30 Artists, 30 Years – Cary Sawhney

LIFF 2015. Cary Sawhney with Konkona Sen Sharma and Satwant Gill. Photo: Elliott Franks.

30 Artists, 30 Years – Cary Sawhney, Director of the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival

BF: Having been a sponsor of the London Indian Film Festival since 2015, we have had the pleasure to work with you as one of our rare, long-standing partners. And of course, you have been working across arts for much of your career, and not just in film. Can you tell us a little about your early years in the visual arts and how you eventually focussed on film? And what do you remember of our first LIFF event together?

CS: It’s been a rocket ride of creative collaboration between the Bagri Foundation and London Indian Film Festival over the last 5 years and what I appreciate as the festival director is the Bagri Foundation’s openness to exploring different creative aspects of film as an art form, not just as many see it, purely entertainment. I think this links to a shared root of working pan arts.

In terms of my personal journey I guess I was always a quietly creative child with a passion for photography, from madcapping film projects at home making stop-start animations with buddies, to building firework stuffed volcanoes to film in the back garden, much to the consternation of my parents. Luckily I survived to adulthood.  I started my creative career with a BA Hons in Photography and Film – somehow as an introvert mixed-race, in the closet 20 year old (deemed least likely to succeed type at my former school), I managed to get into a prestigious media college and that chance helped my self-belief and to grow in determination and talent.  Upon graduating, and a few months working as the only vegetarian waiter in a steak restaurant to re-stock on cash, I set off on my new ambition to find my Indian roots, and discover the part of me that was missing growing up most of my childhood in the UK. I travelled solo the entire 1,500kms of the river Ganges from Himalayas to Sunderbans. This turned out to be a huge life lesson and rights of passage with many adventures and seemingly impossible challenges that forged my adult personality.

My mission to photograph this journey led to these photographs being sold in magazines and publications like Time-Life Books and then getting taken up as a professional photographer in the corporate world. This paid very well, but was less artistically challenging. However, during this time I explored my sexual identity in London’s Gay scene and joined up and became a committee member of one of the world’s first Asian LGBTQ+ organisations during the late Eighties, ‘Shakti’. This was a time of both an explosion of Queer identity politics and arts and also a nexus of energetic Black British politics and arts. In that empowering cultural time, I was lucky enough to have rubbed shoulders through my photography and even being part of a Queer Asian dance group with a new generation of artists and filmmakers like Pratibha Parmar, Keith Khan, Gurinder Chadha and the like and was inspired by an alterative urban arts culture.

I gradually moved back into more creative freelance work and, partly because I was a creative artist myself, I got the job to set up and curate a contemporary art show at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, as part of the UK Midlands largest ever South Asian Visual Arts Festival. Probably inspired by my earlier travels, I was unable to think in modest scale and quickly garnered support and funding to make the Museum’s show a much larger event which ended up with an expansion to five galleries in the museum and commissioning 7 contemporary South Asian artists to create new work, including the museum’s first film and video installations. Realising this epic vision led to me working closely with a wide range of contemporary professional artists for the first time and the resulting show ‘Transition of Riches’ was even visited by Her Majesty the Queen as an example of the truly international potential of the city of Birmingham.

An essential learning from this period was how to outreach to local communities and encourage them to engage with the arts, including taking artists out into communities, who otherwise would not set foot in a seemingly prestigious ‘white’ mainstream world. Moving on to Bradford as Curator of Film Interpretation at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television I was tasked with again trying to engage the museum with the diverse low income audiences. I was given the daunting task of setting up the museum’s first Black and Asian film event. My work with Shakti and at Birmingham had given me the ground map for building bridges and trust with communities. I came up with the whacky title of ‘Bite The Mango’ one morning at 3am. As a testament to the creative openness of my Yorkshire colleagues, they loved the title and the largest  Black and Asian film event in the North for 17 years was born. It’s creative energy brought together not only film, but visual artists, dancers, poets and writers and musicians from Northern UK and around the world. At the museum I was also able to work on Bradford Animation Festival and work with legendary animators on developing their shows.

Opening Night red carpet of the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival 2019 on Thursday 20th June, 2019. Photo: Darren Brade

My love of film as a multi art form drew me back to London when I was invited to be Programme Adviser South Asia to the BFI London Film Festival which then led a job at the British Film Institute as Head of Diversity in the National Film Archive. After the luck of spending months burrowing through the Aladdin’s cave of archival cinema riches, I was able to see huge amounts of Black and Asian films hidden in the vaults. One of the films I was able to champion was the restoration of the 1927 silent film A Throw of Dice which, with a soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney, became a BFI collaboration success. Spear-heading the UK’s first Diversity Strategy for the UK film industry to more effectively engage with filmmakers and audiences, I also pitched and was eventually green-lit to lead the BFI’s first pan-institute Asian film project involving all departments of the BFI – from book and DVD publishing, to BFI Southbank cinema, education departments, Sight & Sound magazine etc. All the BFI’s UK-wide partners became involved and our outreach team brought together a staggering 67 partners making BFI ImagineAsia the largest South Asian film event in Europe. Such a large scale event led to the emergence of many young creative talents and we opened with the UK premiere of Asif Kapdia’s BAFTA debut drama The Warrior in 2002.

In this pandemic year I have realised that being the first BAME person in middle or senior management in all the organisations I have ever worked in was a challenge on many fronts. At the same time, it allowed me to pioneer through determination all sorts of new forms of creative films, arts projects and radical ideas of working – that was a huge creative freedom. After a stint at the Institute of Visual Arts (INIVA), I decided to go back to freelancing to pursue my own creative career and also organise film festivals. In terms of filmmaking, I have made some short films which have won international awards. I am currently busy on writing my debut feature – an adventurous road-movie set in Kerala, India.

In terms of our first year of the London Indian Film Festival with the Bagri Foundation, what set it apart was that we suddenly had a new partner that wanted us to feel free and supported. We could try new areas of working without necessarily having the pressure of proving a box office for these experimental films, which are often slow burners in the cinema. We also received a lot of great background support in in terms of fine polishing our media image, and an active participation and passion to actually attend all our screenings, (not just the usual sponsor Opening Night), to discuss about aesthetics of films and come up with creative ideas to help shape the festival into the future. All these elements helped the festival for the common good and forged a strong new bond together.

BF: This year’s festival in 2020 has been a particularly challenging one. You also run a festival of films that tackle mental health called Brixton Reel, which seems even more important than ever. How do you feel these festivals have adapted this year and what have you learned from this year personally or professionally?

CS: In terms of LIFF, it really tested how tough and adaptable we could be. As the pandemic gripped Europe, one of the first things I remember hearing on a Screen magazine film webinar was a speaker saying – “What you have given out over the last 10 years as an organisation will majorly influence how you do this year, succeed or fail”. I think this has been really a truism in LIFF’s case. I think the fact that we had a solid relationship with our supporters especially the Bagri Foundation and also the BFI, ensured we kept our funding and support. Building a great organisational team takes time and we really had the best team ever on the festival, assembled and ready to go this January. The audiences that have grown with us over the last 11 years stayed loyal and, very importantly, LIFF’s strong reputation and friendships with South Asian filmmakers and other creatives really helped us soar. We were able to negotiate with them not only to show their films on the then unchartered waters of digital festivals, but also allow us to screen their films for free.

In terms of coming up with a radical creative imagining of the festival, I was able to come up with the vision of repackaging it online, but it really required every team member to adjust and think together to create rapid fire solutions and strategies. We went from an average tech skilled organisation to web-ready in a matter of weeks, working with an online partner in New Zealand. I remember my brain boggling in April with all this new digital information, but luckily our younger team and especially our Wonderwoman Producer Alice (in Milan), were able to wrestle the tech bull by the horns as we raced into the world stage and delivered the festival early, during UK lockdown in May. We offered great new and classic films, plus unique interviews to an audience desperately in need of some cinematic inspiration. The participation of high level film critics, who have worked with the festival before, also helped us leverage a strong media profile, which also went digital this year.

In terms of personal learning, I believe this year has taught me to delegate more to others in my team, which is always hard when you set up a stand alone company. I think it has made me reflect on the gigantic value of strong bonds and friendships with partners and creative practitioners – the value of goodwill when the chips are down. In terms of our festival development it has made us all realise that a hybrid model of festival – part cinema based part digital – really works. Just a year ago, talking to people online and online screenings seemed dry and boring, yet one year later we are connecting with audiences around the globe and have tripled our admissions. It’s often in time of adversity and hardship that creative people will ultimately find opportunities – in some ways, these are the very exciting times.

BF: You are also a filmmaker yourself and we would love to know what you have coming up, or what your ideal next project would be! Is there a story you would like to tell?

CS: I have been working on several feature scripts and one includes a much researched period drama on the life of early Hindi film actor Devika Rani, who came of age in 1920s London and Weimar Berlin. My new script, which is garnering a lot of interest, is a Gay road movie based on a true story and set in the mountains of Kerala. All going well, I hope to start shooting it next Autumn.

Cary Rajinder Sawhney MBE has a strong track record and UK wide experience of successfully pioneering and developing new diverse audiences and innovative programmes. From a senior management role, as Head of Diversity at BFI, where he strategically directed and delivered one of the BFI’s largest ever festival’s ImagineAsia (with 67 participating venues UK-wide), to Bradford’s legendary Bite The Mango – Black and Asian film festival, which he initiated, to conceiving and leading the diverse mental health film festival – Brixton Reel (African-Caribbean, Latin American, Black & Asian LGBTQ+, Somali/Ethiopian, Portuguese communities). Perhaps most famously he conceived and leads the UK and Europe’s largest South Asian Film Festival – Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival/Birmingham Indian Film Festival with 16 cinema venues in London, Birmingham and Manchester. His successful formula of marrying innovative high quality programming with community targeted marketing and culturally sensitive outreach has led to successful engagement and audience development with some of the UK’s hardest to reach communities. This experience and knowledge, as well as rich contacts, makes him a unique and highly valuable consultant for any agency looking to strategically and on-the-ground engage more effectively with local grassroots communities. This has helped venues tap into new financial markets.

Cary was recently made a Member Of The Most Excellent Order Of The British Empire (MBE), is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts & Manufacturing, BAFTA member and was awarded LGBT Champion of the Year by the British Asian Media Awards, for his outstanding work in mainstreaming Asian LGBTQ+ cinema. It is probably the world’s first such award in South Asia. Cary has also won awards in the USA for his short films (Palm Springs Film Festival and NY Indian Film Festival) and has been Official Programme Adviser to the BFI London Film Festival for the last 26 years.

Interviewed by Chelsea Pettitt, Head of Arts in October 2020

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