Everything That Glitters - Lessons From My Festival Journey!

By Srinivas Sunderrajan. Posted on July 06, 2015

Srinivas Sunderrajan (@thevaas) is a rarity. He is an independent filmmaker with two theatrical releases to his name, founder of production house Enter Guerrilla Films and the bassist for metal band Scribe. In his words, this is FESTIVAL 101: a first-person chronicling of indie dreams on the international film festival circuit.

This post first appeared on India Independent Films, a blog devoted to promoting the independent film and television work of South Asians everywhere.


2012 was the last time I went for a film festival that wasn’t on Indian soil.

The festival was ‘CPH:PIX – Bollywood and Beyond Film Festival in Copenhagen. I was in the ‘Beyond’ category, with both my independent feature films (“The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project” and “Greater Elephant”) being screened there. If I was a retired 60 year old filmmaker, I would term this as a ‘Retrospective’ – but I’m half that age and have a long way ahead.

So let me retrace my steps back to the glory years of 2007-2011.

The Wonder Years

Back in 2005-06, while doing a mass media course, I was introduced to a completely new world of cinema and filmmakers. When I say new, it’s because I am a huge fan of Bollywood cinema. When I say a huge fan, it encompasses cinema from the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s.  Coming back to the topic, Devdutt a classmate of mine, used to keep cinema nights at his place where we used to watch films made by Godard, Fellini, Antonioni and the mass favorite, Wong Kar Wai. Post film interactions used to continue till sunrise post which we all used to go back home and google about the said filmmakers and their journey. What I found in my ‘research’ was this common thread that bound all these auteurs and their works.

It wasn’t theatres, multiplexes or DVDs, but two words – FILM FESTIVALS. In common man talk, the words that are found between two leaves on a film poster!

CANNES, SUNDANCE, BERLIN, VENICE, TORONTO – these were the words to reckon with. These were the festivals one needs to be seen in to ‘arrive’. These words, made their way subconsciously into my dreams (and nightmares). Various dreams featured me in these festivals, wearing tuxedos and holding the respective trophies, smiling at the photographers, dining with Scorsese-Wes Anderson-Wong Kar Wai (Obviously)-Coppola-Spielberg etc. These thoughts made my hour and half journey from home to college bearable. These visuals made the most boring lecture also the most interesting ones.

Every class project HAD to be an audio-visual film, which would win at film festivals. Such was the ambition, such was the stupidity.

Sigh.

In 2007, a film called ‘The Pool‘ won the special jury prize at Sundance. I was the assistant director and translator on that film.

The film featured two street kids from Panjim, Goa and had Nana Patekar in it. The film’s director, Chris Smith was already a Sundance Grand Jury Winner with his ridiculously funny yet tragic film ‘American Movie’. It’s through him that I got exposed to this world that I reside in –“Independent cinema” (but more on that later). As luck would have it, Nana Patekar couldn’t make it for the Sundance festival and the director not wanting to waste the opportunity –offered the ticket to me. There I was, in my final year of mass media study staring at an email that asked me whether I would want to join the crew at Sundance.

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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, USA / 2007

It wasn’t the face of Robert Redford or any Hollywood A-listers that caught our sight, but the image of snow. It was freezing cold at Park City – the coldest Sundance ever I was told. Not to be deterred by the extreme climate, I wanted to explore more – find those auteurs that I dreamt of, click photographs with them ; old school way.

TLDR – nothing of that sort happened. I ended up watching a lot of really interesting American independent cinema that got my mind churning with ideas that would obviously be rejected here in India, back then. But still, it opened my mind to explore possibilities of storytelling like never before. These weren’t the same style as the films we saw at Devdutt’s cinema nights. These were contemporary stories being told by the new wave of independent auteurs. “What a wonderful school to attend”, I thought.

Sundance 2007 for me became a boot-camp for everything that was indie.

Film festival lesson #1: Try and watch films that you know would find difficulty getting a distribution in place.

Films without stars etc., but having an interesting story or concept that you find fascinating. Relax, you have the festival film book with you to make the choice. Try speaking to fellow festival attendees to gauge what’s interesting or not. This is the only way to understand what your contemporaries are doing in different parts of the globe and helps shape your ideas as well.

Also frankly, who was I kidding. I didn’t have a film to pitch or make (had a 8 minute short called ‘Tea Break’ to my credit) – so why bother trying to meet people at the Film market or small talking with sales agent. F that! Just go with the crew and snowboard. In the process of hanging out with the crew, I got to know about how festivals work and why it was essential that the screening be at XYZ venue and not at ABC because X critic likes that venue and Y sales agent has a permanent seat booked in this venue.

Film festival lesson #2: If you’re a fan of strategy games, film festivals would be cakewalk for you.

INDIAN FILM FESTIVAL OF LOS ANGELES, USA / 2007 (Aka IFFLA)

Since I joined social media quite late in 2009, nobody knew of my Sundance trip back then. But that’s cool because what followed changed the course of my life…till date.

Late 2006-07 saw the growth of the now infamous defunct blog site “Passion For Cinema”. It was famous back then because a certain Anurag Kashyap used to be quite active expressing his thoughts and concerns over the growing ‘corporatization’ of Indian cinema.

Anurag‘s interaction with PFC founder, Oz at a festival in Los Angeles where his unreleased/controversial films, Black Friday and Paanch – was one the reasons that led to the founding of ‘Passion For Cinema’. The name of the festival stuck in my head – “Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles”; so which means, there’re other festivals other than the BIG FIVE, I realized.

The actress of ‘The Pool’, Ayesha coaxed me into showing my short film to Anurag Kashyap, considering he had also helped me in writing the Hindi dialogues for the short. He saw the film and asked me to send it to “Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles".

Tea Break’ got selected in the shorts program at IFFLA, 07. And having been given a crash course as to how festivals function, I made up my mind to travel to the festival in the hope of ‘selling my short film’ and use the money to fund my return journey back! (kidding)

Film festival lesson #3: If a famous filmmaker calls you up to tell you to send your film to a certain festival, don’t ask questions or overthink – Just send it.

For those who think film festivals select your film based on the film’s merit, yes it works that way too. But not always; sometimes it works through recommendations of people that the festival trusts.  But waiving off fees doesn’t mean your film is selected. For that the film has to be GOOD or conforming to what the festival guidelines are. Not all festivals showcase experimental or abstract films – so one has to choose those festivals accordingly.

Film Festival lesson #4: Most (if not all) of the international film festivals DO NOT sponsor travel for short filmmakers.

At most they will offer accommodation for the festival days, but I repeat, they DO NOT sponsor travel.

So that myth got busted for me this trip, but I had already made up my mind, so there was no stopping me. Having directed a corporate film on the sly, I used that money to fund my trip.  Also, 10 YEAR US VISA FTW!

Soon after landing, I realized I was the youngest filmmaker there – all of 23! I got to meet other wonderful filmmakers, who were also showcasing their films there – Paromita Vohra (whose documentary Q2P ended up winning the Grand Jury that year), Ritesh Batra (then just another, wide eyed, short film maker like me), Soumitra Ranade (of Jajantaram Mamantaram fame), Murali Nair (winner of Camera D’or for Maranasinhasanam), Bharat Bala, Nishikant Kamath and the festival favorite, Anurag Kashyap.

The festival had printed some posters of the film and displayed them at the screening venue, Arclights cinemas. The poster for TEA BREAK, for some reason was bigger than the others and a lot of people mistook the film for being a feature film. Bigger poster, longer film they must’ve thought!

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Festival lesson #5: If your short film is playing at the festival, don’t bother pitching your feature script or idea to anyone.

The short films aren’t ‘fodder’ enough for them to invest their time and energy on hearing you out. Unless of course, your short film is so captivating that people throw money bags at you! So instead, spend your time watching other films, chilling and joking with the volunteers (they too have interesting lives) and take time out acting as a good Indian tourist and checking out some museums or other local attractions!

As compared to the grander festival, that I was a part of a few months back, IFFLA seemed to be more of a picnic gathering.

And I realized how much I enjoyed this setting more because it made me feel at home. Right from the volunteers to the festival director, Christina – everyone shared the same ride to parties, screenings and hotel.

The vibe was excellent where people spoke about cinema and the future that Indian cinema had. The US-NRI bloggers of PFC came all the way from NY, San Francisco, Dallas etc., to be a part of the festival experience.

The festival had special programs for filmmakers to attend to – like the ‘one on one workshop’ and the ‘script pitching meetings’ , where professionals from various American studios would meet you to understand your work and whether a collaboration was possible or not. Unfortunately for me, being a short filmmaker at the festival, you cannot make much progress at these meeting because they’re looking for something beyond 60 minute content. It helps if you’ve got a producer with you – who can do the business talks.

Festival lesson #6: Industry professionals at film festivals don’t take a director seriously because they view him/her as a ‘creative individual’ who shouldn’t be disturbed by the number games (when will people here learn, I wonder!).

What makes sense is to travel with your producer who does the talking on your film’s behalf. They can talk shop, numbers, distribution etc. because that’s how the festival culture works abroad.

Apart from meeting filmmakers, I also got to click some old school photographs with known faces like Rahul Bose, Nandita Das and the Late Jagmohan Mundra.

But the one that changed my life was the one with Quentin Tarantino.

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A lot has been written about and said of my chance encounter with QT – but the one thing that is quite subliminal is the magic of this festival in making things possible. Confused?

What connection does IFFLA have with the birth of “Passion For Cinema”? Well, if Anurag’s films hadn’t been shown here and he didn’t have an interaction with the site founder – the possibility of a blog like PFC wouldn’t have been there.

So, then what connection does IFFLA have with me apart from showing my film? Well, if I hadn’t met Quentin Tarantino at Arclight (IFFLA base), I would never have met Kartik Krishnan (an ardent QT fan) back home and my first independent feature ‘The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project’ would never have been made!

So now you see – IFFLA is like the David Lynch of film festivals. Mysterious things happen and how!

Conspiracies aside, ‘Tea Break’ went onto the win the Grand Jury Prize for the Best short film and I still don’t know what I went on stage and said in the mic. Having boarded the flight to US on the last day of my examination to meeting and interacting with the best talents there and then going on to win an award – things were moving too fast for me. I got a lot of job offers then and there from the Indian contingent – “Come work with us”, “You will assist me in my next film!”, “XYZ would love to have a talent like you in our midst!” etc.

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As I went to bed that night, I wondered what if I hadn’t won the award. Wouldn’t things have been different?   Or would it have been the same considering most of those people had seen my short film? Couldn’t they see the talent or merit in the work and give me an offer nonetheless?

In retrospect, the only advice that made the most sense was from Paromita, who told me –“Don’t let this win get to your head. Stay grounded!”

Unfortunately, it did go into my head and took a year to get out.

That’s when I could make my second short film “Vaapsi – The Return”, which won the best short film at Dimensions, MAMI 2008 and also got selected at IFFLA, 08!

Festival lesson #7: What goes around comes around! So as Scar says in Lion King, “Be Prepared”

To be continued...


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