Darian Brenner and Namu Desai have created the kind of festival that they searched for to enter their own films in- one whose curation transcends genre and focuses on the Female Eye. These two key factors, along with Third Eye Film Festival’s location at Howl! Happening in the Lower East Side, blend together to define the festival as “otherworldly”.

The two founders met during college at the Rhode Island School of Design, where both majored in film, which would lead them to reunite in Ireland to collaborate on a spiritual film a few years later. Darian speaks about how their film defied categorization: “When we were in the film selection process, it was hard to categorize, hard to find a home for it, festivals that would take it. Because it’s not exactly an experimental film, but it’s not straight cut narrative,” she says. The pair realized that few festivals existed to cater to their “genre-fluid” style of filmmaking.

Most festivals select films in standard categories, but the generally restricted options for display haven’t deterred filmmakers from indulging in the spiritual and fantastical. “It was amazing,” says Namu, “our first year, we got way more spiritual films than we expected. Equal amounts spiritual as we did horror and fantasy.”

These categories combine to create what both women refer to as the TEFF’s focus on “occult” films. Third Eye actively promotes the blurring of boundaries and drawing from multiple inspirations by curating viewing blocks based on cohesion, rather than on genre. “We think they belong in the same family and are part of the same show,” Namu explains. What unites these works is the “common thread” that shows up every year, in the way that the artists process and display concepts, allowing a horror movie to address the same socio-political ideas as a spiritual or fantasy one. 

2019 is Third Eye Film Festival’s third year screening in New York City, from March 29-31, and I was privileged to attend both screening blocks on Friday and catch a glimpse of the festival’s first-ever feature film, The God Inside My Ear, on Sunday. The festival kicked off with Skemjet Blod, a horror short populated by alternately angelic and demonic pillow-fighters, set to a version of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” oscillating between choir music and heavy metal. 

This dark sugar-and-spice aesthetic appeared several times throughout the festival, and the next film, Bloody Hell, featured a teen in her pink bedroom, on her birthday with a pink cake, with pink candles and a cigarette smoldering in the middle. The morning of Camile’s sixteenth birthday, she uses dark magic to summon the one thing she doesn’t already have: her period.

Next, in Hair Wolf, white women search desperately for what they cannot have – the texture, skills, and right to wear black hairstyles. In a black hair salon in gentrifying Brooklyn, the local residents fend off a strange new monster: white women intent on sucking the lifeblood from black culture. These cutting social commentaries were curated with more abstract and fantastically filmed shorts like Roller Ghost, a film about  a young woman who tries her new roller skates in her attic but is disturbed by a lustful spirit fiending for her skates.

The 6:00 film block rounded out with the dreamscape of After Dark Inferno, an enthralling story of discovering “faith, guidance, and strength beneath the waters,” followed by the stunningly shot and spiritual Cygnus, and the fantastical queer fever dream Terminally in Love. Each film compounded, juxtaposed, or noticeably departed from the themes of that which came before, focusing on arresting visuals, artistic movement, and impactful dialogue.

As a break between the two viewing blocks for the night, the audience was encouraged to participate in a Question and Answer round with Solovieva Indira, the director of Eternal Resonance, and several of the female actors featured in the earlier screening block. Indira elaborated on her use of dance as a visual representation of resonance amongst humans, which remains stable between the French and English versions of her spiritual film.

During this time, festival-goers were also encouraged to grab a glass of wine and mingle with each other, with filmmakers, and with Namu and Darian, themselves. The Howl! Happening gallery space  plays a huge role in this celebration of Lower East Side artists; it’s helped TEFF “keep things punk, cool, and alternative, [and] it’s just a celebration of that,” Darian explains.

Namu, too, points out that Howl! is a unique location for a film festival; attendees don’t typically walk through the doors and attend screenings in an art gallery. “You feel like you can approach any of the directors,” Namu says. “We just love being able to have those conversations with the audience. You kind of look at the films differently as well. It feels more intimate and social. An art piece.” This open atmosphere of socializing fosters connections between industry participants and promotes interaction between the audience and the filmmakers.

Third Eye Film Festival’s audience is a combination of film aficionados, kooky Lower East Siders, those involved in the filmmaking industry, and a wide spread of horror, spiritual, and fantasy lovers. Howl! facilitates this accessibility by promoting TEFF as a free event, “so there’s lots of reasons for people to come down and give it a chance,” comments Namu. 

This diverse audience is treated to a wide array of styles and messages packed into the blocks, totaling no more than thirty films throughout the weekend. Twenty-three of the twenty-nine films displayed this year fit into the Female Eye judging category, which offers discounted submissions fees for films made by women to encourage their participation. These works are  highlighted in the festival program, which lends itself to TEFF “breaking stigmas and highlighting powerful female-driven content, ultimately opening doors to social change.”

“Women’s intuition is so real,” shares Darian. In the Hollywood and larger independent cinema industries, a staggeringly small percentage of directors are women. So even displaying these films breaks the mould by allowing marginalized voices to speak, the main goal of TEFF.

On Sunday night, following the feature-length screening, the award in the Female Eye category went to Sour Apples by Madeleine Hicks, a demonic work about the apple-pie sweet women who could move in next door. Manas Sirakanyan took home the Visionary award for the film Zhuangzi and the Skull, about a philosopher encountering a mysterious skull that leads him on a “spiritual trip to the border of life and death.” Finally, Best Film was awarded to Terminally in Love for its incredible visual impact and otherworldly resonance. 

Those who have won awards at TEFF go on to win awards in the film industry at large, including some of the current jurors for film selection. Namu and Darian make it a priority to “keep supporting the work of our filmmakers after they’ve moved on from Third Eye,” even beginning a Facebook group to share tricks and keep in touch between festivals. Not only have these two incredible women found a home in this community, but they have created a home for the creative works of their peers and for the audiences who keep coming back to experience the otherworldly at the Third Eye Film Festival. 

To learn more about Third Eye Film Festival, visit thirdeyefilmfest.com or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

Annie Iezzi is a second-year student at Barnard College of Columbia University, studying English and Political Science and writing in her scarce (and cherished) free time.