Documentary Talk : Priya Goswami on ‘A Pinch of Skin’
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or a debutante documentary filmmaker Priya Goswami, the film A Pinch of Skin, which went on to win a Special Mention in the 60th National Film Awards, first originated as part of a college project. It was because of its strong subject on rare practices of Female Genital Mutilation also known as ‘Khatna’, Priya chose to go deep into her research and met as many Bohra women as she could to find out the voices narrating more about it. The independent filmmaker prefers to write her own film. So far, A Pinch of Skin has been screened at International Asian Women’s Film Festival, Jaipur International Film Festival, Red Dot Film Festival and at many other film festivals in India. In a candid chat with Pandolin, Priya Goswami shares her story behind the making of her debut project A Pinch of Skin and a lot more.
How did the journey of the documentary ‘A Pinch of Skin’ begin for you?
In the last semester of my course in film and video communication in National Institute of Design (NID), I had to make a documentary as part of my college project. I was looking for a subject before I stumbled upon an article on the female genital mutilation (FGM) practiced by Dawoodi Bohra community. When I read the article, I thought of choosing it as my subject of the documentary. I started researching about it, shot it and prepared a cut for the college. After I got out of NID, I further edited the film and applied to film festivals. The documentary took around one and half years, in which half a year was the production time and a year of edit.
How much amount of research and preparation was involved?
I had to research a lot. As I kept on reading about FGM, more articles on the subject came into my notice. I, anyway, had two strategies. The first was to track down the writer of the article and the other was to talk with women willing to speak on the subject. I personally did not know anyone from the community. The reason why the film A Pinch of Skin took this long for production because my research and shoot were simultaneously happening. As and when people agreed to speak, I let them and went ahead with the shoot. Only after the consent of the interviewee, I rolled my camera.
For this project, I moved around five different cities namely Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Delhi, and Udaipur. As I did not know any of them personally, my strategy was to find out the journalists who wrote about them and once I got in touch with them, I had a few people in mind whom I wanted to speak with. I would make a telephone call and tell these people that ‘this is what I am calling you for’ and if somebody did not want to speak about it, they would just say ‘ok, we are not interested. Do not disturb us.’ It was as straight forward as that. While on the other hand, if somebody was interested and open to speak about FGM, they first wanted to meet me and know how the documentary was going to be shot because the issue is completely a hush-hush affair in the community. Even, the male members of the family might not be aware of their daughters, mothers and wives having gone under circumcision in their childhood. When I spoke to these women and told them about the documentary, all of sudden they wanted to know how I am going to go about this.
For example in this one particular city (name of the places are highly confidential), I travelled all the way only to find that I was not allowed to roll the camera there. Since it was quite far, I made sure I did not go back without achieving the purpose. Hence I told them that ‘as long as you are willing to speak to me , I will take only your voice’ and then I used that particular lady’ voice run on the blank screen of the film because what she had to say is so out of the world and important to the film. More or less, most of these women are highly educated women.
This is one such practice in Bohra Muslims and people just follow this irrational practices purely due to their conditioning because they have been told to do this. It has always come down as a belief that cannot be questioned. FGM, also called Khatna, has no mention in Quran. So, it’s also not an Islamic ritual at all.
For the documentary, I filmed women from the age group of 22 to 70 years old.
I took the help of late Asghar Ali Engineer, who was a very eminent Bohra scholar, who just recently passed away a couple of months ago. He was very well read in the community. I asked him to confirm whether there is any mention of it in the Quran or not. There is not.
Even some of the ladies knew that there is no such thing mentioned in the Holy Quran. In fact the Quran says if a woman is not satisfied sexually with her husband, she can actually divorce him.
All the women were emphasizing on one thing, which was that they were told to undergo this genital mutilation, so that their sexual urges could be moderated which would prevent them to fall in love before marriage or involve into pre-marital sex or prevent them from falling into extra marital affairs. This is highly irrational, which is what the film tries to capture.
Anyone would be outraged when they would hear of something like this. It happens at the age of seven, when one is not in a situation to do anything about it; although at the same time remember what has been done to them.
When I actually spoke to these women, I realized that they are not victims but just normal people, conditioned to believe into this practice. The film gives voices to both the sides, those who are for it and against it.
I have learned to respect everyone’s opinion. Even though, I am against the practice, I would want to express the fact that it’s pure conditioning. They are not trying to be cruel.
FGM is a very sensitive issue. How did you manage to convince women to talk about it? Did they, at any phase, have a feeling of following a wrong practice?
They agreed to be shot because I assured them that their identity won’t be revealed. So the entire film either has hands, feet or silhouettes talking. None of the identities have been revealed neither the locations. So you don’t get to know where the set is located and who is who!
The research and the shooting process was intermingled. I shot the video as and when people agreed. It took me approximately six months. I also started my research a little before the semester, which was about six months.
Which camera and format did you use?
I shot the documentary with my Canon Mark 5D in high definition.
What was your crew like?
It was me who shot and edited the film. Few times I was lucky to have another female friend of mine accompanying me. Also, it helped me in a way that people usually are not open to talk about such hush-hush matter in open, so speaking the matter to only a person with their identities veiled assured them to speak up.
What was your approach to shooting?
My shooting approach was like ‘whoever was ready to give me whatever.’ If they were not comfortable with me holding cameras, I would just get the voices and be back. But if they were comfortable with me shooting the visuals around their house, I would do that. There are a lot of abstract visuals, which are coming together in the narrative. For example, moving hands, speaking lips etc. doing the talking and it’s almost like seeing the face.
I think consciousness comes from the fact when a person learns that his/her face is on the film. It’s very natural to get conscious when you know that the camera is looking at you. Since the frame was refractive, they were just talking. For example, the lady who made me record her voice, she just went on talking and her voice came out to be the most moving voice in the film.
Did you, at any point feel the threat to make a documentary on Khatna, since it’s a very sensitive issue?
No, I was just little scared and nervous about how would it feel to the Bohra community. Because I am a woman and I do not belong here but I think filmmaking is bigger than a community. It’s my good luck that the film has been received well.
I used natural lights only. Sometimes I was lucky enough to be in a gorgeous home because they all belong to a certain high socio-economic class. I was able to use some reflections in the mirror, some silhouettes because the purpose was just to highlight. Lighting of the film is full of contrast. I have played with a lot of shadows in the film. I have also experimented, say over expose certain shots to give heightened sense of emotions of whatever I am talking about.
What is the length of the film? How was the editing process?
The Film is 28 minutes long. I also spoke to the men from the community but on the edit table, I decided to edit it out. Hence, it became a little more intimate. When you hear women talking of doing it to their own daughters and granddaughters, following some patriarchal myth, the film becomes more intense.
What were the major challenges you faced? How did you overcome it?
When I started out, I was completely in a sense of ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’. Filmmaking is an audio visual medium. My biggest challenge was to come up with a visual language, which I am satisfied with and I firmly believe in documentary, which not only is subject oriented but also has some level of technical finesse. Other challenge was to deal with a subject in a much more interesting manner to make it look visually delicious. I believe that the images should speak for themselves. So, I wanted to bring all the elements of filmmaking together and make it an engrossing watch.
I think the tone of the film kind of worked for me. With every single place I went to, I kept the reference of the previous visuals in mind and the next visual I had was the direction tool. It all came together in sync, after I began editing it.
So, I would say two major challenges I faced –
1. How to create an engrossing film, despite restrictions in what images I can take and what I can’t.
2. How do I get access to women, who would be willing to talk at the first place?
How about funding of the film?
The film is a National Institute of Design produce. For making this extensively though, I didn’t mind pitching in funds.
What are your plans to release the film in the market?
I think, the film A Pinch of Skin should reach out to the community. There should be multiple screenings organized in cities where I have shot the documentary. That’s my goal.
I really have not given a thought on how to market it. I am applying the film in various film festivals and now onto my second film project, which is an independent short fiction film.