Beauty in Truth: Guest interview with Pratibha Parmar on her film about Alice Walker

Thank you to Marian Evans of Wellywoodwoman (sister blog to Her Film) and the Development project for working on this interview and encouraging me to cross-post here on Her Film.  Also, thank you to filmmaker Pratibha Parmar for engaging with our respective film community projects (Development @devt and Her Film @herfilm). 

(Some readers may notice that we are including mentions of crowdfunding and fundraising campaigns.*)

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Introduction by Marian Evans

Alice Walker’s life and work have inspired me, shown me that it’s possible to be a writer and a global citizen with love, spirit, courage and laughter. There’s The Color Purple and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, as well as the Broadway musical. And there’s so much more: poems, essays, short stories, novels like Possessing the Secret of Joy—about female genital mutilation—and her latest book, The Chicken Chronicles. So when I heard that Pratibha Parmar of Kali Films was making a documentary about Alice Walker, called Beauty in Truth, I was very excited.

Pratibha Parmar is a multi-award-winning filmmaker with a family heritage of protest. She has lived and worked on four continents: Asia, Africa, Europe, America, and has created many “filmic spaces where women of color can reach each other across the various diasporas”. These spaces include her very first video Emergence (where Palestinian, South Asian, African-American, and Chinese women speak about their art), A Place of Rage (about June Jordan and Angela Davis within the American Civil Rights movement, shortly to be re-released on DVD), an earlier film collaboration and accompanying book with Alice Walker, Warrior Marks, also about female genital mutilation, and a feature, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, “a surprising love story where Scottish humor meets Bollywood spectacle”.

Pratibha kindly answered some questions while she completed preparations for Beauty in Truth’s Indiegogo campaign, to raise money to complete post-production.

How did you decide to make Beauty in Truth?

The idea was conceived over a Christmas break four years ago when Shaheen (my partner and co-producer) and I were watching a stack of DVD’s in a cosy hideout in Northern California. These DVD’s were all biographies of ‘iconic’ men, such as Frank Gehry, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan.

Immediately we wondered out loud about the absence of cinematic visions of ‘iconic’ women. Where were the STACKS of films on women who have challenged, changed and shaped history and impacted on contemporary culture? I came to filmmaking from a passionate desire to see stories about women, particularly women of color who are rarely seen on mainstream television or cinema screens in all our/their complexity and nuance. So it isn’t a surprise that my default position is to always ask questions.

Where are the in-depth explorations of women as thinkers and public intellectuals, women as history makers and shapers, women who are inspirational leaders and role models for upcoming generations? Where indeed was a film on Alice Walker who is rightly considered one of 20th Century’s most significant writers?  And so started the journey of this film.

How far have you got with it?

I am focusing on completing Beauty in Truth before the end of 2011 and want to launch the film in 2012, the 30th Anniversary of The Color Purple.

We have had many funding challenges in the last few years yet we are proud to say we have completed 85% of our filming with just a few small grants as well as major extensions on credit limits on our personal credit cards. More recently support from ITVS who have been fantastic has boosted us. We have interviewed some amazing people including Danny Glover, Steven Spielberg, Gloria Steinem and of course Alice Walker herself.

For me the most frustrating thing about the whole process has been how it’s had to stop and start as we apply for funding, wait for news on our application, pick ourselves up again when the answer is not we hoped for, find another grant to apply to and so and so on. This has meant that for the first time ever in my filmmaking life, I have had to work with different DPs (Directors of Photography) and not the same one throughout. My work as you know is very visually led and so for me the crucial relationship is with my DP.

Pratibha at work on Beauty in Truth with Nina’s Heavenly Delights cinematographer Simon Dennis. Photo credit: Shaheen Haq

But this time around, I have had to find DP’s locally in the different cities we were filming in and some times it didn’t work out the way I would have liked. That’s been damn frustrating.

One particular highlight was interviewing Yoko Ono in Iceland when she was giving the LennonOno Peace Award to Alice Walker for her humanitarian work. It was on Lennon’s 70th birthday so the whole event was ultra special. After I finished the interview, one of the people in Yoko’s circle who had been with her for a long time said to me that it was the best interview she had given in a really long time. So of course I was thrilled. Not only did she talk about Alice (they both went to the same college, Sarah Lawrence, but at different times) but she also shared anecdotes about her own work and her and John Lennon. It was such a privilege to talk to her.

Photo of Alice Walker & Yoko Ono, photo credit Pratibha Parmar

You’ve already undertaken a very challenging project with Alice Walker, the Warrior Marks film and book. How do you stand alongside Alice as you make Beauty in Truth?

I think every time we make a film we are laying ourselves wide open because most times we come from a place of passion for our work–a passion that helps us to fly over the iron fences in our way. And when you make work that comes from that deep place within your bones, it’s inevitable that you feel exposed and vulnerable.  When we made Warrior Marks, it was a challenging and difficult journey primarily because of its subject matter, female genital mutilation. Out of such shared experienced grew a mutual trust and respect. Recently when we finished shooting an interview, Alice said, ‘You know Pratibha we wouldn’t be having these conversations if we weren’t friends’. So I know that the content of our conversations for the film is precious and I feel honored that she has trusted me with her story.

What can you do in a documentary that you could not do in a book about Alice Walker, or she could not do herself, in a book?

There is in fact an excellent biography by Evelyn C White on Alice Walker called A Life: Alice Walker. I highly recommend it.

Visual storytelling particularly with a biography is an exciting challenge and with Alice’s story there is of course the gift of her evocative poetry and fiction. So there is an opportunity here to weave some of this writing embedded into visual montages throughout the film, writing that often reflects key moments in her eventful life. It’s a beautiful way to anchor some of these turning points. I am excited to work with animation, graphics and moving images to create these visual vignettes that hopefully do justice to Alice’s writing.

Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker. Photo credit: Shaheen Haq

Has funding been problematic for this project because of women’s lack of access to capital in general? Or to our collective reluctance to support women filmmakers, even though we want more women-centred stories?

Okay let’s start with some startling statistics, which give an idea of what women filmmakers are up against—only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. Given such a dearth of female representation in front of and behind the camera, is it any wonder that we continue to have a struggle to get funding for female stories and voices.

And within this context many of us especially those of us who are declared feminists are experiencing acute funding challenges. It’s hard especially when you make films that don’t fit into the dominant white, male paradigms at the best of times but right now it’s pretty dire.

But still, I have to admit that I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it has been to find funding support for a film on one of the most compelling, history making, writers of the 20th century. And I am not exactly a beginner director either. Just this week I read that US T.V. networks hire hardly any women directors and in a situation where women were/are already a minority, our continual disappearance both in front of and behind the screen is worrying.

Women are usually the first hit in any economic crisis as we are witnessing all around us right now with the current crisis and when it comes to our voices in the media the situation just gets worse. There has been an overall shift in recent years towards strident conservative, right wing thinking, which adds to the struggle to get funding for films that don’t fit into their retrogressive lens. Alice Walker’s outspokenness on issues such female genital mutilation, as well as the Palestinian people’s struggle, makes some funders nervous about supporting the film. I know this to be the case from some of the comments we have received.

And it’s not just the right wing. Recently there was an article in the New York Times about the documentaries screening at the Toronto Film Festival and there was not one mention of a film by a woman. Documentary is a genre in which women have always been very prominent. But suddenly when the genre becomes ‘sexy’ and more publically profiled because ‘named’ male directors are turning to the genre, it’s only the male filmmakers who get name checked. Melissa Silverstein who writes the Women In Hollywood blog did a great piece on this.

In the Warrior Marks book, you wrote that the “controlling, curbing, and problematizing of women’s sexuality have always been cross-cultural”, and sexuality is a theme in your work. To sustain your cross-cultural work, and the anger that accompanies it, you must need vast resources of love and courage. Has some of this come from your very long domestic and creative partnership with Shaheen Haq? Has your own sexuality influenced your work? And if so, how? And what are your views on LGBTQ representation in South Asian media?

I believe that everything you are and have been shapes your creativity.  In my case my diasporic personal history is an intrinsic part of what has made me. I was born in Kenya, grew up in the UK and was brought up to think of India as my ancestral home. Currently I am making home in California. My status as a woman, a woman of color, an out lesbian and a feminist has challenged me in finding ways of negotiating a world that insists on making me into the ‘other’ but I also love that this outsider identity has given me an opportunity to revel in more imaginative ways of engaging with the world.

As for my relationship with Shaheen–yes indeed I would not be who I am today, doing all that I do without the love I have been blessed to experience with my partner Shaheen Haq. Her faith and abiding confidence in me during my many ‘dark nights’ over the years has pulled me through. Together we have broken many many taboos–for a start she comes from a Muslim background and I from a Hindu–both religions and communities historical ‘enemies’ since the partition of India. My parents fought against British rule in India but they also harboured a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment as a result of the bloody history of that partition. Ditto for her family. And then on top of that we have stepped completely outside the cultural norm and rejected a heteronormative expectation of us, all this has thrown us way off into the margins.

Shaheen Haq and Pratibha Parmar photo (no credit)

But I have always embraced the margins which is where some of the most exciting and innovative work comes from. I made Khush in 1991, the first South Asian lesbian and gay documentary. The film spanned India, UK and Canada. At the time I had no idea what the impact of this film would be but to this day I have folks who tell me that had it not been for that film, they might never have come out to themselves, or their families or friends. When I went to India in 1991 to film interviews, homosexuality was illegal and not many people were (understandably) willing to be on camera. I went back in 2008 when I was invited to screen my lesbian romantic curry romance, Nina’s Heavenly Delights. I met many many lesbians and gay men who were out and open about their sexuality. Things had changed absolutely and it was wonderful to see that. More recently homosexuality has been decriminalized in India and there are regular LGBT marches in places like Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta.

Pratibha Parmar with actress LaChanze, winner of a Tony (2006) for her performance as "Celie" in The Color Purple (Photo courtesy of Pratibha Parmar)

For me LGBT representations made by South Asian LGBT filmmakers like Sonali Gulati are far more exciting than any found in South Asian media. Bollywood films have started to include queer characters but they are so often full of stereotypes.  Self representation is powerful which is one of the reasons I decided to become a filmmaker.

You have a teaser on the film’s site. Have you got any other images or footage to share?

We now have a longer trailer, which we hope people will view and share as much as they like. We also have quite a few production stills and some of these are on our website alongside my blog. I am about to venture into unknown territory and explore a whole new way of raising funding. Inspired by some amazing success stories, we have decided to take the plunge and start a crowd funding campaign for Beauty In Truth on Indiegogo.  And as the IndieGoGo campaign gains momentum we plan to release a few choice video podcasts from the film.

 What do you need? How can we help?

Crowd funding is an exciting way to raise money through grassroots outreach and potentially an excellent way to build community and audiences to have dialogue and discussions with. I truly believe that there is a diverse and widespread international community of people out there who want to see this film, especially women. Films like this do and can make a difference.  But we need YOUR help. There is only two of us doing this with the help of a few well

Pratibha Parmar and Shaheen Haq (Photo courtesy of Pratibha Parmar)

wishers. Please spread the word on the film. We are asking people to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, tweet/ email their friends, post to Facebook and help get us donations on our Indiegogo site. Become Beauty In Truth Ambassadors and hold parties in your home, community centres and gardens…anywhere really where there is beauty and light and good food.

We want to build an active and vibrant community around the film and if people tell us about their fund raising efforts via a short video or even a short blog or an email, we will post it to our Facebook page (Alice Walker Film) and on our website.

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 *This is a shift from the previous Her Film policy to veer away from that topic due to the fact that so many filmmakers spend the majority of their time securing financing.  As part of Her Film’s  new mission to “build audiences for films by, for and about women,” inclusion of this aspect of filmmaking will now be accepted in interviews, guest posts and guest interviews.

 

Words & Actions from New Zealand: Strategies for helping women filmmakers, the Compostela Declaration and the Writing of a Biopic

As you may know, Her Film is a sister blog to the New Zealand-based blog Wellywoodwoman by Kiwi writer/filmmaker/cultural activist Marian Evans who this year earned the first Ph.D. in Creative Writing ever awarded in New Zealand.  Marian is making a film called Development about women filmmakers and the people who love them.  She’s using an alternative financing model that does not depend on the national film commission or other state-based film funds as many other Kiwi films do.  Inspired by Sally Potter‘s production model for The Gold Diggers, Marian and her production team are also tackling the larger issue:  gender parity within New Zealand filmmaking, working toward the goal of Kiwi women directing 50% of all Kiwi-made films.  Her doctoral thesis focused on women in the filmmaking industry and issues of gender parity, and the script for Development arose from that research.  It’s a global movement rapidly gaining traction but up against many obstacles.

Marian recently blogged about how women are helping other women to gain opportunities to participate in making films:

“There are so many strategies available to support women’s participation in feature filmmaking. I love them all.

Some people record, analyse and write about the numbers, provide the evidence…

Some women experiment with funding structures and new ways of distribution…

Some women illuminate the diverse—and often poorly understood—structures some women use when they write scripts…

…their effects are enhanced every time a distinguished member of the international film-making community speaks out about the issues—Jane Campion and Meryl Streep are the outstanding examples.”


The Compostela Declaration is part of this larger movement to bring about gender parity within filmmaking.  Generated by CIMA — Asociacion de Mujeres Cineastas y de los Medios Audiovisuales (Association of Women Filmmakers and Women in Audiovisual Communications), or Women in Audiovisual Europe.  (Use google to search the association’s Spanish  name for an option to translate the page.)  A major CIMA meeting was held in May of this year in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  In reference to CIMA and its Compostela Declaration about women’s participation in film and media, gender parity and the “voicelessness” resulting from the current imbalance, Marian stated that it was:

“…the first time I’ve read about women using terminology that embraces the contemporary screen media convergence.”

(The declaration is included in Marian’s post for those who’d like to read it.)

And here’s a bit of her newest post which really made me jump for joy as it was “ballsy” in what seems to be a very Marian way, at least from the eight months or so that I’ve known her — one of my favorite things about her.  What I like to call a “modest proposal,” Marian takes on the topic of Sony Pictures looking for a woman screenwriter for the new project by producers Amy Pascal and Elizabeth Cantillon.  Based on Sheila Weller’s book GIRLS LIKE US, the film is a biopic of the lives of singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.  And Marian says:

” ‘OH, I thought: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon– Then, ‘I can do this. And I want to.’ “


GO FOR IT, Marian!

READ MORE of Marian Evans’ incredible blog at Wellywoodwoman: For Women Who Want to Make Movies, and for the People Who Love Them, and check out her site for her new film Development (currently in production).  Join the Development page on Facebook and read Marian’s tweets @devt.  Start a dialogue!

Understanding Merata…

As you may know, the filmmaker Merata Mita, passed away at the end of May in Auckland, New Zealand.  Earlier this month I posted a number of links to more information about her — I read all the pages in an attempt to understand exactly who she was as a filmmaker (insofar as you can by simply reading about her) and what she meant to so many people.  It’s joyously evident by the outpouring of tributes, announcements and videos posted about Mita’s work that she was greatly admired, loved, respected and recognized as a vital part of not only Maori film, but also women’s film and the New Zealand and global film industry.  Merata Mita was a New Zealand Maori woman filmmaker and her work reflected her identity.

Writer and filmmaker, Marian Evans, of Wellywoodwoman (of which Her Film is a sister blog), wrote a piece with writer and curator, Cushla Parekowhai, on Merata Mita last week which delves into not only her long-time passion of turning New Zealand author Patricia Grace’s novel Cousins into a feature film, but also her stunningly long list of accomplishments and involvement in film and her philosophy about Maori film and its place within New Zealand and world cinema.

Her Film, as I’ve written before, is meant to be a place for, about and by aspirant, working and experienced women filmmakers to share and reflect on their experiences in making films.  Marian Evans and Cushla Parekowhai’s piece, Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010, accomplishes that beautifully in this excerpt, albeit more about Mita’s family’s experiences:

Merata was fearless. I read this week that she once said  “Swimming against the tide becomes an exhilarating experience. It makes you strong. I am completely without fear now”. And she needed to be. In Rangatira: Making Waves—a documentary that Hinewehi Mohi made about and with Merata in 1998—one of Merata’s children talks about the cost of her work to their family; it kept them in poverty and caused frequent separations. Another tells how they were unsafe at home because of her filmmaking. The family lived with verbal abuse, state surveillance, and death threats while Merata made Patu! about New Zealand’s civil unrest during the 1981 Springbok rugby Tour, the culmination of many years’ protest about sporting contact with South Africa, then living under apartheid rule.

(excerpted from Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010 on Wellywoodwoman)

I’m woefully inadequate to speak much on Merata Mita when I’ve not been able to see her work as I would have liked.  I haven’t carved out the time in my day to google and buy her work, though on the NZ On Screen site you can watch her film Patu! I’m blocking off time this weekend to watch it in its entirety.  Suffice it to say, that even in this day and age of instant viewing and DVD by mail services, Mita’s work is not ubiquitously available.  I can only hope the situation in New Zealand is different!  But I can only speak as a reader of Marian & Cushla’s piece, and I am inspired and in a sense, empowered, as an aspiring filmmaker, film researcher and film-lover, by Merata Mita’s bold vision, sustained passion and uncompromising work.  To that point, I’ll leave you with another brief excerpt from Marian & Cushla’s Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010 which I HIGHLY recommend reading.  Two informative and inspiring videos (one in Hawai’ian and one in Maori) can be found toward the end of their tribute, well worth a watch!

A Broadsheet review criticized Patu! which Merata made to communicate  with “PEOPLE rather than to reach factions…I don’t like…a kind of ghetto thing where you forget that you’re part of the broader family of humanity

(excerpted from Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010 on Wellywoodwoman)

Note: I have taken the liberty to link certain words and topics in the excerpts.

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Many thanks to Marian Evans for being willing to have Her Film be a sister blog to Wellywoodwoman!