Indie Meme Film Festival spotlights South Asian films
Indie Meme founder Alka Bhanot is in the business of making dreams come true. Since 2013, the small nonprofit has focused their work on bringing independent films from South Asia to Austin, and this weekend celebrates their inaugural film festival. "What we're trying to do with South Asian cinema is like South Asia itself: so diverse. There's five different countries, 40 different languages, and it's exploding with new filmmakers telling these amazing stories. We really have a wonderful opportunity to show some great, powerful cinema from that part of the world," says Bhanot.
"The South Asian community here is growing so much and that's a great support base for us. The rest of the Austin community is pretty receptive to us, too. That's just how we are as a city: We like our films and our music."
About 80% of the program this year features women as filmmakers or in lead roles. Opening night film, Lyari Notes, an "Indo-Pak collaboration," has its North American premiere. The doc follows a group of young girls over three years as they attend Pakistani rock star and political activist Hamza Jafri's music school in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world: the town of Lyari, located in the southern district of Pakistan's city of Karachi. Newsreels of bombings and the Peshawar Massacre are juxtaposed with happy-go-lucky kids and supportive family interviews to shine a light on the intricacies of just how imperative self-expression is for the girls in Lyari.
"Lyari Notes is important because it represents everything we want to do with the company. And it's a lovely story, set in a part of the world you don't hear much about," says Bhanot. Plus its two female directors, Miriam Chandy Menacherry and Maheen Zia, will both be in attendance. Following Lyari Notes, the opening night party offers a "lovely transition from East to West," with hors d'oeuvres and a performance by Austin's own Eastern soul singer, Nagavalli and her band.
Saturday's screenings open with two more women-centric films. Short film "Rasika Mathur: Truth Teller" tells the story of a young South Asian woman who's following her dreams to be the first stand-up comic in her community – no easy feat in any scenario, but particularly riddled with obstacles here. Sponsored by the Center for Relationships, The Threshold is a feature narrative about a woman who decides to walk out on a two-decades-long relationship. The dynamics of marriage, particularly in a South Asian context, are poignant, and the cinematography uses "the existing natural space and light to make this almost docu-drama about the lives of two people. The film is a beautifully done one-act play on camera," says Bhanot. Director Pushan Kripalani will be in attendance from India.
Speaking of globe-trotting filmmakers, the festival highlights Indie Meme's dedication to spotlighting the people behind the scenes. It's no secret that many independent filmmakers face countless barriers, but consider the exponentially more difficult logistics of, say, a South Asian female filmmaker, bringing a small film, with a small budget, to screen in front of large audiences on a global scale. Indie Meme's mission offers a point of access that may otherwise never occur.
Bhanot explains: "Basically Indie Meme has two functions: We need to bring over this cinema which nobody sees – and it is important cinema – but also we want you to know these filmmakers. They're the true stars. They're the ones who really get behind a part and an idea and a cause and make something wonderful out of it."
With help from donations and a city grant, Bhanot and her team are facilitating the attendance of six filmmakers – from Pakistan, India, and Europe. "To us it was very important to bring these women here. We could've done other stuff with [the money], but it was important that we spent a large chunk bringing people in because that's it. This is their opportunity to connect with an audience. This is their chance to meet people in another part of the world and show their work, and hopefully, this will give them access to other film festivals." In addition to detailed information on the film pages, Indie Meme keeps the content up online for a while, which leads to worldwide requests that sometimes end up being the ticket to distribution.
"We just want to help the films live a longer life."
The other films on the program offer a wide array of styles and themes, for all kinds of audiences. Family-friendly Dhanak tells the story of a 10-year-old girl who takes her blind brother on a journey to restore his sight; Utopia is an intense look at three interwoven lives – from Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and India – set against violence and tumult.
It wouldn't be a film festival without a horror film, and Sunday's Kothanodi fits the bill. Four mother-daughter relationships plucked right from Assamese folktales are both lovely and haunting. It's "a deeper, darker interpretation of a bedtime story. Kothanodi is what cult films are made of," says Bhanot. In X: Past Is Present, 11 episodes combine to narrate the life of one contemporary Indian man. It's bold and philosophical.
Perhaps the festival darling, "Goonga Pehelwan" screens Sunday. Virender Singh, a deaf wrestler, was medalled three times in the Deaflympics. The film chronicles his attempt to get into the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Both filmmakers are first-timers – a badge of honor for the Indie Meme team: "That means we're hunting and we're looking. We're more excited about finding new cinema and encouraging new filmmakers," says Bhanot.
"['Goonga Pehelwan'] is the little underdog in the festival, and when I saw it I thought, 'This is why we do Indie Meme.' He's got extra challenges because he's deaf, but he's doing it and he keeps doing it because that's what he does. That's his passion and his calling." Sounds a lot like the Indie Meme spirit, too.
The Indie Meme Film Festival runs Fri.–Sun., April 15–17, at the Marchesa Hall and Theatre. All films have English subtitles. For badge and ticket info, see www.indiememe.com.