The Mustard Seed Film Festival Is A Home Away From Home

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The first in an annual tradition.

“A home away from home” is how festival co-organizer Natasha Cohen-Carroll describes Mustard Seed Film Festival, Philadelphia’s premier South Asian film festival that took place last weekend.

What was originally envisioned by Cohen-Carroll and co-organizer Hariprasad Kowtha to be a small film viewing in a backyard with friends grew into a two-day event with thirteen films, four venues, and over three hundred people in attendance.

I had the pleasure of attending Mustard Seed on behalf of Kajal and experiencing that feeling of “home away from home” firsthand. As a native of the Philadelphia area and the daughter of immigrants from Kolkata, I was especially looking forward to this.

Philadelphia’s South Asian population has grown exponentially in the last several decades with prominent Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Indian, Nepalese, and Pakistani communities — and Mustard Seed was attempting to represent these groups and more. Often, large-scale South Asian film festivals consist primarily of Indo-centric and Hindu-centric films. As Cohen-Caroll put it, “Mustard Seed Film Festival is an attempt at decentralizing India when thinking about South Asian identity.”

Opening Night

The first night of the festival took place under the Reading Viaduct, an abandoned tunnel built over a century ago for one of the oldest railroads in the country. The festival felt very community-oriented— the public space it took place in, the reasonable prices for film tickets, and the strong feeling of warmth when sitting in the audience full of people of all ages and ethnicities.

Left to right: Organizers Fatimah Cassim and Natasha Cohen-Carroll, film director Ian Harnarine, and organizer Hariprasad Kowtha. Photo taken by Sarah Cassim

The three films shown that night were Lo Sum Choe Sum (2015), a Bhutanese short film that follows a young woman dealing with her troubling past; Doubles with Slight Pepper (2015), a short father-son story that takes place in rural Trinidad, and the feature film Valley of Saints (2015), that focuses on the relationships of three people in occupied Kashmir alongside the stunning Dal Lake. From sexual assault to class struggles to the environment, these three films displayed a multitude of social issues and cultures found within South Asia and its diaspora.

My personal favorite was the second short film, Doubles with Slight Pepper — which, special side note, has Spike Lee as an Executive Producer. Its story focused on the massive Indo-Caribbean population found in Trinidad & Tobago.

In a short Q&A session after the viewing, the direct of the film Ian Harnarine discussed how, as a second-generation Trinidadian that grew up in Canada and now lives in New York, he is unsure which place he considers home. He pointed out how, although there is a strong Indian influence in Trinidad and other Caribbean countries, not a lot of people go back and forth from Trinidad and India. The nostalgia Indo-Caribbeans feel for India is through a physical and historical link. The presence of India in Trinidad, “is a completely different aspect of Indian-ness,” he said.

Asian Arts Initiative

During the intermission period, the Bhutanese American Organization-Philadelphia (BAO-P) gave a presentation of their history, political struggles, and current issues faced as refugees in Philadelphia. This was followed by a Bhutanese dance performance from some young dancers from the BAO-P. Usiloquy Dance Designs also performed a traditional Indian dance set to contemporary music.

Immediately outside the viaduct, an aunty stood inside a food cart selling samosas, pakoras, curry, and mango lassis. Right across from her, the Asian Arts Initiative — a multidisciplinary arts center located in Philadelphia’s Chinatown — set up a table for arts and crafts. Festival attendees mingled and ate, conversing intensely on the topics covered in the films shown.

Mustard Seed Film Festival

The Saturday Show

Feeling overwhelmed with emotions after the opening night, I was looking forward to catching one more film during the main festival day.

Saturday’s screenings took place in three different venues: the URBN Annex Screening room, a Drexel University screening room, Twelve Gates Arts, a contemporary South Asian and Middle Eastern art gallery, and Dana Mandi, an Indian grocery store-cum-restaurant.

I attended the screening of The World Before Her (2013) — currently available on Netflix — at Dana Mandi. Walking into Dana Mandi, aisles filled with staple desi kitchen items, I almost thought I had come to the wrong location for a film screening: in the back, a small counter and several tables were set out for people to sit and eat dishes like dal makhni and goat biryani. This is where the award-winning documentary by Indian-Canadian director Nisha Pahuja was shown for Mustard Seed.

The World Before Her looks at the contrasting, yet in some ways similar, lives of young girls in two different “boot camps” in India–one for the women’s wing of the militant Hindu nationalist movement and the other a beauty camp for the twenty young women competing for the Miss India pageant.

Dana Mandi. Photo taken by Sarah Cassim

Usually, those rare times when a South Asian film makes its way to an independent theater nearby, I am surrounded by predominantly older white folks whose presence I am hyper-aware of — always checking to make sure they’re not laughing when they’re not supposed to. But here that wasn’t a problem —I could look around and see other South Asian women finding the same moments humorous. It felt comforting.

This was the magic of Mustard Seed Film Festival. It presented alternatives to the typical mainstream South Asian films that tend to make the independent film theaters. Issues of mental health in higher education in India, the transgender identity in Sri Lanka, the struggles of the Black Somali population in Delhi — this film festival displayed an huge range of experiences of people in South Asia and its diaspora. And it centered the South Asian community found in Philadelphia, creating a home away from home for all those who desired to be part of it.

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