New crop of local South Asian filmmakers shine at Tasveer festival

Seattle South Asian Film Festival founder Rita Meher. (Photo by Shikha Jain / VASS photography)

Work in IT or development may pay the bills, but Seattle’s South Asian community has a growing passion for film.

Rita Meher had been a U.S. citizen for only a week when she watched the 9-11 attacks on the television in her Magnolia home. Originally from the eastern Indian state of Odissa, Meher had followed a boyfriend here and was shocked when, in the months following the attacks, racial slurs were shouted at her in Downtown Seattle.

“It was a life changing moment,” says Meher who was a Japanese translator by trade at the time, “I wanted to capture it and so made a short film based on that experience.”

Her film, “Citizenship 101,” was the first step towards a life devoted to film. It also inspired her to want to bring more South Asian stories to the big screen — especially to audiences here in the Pacific Northwest.

So in 2004 she co-founded the Seattle South Asian Film Festival, also known as Tasveer or “Picture” in the South Asian languages Hindi and Urdu. “There was no representation of South Asians in films,” says Meher of the American movie landscape at the time, “It was all Bollywood.”

Tasveer has done much to change that in the past eight years. And this year the festival is bigger than ever. It has expanded to run for 7 days (between October 4th and the 13th) and includes 45 films — both narratives and documentaries — discussing everything from transgender issues in India to the impact of cell phones in rural Nepal and the recent mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

In attendance are filmmakers from around the world including Meenu Gaur, Director of the acclaimed Pakistani film “Zinda Bhaag.” The comedy-thriller about illegal immigration was recently submitted for Oscar consideration (Pakistan’s first entry in 50 years).

But this year’s festival also features the growing South Asian filmmaking community here in the Northwest.

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Omar Vandal is a program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation by day, but has been working on his first documentary — about the Nobel Prize winning Pakistani physicist, Abdus Salam — in his off hours for ten years.

Vandal screened the rough cut of his film for the first time at the festival last weekend but says Tasveer is about much more than just getting his work seen, it’s about expanding audiences’ understanding of South Asia and South Asian communities.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes about that part of the world, but some of the stuff I’ve seen [at the festival], it’s amazing, a true eye-opener.”

Another local filmmaker, Sushma Kallam, also screened an in-progress documentary at the festival titled “Walls and the Tiger” about the impact of globalization and outsourcing in rural southern India, a film in part inspired by her time working in the IT industry.

Joydeep Das, a financial consultant and first-time filmmaker, is focused on the South Asian community here in the Pacific Northwest. His 30 minute narrative, “In Search of a Fairy Tale,” will play this weekend and follows a couple originally from the state of West Bengal in India but living in Seattle and working at a “reputed software company.” In the film, an evening with friends turns in to an unexpected meditation on technology-induced isolation and the complexity of living as a “global citizen.”

Meher says she receives regular emails saying “’I’ve just bought a camera and want to be a filmmaker’” and often hears from people who say they are writing a script. She hopes these signs point to the beginning of a “big South Asian filmmaking community here.”

With that goal in mind Tasveer will be hosting a filmmakers forum this Sunday at Mobius Hall in Bothell titled “When I was 18” and aimed at encouraging young people to pursue film.

“There is a lot of career pressure in the South Asian community, everyone wants to be in IT or an engineer” says Meher “So we’re talking to the filmmakers about the importance film in their lives.”

Get some South Asian film into your life this weekend; there are plenty of screenings and events left to choose from.

The Seattle South Asian Film Festival runs through Sunday October 13th. Full schedule at: http://ssaff.tasveer.org/2013/index.php/schedule-new/

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

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