The Seattle South-Asian Film Festival (SSAFF) celebrates its seventh year in 2011, with three days of film screenings and special events to be held at the Seattle Center (October 7-9). To accommodate a growing fan base, the 2011 festival features new venues, an expanding diversity of films, and an increased focus on local filmmakers. SSAFF’s mission, however, to engage and educate the Seattle community about South Asian cultures, remains the same.
“I think the world is getting closer and smaller, but a distance will still exist unless you really interact with people from other cultures,” says Shanthala Mudegowda, SSAFF spokesperson.
Formerly known as the Independent South-Asian Film Festival, SSAFF focuses on countries often underrepresented in local cinema. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are the festival's primary countries, but SSAFF also includes bordering countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet.
“South Asia is more of a subcontinent than just a few countries. There is so much diversity,” says Mudegowda, explaining SSAFF’s sense of inclusiveness. They estimate that there are 150,000 residents of South Asian heritage living in the Puget Sound region.
“We’re trying to bring some attention to South Asian issues, how the area is perceived and to address the needs of what has become a pretty big, local South Asian community,” says Mudegowda.
Nadeem Uddin is a partial sponsor of SSAFF and a Seattle-based filmmaker debuting his documentary, Sidi Goma: An African Odyssey in India. Born in Bhopal, India, he credits part of SSAFF’s growing success to Seattle’s unique demographics.
“There is an energy for multicultural events in Seattle,” says Uddin. “We have corporations here that bring a major workforce from South Asia. Microsoft, Amazon, a lot of businesses in biotech - they all have a lot of Indians and South Asians working for them. Seattle is an interesting blend.”
Tasveer and South Asian Filmmaking
Tasveer, a nonprofit organization, plans SSAFF and Aaina, a multimedia festival focused on South Asian women held annually in the spring. Rita Meher, SSAFF’s current executive director, and Farah Nousheen founded Tasveer in 2002 after attending San Francisco’s International South Asian Film Festival — the only other major West Coast film festival with a similar focus.
In Hindi/Urdu “tasveer” means “picture,” which seemed appropriate for the goal of promoting South Asian experimental and independent films. Films selected for SSAFF are often making their Seattle debut, since entries are only considered if they have not already screened at other local festivals.
While other film festivals, such as the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), do have global visions, Uddin believes that SSAFF’s tight focus helps crystallize the region’s specific cultures and issues.
“The concentration allows it (SSAFF) to explore the South Asian diaspora, the internal strife, and specific challenges and adjustments. All of these countries are going through transformations and challenges and the festival gives that region a voice,” Uddin explained.
Even the art of filmmaking itself is rapidly evolving. In India, the Central Board of Film Certification (commonly referred to as the Censor Board) certifies all films before they can be publicly released. A film that is deemed to go against the interests or integrity of India may be banned or edited until its content is considered acceptable. Documentaries frequently find it difficult to win approval, with some cases going before India’s supreme court.
“A lot of Americans don’t know about the censorship board in India, but the issue is very big,” says Uddin. SSAFF serves not only to expose the Seattle community to South Asia, but potentially provides a much-needed outlet for filmmakers.
“South Asian films are at a crossroads right now. Because of the technology, filmmaking is more accessible and it is becoming more democratic. It’s not just the privileged class that is having their stories told, but anyone with a small camera,” says Uddin.
“Independent films are being made by amazing directors, some who live in America and are going back to experience things in a different way. The region is really going to bring forward some amazing talent and a unique blend of perspectives,” elaborates Uddin.
Connecting Seattle and South Asia
SSAFF’s first year was held in the basement of Elliott Bay Book Company and subsequent years were hosted by Central Cinema. But after sell-out crowds during the spring Aaina festival, demand has grown so rapidly that SSAFF partnered with SIFF, who is a presenting sponsor. This fall screenings are being held both at SIFF Cinema (McCaw Hall) and the new SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center.
“It’s growing by word of mouth, getting popular, and receiving more recognition from outside of Seattle,” says Mudegowda.
This year’s headlining guest is Deepti Naval, a renowned Indian actress. Naval has worked extensively in Hindi art-house films and the caliber of her career can be likened to American actress Jodie Foster.
Naval is premiering her directorial debut, Two Paise for Sunshine, Four Annas for Rain, on Friday, October 7. The film chronicles the struggles and intersecting lives of a gay lyricist, a prostitute, and a 12-year-old boy living in Mumbai. Naval will attend both the screening and a meet-and-greet reception.
“Her film is in keeping with this year’s theme (Undefeated Voices, Dissident Margins). It’s pretty bold because there aren’t too many gay, Indian movies. It’s unique to even be talking about those issues,” says Mudegowda.
Other screenings that break the mold include Confluence of Urban Woman Shorts, a collection of five short films including “Boxing Ladies” about Muslim girls training to be boxers (Sunday, October 9). Another must-see is Love Crimes of Kabul (Saturday, October 8). Helmed by an Iranian director, it is the story of three women imprisoned for “moral crimes” in Afghanistan.
“It’s an interesting one, particularly in the current political environment,” says Mudegowda.
Many of the films will be attended by the filmmakers, but for those unable to appear in person, SSAFF is using Skype to conduct real-time question-and-answer sessions between Seattle audiences and filmmakers from around the world.
SSAFF organizers are particularly excited that Seattle-based, South-Asian filmmakers are being represented. “I think we’re getting to the point that local people are submitting entries, because we’re being viewed as a festival to send to,” says Mudegowda.
Uddin is one of those local filmmakers. Siddi Gomma — his first film to screen at SSAFF (Saturday, October 8th) — is about the Sidis, an ethnic group originally from Africa, who were brought to India and worked as slaves and servants during British colonialism. The group maintained their cultural heritage during their ordeal through music.
“They have this unbroken chain to their African lineage through music. They created this beautiful fusion between cultures, especially with their African drumming style," Uddin says. "They haven’t forgotten the beat of their homeland. It still beats in their hearts.” Even though the history of the Sidi people is filled with struggle, Uddin hopes the film brings forth a sense of cultural celebration.
Unlike Uddin, Mudegowda grew up in India. But for her and many others, films like Uddin’s hit at the heart of what SSAFF hopes to accomplish. It is a celebration of diversity, but also a show of unity.
“For those who’ve never been to South Asia, this is a closer look and feel for the cultures. For my journey and particularly the young kids, listening to these stories (from your countries), helps make you feel not so lonely," she says. "At the end, though, you see that people are people. We all share the emotions and struggles."
For more information about the festival, schedule and to purchase tickets, visit ssaff.tasveer.org.
For information about Nadeem Uddin’s films and work, visit samsarafilms.com.