In Spirit with Third Eye Film Festival

Third Eye founders Darian Brenner and Namu Desai at Howl! Happening, December 2016. Photo credit: Third Eye Film Festival.

There’s always magic in the movies, but nothing truly transports you like Third Eye Film Festival. Founders Darian Brenner and Namu Desai celebrated their unique program’s inaugural series last year with a spectacular array of 36 shorts that screened in New York, New Orleans, and Los Angeles – and they’re psyched to do it again for 2018.

A platform for works in the horror, fantasy, and spiritual genres, Third Eye has an inclusiveness that warms the soul. Of the Season 1 offerings, over half were directed and/or shot by women (the “Female Eye” category), and more than a third came from countries outside the US (Mexico, India, Spain, Belgium, and many others were represented). From paranormal comedy to chilling gore, animation and puppetry to minimalist live action, the range has been extraordinary. As Darian and Namu prepare for Season 2, they maintain only one grand criterion for the art they seek: Each film must be “otherworldly.”

“’Does it make me feel transported to another space – engulfed in the world [the filmmakers] created?’” Desai says, explaining how she and Brenner made their initial selections.

“That’s what we would always ask at the end of every movie,” Brenner chimes in.

“Every film that we chose,” Desai asserts, “we were inspired from. We wanted to create a space where artists who have films that are very genre-fluid and [take place] in otherworldly realms and ideas could coexist.”

Indeed, that very “beyond category” mindset sparked Third Eye’s birth. Meeting years ago as students at the Rhode Island School of Design, both Namu and Darian are internationally lauded filmmakers in their own rights. Desai has an extensive graphic design background and won an artistic residency in Ireland through the Creative Impact Scholarship, while Brenner is, among other things, the creator of popular webcomic Vampire High School and a protégée of Sex and the City’s Patricia Field. But the two women’s greatest achievements lay in what they could accomplish together.

In early 2016, Brenner flew to Ireland to help Desai complete her directorial thesis (and passion project), Entering the Flesh Again. The film follows a young woman who confronts her past relationships through reincarnation. It’s gorgeous, intense, merging Hindu and Celtic traditions, but can’t easily be identified by genre. Trying and failing to get the short accepted at big-name festivals that spring gave way to an epiphany: Start your own festival, and create the new category of “Spiritual” films.

According to Desai, “There is a niche that’s not really addressed through the big festivals. We both, as artists, bring that blending for ourselves. My background is very much the spiritual side, Darian’s is much of the horror, and then we meet halfway with the fantasy. Combining the three made sense to us and we really believe there’s a space for that.”

Quoting the mission statement on their website, Brenner adds, “We believe magic is a universally relatable concept that can mean anything specific to the individual, so it can relate to witchcraft, astrology, higher powers, meditation – whatever that is. When you talk about those things in a film, it’s naturally going to be a little more performative or dance-like. In other festivals they’d probably be called experimental films, but that’s not really fair.”

“So we’ve been using the word ‘otherworldly,’” Namu sums up. “Whether it’s horror, fantasy, or spiritual, they all have an element of magic in whatever way you want to interpret that. That’s our theme, and the Spiritual category really helps tie it all together.”

Consider this year’s prizewinners: I Like It Better When You Do It by Michelle Sutherland (Best Visionary), L As in Light by Damiana Acuña (Best Female Eye), and Breakfast by Tyler Byrnes (Best Film). Coincidentally, they represent Third Eye’s three genres, and they are for various reasons all unusual and enchanting. Sutherland, a noted avant-garde director, brought to life a meditation on sexting gone wrong that in Brenner’s words “just floored us. It pushed the boundaries of film as a medium.” Meanwhile, Acuña’s tale of a young girl discovering another dimension in the middle of the Mexican countryside contributed a welcome contrast to the darker horror stories that flanked it. At once innocent and wise, L As in Light provides an uplifting message while keeping its deepest mysteries secret (appropriate for a female-centric narrative). On the other hand, Byrnes’s Breakfast actually updates an old story with the male gaze – a young gay man struggles to hide his anorexia from his worried lover. The eating disorder, depicted onscreen as stop-motion mechanical demons, is terrifying enough, but the genuine emotions shown in the scenes of the couple arguing over a normal meal get right to the viewer’s core. Going on to win awards at four other festivals, and currently an official selection in twenty-seven programs nationwide, Breakfast is “the most well-rounded and elegantly done of all the films on this issue that we’ve seen,” says Desai. “It resonated with everyone.”

Connectivity fuels Third Eye in every possible sense. It’s not just the mystical qualities inherent in each movie, it’s the community-building among filmmakers and the heart that Brenner and Desai have put into it. Traveling to different cities around the country, realizing that the festival’s camaraderie and inviting atmosphere remain the same regardless of location, is a love spell only Third Eye can weave.

“We’ve got a great mix of filmmakers,” Namu states, agreeing that she and Brenner view their chosen artists as “a family.” “Different ages, different levels of experience. It’s been nice to see them come together to our festival and converse with each other. One thing we’ve wanted to stay true to all three screenings this year and for the future is offering a very intimate social space for the filmmakers to coexist in the viewing.”

Thus the reason for rotating locales – multiple screenings in new places mean more chances for artists to get to know each other.

“It’s all about networking,” Darian comments. “When we curate the program, we base it on how many filmmakers we have coming in; we fit the pieces of the puzzle together. ‘Okay, we’ll disperse them throughout the day. We really want this person to meet that person.’ A lot of film festivals happen in a theatre; there isn’t much of a common area. People come with the people that they’re with, and then leave. We really feel like we’ve made a community. All these filmmakers are now friends, and we’re all supporting each other on social media, and it’s a huge awesome accomplishment. We just want it to get bigger and better.”

Their debut series has already made quite the impression; Third Eye was voted in Film Freeway’s Top 100 Best-Reviewed Film Festivals during the first screening in New York, a status it’s maintained all year. A further look at the program reveals its delightfully potluck pedigree. Though recognizable figures (Ione Skye in Steve Desmond’s Monsters, Tristan Risk in award-winning director Izzy Lee’s Innsmouth) mingle on the marquee with unknowns, each piece possesses a special beauty. Humor abounds in L.I.P.S., an animation/live-action hybrid about intergalactic process servers from Nickelodeon alum Mike Cheslik. Nuoc, by Quyȇn Ngyen-Le, chronicles a queer woman’s exploration of her Vietnamese heritage in provocative detail. Monica Suriyage’s outrageous Black In Red Out mixes satire and gore so successfully you’ll hear an audience laughing and gasping in the same breath. And the world at large notices these talents – both Third Eye’s opening and closing films (Kevin Kopacka’s Hades and Eugenie Muggleton’s Twenty Forty-Three) originally premiered at Cannes. Chateau Sauvignon: Terroir, by David Munz-Maire, which spins a twisted tale about bloodthirsty vintners, has shown at over 140 festivals around the world.

[Full disclosure: Included in the lineup was a short called In the Cards: A Very Dramatic Film, which I wrote, co-starred, and co-produced with internationally acclaimed actress Kalista Tazlin, who played the lead and also directed. Third Eye gave that film the most fitting world premiere imaginable.]

As Third Eye gears up for its newest incarnation, which will begin February 16-18, 2018 at Howl! Happening in New York, Desai and Brenner believe the sky’s the limit. They’re driven to continue to elevate women in film and works that defy genre boundaries. (NOTE: Submissions in the Female Eye category – for which you can qualify if you have a female director or cinematographer – include discounted prices. See the festival site for more info.) More importantly, these innovators can’t wait to embrace their destiny.

“The first night when we ran that show…” Namu recalls dreamily.

Darian picks up her thought: “It was that moment…”

“We looked at each other and were like, ‘This is what we were meant to be doing,’” Namu finishes. “We’re going to keep pushing for this festival to be as successful as it can be, for the filmmakers, for the community, for ourselves.”

What can we do to help them achieve that goal? “Get the word out!” Desai proclaims.

“Follow us on social media! Come to a screening!” Brenner suggests.

“Honestly, the more attention that we can get to these films and these filmmakers, it just helps us do it better and bigger the next time,” Desai admits.

“And it helps us have more of a standing ground when we apply for grants,” Brenner clarifies.

“We’re very approachable as a festival,” they conclude in unison.

I couldn’t agree more. So here’s the magic you can do: Check out Third Eye in all its forms (the website links to screeners from certain titles in last year’s program) as soon as possible. Aid them, and you’ll give “otherworldly” films a proper place in ours.

Third Eye Film Festival’s latest deadline for Season 2 submissions is November 13, 2017. The next series of screenings will take place February 16-18, 2018 at Howl! Happening in New York City. To learn more, visit thirdeyefilmfest.com and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Jaime Lubin is on the editorial board of Honeysuckle Magazine. Her profiles on art and culture have appeared regularly in The Huffington Post and Observer, as well as Billboard and Irish America magazines among other publications. Also an actress, producer, and singer, Jaime most recently performed in LCK Productions’ and The Cnnekt’s “Femininity: Friend or Foe?” at The Duplex. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram  (both @jaimelubin).

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