A new bride, fresh off the boat, suddenly feels she’s being stalked by a stranger in her new country, but her husband dismisses her fears as exaggerated.
A devoted acolyte of video games wakes up one morning with a black eye and has no idea what happened.
Ugly secrets in a woman’s past rise up to haunt her while she agonizes about making the right choices in life.
These are some of the tantalizing, tales spun onto the silver screen by Storytellers, a community film club in Washington D.C., which is showcasing five short films in an online festival that is free for all audiences from June 12 to June 20th.
Storytellers was born in 2010 out of a shared passion for cinema and the art of telling a good story. One of its founding members, Mansoor Ahmed, recounts how his love for cinema was probably ignited by the fact that his family home in Pakistan was right across from a movie theatre. When he moved to Washington DC his desire to remain connected to the Arts led him to join Natya Bharati, a local theatre group that stages plays in the D.C area., where he connected with other connoisseurs of good stories.
“We really enjoyed the process of creating and staging plays, but some of us wanted a more permanent record of our stories on stage, and that was the seed of the idea for a film club.
“From there, a core group of us launched Storytellers,” says Mansoor.
Mansoor’s day job during this period of creative ferment was as an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center. His wife, Hema Ahmad, would joke that she was a film widow for all those years when weekends went into brainstorming or working on a project. Hema has recently become active in Storytellers and written the screenplay for The Dig, one of the films in the showcase.
The core group of founders also included Vandana Narang, another avid film buff. She recalls how, in Junior High, she would skip lunch and spend her lunch money on movies.
“I always wanted to be a journalist, recording life, but life had other plans for me. When Moonie (as Mansoor is affectionately known to his family and friends) got involved with a Pakistani feature film called Bhool which was being shot by a friend of his, I helped with that project. The film got shelved and by a stroke of luck, we inherited all the professional equipment used to shoot it. So, now we had all the paraphernalia needed to make our own movies. Also, digital technology had made it much more affordable for amateurs to produce short films.”
“With the launch of Storytellers,” Vandana recalls, “I plunged into this creative outlet where I found myself getting fascinated with the technical aspects of filmmaking, and with understanding how the writing and directing and filming are all meshed together to produce a final product. It was a fantastic learning process and a great adventure.”
Vandana wrote the screenplay for Storyteller’s first project which was a short film called Relativity. Friends and family were cast in various roles and the audience was primarily friends and family. Since then, the group has exponentially expanded its membership and its audience, and open casting calls are held for their films.
Sangeeta Agarwal joined Storytellers in her capacity as an accomplished actor, with a role in the short film, Stalking Shadows, but soon got drawn into the film making process.
“The best part of Storytellers is its democratic inclusiveness,” says Sangeeta. We treat this as a completely collaborative exercise for all our members. Everyone is welcome to find the area of filmmaking that interests them or what they want to learn about, and then we form teams for each phase of the process. We regularly brainstorm ideas as a group—our motto is that there is no good or bad idea out there—there are just ideas that need to be woven into a good film.”
Storytellers has produced 17 short films over the course of 10 years and picked up accolades and audiences along the way. They’ve participated in numerous film festivals including DC South Asian Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, Istanbul Film Awards, World Music and Independent Film Festival, and International film festivals all over the US. They’ve also won awards for Best Short Film, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cult Film, among others.
The journey for this film club has been extremely exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, but always a rewarding one.
“We learned so much and had such interesting experiences over the years,” says Mansoor. He recalls an amusing incident where they wanted to shoot a scene from a film in a police station. They approached the station with trepidation, wondering if they would get permission for the shoot, but once inside they found a beehive of activity and no one paid any attention to them. They proceeded to shoot their scene in the midst of all the hubbub without anyone remarking on what was going on. (These were the glorious pre- mass shooting days, pre- COVID days).
The group has a mixture of the old, experienced hands and the new, novice hands. Everyone, however inexperienced, are encouraged to participate and contribute ideas.
“I think we have the most fun in pre-production, brainstorming sessions,” says Mansoor. “And our club is like a crucible in which ideas ferment. I had the germ of an idea for the film, The Dig, a few years ago, and we got down to brainstorming with the group last year. The group came up with very innovative input, and before we knew it we had a solid storyline and screenplay for the film. It eventually looked quite different from what I had imagined, and I credit our entire team for that.”
In response to my question about an overarching theme for Storyteller Productions, Mansoor quips— “Our goal is to make movies with no redeeming features whatsoever,” and both Sangeeta and Vandana protest with laughter.
“We want to make good films, to tell a story in the best way possible. We don’t have any commercial or political goals; we just want to make movies that will stay with the audience after they leave the theatre.”
Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal