Interview

The purpose is to create connections, build bridges, says SAFF Montreal director Syeda Bukhari


The South Asian Film Festival of Montréal in Canada is being held in hybrid format this year from 19–28 November.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The South Asian Film Festival of Montréal (SAFFM) is being held in a hybrid format this year from 19–28 November, making it accessible to a wider audience across the world.

The festival is showcasing 54 films this year, seven of which will be screened in cinemas while the rest are being made available to an online audience.

Films from (or concerning) India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, South Africa, Canada and the USA are being screened at the festival. A tribute will also be paid to the late Indian auteur Satyajit Ray and the Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Shahin Parhami, who died earlier this year.

Festival director Syeda Bukhari, who spoke exclusively to Cinestaan.com, explained the decision to make the festival a hybrid one this year. “Because of COVID last year, we had the festival fully online," she said, "but this year we decided that because there is some relaxation in the SOPs [standard operating procedures], we will do a hybrid model."

She said some films will be shown in cinemas while a majority will be available online. "The opening night [on 19 November] has the inauguration ceremony followed by the screening of a film, followed by a panel discussion. The following week, for four days, the films will be in cinemas and we have a lot of films showing online as well."

The festival this year has films from across the Indian subcontinent. Bukhari said the organizers see that there are "different variations, colours and themes" when they receive entries. "We keep it open, but there are films based on women’s issues, showing different cultures, artistic practices in South Asian cultures, films based on socio-economic realities," she said.

"We also have films that talk about marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community," she continued, offering insights into the programming this year. "On the closing day we have two films, one from India, Sheer Qorma, and the other Emergence: Out Of The Shadows, made by a filmmaker in Vancouver, Canada. We have an anthology of three short films, all in black-and-white from India which are based on COVID themes. The films show how COVID has impacted different relationships.”

Although the pandemic situation in Montreal is comparatively better, there still are strict rules to be followed, “Last year around this time, we were hit by a strong second wave," Bukhari said. "But this year, since a majority of the population has been vaccinated, we are doing slightly better and the SOPs are also slightly relaxed. Cinemas are now open and people can go and watch films. The only thing is that they have to be vaccinated and show their vaccination passport or certificate that comes as a QR code. [But] life is on the go.”

Given this scenario, Bukhari is hopeful that audiences will come to theatres to watch films. “We have noticed that ever since we opened the ticketing online, our tickets are going pretty fast," she said. "In fact, 50% of the tickets have already been booked, so I would urge audiences in Montreal to book their tickets fast. One of the SOPs is also that we cannot be overcrowded in halls, so we have to stick to the number of seats we have. The films online are free and accessible from different countries so people can watch them. It’s just that they have to book their tickets.”

With the pandemic, several festivals around the world have been grappling with the way forward and thinking through the feasibility of the virtual format. Speaking about SAFFM, Bukhari said, “The spirit is of course to have this ambience and in-cinema experience with the audience. One thing about film festivals is that you don’t only watch films, you become part of that experience. The screenings are usually followed by panel discussions where we bring in filmmakers, actors and panellists, people who are experts in that specific area, so it’s not just watching a film as an audience and leaving; you become part of that experience.

"For that, I think in-person cinema will remain crucial. However, we also have to think how feasible it is to have a hybrid festival because last year we had a very good response. Our films were widely watched, not just by a Canadian audience. The panel discussions were held online and relayed through Zoom so people could join in, so people were able to engage with us. Perhaps we will keep a small section of films online every year.”

SAFFM is presented by the Kabir Centre for Arts & Culture, a nonprofit organization promoting various art forms such as music, dance, cinema, literature and poetry. The annual festival is part of this endeavour to provide a platform to filmmakers worldwide whose films focus on South Asia and its diaspora.

On the significance and larger focus of the festival, Bukhari said, “This festival is an opportunity, a platform to bring the diversity of the South Asian diaspora and even South Asian countries to create bridges between people who live here and people who live elsewhere in the world, so it’s a transnational connection. For us, the outreach is very important. We are able to create awareness about the diversity, beauty of South Asia as a region.

“As festival director, I see that the purpose is to create connections, build bridges, show the diversity and colours of South Asia and also to sensitize about who we are as people coming from different countries, speaking different languages and practising different religions. There is this beauty of and awareness about South Asia that needs to be created and I think these festivals are the best way to do it. My hope is that we do a greater outreach, involve more people, expand horizontally and vertically, which means more quality films every year, and go to neighbouring countries by including films from there."

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