Largest-ever South Asian Film Festival all set to go digital

Still from 2019 film festival

Seven South Asian Film Festivals in the US and Canada are unifying to host the Coalition of South Asian Film Festivals (CoSAFF), the first-of-its-kind virtual festival which will run for 15 days from October 3-17. The festival in collaboration with Tasveer, a South Asian social justice arts non-profit organization based in Seattle, will feature online screenings of the latest films for free and virtual Q&As with the creators.

These festivals showcase films from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Tibet and Sri Lanka. The following are the festivals coming together during the COVID-19 pandemic to help the film community and encourage independent cinema- Tasveer South Asian Film Festival (TSAFF), Seattle Chicago South Asian Film Festival (CSAFF), Chicago DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF), Washington DC Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival (MISAFF), Mississauga/Toronto Nepal America International Film Festival (NAIFF), Maryland South Asian Film Festival of Montreal (SAFFM) and Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival (VISAFF).

Here is an interview with Rita Meher, the co-founder and executive director of Tasveer and Pulkit, the artistic director of the festival.

Several festivals are taking place online due to the global pandemic. Why did you decide to go virtual by collaborating with other festivals to host the largest-ever South Asian Film Festival?

Rita: Initially, the uncertainty from the pandemic really had us wondering if we would be able to put together a film festival. But looking at the challenges our community is facing, especially the artists, really motivated us to work on putting together a show to support filmmakers and actors, and entertain our community during these difficult times. As we started having deeper conversations about solidarity, we also realized kindness, support, and solidarity are the need of the hour, now more than ever. Then all the festivals quickly assembled to unite for this vision. The biggest challenge then was how to do this. The pandemic, in a way, has brought us all closer by bringing everyone home to our screens. So, we thought why not bring the entire festival online to bring everyone closer virtually. I think this particular line from our (CoSAFF) statement sums it up really well: “Now is the time to collaborate rather than compete, and to work together to support our film professionals.”

Watching a film festival from the comfort of one's couch is definitely a new experience. How are you streaming this year's festival and who all can participate?

Rita Meher, the co-founder and executive director of Tasveer

Pulkit: We’re working to put together a festival experience that balances the realities of online viewing habits with what people love about physical festivals. CoSAFF will be hosted on Vimeo’s OTT platform, which will be set up like a streaming platform. Most of the films will be available to view on demand for the duration of the festival, and we will also have special time-limited screenings along with live and interactive Q&As and panel discussions. The entire festival will be free to view, so anyone can watch from the comfort of their homes!

Do you think by organising a virtual film festival, you would be able to get to a wider audience compared to the physical event?

Rita: Yes, definitely. Having a virtual film festival has opened up a lot of possibilities for us and the filmmakers to reach a wider, global audience. Tasveer South Asian Film Festival in Seattle, Chicago, Washington D.C., Montreal, and Vancouver South Asian Film Festivals, Mosaic Intl. Film Festival in Toronto, Nepal America International Film Festival in Maryland have united to bring the North American film audience spread across two countries, 7 different cities, and 3 time zones together. And now, the audience are also looking forward to good content that will keep them entertained. The virtual nature of the festival also opens up wonderful content for the audience. This has really opened a bigger window for all of us - filmmakers, festivals, and audience alike.

What's the selection process like for the festival and what kind of films can we expect this edition?

Shabana Azmi at last year's film festival

Pulkit: We have a joint programming committee, which represents all our coalition member festivals. Each member festival has put forward the strongest films from their submissions, and then our joint programming committee is making decisions from that pool. Our films this year represent the wide-ranging diversity of South Asian backgrounds and the diaspora, and in numerous languages. We are really embracing independent cinema and films that are telling stories that are fresh, challenging, entertaining, and pushing the boundaries of what we’ve seen before. It’s going to be an exciting lineup!

How will a virtual film festival help the filmmakers and what's Tasveer's role in it?

Rita: The pandemic has put a lot of stress on the film industry. It has caused a huge upheaval, loss of revenue, and uncertainty for arts and filmmakers. Tasveer is the producer of this unified effort in bringing together the festivals, taking the lead on finding the needs and components of a virtual festival towards the coalition. And CoSAFF's efforts will provide filmmakers an opportunity to showcase their hard work to the widest possible audience in a respectful and secure manner. Outside the film festival, Tasveer has also created a Film Fund for filmmakers based in the US.

People can't wait to get back into cinemas and to have a film premiere with the filmmaker there to answer questions. How are you trying to curate such an experience through the digital event, in addition to the movies?

Pulkit: We will have live virtual Q&As with many of the filmmakers, where audiences will be able to also send in their questions as comments. We have already done such live virtual Q&As for standalone digital events, and the audience engagement is always promising and enriching.

Also, will the award ceremony run online this time?

Rita: There are so many elements of a physical festival that fit so differently in a virtual setup. We are exploring all options, putting together an experienced jury to have an exciting virtual award ceremony.

What will be the trend for future film festivals?

Pulkit: It’s hard to tell how world events will shape the future of film festivals, since we are still in the middle of a lot of major changes and upheaval. But this year is showing us that a lot is already changing, and will continue changing. For example, festival organizers and audiences are increasingly embracing digital festivals - these allow a lot more people to potentially watch the films. There are also a lot of collaborations between film festivals now, and our CoSAFF is a great example of that. Many other festivals are also coming together for their own collaborations. Film festivals are also changing their conventional rules around premiere requirements for films, and other criteria. I do think a lot of these changes are making everything more democratic, more adaptable, and ultimately allowing a lot more people to engage with film festivals and new films than before.