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A film fest that's a world apart

The Spinning Wheel fest features films about Sikhs, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2006 20:32 IST

For sheer inimitability, there aren’t too many annual cinema events around the world that can quite outdo Toronto’s very special Spinning Wheel Film Festival. It showcases films, both full-length features and documentaries, crafted “by, for and about Sikhs”.

“Every year, we receive up to 200 films for consideration,” says T Sher Singh, a Patna-bred, Toronto-based legal eagle who is driven primarily by his passion for cinema. He is currently in India to begin the groundwork for the fourth edition of the Spinning Wheel Film Festival, to be held in October 2006.

Although the Spinning Wheel Film Festival is primarily meant to celebrate Sikh community-centric cinema, it is by no means parochial in nature, Sher Singh asserts. “Our focus is on films made by and about Sikhs because we needed to make sure that our stories are told the way we want them to be told,” he adds.

An independent selection panel is set up every year to shortlist films suitable for the unique festival. “The jury is made up of film professionals and experts,” says Sher Singh. “We go in for films that excite and incite, but in an intellectual way. The brief is clear: no film is too controversial for us. We perceive cinema as a powerful medium that can articulate ideas and provoke debate.”

ShonaliBose’s Amu was showcased at one of the early editions of the Spinning Wheel Film Festival. The fest is unique in itself because it features films, both full-length features and documentaries, crafted "by, for and about Sikhs".

The Sikh community has always been driven by an open, outward-looking vision and we do not wish to dilute that. We do not flinch from showing films that might be critical of our community. We believe that unless you face and address truths about yourself, you cannot progress,” says Sher Singh, who recently gave up the legal profession to concentrate on a writing career.

However, not all the films that are screened at the Spinning Wheel Film Festival are about Sikhs. “We also select films that have a general connect with larger Indian issues and are consistent with our broader philosophy,” he says.

The spirit of the festival is spreading fast. Films selected for the annual Toronto event also travel to New York and Los Angeles. While the festival is already three years old in New York, it is into its second year in Los Angeles. And now, San Francisco is all set to host the first edition of the Spinning Wheel Film Festival next month.

“Our dream,” says Sher Singh, who has been in Canada for 35 years, “is to bring the festival to Delhi. After all, this is where our roots are. This is where we really belong” The organisers have already received positive feelers from groups in Delhi and Chandigarh and it is probably only a matter of time before the Spinning Wheel Film Festival takes off in India.

The Spinning Wheel Film Festival is a self-funding exercise, reveals T Sher Singh. “We draw our resources from corporate sponsorships and ticket sales,” he adds.

The festival accepts films of all kinds – from 35 mm prints to digital video. When the event was launched four years ago, the programme line-up necessarily included films from different periods, as there weren’t enough new Sikh films going around. “But now,” says Sher Singh, “most of the films that we screen are from the last 12 months and they come from different parts of the world.”

Among the better known films screened at the festival since its inception are the US-based Shonali Bose’s fictional Amu and Toronto resident Ali Kazmi’s Continuous Journey, a historical documentary about one of the earliest flashpoints of the Indian freedom struggle. Kazmi’s film won the Golden Conch at the just-concluded Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) for documentary, short and animation films.