Seeing a person weep in front of you is never easy – Ashvin Kumar
Indignation and rage draw him to stories of human injustice. Two time National award-winner and an Academy Award nominee, Writer – Director Ashvin Kumar believes in telling stories where the audience can closely experience the emotions that the subjects of his film go through.
His latest documentary, I Am Not Here, commissioned by the United Nations shows the heart wrenching plight of undocumented migrant workers, a significant number of whom are women, who leave behind their families and homes in search of a better life. In a conversation with Pandolin, Ashvin shares the experience of interacting with three such women and putting together this documentary that exposes the harsh realities of their lives.
Starting from the beginning, how did the genesis of this documentary happen? What was the brief that you received from the UN?
The brief was to make a film on undocumented domestic workers in New York, Zurich and Kuala Lumpur. Our co producer Christina really went all out and performed an exhaustive search which threw up a short list, then we selected the women you see in the film, as their stories were remarkable of course but also, balanced each other out and explored the main broad themes of the issue.
Tell us about the premise of the documentary. What is the core objective behind it?
From the start, I think I put it out there to the UN that doing a facts and stats sort of Nat-Geo type documentary may miss a trick or two. I wanted to go behind the figures and the nameless statistics and tell the human, emotional story about these women. Too often those who make policies forget – or rather its easy to forget – that these are real people with real families and ties. The idea – in my films always – is to link the personal life experience of my audience with that of those who are appearing on screen. Hence there are themes like a mother separated by economic necessity from her child for over two decades. I want to put the audience in those shoes and take it for a short stroll, just to see how it must feel.
In a previous interview you’ve stated that stories of human injustice have always drawn you. What is it about these stories that draws you?
The film deals with harsh realities that people don’t readily wish to talk about. Please elaborate on the research process that helped you zero in on the countries and find these brave women who are part of your film.
We had to find NGOs, then reach out to the women they were working with. Most of them said yes to an interview but then refused to come on camera for obvious reasons – they are trying to conceal their identity. Credit goes to Christina MacGillivray, our co producer and lead researcher, who really did a stalwart job.
It was genuinely a grassroots door – to – door research effort. In most cases people in an undocumented situation in any country fear sharing their stories because the risk of deportation and arrest are too great. Why come forward on film if you are risking your safety ? The safety and education of your children? It is difficult. To gain trust, I first went through dozens of nonprofits across the three continents, but nonetheless you need to speak with a person on the ground in a city, in order for them to understand you are here to help. In New York City, it started in one woman’s living room. She gave me another number. I trekked across the city, spoke with another woman – and it went on and on like this.
In Malaysia I interviewed around 40 women, many of whom had stories nearly as difficult as the young woman in the film. We are grateful to the women – both those who appeared in the film and the many who shared their stories that led to the film – for the courage it took to come forward and speak out.
These women have had extremely challenging lives, to say the least. How was the experience of interacting with them – was it easy to get them to talk?
Be it talking to ex militants in Kashmir or undocumented women in various parts of the world, there is a cathartic, healing quality in the act of speaking to someone. I try to discover what it is about the person I am talking to that will win their trust. People who have survived ordeals, don’t trust easily. The idea is to get behind that bluster they’ve put up as a defense for themselves. In the case of Jennifer, for instance, it was really hard to get her story properly. We went over it many times and each time it was facts and figures – in year so and so I came here and did that. It wasn’t till we got her really comfortable in her bedroom and let the camera roll without interrupting her, gently nudging the conversation along, that we got the interview in the beginning of the film. We were dealing with Malay and Spanish for almost 3/4ths of the interviews in the film. And though I was asking the questions, I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. We had translators with us, but in an interview you don’t want the subject to loose the moment, so at best the translation is a few words that quickly paraphrase what is being said. I had to just look into their eyes, and feel what they were saying and then throw out another question. That was a huge challenge. I’ve worked in Kashmir under similar conditions but there it goes between Urdu and Kashmiri so one can guesstimate quite accurately what’s being said.
How difficult is it for you to maintain an emotional distance while dealing with such a moving subject?
Its very hard. But somewhere you have to remind yourself that its not about you, its about bringing out the story of the person who is sitting in front of the camera. That helps me focus on the emotions of the story – but seeing a person weep in front of you – that’s never easy.
Documentaries often risk getting categorized as ‘boring’ or ‘repetitive.’ As a filmmaker how have you approached and treated this film to stay away from any clichés?
I try to tell a good story and make the audience feel the emotions that I am feeling. If a documentary is boring its usually because the edit is loose. Human stories – real ones – are terribly compelling. I don’t try to keep away clichés or anything. Cliches are only reality repeated. So in fact the cliché is the truth. And, it’s a great asset – it can be used very effectively because the audience already relates to it. The trick is to place it in a context in which you place the alleged cliché is critical. For example, a woman who gives up on seeing her children growing up, staying away from them for twenty years to enable a better future for them, is a story of sacrifices and what it means to be a mother. But in the appropriate context, it’s a compelling and emotive story.
While making a documentary film, what would you say is the key thing to bear in mind?
Be open. Be flexible. Be ready to change course even if it means going after something that wasn’t part of the original brief.
An Oscar Award nominee, two-time National Award winner – considering your remarkable reputation, was there any pressure while making this film?
With such powerful subjects and stories that I’ve had the privilege to film, I am too busy trying to tell their story to occupy my mind with trying to outdo myself. I think the day I start doing that, I’ll stop making films.
The film has had several screenings. What else has the UN planned to take this film to as large an audience as possible? What are your plans on a personal level for the film?
The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights is planning more screenings across the globe. There is potential for New York City, Istanbul and other cities.
Personally, I hope the film will be used at the community level to engage change in the issue through discussion and igniting activism.
Indian filmmakers today are doing incredible work and pushing their boundaries the world over. Your views on the changing dynamics of Indian cinema?
I think its just fabulous that Indian films are not only getting into the A list festivals but taking away top prizes. It’s a great time to be in India and make films even though making them and distributing them in our own country continues to be a challenge. Independent films are getting made for very small budgets now thanks to digital technology so the risks are lower, and yet as independent filmmakers we have to go around the world looking for finance – I for instance, am writing this from the UK where I am trying to raise finance for Noor which (see description below) really should get funding from India.
Could you throw some light on your upcoming projects?
I am making a film called Noor which is a teenage coming-of-age story about a girl from England who comes to Kashmir looking for her father. A story of hope against the reality of conflict. It is the story of the women and children – the next generation – of Kashmir. I am in the UK at the moment putting together the cast and looking for finance for the film, to start next year.