Silk Screen Film Festival highlights Asian cultures


Silk Screen brought Asian art to Pittsburgh in September. Julia Zhu | Staff Photographer

By David Robinson / For The Pitt News

Pitt welcomed Asian culture into Oakland with the annual Silk Screen Film Festival, which had viewings on Pitt’s campus for the first time this year.

The weeklong Asian Arts festival is specific to Pittsburgh and offers a celebration of diversity and multicultural appreciation through film viewings and traditional dance performances. For the first time in its 11-year history, Silk Screen, a non-profit organization that aims to educate Pittsburgh about Asian culture, held the festival in September rather than July, in order to increase student awareness, according to Associate Director at Pitt’s Asian Studies Center Lynn Kawaratani.

Kawaratani said the festival’s time and venue changes bring it in closer contact with Pitt.

“It’s a huge step that it’s moved to the academic year, and then another huge step to … have the screenings on campus,” Kawaratani said.

As people filled auditoriums around Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University to see the movies, audiences first saw the image of a butterfly formed out of a reel of film, this year’s logo, on the screens. Moviegoers settled in to watch films about Asian LGBTQ+ communities, patriarchy in Asian societies and explorations of musical culture.

The screenings began Friday, Sept. 16 at the Regent Square Theater on South Braddock Avenue with the opening screening of the Iraqi picture “El Clasico,” an Iraqi road trip movie about two brothers trying to meet soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo.

Other notable films included “Parched,” about four women claiming liberation from their rural village and patriarchy in northwestern India, and “Raman Raghav 2.0,” or “Psycho Raman,” a pop psychological thriller about a serial killer in India seeking out his protege, which had its U.S. premier at the festival.

The festival’s movie screenings ran from Sept. 16 to 25 and featured 31 films from all across Asia, with selections from India, Iran and South Korea that have premiered within recent years. Most of the films featured are not distributed in the United States except at festivals.

Before the movies began, Silk Screen held an opening Red Carpet Gala at the William Penn Ballroom in the Omni William Penn Hotel Downtown with multiple culturally inspired performances, including a traditional Chinese lion dance and a performance from Pitt’s own First Class Bhangra team.

Steel Dragon Martial Arts, lead by Chris Young, performed the lion dance, in which dancers mimic a lion and display luck and good fortune through props, including tangerines that represented the sweetness of life.

“We do a certain amount of outreach to promote our culture because it’s something worth sharing,” Young said. “[Silk Screen is] promoting, in a sense, our heritage through films.”

In 2005, Harish Saluja, a radio host and artist, founded Silk Screen to fill a void in Pittsburgh after noticing there was no Asian film festival in the city. He came to Pittsburgh in the early ’70s and began working in radio, hosting “Music from India” weekly on local NPR. His film “The Journey,” which is about a retired Indian headmaster who comes to America, premiered in 1997.

Pitt students had free viewings of films at Frick Fine Arts, and discounted rates at showings held at the Carnegie Museums and Carnegie Mellon University.

Pitt’s increased participation in the festival included input from individuals such as Kawaratani ––  a member of the festival’s advisory board ––  and Neepa Majumdar, a Pitt film professor  and a member of Silk Screen’s Film Programming Committee, the group responsible for film curation and selection.

The festival’s Film Programming Committee started curating this year’s films last November. The committee consists largely of Pitt faculty from the film studies department and Asian studies department. Though Aseem Chhabra and Alex Charlton, programming director of the festival and assistant programmer of the festival, respectively, found many of the films through scouting, they also filtered through the hundreds of submissions from international directors and production companies until they decided on the final listings.

According to Kawaratani, an advisory board of stakeholders and Pitt faculty act as liaisons to Silk Screen. Faculty and professors help determine how Pitt’s curriculum can overlap with what films are shown.

For instance, the Pakistani documentary “Song of Lahore,” which is about a traditional orchestra playing American jazz, overlaps with Pitt’s course on Southeast Asian music. The class learns about the style of orchestration and then watches their lessons play out on the screen throughout the documentary.

Charlton was responsible for distribution and coordination of the films with local venues for the festival. Charlton, a student filmmaker studying film and business at Chatham University, said cinema allows people to experience and understand other cultures.

“It’s a way to appreciate the person you’re sitting next to on the bus, and appreciating their culture and where they come from, and at the same time sharing that experience with them,” Charlton said.

Chhabra, freelance writer on arts and politics, said that through watching films, he has expanded his own cultural education.

“I learn so much while screening for films. There’s some films that really surprise you … and you learn so much [from] watching itself and the greatest joy you get is to share that joy with audiences,” Chhabra said.

After the showing of the film “Kaagaz ki kashti,” or “Paperboat,” about famed Ghazal singer Jagjit Singh, audiences had the opportunity to speak with the director, Brahmanand Singh.

Singh said the power of cinema comes from its ability to underline the similarities among all people.  

“I personally feel films are a connector across culture because they explore the human condition and emotion, and they are exactly the same everywhere,” he said.

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