Monday, August 7, 2017

But. What. Was. She. Wearing?

In part one, you read about Vaishnavi Sundar, activist and filmmaker from Chennai, is working hard on an interesting project - a documentary film on workplace sexual harassment. Here's an interview with her two colleagues, Hannah and Lisa, on the journey behind "But What Was She Wearing."  

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journeys so far.
Hannah: I was born in Eugene, Oregon, USA. I went to an International Baccalaureate International High School and am currently studying International Studies and Spanish at Portland State University. Eugene is a small liberal town in Oregon and while it was a wonderful place to grow up I always knew that I wouldn’t live there after I turned 18. After highschool graduation I went to Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts to study film production. However, like in many places around the world, because higher education in the USA is extremely expensive, I chose to move back to Oregon and then study the topics that I want to make documentaries about in the future.  


Lisa: I had a very harmonious childhood in a village near Koblenz. After primary school, I went to a private girl's school – not so much because of gender segregation, but because of its good reputation and – truth be told – my 10-year-old-me mostly fancied this school because my sister went there ;) Anyway, this environment had a significant influence on my adolescence. We were encouraged to focus on our interests, regardless if it were sciences, languages, art – there was no such thing as a "male domain". On the other hand, being in a catholic school, we were also confronted with the contradictory position of women in the catholic church, so we also learned soon enough the value of discussing and questioning. Since my childhood, I enjoyed very much inventing stories, acting and staging – but focused mostly on books and theater. It was the teacher of our drama club who encouraged us to realise the idea for a play as a film project, always supporting us students to take charge of something we didn't have a clue of at first. We learned a lot by making a lot of mistakes, leading to much fun, some meltdowns and a 70-minutes detective story. I was about sixteen at this time, and it felt like only then I realised the possibilities and peculiarities of film as an art. From that day on, I had tasted blood.

Hannah, what made you choose India for your internship - what do you hope to learn from this trip and the project?
Hannah: My higher education has always been dedicated to Latin America. My Junior year of University I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. In South America, I found my soul self and fell in love with the culture, the people and the languages. When I returned to the States I decided that I wanted to use my last full year at University to broaden my global paradigm. In the Fall, I chose to study a class about Bollywood and fell in love. I decided that I wanted to explore India next and that's when I found IE3 Global Internships at PSU. The study abroad program didn’t have a film program in India so I had the responsibility to find my own. I reached out to Red Elephants Foundation, who referred me to Lime Soda Films, and then the rest is history. My main goal for this internship is to observe and learn. I want to see how a film is made, from start to finish. I am curious about all avenues of creating a film and want to try to gain exposure to a little bit of everything so I can decide what I do and don’t like about the filmmaking process. Additionally, I want to explore and learn more about India from the amazing people of the country. In August, I will be traveling around North and then Southern India to experience some of the many different cultures and traditions of the the vast and beautiful country of India.

Lisa, you are a film student, what made you drawn towards editing over other departments?
Lisa: In fact, I unconsciously made this decision during said school project. Together with a good friend, I was involved in screenplay-writing, acting, directing, location-scouting and editing, and of all this departments, I soon loved editing the most. It's a bit like writing – you search for the key of your story, shape the characters, build relationships, atmospheres, impressions – but you use not only words, but also pictures, sounds, looks, time...During my apprenticeship and my studies, I could often gain insight into other departments, and although it always was a valuable experience, leading to a better understanding, I often ended up thinking “Oh, this is a bit like editing...” - sometimes I also see parallels in non-film-activities, like zazen or writing theses. In a way, it's all about editing for me.

What challenges do think would you have for a project that concerns a whole different country? How will you make the project your own?
Lisa: As an editor, my job is to have a fresh view on things – to watch the footage for what it is, not what it should be or was meant to be. At the start of a project, I'm like a first viewer, approaching the topic and my instinct what interested me, what shocked me, what confused me helps me to regain this fresh view when I'm too deep into the film. So this foreign perspective could actually help to have this “neutral” view. On the other hand, of course, it is a challenge. We cover a sensitive topic, and more than ever, I have to get involved with our protagonists, trying to understand their feelings/ their concern, and represent them in an authentic way. That's always our responsibility as filmmakers, but in this case, of course, it's special because I can't rely that much on my own experiences. But although we focus on the situation in India, we cover a topic of global importance, so I immediately felt that this subject mattered to me, and that I wished to participate in this project.
Hannah: I’m excited to go to a new country and learn about the culture and traditions from the people. That is how I will make this experience my own. I’m excited to travel around the country and build a small but unique community in Chennai. My overall goal for the 4 and half months I am in India is to remain curious, observe everything and learn.  

There is a certain understanding of India and its ‘Gender Based Violence’ status outside of India. Could you perhaps weigh in on that?
Lisa: I have to admit, India has not the best reputation in Europe concerning this matter. This may sound naive, but I was kind of shocked when I read in a guidebook that women should avoid walking alone at night, because this is something so naturally for me at home. It's a way of freedom and independence I want for every person, regardless of gender or nationality. So this contrast made me realise what already has changed in Germany in the last decades, but also that our society, as well, still needs to work on an actual equality for people of all gender and sexual orientation. Often, the problems here rather lie in attitudes or old role models we are not aware of. The injustice isn't always this obvious, so if you don’t suffer personally, it's easy to dismiss and belittle this concerns, and relax in view of what feminists have achieved so far. But the problems still exist. I was impressed by all the amazing Indian women I got to know so far, fighting with such an energy for their rights.
Hannah: Gender based violence comes in many different forms. Most people have a narrowed definition of what it is and the publicity and media around India and gender based violence fit perfectly into that simple definition; tangible physical violence easy to identify.  While that is very real and relevant it isn’t the only type of gender violence that exists in the world and even in India. Workplace harassment is a type of gender-based violence that I think gets pushed aside as “not that bad” because it isn’t tangible and obvious to see. But that is a dangerous assumption. In the US, workplace harassment is everywhere, it just isn’t as visible and publicized as in India.The US forgets that it still a country that pays women less than men and has extremely high rates of sexual assault. Yes, India has a high rate of gender-based violence but so does the US and so does the rest of the world. Finding topics and areas where different countries and people can all relate will help build a community of resilience and help to support the fight against global gender- based violence around the world.  

Why sexual harassment as a topic of the film, why is it important to you?
Lisa: I had one personal experience in this matter – while I was seventeen, during an internship in a nursing home for the elderly, an inhabitant touched my breast. And while I received full support by my parents and my superiors, I felt very reluctant to complain first. It was crazy, although no-one doubted me and I perfectly knew that this wasn't my fault, I felt very uncomfortable and ashamed at the same time, making excuses for the old demented man, not sure if the matter was “serious” enough to complain, not wanting to cause trouble. And this made me wonder, if it felt like this for me with all the support from the outside, how terrible must it be for people in a less understanding environment? Being this privileged, I want to contribute the little I can to a higher awareness of the problem and a better self-assurance of the victims.

You’re crowdfunding this project, how is it going? How can people contribute?
Lisa: It's great to see how many people are taking interest in our project so far, and are supporting us with their personal means. We still have a long way to go though, to cover costs like equipment renting, crew fees and post production. If you want to contribute, your support is highly welcome!

Can you talk about the importance of all women workforces?
Lisa: In this specific case, I think it might help to create an atmosphere of trust and understanding between the crew and the protagonists. I also worked with wonderful mixed teams and would not want to miss them for the world, but I think all women workforces can be a valuable way of encouraging women to take charge and not to hide behind a man who might just promote himself better. Maybe it's a bit like my girl's-school-experience: If there are only women on the project, there are no such things as “male domains”, you just take charge and prove to yourself and the world that you're able to, and take this confidence to your next film.
Hannah: I think all female workforces help encourage gender equality and empowerment. They show that women are capable of doing whatever they want without the help of a man. That being said, I don’t think that an all female workplace is always necessary to show how women are strong and capable individuals but in a world where women are viewed as less than men it is necessary to show how incredibly ignorant and wrong that comment is. Until the global workplace views women as equal workers compared to men, all female workplaces will continue to be necessary to show that women are powerful human being capable of anything a man can do.

How important is the need for having female idols? Would it translates to more women taking up or aspiring to be in leadership positions?
Lisa: I had the chance to attend a talk with Monika Schindler a few weeks ago, an editor who received the German Film Award for Outstanding Contributions to German Cinema this year. She is in her seventies now, and still editing (the host almost had to drag her out of the edit suite to our talk ;). It was so inspiring to listen to her, who has survived a war, a totalitarian state system, the breakdown of GDR and the adaption to social market economy in FRG, and also mastered the change between linear film editing and non-linear digital editing, always staying herself, and mastering all challenges with a good portion of humour and resolution. There were so many people saying to her “You can't do this, you're a woman/too old/crippled/a single mother”, but she just kept on and made it. I think seeing others achieve their goals encourages to pursuit your own, and, as a society, it might change our idea of “normality”. Women in leadership positions should become as natural as, let's say, male nurses. The day we judge people on their qualities and not their gender, and stop gossiping about the dress a female politician wears, we will have achieved a lot.
Hannah: People inspire people to take action, to follow their dreams, to feel loved. Watching someone older than you succeed and be happy by doing something you love or by being themselves inspires hope and self confidence. Without role models that embody all different genders, ethnicities, cultures, sexualities somewhere along the line a child grows up without someone in a role of power or fame who mirrors who they are and want to be. Having more prominent female leaders and figures in the world is extremely important because they show all the girls that come after them that things are possible. They are the role model for success, happiness and self-acceptance no matter what gender you are. They are the women who show the world, and all that come after them, that if you want it go out and get it! Gender should not be what defines what someone can and cannot do and the more women we have in leadership roles the more women and girls around the world will feel that their dreams are achievable.

Lisa, what is your expectation from this project, as an editor, as a woman, with an opportunity to network and meet with many women involved in filmmaking?
“But what was she wearing” will be my first long documentary, and I'm excited to explore this format. During my studies, I have always enjoyed talking with and learning from other filmmakers about their approach, their motivation and inspiration, and I'm curious to broaden my horizon. Besides, I will be happy to learn more about a film language that is not based on the European tradition of Aristotelian theater.

Hannah, do you hope to take this as a start of your filmmaking career? Would you continue making films based on your learning?
This opportunity is a chance for me to learn about how to produce and complete a documentary. Whether filmmaking in India is similar or different to filmmaking in the US I am excited to gain valuable experience with production from Lime Soda Films. In the future, my ultimate goal is to continue to make international films, most likely in Latin America. Working on But_What Was She Wearing gives me great professional experience with the process of filmmaking. At this point in the process I am excited to continue to learn about how Lime Soda Films creates films and start to develope my own style for my future films.

When you think of India, and its cinema - what are the first thoughts that come to mind?
Hannah: When I think of India, and its cinema, the first thing that comes to mind is Bollywood. I love the Bollywood cinema industry. From the dancing and the songs to the colors and traditions the films paint a picture of interesting cultures and places. That being said, while the films fill me with joy and laughter, like Hollywood there are many things that need to be worked on in regards to gender equality in the industry. But_What Was She Wearing is a perfect opportunity to illuminate viewers about the gender disparities throughout the film industries in India.  
Lisa: It may sound strange, but when I decided to pursuit this wish of working in India, it was not so much Bollywood that attracted me, but some great independent documentaries, for example by Anushka Meenakshi and Anand Gandhi. And, of course, the wonderful work of Deepa Mehta.

Who are some of your favourite filmmakers?
Hannah: Dami├ín Szifron- specifically the film “Relatos Salvajes.” Kathryn Bigelow (partly because she was the first female director to win best director for the Hurt Locker which was a moment of hope and encouragement).
Lisa: I love it when a film questions our concept of normality by alienation, for example in the work of Wes Anderson, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers or Maren Ade in "Toni Erdmann". Dominique Margot followed a similar approach in her documentary "Looking like my mother", where she explored her relation with her manic-depressive mother. The memories of her childhood are reenacted in a surrealistic, sometime dreamlike way, giving an impression of her feelings as a child, and at the same time showing the subjective approach of this film. A film that moved me deeply last year was "24 weeks" by Anne Zohra Berrached. Her fiction film about abortion made me feel with the protagonist in an intensity I haven't experienced often, and yet she treated this sensitive subject in a, to my mind, very respectful way, avoiding prejudices, trivialisation or stigmatisation.