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 after the attacks, racial slurs were shouted at her in downtown Seattle.
“It was a life-changing moment,” says Meher, who was a Japanese translator 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 toward a life devoted to film. It also inspired her to bring more South Asian stories to the big screen — especially to audiences here in the Pacific Northwest.
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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.
This year the festival is bigger than ever. It has expanded to seven days (between last Friday and this Sunday). It includes 45 films — both narratives and documentaries — about everything from transgender issues in India to the impact of cellphones in rural Nepal to 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 as Pakistan’s first Oscar entry in 50 years.
This year’s festival also featured the growing South Asian filmmaking community in the Northwest.
Omar Vandal is a program officer by day for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, but has been working on his first documentary — about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani physicist, Abdus Salam — in his off hours for 10 years.
Vandal screened the rough cut of his film for the first time at the festival last weekend. He 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,” he said.
Another local filmmaker, Sushma Kallam, also screened an in-progress documentary 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. 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 into an unexpected meditation on technology-induced isolation and the complexity of living as a “global citizen.”
Meher says she receives emails saying “’I’ve just bought a camera and want to be a filmmaker.” She 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 of film in their lives.”
Get some South Asian film into your life this weekend. There are plenty of screenings and events left from which to choose. The schedule is at: www.tasveer.org
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeaStute