Jemma Desai

Jemma Desai recently joined the British Council Film Team to look after our shorts and global touring programmes, and she will also be hosting a virtual reality panel on 12 June at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

  • Jemma Desai

Jemma Desai joined the British Council Film Team in February in the newly created post of Film Programme Manager (Shorts and Global Exhibition).

Desai joins the team from the Independent Cinema Office (ICO), where she was a Film Programmer. Alongside her part time British Council position, she will continue as a strand programmer for the BFI London Film festival, and continue to develop her own exhibition projects and writing.

Desai has a Masters in Cultural Heritage Studies and has previously worked at the Black Cultural Archives, as a freelancer working in film development, production and exhibition for organisations including Revolution Films and the BFI. As an independent curator and festival producer she has collaborated with London Indian Film Festival, Birds Eye View Film Festival, London Short Film Festival, BFI Flare and Edinburgh International Film Festival.

What are you working on right now?
I am currently preparing for Sheffield Doc/Fest. We’re collaborating on a project at the excellently named ‘Alternate Realities Summit’ to discuss empathy and Virtual Reality technology. VR is a big new development in film and gaming at the moment, notably for activist-led filmmaking motivated by the wish to create social change. There’s been a lot of talk about it being the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ and that’s a fascinating debate for us at British Council, given our cultural relations remit.

We’re working with a research psychologist Maria Panagiotidi to set up a an ‘Empathy Station’ which will have some psychological tests along with VR experiences designed to evoke empathy to demonstrate how the effects of ‘generated’ empathy could be measured and discuss if it really is possible to mobilise this ‘plastic’ empathy to create meaningful real world change.

On 12 June we’ll present some of the data collected from the demonstrations along with presentations from Nico Daswani (Associate Director, head of Arts & Culture at the World Economic Forum)and Clint Beharry (Director of Design and Technology at the Harmony Institute). We’ll be discussing the differences between empathy and immersion and asking if VR really is an opportunity for 'embodied' relating across cultural, social and political difference.

What has been your career high so far?
My favourite part of doing the work I do is discovering people and ideas and then bringing them together for new audiences. Given the scope of what the British Council Film department does, I’m pretty sure my biggest highlights are to come, but so far some career highlights are:

Founding I am Dora (my screening series exploring how women relate to one another through film) is something that’s been essential to keeping me creative as a programmer. With that series I cut across film, music, art and design and I love the meandering pathways it takes me on and the connections I can make across my work. It has also taught me never to underestimate or make assumptions about audiences, and that a small but engaged audience is just as important as a huge one.

Introducing Girlfriends to a sold out NFT1 audience at its first UK screening since its release in 1978 was pretty special. The film has played a lot across the UK since and it was great to be part of bringing the film to a new generation of viewers.

I love collaborating with London Short Film Festival, because they let me do whatever I want! One year I played an episode of Mad Men called 'Lady Lazarus' alongside Sandra Lahire’s artist short of the same name as a tribute to Sylvia Plath; and another year I put together a panel of women to talk about cultural appropriation and misogyny in music videos. Both events attracted such great (and very different) audiences.

As a programme advisor for the BFI London Film Festival being able to contribute to diversifying the film programme, working with other very talented programmers and meeting so many impressive filmmakers is a real privilege.

Until recently I worked at the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) and there it was great to be able to support some films get into UK cinemas after the festival. A massive highlight in that regard was working up the Two Films by Josephine Decker project.

What's a key piece of advice you’d give to someone starting off in film?
I wouldn’t take rejection to heart so much. Some of my best ideas have come out of being knocked back from something. Setbacks should keep you moving and adapting to them can lead you to so many different worlds and interesting people.

What are your favourite British films?
A few years ago I discovered Alnoor Dewshi’s short film Latifah and Himli’s Nomadic Uncle. It's an experimental short film that follows two South Asian cousins as they walk around London talking about culture and identity and it quickly earned a special place in my heart. As a Londoner I also love Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion and Franco Rosso’s Babylon for their depictions of the city.

As a kid I often watched films on television by myself – and it was the British stuff that really sticks in my mind. Sometimes I would join films part way through and then have no one to talk to about them. It was like this discovery you’d make and sometimes bits of it would come back to you, along with a memory of where you were sat, how old you were and so on. I remember watching Educating Rita like that.

Being a programmer, I feel really privileged that I have something akin to that experience when I watch things at festivals. Its quite special watching something for the very first time without a review or a trailer or even a synopsis. Its quite disorienting and you get a bit of a chill down the spine when something really gets to you. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin gave me that chill and just recently, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.

Who would play you in the film about your life?
Someone who hasn’t been discovered yet - ideally a cross between FKA Twigs and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl.