As Tribeca Film Festival kicks off this week, many emerging and independent filmmakers are using their movies as a way to tell a story or make a statement about social issues.
NBC Asian America spoke with seven directors on the inspirations behind their films and the issues they chose to explore through their filmmaking.
Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra — “A Suitable Girl”
When Khurana and Mundhra met in film school, they connected over their similar backgrounds coming from Indian families and feeling the pressure to be in an arranged marriage — a topic the pair explored in “A Suitable Girl.”
The co-directors told NBC News that they wanted to create a film that explored the complexities of arranged marriages. They followed Dipti, Amrita, and Ritu — all of whom are in arranged marriages — over four years as they navigated their daily lives, careers, families, and friends.
“It’s interesting to see this generation of young Indian women who are educated and financially independent beyond what their parents and mothers were and how they’re negotiating this overbearing pressure to settle down at a certain time,” Mundhra said.
Khurana said they also made the film in hopes that the people who watch it will develop a more open-minded understanding of arranged marriages.
“People have an old school notion that an arranged marriage is a forced marriage and that it is a very limited agency that a woman — or even a man for that matter — has and that you meet once and someone outside you has decided this eons ago,” Khurana said. “We wanted to challenge the very static idea of arranged marriage and question the binary versus 'love marriage' because there is such a spectrum of what marriage looks like in India.”
Geeta Gandbhir — “I Am Evidence” and “Love the Sinner”
For Gandbhir, co-directing "I Am Evidence" with Trish Adlesic and "Love the Sinner" with Jessica Devaney stemmed from her love and background in working on narrative films and documentaries relating to social justice.
"Both these films are about critical issues that women are facing today," Gandbhir told NBC News. "From advocating for survivors of sexual assault that goes across the board. … The other film, ’Love the Sinner’ with the Pulse night club shooting — that was a critical moment in all our lives. As far as the fight for dignity and equality when it comes to the LGBTQ community, it was devastating, but something that is a turning point."
She said that the backlog in rape kit testing covered in "I Am Evidence" is a topic that everyone should be more informed about.
"The system needs to be held accountable," Gandbhir said. "The truth is crimes against women are deemed unimportant and don't matter in the system today."
Executive producer Mariska Hargitay, who Gandbhir said is the brainchild behind "I Am Evidence," started the Joyful Heart Foundation and the ENDTHEBACKLOG initiative to shine a light on and attempt to eliminate the testing backlog for rape kits.
"This is something we should all be concerned about," Gandbhir said. "This is a public safety issue. This isn't just a moral issue. This can be anyone's mother, sister, daughter, and beyond that — it could be their child."
Lana Wilson — “The Departure”
When Wilson read a story in The New Yorker about Ittetsu Nemoto, a former punk rocker turned Buddhist monk, she was instantly drawn to his way of helping others and how he convinced suicidal people to move forward with their lives.
She was especially intrigued by the way Nemoto would have individuals write down the most important objects and people in their lives and their dreams for the future and then crumple that paper up to represent how people have to say goodbye to everything once they die.
“I realized that this exercise was something that could be captured in an incredibly cinematic way — to give each person who sees it a very personal experience,” Wilson told NBC News. “ I wanted the film to feel like a sit-down session with Nemoto, for every single member of the audience.”
While Wilson said her film is about valuing the meaning of life during times of despair, she added it is also about extreme altruism and trying to figure out the best way to contribute to something larger and more lasting than your own life.
“It's really boiled to the surface in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election,” she said. “There is so much desire and energy to do good right now — but also so much chaos and suffering and fear — that it can sometimes feel intimidating to figure out what’s best to do.”
She explores those questions her film, including where to draw the line between helping others and helping yourself, how much sacrifice is required, and whether or not the sacrifice can be self-justifying.
“As anyone in ’caring professions‘ will tell you, the answers are never simple,” Wilson said. “It can be very difficult to confront our motivations for doing altruistic work — especially when it actually compels us to avoid our own lives, or our own problems. And it can lead to the kind of profound personal shift we see Nemoto experience in the film.”
Amit V Masurkar — “Newton”
When Masurkar voted for the first time as a citizen of India, he thought his job was done and expected the politician he voted for to bring about change. It took Masurkar a while to understand that true democracy only came when people became politically engaged day-to-day and not just voters. After reading the preamble of the Constitution of India, he was inspired to make a movie on democracy and his country’s politics in a comedic yet meaningful way.
From there, “Newton” — a film about a rookie poll worker whose idealistic views are challenged when he volunteers to work in one of India’s most dangerous regions — was born.
"Sometimes when you talk about politics to some people, they’re disinterested, so the idea was to make an entertaining film that would reach out to as many people as possible,” Masurkar told NBC News. “I felt as though the only day a common person feels part of democracy, anywhere in the world, is on the day of voting when a person physically takes part in the voting process, and that’s why I wanted to have a film that begins taking place on India’s Election Day.”
Masurkar said he also wanted his film to explore Central India and the war between Communist guerrillas known as the Maoists and the Indian government. He wanted to raise awareness about the Gondi tribe, a group of indigenous people who live in the area and are forced to take sides or face consequences.
“There’s a huge gap between what is written and what is practiced, and at the same time, there is a gap between the ideals of democracy and the machinery of democracy and that’s all I’ve tried to show,” Masurkar said. “It’s not a preachy film. It’s just trying to take in account human nature and how people look at democracy.”
Elizabeth Lo — “Mother’s Day”
In 2014, Lo released “Hotel 22”, a short film about a public bus in California's Silicon Valley that homeless people used for shelter. A few years later, she created its “sequel,” “Mother’s Day,” along with co-director R.J. Lozada, after discovering the work the Center of Restorative Justice Works does in organizing annual bus trips for children to visit their parents in prison.
With funding from the Nation Institute, Lo and Lozada rode the buses to document the journeys the children took to be with their parents in the weekends leading up to Mother's and Father's Day.
Lo said she made “Mother’s Day” to remind the world of the steep price an entire generation of youth has to pay because of systems she believes remain broken across the United States.
“Many of these children are unable to regularly visit their incarcerated parents because remote, rural prisons are often difficult to access for low-income families,” Lo told NBC News. “While many are aware of the staggering problems resulting from the nation’s incarceration rate, few consider the impact it has on the children who grow up parentless in the place of a real relationship.”
Sam Voutas — “King of Peking”
In his latest film, Voutas tells a story about a father and son — Big Wong and Little Wong — who start a movie piracy business out of their basement.
Set in Beijing during the 1990s, Voutas said his film brings back nostalgic memories for him and his producers, Jane Zheng and Melanie Ansley, who were all raised in China.
“We were united by a real fondness of the memories of living in China in the way that it was the end of an age in the 1990s, both in terms of the transition from house cinema and how it changed once DVD entered the market, but also a China that doesn’t really exist anymore as the country has developed so quickly,” Voutas told NBC News.
While the heart of the film lies within the closeness between Big Wong and Little Wong, Voutas said a lot of the inspiration for the film came from having a background in independent filmmaking and constantly asking himself whether or not having a career in making movies was feasible when a child comes into the picture.
“So, really, the movie is about someone who makes a very irresponsible choice for the right reasons just like in many ways as an independent filmmaker, you are taking a risk and also making an irresponsible choice that may or may work out for the best,” Voutas said. “The movie is a love story — in many ways — not only between a father and son, but to a China that is no longer there, and ultimately a love story to cinema.”