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Introducing Inney Prakash, SDAFF Curatorial Lead

October 25, 2021

The San Diego Asian Film Festival is excited to introduce our new Curatorial Lead, Inney Prakash. Inney is a film curator based in New York City and is Founder/Director of Prismatic Ground, an experimental documentary festival that launched this year. SDAFF’s Marketing and Communications Director, Carmela Prudencio, spoke with him about this year’s film festival programming, working in Asian American spaces, and subverting the expectations of shorts films and film genre distinctions.

Carmela Prudencio: We’re super stoked here to introduce you to Inney Prakash, who is our new curatorial at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Thanks for joining us today.

Inney Prakash: Yeah, of course. It’s my pleasure.

C: You’re the newest addition to the team, so we want to introduce you and share your work with our audiences. You’re helping run our short film program. So I just wanted to ask about this moment in time, when there’s so much media and content online to digest, and with a lot of short films playing on YouTube, streaming online, and being distributed in a lot of different places. Why do you think it’s important for film festivals to program short films?

I: I think there are a few good answers to that question. It’s a cliche, but bears repeating that curation, I think, is more important than ever, as we are bombarded by greater amounts of information than ever and more films than ever. So to be able to hone a particular vision and to share it with the community, that’s invaluable. And I think that’s important for shorts as well as features. To me, a film is a film, and some of my favorites are shorts. I think a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to see short films on a big screen, and that’s what a film festival offers outside of the Oscar shorts.

Really, they tend not to get wide big screen distribution, which is a shame, because most films, whether short or long, are best suited to the big screen, so to be able to see them that way is great for both the filmmakers and the audience. And I think film festivals in that regard play a role that no one else is really fulfilling.

C: What is that role to you?

I: I think that role is showing short films on a big screen and doing it in a concentrated way. So doing it in a thoughtful, curated way so that hopefully audiences can rely on a film festival to build a relationship with a community with an audience. Over time and over time, the audience begins to trust that that festival can then introduce them to work they might have otherwise not seen, but that they’re glad to see now.

C: Yeah, I think context is huge, because there are so many short films streaming online or on YouTube. But I think what you’re saying with having that audience already set up and having the festival — whether it’s an experimental film festival or an Asian American Film Festival — is to help connect with those audiences outside of the noise of the Internet. And I know for myself, too, having a little bit of experience on the film programming side, that the shorts are so wonderful every year, and shorts filmmakers always come out in droves. So it’s really exciting for us to be in person again this year.

I wanted to ask you a bit about your work with Prismatic Ground. What inspired you to launch it and maybe talk a little bit about what you kind of want to bring from Prismatic Ground over to SDAFF?

I: Yeah, I’ve worked with festivals for at least seven years. So it’s what I most really know how to do. And during the pandemic, it occurred to me that if I were ever to start my own, now is the time just because it took fewer resources to do online. And secondly, I felt like during the pandemic, a lot of large institutions were dropping the ball on that and phoning it in rather than thinking about how to uniquely respond to the moment. And so I saw an opportunity to do that.

I also saw an opportunity to put features and shorts on a more even playing field and to present them without any discrimination or hierarchy. That a feature is better, more important than a short. And that’s definitely something I hope to bring to my work with SDAFF.

C: What has your experience been film programming with SDAFF so far? Especially because we focus on Asian and Asian American films. Has that been a different experience for you at all, or how has that been impactful to you?

I: This is the first time I’ve worked within a specifically Asian American sort of frame and environment. Every festival and space I’ve worked with really has some kind of niche. My festival is centered on what I call experimental documentary, but as far as putting myself inside a space that’s explicitly Asian American, this is the first time for me, and it’s been super interesting to understand the history of these spaces, why they exist and what they offer and the kind of solidarity that thrives within them. So navigating that has been not only an interesting experience for me, but I think a part of my self growth.

If there’s something personal, then I feel like we’re diving into this stuff because I there aren’t a lot of Asian American art spaces that exist on a really broad level, like SDAFF. And so how has that felt like for you as an Asian American seeing this variety of different stories being told, it’s absolutely personal.

The reality of the world we live in is still such that every other workplace I’ve been in has been along these lines. I’ve been usually the only person of color [in the workplace] and you don’t really realize the effect that’s had on you until you’re able to step outside of it. And so to find myself in a room full of Asian American programmers who not only want to tell and create a platform for Asian American stories, but want to have deeper conversations about identity because it is personal and with whom you sort of share unspoken experiences of having grown up in America as a certain type of minority.

I don’t know. It was pretty ecstatic to be in that environment for the first time and to share that headspace.

C: That’s awesome. At SDAFF, we’re always about broadening what Asian American identity can be. And so we take pride in having a wide array of different shorts programs, from comedies, experimental films, documentaries. How do you feel like some of these distinctions within that umbrella are useful for programming a certain block of shorts? Are there any distinctions that you find are useful in your curatorial process?

I: The ideal questions would be: why labels, why distinctions? Let’s get rid of them all. But they do serve a practical purpose. And I think for an audience, it’s often that people are seeking out a particular type of experience. Sometimes you’re in the mood for something light and funny. Sometimes you’re in the mood for something social justice oriented. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a horror film. And I think that’s totally fine and that we do a service by signaling to people what type of experience they’re in for.

But I also think discovery is important, so pushing those boundaries a little bit so that you’re meeting people halfway, giving them what they expect, but maybe stretching their definitions as much as possible, so they’re ready to think and watch in new ways. I call my own festival an experimental documentary festival, because I think it brings together a certain type of artist. And again, that can forge a certain solidarity to be able to come together with people who share your aesthetic and moral interests and values.

C: With the shorts programming this year, is there anything that you feel subverts those genre distinctions at all? I know we’ve had different programming in the past that was geared towards an unexpected thematic sensibility. What has that been like for this year’s festival? Is there anything standing out to you — any narratives that are kind of coming together through the program?

I: I came in kind of halfway through the process this year. So it was amazing to look around and see the work that had been done and see the way the programmers do things through a very open minded process. To be honest, if you take a look at the shorts programs and categories, they’re not straightforward genre categories. They’re a little bit abstract, and I think open to interpretation, and we definitely have conversations about them. But I think it’s fun to let people interpret for themselves.

Like I mentioned, I definitely have an experimental sensibility, so getting as much in there as possible as I can that’s a little outside the box has been a priority for me. But yeah, I think people will find that in the SDAFF shorts programs, there’s a way of sort of grouping things together that inspires new modes of thinking about the work.

C: Yeah, I really always love seeing the titles for the different shorts programs come to life because of that ambiguity and abstraction. But once you watch all of those films together, they make total sense. Some of them evoke something that might seem obvious but turn out to not be. Our  program Ghost World might be one of those programs this year, where it turns out to not be horror films or anything like that.

I: And then sometimes you’re not sure at all what to expect from a title, like Animated Echoplex, which is a reference to a program that was done before. But once you watch it, it’ll make a certain kind of sense.

C: I love it! I think our audiences really love being surprised by what we have in store. And also, too, we get a lot of short filmmakers that come out to the festival. So having that Q&A with them is key.

I wanted to talk a little bit about what your experience with the programming team, and how it compares to other spaces that you’ve been in. I know you’ve talked a little bit about that feeling of belonging in an Asian American space, but maybe you can talk a little bit about what the camaraderie has been like with other film programmers.

I: It’s been great! I came out and met everybody, and it was a whirlwind, but we’ve mostly been meeting remotely over Zoom since, and even that has been wonderful. Just to get a sense of other people’s sensibilities and figure out where I fit in is an enriching and fascinating process. And to get to understand people’s senses of humor and what makes them tick and what they love or hate is also just hugely entertaining. Yeah, absolutely. I think I’m even more excited for next year to build on that and to figure out where I fit in and how our dynamic further develops.

C: We’re in transit right now, from virtual programming to shifting back to more in-person. This is going to be our first in-person film festival in two years. Prismatic Ground too was all online events. What are you excited about when it comes to programming in a theater for the big screen?

I: I mean, to me, it’s just my favorite place to be in the world–inside a dark movie theater in front of a big screen. So I feel so much joy and relief to have that experience back. It’s the ideal way to see a movie. I’m really excited to be in San Diego, introducing films, talking to filmmakers, and interacting with audiences.

C: We’re excited to have you, too. And thank you again for taking time to chat with me. We’re super stoked about the programming this year, and we’re excited to see you at the festival. Thanks, Inney!

I: Thanks so much, Carmela.

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