Two films on Varanasi, focus on sex trafficking, at Socially Relevant Film Festival

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NEW YORK – The Socially Relevant Film Festival (SRFF) 2018, which begins its fifth season in Manhattan, from March 16 to 22, at Cinema Village and neighboring venues, features two films based in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, apart from a keynote evening program including a local NGO serving the South Asian diaspora, focused on empowering women.

A 501 (c) 3 non-profit film festival founded by actress Nora Armani, the Mission of SRFF is to shine the spotlight on filmmakers who tell compelling, socially relevant, human interest stories, across a broad range of social issues.

The festival was created as a response to the proliferation of violence and violent forms of storytelling in media and entertainment. The festival believes in the power of cinema in raising awareness towards social issues and promoting positive social change. During its first four years, the festival has showcased 207 films from 35 countries.

This year SRFF offers a diverse mix of five narrative features, 15 documentaries, and 38 shorts, apart from a script-writing contest, with readings from finalist scripts. This year’s films represent over 22 countries.

The opening night will commence with the narrative feature film Lou Andreas-Salomé: The Audacity to be Free (Germany). A stunning period piece on the 19th-century female novelist, poet, and essayist, the film follows Salomé as she shuns traditions in pursuit of intellectual perfection.

Themes for selected short film groupings include: Ageing Gracefully; Dreamers Having a Nightmare; Sustainable Communities; Where is Home?; And Whose Disability?

On March 19, a ‘keynote evening’ to celebrate women will be held in partnership with Apne Aap – an organization that rescues women and girls in India from sex-trafficking. A series of films from India and elsewhere that promote empowering women and young girls, as well as a panel discussion with founder of Apne Aap, Ruchira Gupta, is also on the cards.

Gupta has strived over 25 years to highlight the link between trafficking and prostitution laws, and to lobby policy makers to shift blame from victims to perpetrators. She testified in the United States Senate before the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, and she lobbied with other activists at the United Nations during the formulations for the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons — resulting in the first UN instrument to address demand for trafficking.

She has won many awards, including the Clinton Global Citizen Award, the Abolitionist Award at the UK House of Lords, an Emmy in 1997 for her work on the documentary “The Selling of Innocents,” which inspired the creation of Apne Aap; and her work has been featured in 11 books, including Half the Sky by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof. She was also honored with the prestigious French award l’Ordre national du Mérite (Knight of the National Order of Merit), in 2016, for her commitment to end sex trafficking.

Of special interest this year at SRFF would be a cutting-edge VR/360º experience that push the boundaries of immersive storytelling, courtesy of Samsung. Among the six selected pieces is ‘The Great’ – a ‘VR Great White Shark Experience’, which shows firsthand the grace and beauty of this misunderstood and endangered creature.

The script writing competition features readings with actors, in the presence of the scriptwriters, from the seven finalist scripts. Other workshops and panels on offer include industry forums, an engaged theatre workshop, a live music performance, to silent films. Closing night will also see a party for the filmmakers at Doux Supperclub, featuring appearances from local filmmakers and industry veterans.

“This year’s festival goes back to basics: the filmmakers, the films, and the issues,” says festival founder and Artistic Director Armani.

‘Keep Believing’ by Wouter de Kuijper, which would make its New York premiere, on March 18, is a film jointly made in the Netherlands and India, spanning almost an hour.

The story revolves around Frans Baartmans, who left his home in the Netherlands, in 1979, to live in India amongst the Dalits in the slums of Nagwa, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

The Dalits belong to most discriminated group of people in the world and are also known as “untouchables”. Being born a Dalit means you are born without a voice and excluded from society and all basic human rights. The film depicts the fights of the Dalits along with Frans the powers that be on a daily basis, aiming for equality, acknowledgement and dignity; the right to exist.

Also making its New York premiere, on March 18, would be ‘Beyond the Grid’, by Vinit Parmar, an Indian American filmmaker and Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, in New York.

Parmar’s almost half-an-hour short is an ethnographic portrayal which poetically captures the lives of impoverished, remote island villagers in the Varanasi region. These villagers have lived without electricity for eons, and now, quite possibly they are the first developing village to switch to renewable energy.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)