The International Examiner continues to recognize the outstanding achievements of Asian Pacific American leaders through the Community Voice Awards. Rita Meher will be honored with the Excellence in Arts Award for her work in filmmaking and leading the Tasveer South Asian Film Festival.
As a filmmaker for more than 15 years and one of the founders of Tasveer, Rita Meher works to strengthen communities and dispel negative perceptions of South Asians by curating thought-provoking events in a post-9/11 world. Through Tasveer, she brings greater understanding on commonly misunderstood issues in South Asian countries, creates a strong platform for marginalized voices, and sparks dialogue on taboo issues among local South Asian communities. Tasveer’s mission is to inspire social change through thought-provoking South Asian films, art, and storytelling.
Before diving full-time into Tasveer in 2012, she worked as a freelance video producer and editor in various local TV stations. Meher edited the award-winning Bangladeshi documentary Threads and made her first short film, Citizenship 101, based on her own immigrant experience. She was named Seattle Globalist of the Year in 2015, and a Rising Star by Northwest Asian Weekly. Meher was born and raised in India, and lived in Japan for four years. She is fluent in Hindi, Odiya, and Japanese.
The International Examiner sat down with Meher to discuss her involvement in filmmaking and the South Asian community.
International Examiner: The South Asian community is so diverse, how do you keep up with what’s going on in these communities?
Rita Meher: Yes, it is very diverse and we work hard to find information and what’s going on in the community. So one way we do that, for example, in our festival is to focus on a different South Asian country every year. For example, this year we’re focusing on Nepal and working with Nepali organizations. There are about seven Nepali organizations we’re aware of and we go out and meet with them and find out their interests and ask them to get involved. Another way we keep up is we regularly do outreach to different organizations in different communities.
IE: You have plenty of experience in filmmaking now but what originally drew you to the arts and filmmaking specifically?
Meher: My background is in literature and I worked as a Japanese translator and interpreter in Japan. When I came here in 1998, I couldn’t find any Japanese-related work and it created a career crisis for me. I started to explore other options and I thought about going into computers or website building or something else or go back to school, meanwhile I was working at United Airlines and traveling and doing translations for customer service.
But in 2001 when 9/11 happened, there was something personal that happened I really wanted to dig into with that incident, and my good friend said “why don’t you make a film” about my experience with that incident. I thought that was a brilliant idea and picked up my camera and put together a crew and put together a film on my incident. It wasn’t a grand incident, it was very small and monumental—I was yelled at on the street to go back to my country and that moment shook me and made me question my sense of belonging—should I go back or stay here? I made a film and that process set me on the path to get me more involved in film; editing became my career. I went back to Bellevue College to learn editing and filmmaking professionally. Filmmaking and doing something creative was always in the back of my head.
IE: Tasveer’s website mentions that you founded Tasveer because of negative depictions of South Asians in the media. How do you think those depictions were affecting South Asian communities and how did you hope Tasveer would challenge them?
Meher: What we set out to do was create awareness of our identity and who we are as an immigrant population and South Asian community. We started making films on all subject matters so we can create engagement on that subject matter.
We brought a film on Muslim women’s perspectives. We made a film from a Muslim woman’s perspective: what a Muslim woman is going through living here; wearing the veil or not. We want to create engagement around that and try to chip at the ignorance and things like getting yelled at.
We just want to create an awareness of our culture and our identity and Islamophobia and show films on Islamic culture and films on what the Sikh community was going through because nothing like that was available until we started doing it. There were no such screenings held anywhere and we can’t wait around for someone else. We create the space and people come, people ask questions and have a dialogue around perceptions of South Asians and South Asian identity.
IE: You founded Tasveer in 2002—what has changed since then in regards to filmmaking and the sociopolitical climate?
Meher: If you consider filmmaking and production value, it has gone from 0 to 10—now really good quality films are being produced. It’s also easier to get films from overseas and even having access to filmmakers and their contact information has been so much easier and through social media. That’s been great for us.
Sociopolitical climate—we do feel we have made some kind of impact in the community and bringing awareness to matters that aren’t seen through other films besides Bollywood. We advocate for the South Asian LGTBTQ community. No films were shown and there was no platform for the LGBTQ community to showcase their films and it wasn’t showing up anywhere. We kicked off our organization during Pride Month and curated LGBTQ shorts—it was a challenge for our own community to be accepting and come to see these films and have a dialogue. In 2008, when our festival was dedicated to LGBTQ subject matter, people got upset and community volunteers dropped out from our organizing team and only a few members would come to showings. From 2008 to now, the community is so accepting. Just next week we’re doing a program on LGBTQ subject matter and it’s so much more acceptable and I think we have a hand in that and making it a more open subject matter and not taboo. I think subjects related to domestic violence and women we started showing and bringing and sharing stories and people would say, “I didn’t tell my husband I’m coming to this film,” or, “I’m not telling my family I came,” secretly back in 2005, 2006, and 2007; now it’s a big thing—we’ll have a dialogue and it’ll be sold out in a few days.
We have seen good changes; however, with the new administration and new government it feels like 9/11 all over again. There are so many cases of hate crimes and just talking about the South Asian community, they’re being targeted because of the way we look and racial profiling and there was the Kansas City shooting so there’s still a lot of work to do.
IE: What advice would you give to young people who want to create social change and use the arts to do so?
Meher: What we would like to say to young people is to be bold and not be scared to voice their opinions. That’s what the new generation is all about and they’re doing that but to keep doing that and come out and participate and see a film that’s different that you don’t see on Netflix and to create your films, too. I like it how more young people are picking up cameras and creating their own work.
IE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Meher: One thought: even though we say we’re focusing on South Asian community here, it’s a welcoming space and it’s all of our stories and things we talk about transcend to other communities so we look forward to others to come in and use this space to engage with the community.