“I want the audience to really hear what she has to say and to feel her rage, to feel her anger,” Mudigonda said. “I want the audience to listen to her testimony and really acknowledge that this is happening in the 21st century. … And maybe even acknowledge the privilege that [they] have where they’re not [dealing with] the same brutal problems that many of these marginalized groups of tribal people are facing in India.”
Mudigonda heard about these women accused of using witchcraft when he was an undergraduate engineering student in India. When he came to the U.S. he started making short films while he was doing his masters in engineering and subsequently working as a software engineer. After he screened an early short film at a student film festival he realized he had to pivot away from engineering and toward filmmaking.
“At that time, when I saw the reactions of these people and them coming and talking to me later about the film I made, I think that’s when it really kind of permanently registered that this is the path I have to take,” he said.
The festival cofounders called audience engagement with the filmmakers an important aspect of the festival.
“When you come into the theater and watch these movies, meet the filmmakers behind it and get engaged with the community with the Q&A there is a world perspective that is either introduced to you or your world view changes,” Bhatnagar said. “You know — there is a shift.”
The team putting on the festival scrambled to maintain the interactive component when they had to shift to a virtual format at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Bhanot said they had almost 1,500 online attendees from across the country because people were hungry for interaction after a month of isolation. But online attendance dipped last year.
“We attributed a lot of it to just virtual fatigue,” Bhanot said. “People were so tired because everybody was doing school and work virtually that entertainment was not likely to happen [virtually] anymore.”
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 Academy Award this year, and others won awards at the Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance film festivals.
The opening feature film Friday night, Last Film Show, is a coming-of-age story about a 9-year-old boy from a remote village in India who bribes his way into a movie theater to learn about the film projection booth. Bhanot and Bhatnagar immediately agreed it had open the festival.
“It’s an ode to cinema in the true sense because it’s about the loss of 35 mm [with] digital cinema taking over,” Bhanot said. “It sets the tone for a comeback from a pandemic to something beautiful. Yes, the old must go, but the new can be gorgeous.”