Silk Screen festival gathers films from around the world
By Michael Machosky
Published: Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 3:26 p.m.
Updated: Friday, June 22, 2012
When a film festival has a theme, it's usually pretty obvious who the audience is supposed to be -- whether it's a "Polish Film Festival" or "Horror Fest."
The Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival, which returns Friday for a seventh year in Pittsburgh, has always been a bit different in this respect.
"Our festival and our events are not geared towards Asian people," says Silk Screen founder Harish Saluja. "Asians already know about their culture. They don't need me to tell them about their culture. The very purpose of this endeavor is to build bridges, to bring non-Asians to Asian events, Asian images and stories and so forth. The purpose is to spread the joy of Asian film amongst the whole population."
Of course, "Asian" and "Asian-American" are incredibly broad categories. This year, the 25 films cover a vast swath of the planet, not just from powerhouse film industries like India and Japan, but smaller players like Kazakhstan, Turkey and Israel on the far frontiers of what can be considered Asia.
Saluja -- a writer, editor, painter, engineer, DJ (of "Music from India" Sunday nights on WESA 90.5-FM) and filmmaker himself -- has worked to make Silk Screen into a reason for Pittsburgh's many different Asian communities to share something with each other, and connect with the rest of the city.
As Saluja is fond of saying, "Asia is in our future."
It's also in our present, if you follow the news. Silk Screen kicks off Friday with an incredibly topical film, "The Lady," about Myanmar human rights activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner and icon of nonviolent democratic resistance, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her defiance of the Myanmar military regime has taken her from house arrest into a seat in their parliament, as the dictatorship's grip begins to soften under international pressure. The French/British co-production features a big-name director, Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita"), and actor Michelle Yeoh ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").
Silk Screen has established itself as a venue for well-made, challenging films -- not just the latest mainstream smash hit from Bollywood and its other Asian equivalents. That may have limited its appeal in certain respects, but broadened it in other ways -- certainly making it clear that great filmmaking knows few geographical boundaries.
Just like Hollywood, Asian films have their up years and down years. Saluja thinks this is a particularly great year for Asian filmmaking.
"These films seem to be getting more courageous," he says.
The closing-night film, "Trishna" (May 20), is a retelling of Thomas Hardy's classic novel "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," set in contemporary India. Starring Freida Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire"), "Trishna" challenges sexual double standards in a fairly explicit manner for an Indian film, which typically shuns any such content. Even more unexpected is "The Lovely Man" (May 16 and 18) from Indonesia, the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world.
"The opening scene, a young, innocent girl wearing a headscarf and everything goes to Jakarta to find her father -- who ends up being a cross-dressing male prostitute," Saluja says. "To come from a Muslim country, to have the courage to make a film like that -- it's so different."
There's also an acclaimed film about the last bloody battle of the Korean War, "The Front Line" (May 13 and 16), and a strange fantasy/romance from Kazakhstan called "Baikonur" (May 18) about a naive young radio operator who finds a beautiful French astronaut, fallen from the sky from the Russian space station far above.
Then, there's utterly confounding "Woman in a Septic Tank" (May 12 and 17).
"Every year, we get one or two films from the Philippines, that are filmed in the ghettoes, where trash is collected -- sad stories about poor people," Saluja says. "These films make the rounds of the festivals and all that. This film starts like that. Then, after 5 to 10 minutes, through voiceover, you realize that these are two filmmakers whose primary aim is to make a 'ghetto movie' in order to be accepted to film festivals -- so they can travel around the world, free of charge, and be honored and so forth. They have no interest in telling the story of poor people, or moving forward film, or anything -- it's primarily a scam. It puts the mirror in front of the filmmaking community, and made it funny."
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