#FlashbackFriday: Grant Spotlight on 3rd i Film

Rebecca Sutton
A movie plays on the screen of an ornate theater as an audience watches

A screening of Sami Khan's Khoya at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, part of the 2016 3rd i International South Asian Film Festival. Photo by Najib Joe Hakim  

When Ivan Jaigirdar, Shilpa Mankikar, and Camille Ramani launched 3rd i Films with monthly screenings in San Francisco in 2001, it quickly became apparent they had identified an untapped but incredibly intense appetite for South Asian film. By 2003, 3rd i started the annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, drawing 1,200 people. In 2004, it expanded from one day to two days, and by 2008, four full days were needed to accommodate audiences. Festival chapters were launched in other American cities such as Chicago, Seattle, and New York, many of which have since grown into their own South Asian film festivals. Today, 3rd i—a longtime NEA grantee—draws 5,000 people over the course of five days, screening films that highlight the many peoples, cultures, and issues that populate this fantastically diverse part of the world. We recently spoke with Jaigirdar about the festival, and how his role as 3rd i’s artistic director is not unlike that of a sommelier.

NEA: What was your motivation for establishing 3rd i?

IVAN JAIGIRDAR: There was never a platform for South Asian filmmakers, and people wanting to discuss cinema from a South Asian slant. I had made a couple of films at the time. Some which didn't deal with South Asian content did quite well, but the ones that worked on South Asian content didn't seem to have a way to be screened. I realized that a platform was necessary to discuss South Asian cinema, but also to screen these films and hopefully to have a larger audience for them. At our onset, we wanted to create a space for the best cinema we could get from South Asia, but also to reflect our experiences not only in the U.S. but in the diaspora.

Our name, 3rd i, came from different areas of thinking, but one was, of course, for internal reflection. But it was also for aspects of a third gender, third cinema, third world. So it had a playful meaning around the idea a third eye, but from a more sort of constructive and critical perspective too.

NEA: Part of 3rd i’s mission is to “promote interaction and dialogue.” Why do you think film is an ideal vehicle for cross-cultural understanding?

JAIGIRDAR: In the Bay Area, there are about 250,000 South Asians—it's quite diverse in and of itself. There are Indians, there are Pakistanis, there are Bangladeshis, there are Nepalese, there are Bhutanese, there are Sri Lankans, and there's the diaspora—so people from London, Canada, the U.S. So it's quite a diverse community, with very different religions, from Hindus to Muslims, to Sikhs to Jains, to Christians to Jews. There's a diversity within the community then that we have to deal with in terms of bridging those communities and celebrating the diversity. We want to bridge those issues of intolerance and stereotypes, within and without.

Those are some of the reasons that we work with intercultural communication through cinema. And cinema, as you've asked, is one of these vehicles in the arts that we [use to] explore the human experience. Cinema is a full immersion. It taps into all your senses—I think that’s its beauty and its strength. One of the things I heard recently was that when we see film, we all get to dream together. For the first time, we showed a horror film last year, and I realized it's not just dreaming together; we get to also feel these feelings of horror and anxiety and laughter together. I think film creates that sense of community. Then if you have a platform to discuss those emotions and feelings, it takes it somewhere else. It's three-dimensional.

NEA: When you first started this festival, streaming movies was in its infancy. Now it's easier than ever to access films online at home. Why would you argue that it's still important to attend film festivals?

JAIGIRDAR: This is really an important issue for us and for other film festivals. I think film festivals are trying to diversify; instead of just having films, they're trying to have music and food in some cases. But I think the main reason it's still important to have films is because, again, it has the capacity to viscerally touch all sorts of emotions. If it's a nuanced film, it has this complexity to touch the heart, the soul, and the mind, and I think that's where a lot of the activity happens in terms of our awareness of each other and of “the other”—both within ourselves “the other,” and outside of ourselves. That's the work we like to try and do in terms of showing films and discussing together, with a director or an academic.

Since you're talking about online, we try and show films that are classics too, which may or may not be online, and also mix it in sometimes with dance. [In 2014] we showed a film on Chitresh Das—he's a world-famous Kathak dancer—and also a film which about Jason Samuels Smith, who is a world-renowned African-American tap dancer. They came onstage and did tap dance and Kathak together after the film and then spoke about these things.

So we are evolving to add different layers of cinema with dance, with music, with classic silent films. We're adding to different areas to bring in a different audience base. And I think where we're more unique is that we try and touch upon people who are more on the periphery—stories about them—and those don’t necessarily go online.

NEA: One of the themes you’ll focus on this year is the progress made by South Asian women filmmakers.

JAIGIRDAR: Yes. As I was saying, we've always tried to deal with issues which are on the periphery, like representation of queers in cinema, or Dalits, which are communities in South Asia which are really on the periphery, and also women. We've made it a point every year to have a parity of women filmmakers and also women as subject matter and protagonists. Last year the majority of films were by women filmmakers. It's really something that's important to us. [This year] we are focusing on Nishtha Jain, who we've shown throughout the years. We keep tabs on certain filmmakers that we like. This year her film looks at patriarchy and how women are represented.

NEA: How do you hope the festival impacts audiences, both audiences who are South Asian and those who come from other backgrounds?

JAIGIRDAR: The impact is really around making people aware of the other, and having more tolerance about the other. It’s bridging communities and celebrating our diversity. I think film is a vehicle to get us into relationships with each other in terms of understanding each other's communities. I think that's really important in this day and age of more and more isolation. One of the quotes that we had from the San Francisco Chronicle, which we reveled in, [described] us as “the mini Sundance for South Asian films.” One of the things that we try and cultivate is more diverse expressions in cinema, like you find in Sundance. We work towards more nuanced cinema and less stereotypical cinema and representation in film.

NEA: Are there any particular misconceptions or stereotypes that you hope the festival counteracts?

JAIGIRDAR: So many. There are so many misrepresentations of women, of the LGBTQ community, of colorism in South Asia. It's a constant stream that we see in commercial media, and I think it's important to combat them constantly with more progressive and independent cinema. We work with commercial films too: we show one Bollywood film per year, or maybe two. But that's a way to sort of surreptitiously bait and switch: bring audiences into a more progressive Bollywood film, and then get them to know about the rest of our films, which are not necessarily entertaining in the same way, but create thought and reflection.

NEA: Do you look for anything in particular when selecting films?

JAIGIRDAR: I think film is a mirror on our culture, and we try and select films that have the zeitgeist of the era, the impression of what's out there, what's mirroring the social voice. But it takes years of experience of working with other filmmakers who tell us what's out there. It takes a community to build the film festival as a whole, and it takes a network in terms of selecting films, keeping in touch, and getting a sense of what's out there. It's sort of like a sommelier in wine-tasting. You have to have a sense of the grapes, where they come from, and what sort will like that particular flavor. I think the more experience I've had with films and curating, the better I'm getting at it. It's taken a lot of time to understand different nuances in films, and to connect that with the audience base.

NEA: I think when most people think about creativity in the arts, they think about the actual art-making itself, like filmmaking. I wanted to talk about how your role as a programmer or curator is a creative act as well.

JAIGIRDAR: I have undergraduate and graduate [degrees] in film studies, but I also took filmmaking, and so that's part of my own understanding in cinema. I'm very fortunate to [have studied] representation of women in film, representation of African Americans in film, representation of queer cinema, third cinema—all these aspects of film that help you have a larger palate, let's say. So all these different aspects of learning about film, making film, and then being part of different screening committees, and working with other people in film definitely add to that creative element of knowing what films work for what audiences. One of the interesting parts of film that I've seen is when we've shown, say, a Bollywood film to an Indian audience, they've all laughed at certain issues. Then we've shown the same film to less of a South Asian audience, and they've all laughed at totally different parts. So it's gathering those sorts of understanding of which audience base will appreciate which film in what way. I do think that takes time and a certain amount of creativity.

NEA: What do you hope for the future of the festival?

JAIGIRDAR: That’s something we have been thinking about. We're trying to get short films produced and get funding for them, and trying to look at different ways to explore films, especially since everything is going online so quickly. I think there's still a place for community, and I think film festivals still have that aspect where people are not isolated in their homes looking at a film on their own. I think it is important to see a film in a group and to have that sensation of someone else laughing or crying or feeling. You feel it—it's palpable, an audience's reaction. I think there is still going to be a place for that, given the human element that we need to be with other people when we see things and feel things.