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Life & Arts

Indie Meme Film Festival brings stories from South Asian filmmakers to Austin

A woman's face in the dark with a person making hand motions in the back
Courtesy Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda
"Testimony of Ana," a documentary about a woman in rural India who is accused of using witchcraft, will be shown at the Indie Meme Film Festival on Sunday.

A South Asian film festival put on by the nonprofit Indie Meme kicks off Thursday night with a series of short films from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the United States. Thirty-seven films from 11 countries will be played over the course of the festival this weekend and next.

Indie Meme cofounder Alka Bhanot had the idea to bring independent South Asian films to Austin when a friend from India screened her film at UT.

“There weren’t any other people from the community there,” Bhanot said, and only a handful of students attended.

So Bhanot and fellow Indie Meme cofounder Tripti Bhatnagar started inviting the community to single film screenings in Austin and Dallas. Bhanot expected a few dozen people to attend.

“The community was ready for it,” she said. “There weren’t 40 people, but there were 400 people who wanted to engage in discussions and dialogues and watch all of these films off-the-beaten roads.”

Bhanot and Bhatnagar said they slowly gained the skills, grew the team and raised the money needed to go from hosting single film screenings to putting on an entire film festival. In 2016, they held their first Indie Meme Film Festival; about 700 people came to watch 12 films.

By 2019, their attendance doubled.

Bhatnagar said she was driven to participate in the effort not just to bring good cinema to people, but to showcase socially relevant content. This year’s films, for example, touch on issues of asylum, barriers of social caste, student-led political protests, domestic abuse and climate change. An entire series of short films tells stories about LGBTQ+ characters “reaching for love.”

Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda’s festival submission, Testimony of Ana, is a documentary about an elderly tribal woman in rural India who is accused of using witchcraft. Mudigonda, a grad student in film at UT Austin, said village leaders used such accusations to justify physically assaulting women who speak up against the patriarchal system and as a means to run women out of the village to take their land. He says his title character, Anaben Pawar, is one of the last survivors.

A person stands smiling with his arms crossed in front of a white board and a book shelf.
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
UT grad student Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda decided to shift from engineering to filmmaking after he screened a short film at a student film festival.

“I want the audience to really hear what she has to say and to feel her rage, to feel her anger,” Mudigonda said. “I want the audience to listen to her testimony and really acknowledge that this is happening in the 21st century. … And maybe even acknowledge the privilege that [they] have where they’re not [dealing with] the same brutal problems that many of these marginalized groups of tribal people are facing in India.”

Mudigonda heard about these women accused of using witchcraft when he was an undergraduate engineering student in India. When he came to the U.S. he started making short films while he was doing his masters in engineering and subsequently working as a software engineer. After he screened an early short film at a student film festival he realized he had to pivot away from engineering and toward filmmaking.

“At that time, when I saw the reactions of these people and them coming and talking to me later about the film I made, I think that’s when it really kind of permanently registered that this is the path I have to take," he said.

The festival cofounders called audience engagement with the filmmakers an important aspect of the festival.

“When you come into the theater and watch these movies, meet the filmmakers behind it and get engaged with the community with the Q&A there is a world perspective that is either introduced to you or your world view changes,” Bhatnagar said. “You know — there is a shift.”

The team putting on the festival scrambled to maintain the interactive component when they had to shift to a virtual format at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Bhanot said they had almost 1,500 online attendees from across the country because people were hungry for interaction after a month of isolation. But online attendance dipped last year.

“We attributed a lot of it to just virtual fatigue,” Bhanot said. “People were so tired because everybody was doing school and work virtually that entertainment was not likely to happen [virtually] anymore.”

After two years, the festival returns to in-person screenings and parties this week. There are additional virtual screenings next week. One film was nominated for an Academy Award this year, and others won awards at the Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance film festivals.

The opening feature film Friday night, Last Film Show, is a coming-of-age story about a 9-year-old boy from a remote village in India who bribes his way into a movie theater to learn about the film projection booth. Bhanot and Bhatnagar immediately agreed it had open the festival.

“It’s an ode to cinema in the true sense because it’s about the loss of 35 mm [with] digital cinema taking over,” Bhanot said. “It sets the tone for a comeback from a pandemic to something beautiful. Yes, the old must go, but the new can be gorgeous.”

The festival runs in person Thursday through Sunday at the Austin Film Society and continues online April 22-24. Single movie tickets and festival passes are available on the Indie Meme website.

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