Mustard Seed Film Festival: Interview with Co-Founder Natasha Cohen-Carroll ’13

Natasha Cohen-Carroll is a 2013 Haverford alumna who has cofounded Mustard Seed, a Philadelphia film festival centered on South Asian film and art. The festival, on August 19-20th, will include films, food, discussion, live music, and dance performances, and is “screening films directed by South Asian filmmakers, produced by South Asian production teams, and centered on themes salient to the South Asian citizen, immigrant and diasporic experience.” HCAH spoke to Ms. Carroll to find out more about her motivations and inspirations in creating this festival.

1. You mention on your website that there is a distinct lack of South Asian films, particularly socially-engaged films, being shown in Philly, and that through Mustard Seed you want to highlight “alternative visions of South Asia and South Asian cinema.” Was there a particular moment or set of experiences that really solidified a drive to create these dialogues around South Asian film?

The first moment when Mustard Seed became an inkling of an idea was when co-creator/ co-director Hariprasad Kowtha and I were at a race, media and social justice symposium— held by CAMRA at UPenn— with Gabriel Dattatreyan (who taught anthropology at Haverford last year, funnily enough).  After a screening of an Indian documentary, Hariprasad mentioned how wonderful it would be to have a South Asian film festival in Philly, and we all three began joking about doing it ourselves. Three weeks later though, it was still on our minds, and even if it was already the end of May, we decided to go for it, and by the beginning of June we already had three films confirmed. 

2. Looking at your selections, there’s a huge range of subjects and angles; included are narratives, dramas, documentaries, and hybrids from a huge range of cultures, identities, and experiences. Are there any central themes, apart from geographic origin, that shaped the curation of this festival?

Many of the films explore what home means, whether it is a return home after several years of absence (Lo Sum Choe Sum, Doubles with Slight Pepper, Udhao), a thought of leaving home to seek the unknown (Valley of Saints, Red Monsoon), or through an immigrant lens of leaving home or creating a new home (Cry Out Loud, Hyphen American). All the films have a very strong sense of place, to the point where the setting itself feels like its own character. The films evoke a questioning of identity, as the characters navigate these places, be it with a sense of longing, isolation, friendship, rejection, or courage.

3. For the past few years, you’ve been teaching and working at Darpana, a performing arts academy in Ahmedabad, India. Can you speak to your experiences there, and how this work has shaped your vision for Mustard Seed?

Darpana taught me a lot about the necessity of using arts as a means for social change and provided a clear example of how it can be done. My coworkers and friends at Darpana were passionate, driven, hardworking but also very warm people, and I was really struck by their ability to always maintain that openness even at times of impending deadlines and high stress. My time at Darpana definitely taught me how important it is to establish a meaningful connection with others, and I see clearly how it shaped Mustard Seed. One of the most rewarding aspects has been connecting with artists, thinkers, makers, organizers all across Philly with similar aims and goals of fostering cross-cultural dialogue and creating spaces dedicated to art and social change.

4. Were there any experiences from your time at Haverford that really solidified your interest in photography and film?

Absolutely. Too many to list here. I am really grateful to all my professors at Haverford– I feel very thankful. I was a Fine Arts and English double major, with a concentration in photography, and the combination really gave me a strong foundation– and the tools– for both analysis and creation. I remember my senior year jumping back and forth between writing my English thesis in Magill and working on my photo thesis in Marshall, and seeing connections between the two subjects that I never would have been able to see otherwise. Seeing the two coalesce taught me a lot, and informs my current creative work. During my senior year spring break, I went to Kingston, TN, with Corey Chao (’09) and Janela Harris (’14) to film a documentary on the 2008 coal ash spill, caused by the TVA. Thanks to a CPGC research grant, we were able to spend a week filming there, and interview residents that were affected by the spill.  

Additionally, I was lucky enough to work with Prof Williams, even after graduating. I worked with him during the summer of 2014, and then throughout the year helping set up the photo exhibits at Haverford.

5. In addition to film screenings, Mustard Seed includes dance performances, director interviews, live music, and panel discussions. What was your vision in selecting these events in addition to the films?

For this first year, we really wanted to make Mustard Seed a celebration, so including dancing, food and festivities was a big part of that. Having directors be present is very exciting for us, since it not only allows the director to present their film and experiences in their own words, but it also allows the audience to come together and really learn with (and from) one another. We also hope to use those events as a way to highlight the people who are already doing important work around South Asian art and multicultural community building in Philadelphia.

6. Are there any related organizations or events in the Philly area which are engaging with similar issues which people should keep an eye on? What’s next for you and your team?

Blackstar Film Festival, Philadelphia Asian American Festival (PAAFF), the Latino Film Festival are all events that jump to mind. These festivals have been pivotal in breathing life into Philly’s film scene and providing an opportunity for POC voices to be heard and celebrated.  Coming from Paris, one of the things that made me most homesick while at Haverford was not having as many movie theaters that showed good international movies. Those festivals are definitely events that made Philly feel more like home, and that continually inspire me in my own creative work. I’m looking forward to continuing working on my documentary film and photography projects after the festival is over. And as for the Mustard Seed team, we’re already keeping an eye towards next year! We’ll be hosting quarterly screenings at rotating locations, and we’ll also be co-presenting the film “Under Construction” at PAAFF’16 in October, a powerful film by Bangladeshi filmmaker Rubaiyat Hossain. We’re very excited about this year’s festival and we hope to see you there!

Mustard Seed Film Fest’s kickoff event is Friday, August 19th, under Reading Viaduct, and is free to the public. More information about the festival and the featured films can be found at their website.

Interview by Lydia Gingerich ’19