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CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE: WENCH FILM FESTIVAL

The Festival marks its upcoming fifth year of bridging the gender gap in India by driving opportunities and conversations through the gaze of a Woman inclusive of BIWOC, LGBTQ+ women, and non-binary in Art, Fashion, and Film powered by Tech. EIC Mo Moshaty sits down with Festival Creator and powerhouse Sapna Moti Bhavnani on accessibility, tipping the scales and using film and art to speak all the words our mouth cannot. 

By Mo Moshaty  June 11, 2024

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Festival Creator, Sapna Moti Bhavnani

ABOUT WENCH FILM FESTIVAL

 

Wench Film Festival is India's first Horror / Sci-Fi / Fantasy Film Festival showcasing films inclusive of LGBTQ+ women, and non-binary filmmakers.

Since its first edition in 2021, WFF has screened 146 films and Spotlighted  352 Women.  Even though WFF gives preference to  films Directed by Women and Non-Binary Filmmakers, they do however have a special category for Male Filmmakers who have directed films with a central female plot or key female HOD's.

In 2024 we took giant leaps in the world of genre films, presenting a meticulously curated selection of 29 films that transported our audiences to worlds unknown. We had an astonishing lineup featuring 14 India Premieres and 10 Asia Premieres, ensuring the audience would be among the first to witness these cinematic marvels. But that's not all! On March 2nd, we had a spotlight on Indian talent with a dedicated day featuring 10 captivating films, accompanied by the brilliant minds behind them. Directors were present for engaging Q&A sessions, offering a unique opportunity to delve deeper into the magic behind the movies. 

Mo Moshaty: What inspired you to start a horror film festival, and how did you first become interested in the horror genre?

Sapna Moti Bhavnani: When my story Bearlike Man was selected at NAFF in 2021 and i found out I was the first Indian woman in the market, i was a bit startled ... we had already started WFF in 2021 but we were featuring women directed films from all genres but post this and the tremendous support we got from the international genre community including festivals like Final Girls Berlin, Etheria, and Nyx Horror Collective we started as the first genre festival in India highlighting women voices in 2022.  It was still covid but we still managed a few screenings but most of our curation was international as we were still growing as a market in India.

Growing up, I have vivid memories of my maternal grandmother, mother and I calling the spirits for answers.. I remember once the spirit refused to leave and for the first time my grandmother broke into a sweat but she managed to drive it away.  India is a massive country and every religion, culture, village, city has its own superstition and folklore and for a country like this not to have a horror film fest was just ridiculous.  It was time to start.

MM: Meeting you through Our 13 Minutes Fest was such a highlight. Meeting of minds and mission has been incredible for me. How do you feel culture influences the themes and storytelling in the horror films showcased at Wench?

SMB: Culture plays a pivotal role in shaping the themes and storytelling of the horror films showcased at our festival, offering a rich and diverse tapestry of narratives that resonate deeply with audiences. As the founder of a horror film festival, I have had the privilege of curating and presenting a wide array of films from different cultural backgrounds. Each of these films brings a unique perspective, influenced by the societal, historical, and cultural contexts from which they emerge.

We have just recently started seeing films being made so this space will grow rapidly in the next few years. This was the first year we had an entire day dedicated to Indian films and we were sold out in a day!

MM: So incredible for your first time out! What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in organizing and running a horror film festival in India?

SMB: I think I can write an entire thesis on this.  Being the first genre fest in India is a proud achievement but because we are the first we have been mapping the entire blueprint on our own and making our way on small budgets.  Sponsors are afraid as they are terrified of the word Horror lol... not realising that this is the biggest phenomenon that has taken over the world and India is nowhere close to even playing catch up.

We have been ghosted by corporations (lol) , shunned by producers and copied by others.  But we know we are on the path and the spirits are blessing us every inch of the way.

As a hairstylist in my last avatar, my salon Mad O Wot was responsible for changin how India wore their hair...it was a hard path there as well so I am no stranger to starting youth culture and this is just another road less travelled that thrills me. 

MM: As a female creator in a genre, how do you think your personal perspective influences the festival’s programming and curation?

SMB: I try not to let my personal perspectives influence the programming as I am a filmmaker myself and let Shelagh do most of the programming..I just chime in for local films only because I am more in the loop :) I am going to reach out to a few more programmers this year locally as well.

MM: Local is where it thrives! The more those themes can permeate, the more they can change the landscape. How have you seen the horror film industry evolve over the years, and what trends do you think will shape its future?

SMB: The horror film industry in India has undergone a fascinating evolution, moving from traditional folklore and supernatural themes to more nuanced, socially relevant storytelling. Historically, Indian horror films often drew from local legends and supernatural elements, featuring ghosts, spirits, and haunted locations that resonated with the country's rich cultural tapestry. Classics like "Mahal" (1949) and "Woh Kaun Thi?" (1964) set the stage for Bollywood’s foray into the genre, combining eerie atmospheres with dramatic storytelling.

During the 1970s and 80s, the Ramsay Brothers popularized a unique brand of horror that mixed gore with elements of camp. Films like "Veerana" (1988) and "Purana Mandir" (1984) became cult classics, known for their formulaic plots involving haunted mansions and vengeful spirits. These movies were often low-budget but captivated audiences with their blend of horror, drama, and music.

In the 2000s, the genre began to shift towards more sophisticated storytelling and production values. Films like "Raaz" (2002) and "13B" (2009) introduced a new era of psychological and supernatural horror that appealed to urban audiences. The industry also started experimenting with horror-comedies, such as "Bhool Bhulaiyaa" (2007), which blended scares with humor, making the genre more accessible to a broader audience.

Recent years have seen Indian horror become more diverse and socially relevant. Films like "Pari" (2018) and "Tumbbad" (2018) have moved beyond mere jump scares to explore deeper themes of trauma, folklore, and societal issues. "Stree" (2018), a horror-comedy with a feminist twist, tackled gender issues in a way that resonated with modern audiences while delivering genuine frights.

This being said, we are far from evolving from traditional ghost stories to sophisticated narratives that reflect contemporary issues and diverse experiences. There is a lack of funding for voices that want to go beyond and explore genres. Sci fi and fantasy are also not at the forefront yet.  Most of our fiction is very steeped in non fiction and people have not explored the element of fantasy ! I mean why can't it rain bats  .. of course that's not real.. because it's fiction :)

We hope as the genre continues to grow and diversify, it will undoubtedly offer fresh and compelling stories that resonate both within India and on the global stage. In the 4 years of Wench we have already seen a significant rise of indie voices in genre and we are very happy to offer a platform for them to rise on.

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MM: How do global audiences typically respond to horror films, and have you noticed any changes in their preferences or openness to different styles of horror?

SMB: Global audiences have always had a strong appetite for horror films, driven by the genre's unique ability to evoke primal emotions like fear and excitement. Traditionally, horror films have found universal appeal due to their exploration of themes such as the supernatural, the unknown, and the monstrous—elements that resonate across different cultures and societies. However, the response to horror films and the preferences of audiences have evolved significantly over the years, reflecting broader cultural shifts and technological advancements.  India has been seen through such a generic lens not only by the west but also themselves.  Our stories are not developed and the quick write, make, release theory has become the mandate.  Horror films need time to develop..the writing is everything.  We hope that we can change that soon with our writers table we have coming up in the future.

MM: Elevating new talent is key! What role does your festival play in discovering and promoting new talent in the horror genre, particularly female filmmakers?

SMB: Wench plays a pivotal role in discovering and promoting new talent in the horror genre, with a dedicated focus on elevating female filmmakers. The horror genre has historically been a space where new and innovative voices can make a significant impact, and we believe it is crucial to provide a platform for those who are often underrepresented in the industry. We prioritize films that feature female-centric stories, themes, and characters, challenging the stereotypical portrayals often seen in mainstream horror. By highlighting narratives that explore the experiences and perspectives of women, we aim to broaden the scope of the genre and make it more inclusive. This focus not only brings attention to new talent but also helps to diversify the content available to audiences.

By highlighting and supporting the work of female filmmakers, our festival serves as an inspiration for future generations of women in the horror genre. We aim to show that there is a place for them in the industry and that their stories and perspectives are valued. This can encourage more women to pursue careers in filmmaking and contribute to a more balanced and diverse industry in the long run.

MM: How do you balance showcasing regional horror films with international ones, and what do you think global audiences can learn from Indian horror cinema?

SMB: Indian horror cinema is just starting to unfold.  We have been very slapstick in our stories and  hopefully we can start seeing better characters and stories produced.  Wench makes a conscious effort to curate a balanced selection of films that represents both regional and international voices in the horror genre. This includes actively seeking out submissions from local filmmakers and reaching out to international film communities to ensure a wide range of perspectives and storytelling techniques are represented.

MM: What are your plans for the festival, and how do you envision its growth and impact on both the regional and global horror film communities?

SMB:  As the founder of the Wench Film Festival, my plans for the festival revolve around fostering a vibrant, inclusive, and globally influential platform for horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films.  I mean we have completely outgrown our old venue and our demand has far surpassed our supply, so GROWTH is the only way forward :) 

Our goal is to expand our film selection to include a more diverse range of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films from around the world. We plan to increase our outreach efforts to underrepresented regions and filmmakers, ensuring that our festival showcases a broad spectrum of voices and stories.  We will continue to prioritize the promotion of gender and cultural inclusivity in our programming. This includes spotlighting female filmmakers, filmmakers of color, and films that explore diverse cultural themes and narratives.  We also plan to establish and strengthen partnerships with international film festivals, organizations, and distributors. These partnerships will facilitate the exchange of films, ideas, and resources, helping to elevate our festival’s profile and reach.  We hope to become a part of NAFF and the Méliès International Festivals Federation and hope to have a presence at the Fantastic Pavillion in the near future.  

We have already started a monthly screening of genre films with Alliance Francaise in Mumbai, launched a VR program called VRHere, A Halloween Vampire Wedding called DIsco BloodBath and Red Rum - a genre book club and we have so many more ideas in the pipeline.  

I have to say that we wouldn't have come so far without the support of the genre community worldwide and a special thanks to Lisa Dreyer, Mitch Davis, Roman Roll, Chris Oosterom, and Tommy Nam for supporting us continuously.  And there would be no fest without our stellar programmer Shelagh Rowan-Legg who has been instrumental in building Wench from the ground up.

 

The future has always been female, the world is just accepting it now :) 

SUBMISSIONS ARE OPEN FOR WFF'S 2025 PROGRAM: APPLY HERE!

FILM FESTIVAL FAQS CAN BE ANSWERED HERE.

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Mo Moshaty is a horror writer, lecturer and producer. As a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and life long horror fan, Mo has lectured with Prairie View A&M Film & TV Program as a Keynote, BAFSS Horror Studies Sig  and The University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Mo has partnered with horror giant, Shudder Channel, to co-produce the 13 Minutes of Horror Film Festival 2021 and 2022 with Nyx Horror Collective and her literary work "Love the Sinner" was published with Brigid's Gate Press in July of 2023 and her two volume collection, "Clairviolence: Tales of Tarot and Torment Vol. One and Two" will be published in 2024-2025

Mo is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of NightTide Magazine.

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