A curious girl undone by a simple straw, a maid with chess chops, a 93-year-old sex columnist who’s direct, funny and uncannily insightful. Just a few of the characters moviegoers met at this year’s Indie Meme Film Festival in Austin.
The weekend-long event was the third annual, and featured 16 films. You might say the stories are the mission, but officially the mission is to promote socially relevant films from South Asia. Speaking before the theater audience on premiere night Gita Lal, Indie Meme board advisor told the crowd, “The Asian community in Austin is growing … a vibrant cultural scene … yet … South Asian culture is underrepresented.” Move over Bollywood. You’re good, but independent shorts, features and documentaries are the tale here.
Tripti Bhatnager and Alka Bhanot co-founded the fest, partners in cinema you might say. “Every year Alka and I feel like we’re throwing a big Indian wedding,” Bhatnager says, with a smile. Let’s be honest, putting together a weekend long festival complete with films, Q and A with filmmakers both in person and over Skype, a red carpet and post party, may rival any wedding! Bhanot says they didn’t want to create an event that mimicked other established events, or set goals others reached for, they wanted Austin’s event to reflect, “us,” to reflect Austin.
Now, let’s talk movies. The opening night film, ‘Turup,’ which means ‘Checkmate,’ followed a masterful household maid named Monica and a community of men obsessed with the game of chess. The feature film is from India. The underlying tale of immigration, feminism, and the caste system, got the audience both laughing and grumbling at the many layers of meaning. There was one particularly poignant moment, when the wealthy female journalist talks about the “risk” she took covering a story, a story that took her to her maid Monica’s neighborhood. It’s a place Monica goes home to every day. The film was put together by a group of creatives called Ektara Collective. As one of the filmmakers pointed out, they saw their own lives reflected on the screen, so it couldn’t be the vision of just one person.
The movies chosen for the festival followed several themes including gay identity, immigration, feminism and, yes, sex. Features and documentaries were generally paired with a short film, and frankly those pairings were pure craft. Consider day two. The short-film ‘Jaalgedi’ (‘The Curious Girl’) was paired with the feature ‘Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain.’ The first Nepalese, the second Tibetan. Each film features a young girl who becomes aware of her world, but not necessarily the most positive parts of it. The first is sweet then bitter. The second leaves you anxious to know more of the history of the mountain village in Tibet.
In ‘Jaalgedi,’ a young girl with a curious spirit, and other children in the isolated village, watch with fascination, chanting “white man,” as two hikers pass through. The men leave trash, or—to the children—treasure. The girl finds a simple, bendy, straw that captures both her imagination and important work time. In ‘Barley Fields’ the photography is spectacular. Imagine a pre-teen girl positioned screen bottom left, long meandering endless road before her, and magnificent mountains in the unreachable distance. At one point her father is taken away and imprisoned. Her friend, a young nun, tells her, “Close your eyes and send him a thought … If you believe he will know.”
Now, take the pairings one step further. Each film pair throughout the festival was matched with a community partner. For example, Girl Forward, an organization supporting refugee girls in Austin, was in the house during the screenings above. The Center for Relationships was represented during the screening of ‘Ask the Sexpert.’
‘Abu,’ which means, ‘Father’ in Urdu, was a crowd favorite and honored with the Audience Choice Award. Filmmaker and film subject Arshad Khan, pointed out that he’s a “Pakistani, gay, Muslim.” When he was growing up in Pakistan, homosexuals were considered sexually deviant. The movie follows his story from childhood in Pakistan to his family’s move to Canada. Khan’s relationship with his abu is complex, particularly as 9/11 strikes. It was after that, he told the audience, he became a filmmaker, “because I had a lot to say.” The relationship with his dad was visualized using mostly old family videos. Khan says, “When you make such a personal story, it becomes a universal story.”
The Indie Meme Film Festival is promoted as tales told about South Asia. They are also stories of humanity, strength, uncertainty and humanness. Maheen Mirza, who helped write ‘Turup,’ underscores that when she said they didn’t want to do a “once upon a time story … Everything in our story is happening now.”
Nancy Miller Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer. Cover photo ‘Ask the Sexpert’ courtesy Coast To Coast Films