pic about the Indo-Pakistani author Saadat Hasan Manto. He is a towering figure in South Asia, but audiences here may not know him. Could you tell us who he was and why he is important?

D.G.   I read Sadat Hasan Manto, an Indo-Pakistani writer and playwright, during my tweens and was fascinated by the strength of his writing. His story “Toba Tek Singh” still resonates in my psyche. Here, the author addresses the fact that in 1947, when India and Pakistan became independent, the people in both these nations continued to remain slaves to prejudice, religious fanaticism, barbaric acts and inhumanity. Sadly, to this day, we are embroiled in the same tensions and we witness this everywhere.

When I heard that Nandita Das was making a film on Manto, I was intrigued and wrote to her and her company. They immediately replied and sent us the short clip that we are presenting. We hope to show the full-length feature film next year.

Manto is a statement and represents an ethos. Today, in a world where free speech has become a privilege and is no longer a basic right, Manto speaks to the core of this debate. Thus we hope to start our festival introducing this idea to our community members. SAFFM would like to be a forum where free speech is celebrated and encouraged.

 

V.G.   The second film on the opening night is the Cannes prize-winning Cinema Travellers, described as “a journey with the traveling cinemas of India.” You say on your website that distinguished filmmaker Rock Demers will be in attendance. What’s the link between the film and Demers?

D.G.   We are very fortunate to have Rock Demers inaugurate our festival and do the talkback for Cinema Travellers. It is a story about exhibiting films in the remote villages in India where there is no access to theatre or cable television, and people watch films once a year!

Rock is an important producer of this province and of this country, and has been a huge fan and supporter of films from India. I also think that he knows more about Indian cinema than many people from India in Montréal.

In 1999, Rock produced Hathi (Elephant) directed by Philippe Gautier. When I saw that film, I was spellbound by the beautiful story of a mahout and his elephant. It was the premiere, and Rock talked about his love for India and Indian films. This registered with me, and I got to know him through some of my connections in the field.

Through the years, we have had several exchanges with Rock and learnt from him. Karan and I interviewed him in 2013 for our short film At Home in the World, where he talks about the kind of films he has watched from India, and their directors.

We felt that Rock would be the best person to talk about Cinema Travellers, given his background as a producer in Québec and the struggles he has gone through to circulate the work he has produced.

 

V.G.   There are quite a few films by women film directors, and not all of them by middle-class women, as one would expect. It was heartening to note, for example, that there is a film by Manasi Deodhar, who lives in a small village in Maharashtra. Do you think it’s easier now for women to make films in South Asia?

D.G.   Today, with changing technologies and greater awareness, I hope that the landscape is changing, and we have seen this. I agree that people in cities had/have more access, but I believe that there is strength in every sector, and everyone has a story. Today, a lot is being done on extremely low budgets. We received this film through a FilmFreeway submission.[1] This is a perfect platform for everyone to submit, and creates a kind of a level playing field. Both Karan and I choose offbeat themes and are keen to introduce filmmakers who are not that well known.

 

V.G.   You are taking some of the films to Chicoutimi this year. How did that come about? I would imagine most of the films are subtitled only in English. Would this be a problem to taking the festival around in Québec?

D.G.   Kabir Centre is always willing to explore presenting events in other cities in Québec. For this we need a local partner who can take care of the logistics and who can mobilize an audience. In Chicoutimi, we have Bibliothèques de Saguenay in that role, and this is the reason why we have been able to think of taking a mini-version of the Festival there.

French subtitles are very desirable for a location such as Chicoutimi, and we are planning to take some movies that already have French subtitles.

V.G.   You decided to charge an entrance fee this year, which I think is a good idea. What was the reason for this change?

D.G.   Running a festival such as SAFF Montréal involves a lot of expenses. In addition to resources that can be allotted from Kabir Centre’s own reserves, the board members are exploring the help that can be obtained from various funding agencies, donors in the community and local businesses. Ticket revenues are a small part of the solution needed for making the Festival financially viable.

 

V.G.   There is a lot of emphasis on after-film screening discussions at SAFFM. Why is that?

D.G.   I have always believed that any art form – cinema, theatre, painting, literature, mainstream or underground – only comes to its fruition after one shares it, discusses it. It is in the multiple interpretations and conversations that we reach the depth of its true expression. We hope that the talkbacks with the audience, with the filmmakers in attendance, with film scholars also present can push the conversations above and beyond what we see on screen. Festivals such as ours enliven local life. They are an attempt to start multiple dialogues, create understanding and build bridges across communities.

 

V.G.   How would you describe the evolution of SAFFM?

D.G.   Festivals always take time to take shape, and funding is always a challenge. It is never easy to find a permanent place to screen the films, procure the rights for them and invite filmmakers. This takes a lot of time and effort. Karan and I have been working on this for over 10 months.

Before 2011, Kabir Centre used to screen interesting movies as part of its film club. The decision to organize the screenings into a festival format was taken in 2011 in the context of the Year of India in Canada. In the initial years, the Indian High Commission helped us with copies of films that they had and also with auditorium rental. As the choice for the films expanded beyond old classics or current Bollywood films, we stopped approaching them.
Some years we have had a specific theme. For example, in 2011, we presented three films based on Rabindranath Tagore’s writings, as it was his 150th birth anniversary. In 2012, the theme was “Through a woman’s lens;” in 2013, “100 years of Indian Cinema;” and so on. In 2016, for the first time we invited submissions from independent filmmakers through web-based FilmFreeway, so our presentation was a combination of submitted and invited films. In 2017, we are continuing the same format, and have added awards for the best short and best feature films.

With time our vision has strengthened, and we have a better idea of what we wish to bring to the Montréal audience. Our attempt is to get a wide range of films, and each year we are slowly trying to reach more filmmakers.

The Festival is meant to be a window into the dynamic world of cinema from South Asia. South Asian cinema is not homogenous, and is in many languages. I often see that the language aspect is lost in translation, and the subtitles do not do justice. This is always a challenge during programming. We hope that as the festival strengthens, we will be able to attract more representatives who speak multiple South Asian languages.

SAFFM is a platform for artists to not only submit their work, but also be present in person. We have guest filmmakers who are travelling from South Asia and other parts of the world to join us this year for audience talkbacks and panel discussions. Our attempt is to encourage intercultural dialogue through our choice of films.

 

[1] https://filmfreeway.com/