The South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) is going to celebrate it’s 10th anniversary this year. The program has come a long way since 2003. It’s gained a sponsorship from HBO and even withstood a hurricane. This year, the festival will run from December 3rd through December 8th.
In honor of it’s 10th year, I had the chance to sit down with Festival Founder Shilen Amin and Program Director Galen Rosenthal to discuss where SAIFF has been and where it’s going.
iiF: How has the festival changed and improved in its 10th year?
Shilen Amin: It’s definitely gotten easier to get films, to get partners and everything all around. I think its gotten easier because of our track record and our history in the space. So we’ve sort of gotten over that struggle of convincing people what we’re trying to do and who you’re doing it for and what the end-goal or purpose is of the festival. So in that regards, it’s become easier. We’ve built deeper bonds with the industry and filmmakers. Before I felt like we were the only two cheerleaders on the block and now I feel like we have an army out there scouting and keeping their eyes and ears to the ground, constantly letting us know who the look out for in case we missed someone. So I think we just have a wider net now.
Then the flipside to that is it’s become even more difficult to kind of short-list films and what kind of gets in and what doesn’t. When you get more content it gets a little more [difficult].
Galen Rosenthal: Yeah, and I would say that as South Asian film has gotten more accepted into the world marketplace with international film festivals, it’s made it more competitive for us but also made it easier for us because we’re not the only two cheerleaders on the block. We actually now have programmers from international film festivals programming Indian films. It’s no longer just a niche film festival for brown people and if we have a white person wander in it’s like “Stay! You might learn something!”
iiF: Do you think it might have something to do something with the fact that we’re seeing more brown faces in Hollywood through TV shows and Movies and they are not necessarily all stuck in the stereotypes of the old?
Shilen Amin: I really can’t say that. I would say there is a disconnect there. I wish that were the case.
Galen Rosenthal: Right, I would say there is a disconnect there. To me it’s like there are Indians who are from India and then there are brown people who are American and never the two shall meet. I mean when you see Aziz Ansari, he might be brown but he’s an American first and his jokes don’t even really come from that [Indian] background. And then Indian films are within their own context. It hasn’t really broken through here in America because I think they still view India through exotic eyes.
Shilen Amin: I think we’re constantly still educating the non-Indian audience about what it means to be South Asian and what South Asian cinema really is. Because of that, it makes it even more of a challenge for us to let’s just say have diaspora films alone. It really has to be about how cinema has really grown from their perception of Indian cinema, which quite frankly and sadly, for many of them is still the song and dance sequence.
Galen Rosenthal: It ends and dies for them at Bollywood.
Shilen Amin: Yeah and they think that’s it for, I guess, cinema. And our job is to say “No it’s not. And this [festival] is to show you it’s not. And not only are these guys making something that’s not necessarily just edgy but something [more].”
Galen Rosenthal: I mean we still have but Bollywood films but it’s about taking those and making it not just edgy but films that are not going to conform to preconceived notions. And that doesn’t mean it has to be edgy and it can still take on the same topic but the way they go about presenting the idea.
Amin: Yeah, it’s about introducing South Asian stories and South Asian cinema in a different kind of manner and sophistication. And I also think because of us trying to achieve that, it is different. It’s not Bollywood. It’s not song and dance. We’ve actually retained more industry friends and acquaintances that are of very high position and they’ve kind of been listening to us. And I think maybe in the beginning they were like “OK you guys have got to stop bothering us.” [Laughs] But I think over the years it kind of turned into “OK that guy was interesting. What else is he working on?” And now it’s completely turned into “What are you doing? When is the event? I’m on the list right?” It’s just so crazy.
Rosenthal: Yeah they e-mail us now. It’s no longer a one-way street.
Amin: Yeah so in that way it’s really changed in the past 10 years for the better. Which is good because now I feel like we’re just about- I don’t want to say we’ve erased that stigma but now we are continuing to build away from that stigma and grow the market. And the way you do that is by continuing to show great content and great stories.
Rosenthal: And another thing we made a conscious decision to do is that a lot of these South Asian Film Festivals market it to their base, which you always should because that is going to be your first audience. But they never went beyond it and that’s called “ghetto cinema” because you’re marketing to your ghetto and you’re never going to move beyond that. And we made the conscious choice to say “That’s our base and we’re always going to cater to our base because without it you’re nothing but we made that conscious decision to start inviting these people.” And they didn’t listen to us at first because we were the only ones who aggressively went after them. And I think a lot of these other, not just South Asian Fests, but niche festivals don’t do that. And the only way you’re going to turn the paradigm is if you do get more people from different backgrounds inclusive into it. And I think that’s also where our successes came from.
Amin: Yeah and also when you look at the industry, the numbers are in our favor. I mean when you look at the number of producers in the space and just the sheer number of Indian content or South Asian content that comes out, it’s great. So from an economic standpoint, the numbers are great. But from a content and quality perspective, not so much. So our job was to say “OK well you’re willing to do business if the numbers are great. Now our job is to come to the table with real content and if we could solve or resolve that part of the problem, then you’re already halfway there because you’ve already sold them on the numbers.” So our job is to keep curating and keep cultivating great content and great filmmakers and keep showing what’s coming out. And not just keep cheating ourselves or the industry by [pushing out anything]. Because the minute you do that, everything you’ve built up dissolves.
Rosenthal: We try not to pander is what we’re trying to say.
iiF: Over the past ten years how have you seen, specifically South Asian independent cinema, innovate, change and progress? Are there specific examples that you can cite that has maybe pushed the boundaries or do you think it’s been relatively stagnant?
Amin: You know I don’t wanna say it’s lotto but sometimes it feels like a lotto. Every now and then you’ll get some guy that will breakout, but you’ll ask him to do a second or third or fourth film and sometimes I feel like they shoot themselves because they don’t move away from their comfort zone. And it makes it harder for us as an organization to build on the theory that they are growing and evolving from what they’ve done. So I don’t like when that happens. For me, I look at a filmmaker and I say show me these dimensions in you and show me that you can do all these different types of things so I can help cultivate you into this American fabric and become part of this industry where you come in as an example of South Asian cinema but we ultimately want to push you as just a filmmaker. Not just for being South Asian.
Rosenthal: Independent cinema [in India] has really taken off, one, because of the digital revolution. We have digital cameras and now you can put it in their hands. Second of all, because of the festival route. I mean we had great success with the film “Gaandu.” We took that film and had a world premire. And the difference was that movie, he was just making it and giving it to us. He didn’t expect anything from it. That movie went from us to Berlin and now it has U.S. distribution as well. The reason that worked was because we were able to launch it and get it a lot of exposure here in the West because India still has a colonial hangover.
iiF: Yeah, that film was banned there.
Rosenthal: Right. He did that movie on his own with his friends. His next movie, he’s getting a million dollars. U.S. dollars. So it’s also when you can empower these guys because truthfully, as a result of that colonial hangover, if the white man says it’s good then it’s good by us, even though nobody saw it in theaters over there. But the other thing is, I think you have a lot more people with cameras now just becasue of the digital technology. That if you can go out there and do it and they don’t have to listen to the Indian Censor Board because the whole other thing was to ship a movie outside of India, you had to have a censor certificate. So if you have a print, you had to get a censorship certificate. But if you have it on a fucking hard drive? I mean who cares? So in that way, you have a lot more choices. I mean there is a lot of shit out there, but you can also mine the diamond in the rough. And the point is that trying to find that diamond, we go through a lot of shit.
iiF: You mentioned the technology aspect. Everyone has a camera now and there aren’t really any excuses anymore. If you want to make a film, you pretty much can. I’ve seen that progression in film festivals also trying to go a little bit more digital. Is that something you guys are looking into for SAIFF at all? For example, Tribeca has implemented a digital component that basically pairs the regular film festival with something of a digital film festival. Is that something you’re looking into for your festival and do you think that’s good for the industry as a whole?
Amin: I think we are going to be looking at something that is going to be something even beyond that for our festival. So it’s not just about doing a digital film festival but because we are in a confidentiality agreement with a venture that we’re going to launch around this festival, [we can’t really go into specifics]. But I guess the best way I can put is we are serious about the film business. And at the end of the day, we realize that no matter what we do with this festival, it’s not about just SAIFF and about the sold out screenings and content or whatever it may be. We realize our importance and our existence is directly associated with the filmmaker’s success and not while they’re at SAIFF but when they leave SAIFF. And that continues to drive our position as a market leader or anything else we do in the space.
Rosenthal: And that’s what drives our longevity. For each film festival, you have to make yourself relevant and be ahead of the crowd.
Amin: Right so when a filmmaker is coming to SAIFF, I don’t want to just say “congratulations you got in”, “congratulations you had a great screening”, “congratulations you got all this press”, “goodbye.” There has got to be a follow-through and I think that component is so important, and we take it very seriously, to our business. If we can help facilitate that exit component we become an indispensable asset in the marketplace for a lot of these filmmakers in the space. And I think if we do that then there is a purpose for us.
Rosenthal: And not just only that. We try to push it to other distributors too. I know it’s a business on our side but if we can help them succeed then it’s going to produce more business for us down the road. Because in the end, you need to show your relevance.
Amin: That’s one of the ways the festival has changed in the past 10 years. The way it’s changed is that now you have international properties looking at us to consult them on what is hot in India and who is the hot Indian filmmaker, which has never really happened before.
Rosenthal: Yeah I mean we have programmers from several other leading film festivals looking at our lineup when we announce it because while you should be looking at India and other international film festivals because they should know the best movies but they’re looking at us because we’re actually mining this stuff out of there before they even get their hands on it. So we have festivals that are much bigger than us, because they cover a wider spectrum, looking at us.
Amin: And I mean, without giving names, SAIFF has helped filmmakers get into leading world class festivals. So in our minds, from the very beginning, we were playing as if we were competing with the big boys. We never playing that we were competing with other Indian or South Asian festivals. But now we feel, we are competing for the same content sometimes because they feel we are definitely going to go for it. Which is good because we want the filmmaker to have a bigger exposure that makes our job easier as a South Asian festival trying to develop this market. So we still win when the film doesn’t come to SAIFF. And that’s the big picture here. We should continue to win even when filmmakers are distributing their content. That is how our business is going to thrive in the next 5-10 years.
Rosenthal: The way we kind of approach it is like this. When you get into an A-Class film festival like Canne or Sundance, just by being accepted you’ve already got distributors swarmed around you. You don’t have to invite them because you’ve got the esteem by getting in there. We can’t offer that to you because we’re not that. We’re a niche film festival. So what we can offer to you is we will go that extra mile for you. Where if you come to our festival, we’re also going to push you onto other film festivals, bigger film festivals than us and make sure you get on their radar. So the point being, when your film comes to us, it doesn’t end after the film plays. Three months down the line, we’re still working with you hand-in-hand. Because then it’s like, “I want to come back to these guys cause they’re the only festival where they aren’t just acting like a festival. They’re acting like a sales agent and a business manager.” And that gives us good, positive word-of-mouth. So when they meet new filmmakers are like “you should try these guys,” that’s what makes us different. If you’re going to compete against the big boys, you have to give them something no one else can give. They have the name so we’re going to give something else.
For more information about SAIFF and their goals, please visit them at their website www.saiff.org or their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SouthAsianInternationalFilmFestival