Desis, Iranians and Adolescent Girls at SFIAAFF 2010

March 10, 2010

Over the last several years, I’ve made it my point on this blog to assess the South Asian American aspects of the SFIAAFF: the good, the bad and the Bollywood. While the festival always has an amazing range of films and stories from global South Asia – it is the South Asian American stories that I find missing. So, I am especially excited that this year the festival showcases two South Asian American features – Aasif Mandvi’s Today's Special and Leena Pendharkar’s Raspberry Magic – with original and compelling storylines (no weddings!!). But I’m equally impressed by a powerful range of Iranian films, including a great pre-teen girl film to complement Pendhakar’s Raspberry Magic.

Aasif Mandvi

You can’t go wrong by starting out with an opening night film staring Aasif Mandvi. Mandvi is one of those incredibly hard-working actors whose definitely paid his dues in the movie biz. His earliest IMDB credits include a 1988 role in Miami Vice, but also show him as a Greek dude in Sex and the City – and, of course, various Arab-named terrorists and cab drivers on shows like Law & Order SVU and Nash Bridges. I especially recognize Mandvi from his memorable roles in early, indie South Asian American films like 1999’s ABCD and 2001’s American Chai. Along with the bit roles, Mandvi has definitely had some big hits like the V.S. Naipul adaptation The Mystic Masseur and, of course, his most familiar gig – “The Brown Guy” on The Daily Show. Mandvi wrote Today’s Special, based on his award-winning one-man theater show Sakina’s Restaurant, and it stars one of my favorite Indian actors: the elegant Naseeruddin Shah (Monsoon Wedding, a bazillion Bollywood movies). [Check back in this weekend for my report on Mandvi’s on-stage interview.]

Desi Pics 

Other South Asian highlights include the Deepa Mehta (Fire, Earth, Water trilogy) produced and Dilip Mehta directed feature Cooking With Stella. And of course, there's the always eclectic and entertaining Third-I Shorts Program. Look out for Tanuj Chopra's (Punching at the Sun, SFIAAFF 2006) very pan-Asian American stylized short -- Clap, Clap -- about love and betrayal. 

Iranian Films 

Though the festival’s focus this year is on Filipino film and culture, I found myself drawn to a number of Iranian films. In Tehran Without Permission, Iranian filmmaker Sepideh Farsi took to the streets with her cell phone because of the media ban leading up to the controversial elections. The phone allowed her to gain candid access to a cross-section of Iranians, making this one of the most urgent and relevant films in the festival. 

Another stunning Iranian film is Asghar Farhadi's About Elly, about a group of friends who take a weekend trip to the seaside and the chaos that ensues when Elly -- the only stranger among the group -- goes missing. As the film starts, viewers are pulled into the group dynamics of the various couples on the trip and attracted by the overbearing and charismatic Sepideh, who had asked Elly -- her daughter's quiet kindergarden teacher along on the trip, with some ulterior motives. Soon enough, tragedy strikes and Farhadi unravels the relationships in a complex and surprising way. The film uncovers how the most innocent situations can often take on sinister associations when secrets are kept. Definitely a movie that will have you discussing "what you would have done" in the same situation. 

Pre-Teen Girls Rule!

Katherine Bigelow may have made it the year of the female director by making a movie all about men, but Suzi Yoonesi and Leena Pendharker show us the triumph of the adolescent girl with their brilliant features. 

Yoonesi was a producer on the ground-breaking Miranda July film Me, You and Everyone We Know and you can see the artsy craftsy touches in Dear Lemon Lima's hand-drawn touches and quirky characters. Set in Alaska, the film focuses on 13-year-old half-Native Alaskan Vanessa Lemon (Savanah Wiltfong) who learns the value of her own heritage when she transfers to a new school and competes in the Snowstorm Survivor competition -- based on Native Alaskan games but co-opted by elite Sarah Palin-esque offspring. Yoonesi grew up in upstate New York, but says her grandmother's Persian fairy tales inspired her filmmaking career and interest in storytelling. A fascinating and enjoyable film that is heavily influenced by Wes Anderson's slightly ironic, visual candy style. In fact, Vanessa's crush -- Philip Gregory (Shayne Topp) seems to be almost impersonating Jason Schwartzman. Even though I thought this film was impressive and enjoyable, there were moments when the Native Alaskan elements seemed to be serving the ironic, hipster milieu of the film instead of actually wanting to explore the culture. But no matter what, it was great to see a film focused on a smart, and independently fierce young girl. An entirely original take on the Bad News Bears genre of underdog sports films.  

Raspberry Magic, directed by Leena Pendharkar and produced by Megha Kadakia, gives center stage to another fierce young lady: 11-year-old Monica Shah (Lily Javaherpour) thinks that she can save her parents failing marriage if she wins the Science Fair. [Full disclosure: Leena and Megha are close friends of mine and I am extremely proud to support their filmmaking efforts!] Shot in Oakland, the story shows how family breakdown can affect all members of a family, and how sometimes a child's belief in love and a little bit of magic can make a huge difference. The film brings to life an 11-year-old girl who is more interested in science than High School Musical and I highly recommend taking any young person you know to see this movie. Another powerful and unique aspect of RM, is that it is a film about a South Asian American family, full of South Asian American characters -- but doesn't have overtly South Asian themes. Set in the Northwest, the Shah family interacts with people of all races and it is films like this that take a chance to promote a truly South Asian American existence are the ones that are taking the biggest risks of all. A few years ago, Leena wrote about her path to making an independent film as an Asian American woman in Hollywood for Hyphen's film section. I've republished that here. Check it out and then go see the movie.