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

A South Asian film festival organized by the non-profit organization Indie Meme kicks off Thursday evening with a series of short films from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the United States. Thirty-seven films from 11 countries will be screened during the festival this weekend and next.

Indie Meme co-founder Alka Bhanot was inspired to bring independent South Asian films to Austin when an Indian friend screened her film at UT.

“There were no other people from the community there,” Bhanot said, and only a handful of students attended.

So Bhanot and his Indie Meme co-founder Tripti Bhatnagar began inviting the community to unique movie screenings in Austin and Dallas. Bhanot expected a few dozen people to attend.

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

Bhanot and Bhatnagar said they slowly acquired the skills, developed the team and raised the funds needed to go from hosting one-off film screenings to hosting a full film festival. In 2016 they held their first Indie Meme Film Festival; about 700 people came to see 12 films.

In 2019, their attendance doubled.

Bhatnagar said she was motivated to join in the effort not just to bring good cinema to people, but to showcase socially relevant content. This year’s films, for example, tackle issues of asylum, social caste barriers, student-led political protests, domestic violence and climate change. An entire series of shorts tell stories about LGBTQ+ characters “looking for love.”

Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda Festival Submission, Ana’s testimonial, is a documentary about an elderly tribal woman in rural India accused of using witchcraft. Mudigonda, a graduate film student at UT Austin, said village chiefs use such accusations to justify physically assaulting women who speak out against the patriarchal system and as a way to drive village women out to take their land. He says his main character, Anaben Pawar, is one of the last survivors.

UT graduate student Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda decided to switch from engineering to film after screening a short film at a student film festival.

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

Mudigonda heard about these women being accused of using witchcraft when he was an engineering student in India. When he arrived in the United States, he started making short films while doing his master’s degree in engineering and later worked as a software engineer. After screening his first short at a student film festival, he realized he needed to move away from engineering and into filmmaking.

“At that time, when I saw the reactions of these people and them coming to tell me later about the film that I did, I think that’s when I really permanently recorded that this is the path I must take,” he said. .

The co-founders of the festival have called audience engagement with the filmmakers an important aspect of the festival.

“When you walk into the theater and watch these movies, meet the filmmakers behind it, and engage with the community with the Q&A, there’s a perspective of the world presented to you or your worldview changes,” said Bhatnagar. “You know – there is a change.”

The team organizing the festival scrambled to maintain the interactive component when they had to switch to a virtual format at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Bhanot said they had nearly 1,500 attendees in line from all over the country because people were thirsty for interaction after a month of isolation. But online traffic plummeted last year.

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

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 Oscar this year, and others won prizes at Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance.

The Friday night opening feature, Last cinema session, is a coming-of-age story about a 9-year-old boy from a remote village in India who bribes himself to enter a movie theater to learn about the movie screening booth. Bhanot and Bhatnagar immediately agreed that he opened the festival.

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

The festival takes place 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.

Darcy J. Skinner