‘The Cinema Travellers’ is Shirley Abraham’s feature directorial debut. The documentary was co-directed by Amit Madheshiya. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year around the same time. In this interview, Shirley fondly recalls her experience of screening her film at Cannes, and at a dozen other film festivals all over the world, including the National Award this year. Read on…
I was privileged to receive some of the best education in the country. I was a student at St. Joseph’s Convent School in Bhopal. I moved to Delhi for higher education, studying at Lady Shri Ram College and then Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia. I am now a documentary filmmaker.
Q. Why filmmaking? What lured you?
I was prohibited from watching movies as a child. Watching them in secret, I used to wonder how cinema gave form to the human imagination. This curiosity eventually lured me into filmmaking.
Q. You have spoken at length about the reason why you chose the topic of traveling cinemas for your directorial debut, but could you tell us what your greatest takeaway from the film was? What was going on in your mind when the final edit was done?
When the final edit was done, I was overcome by a sense of relief. But only for a moment. This nearly one and a half hour film was what I had, to show for eight years of my life. And it was going to Cannes. I felt a mix of delight and terror.
I learnt many things while making this film. For starters, I learnt how to make a film. But my greatest takeaway from making The Cinema Travellers is, that great things come from a place of knowing nothing. This was our debut feature documentary and our lack of experience seemed like the biggest hurdle. We kept taking (what we later realised were) wrong turns at every step, be it writing funding applications, pitching the project, and even filming and editing the material. It was exhausting to fail so often. But even as our struggles continue today, we realize that our lack of hindsight gave us a certain fearlessness, and a mind receptive to discovery. That stood us in good stead and was crucial to making the film.
Q. It has almost been a year since your film was screened at Cannes, what has been the most engaging discussion(s) you have had with the audience, do you reflect upon them often?
The film is set around the moment of the travelling cinema showmen contending with digital technology, as it sweeps over the celluloid centered ecosystem they had nurtured for seven decades. I am often reminded of discussions around the lives of machines, and their eventual obsolescence. And, that the story of humankind is not necessarily one of technological obsolescence, but that of our imagination.
Q. In your experience of traveling abroad for films, writing etc – what is the one striking difference that comes to mind about the position of women pursuing arts?
I find the similarities and solidarities more striking. In many parts of the world, I have women filmmaker friends striving to seek legitimacy for their perspectives, their voices, with which they tell their stories. Why do we need to seek this legitimacy? One, it is tied to strings of finance. Specifically in documentary filmmaking, the existing structures of funding centered in Europe and the west, often create a certain index of what, say, a film from India, made by an Indian filmmaker, an Indian woman filmmaker if you like, should be. I have fought this perception, and have found solidarity in many of my women filmmaker friends who fight it too.
Q. Do you think there is a convergence of politics and arts, of any kind? What is the one thought you wish to leave the audience with, after watching your latest film?
Art is political and should be. But it must first speak the language of art. Only then, can it effectively speak any other language. Take the case of documentaries. I find documentaries the most burdened of all art forms- we burden them with everything from truth telling to social impact. I believe my primary allegiance is to the medium of cinema. If at all, documentary films must first bear the burden of great storytelling- we all know how tough that is, unto itself. And then, they can bear other burdens – political, social, environmental, cultural, if the director so intends. But they must be great cinema first.
The novelist Angela Carter likened the communal experience of cinema to “ancient Greeks participating in the mysteries, dreaming the same dream in unison.” When my audiences leave the theater after watching The Cinema Travellers, I’d love it if they were to reflect upon how cinema brings us together. How it is very campfire of humanity.
We must recognize that the victims of patriarchy are multiple. Men and women both internalize and justify it in different ways.
Q. What do you think is the problem with Indian cinema distribution system, that is shutting its doors to most of the female filmmakers or scripts that are centered around a female protagonist?
I have an uncle who used to hide away his wife’s lipsticks. All his life, he had influenced the women in the family to not wear makeup. I remember fighting with him over what clothes I could wear to church. “If there IS a God who created me, that one already saw me naked”, I reasoned as a 15-year-old. The women in my family had to all be dressed modestly, as seen through this man’s eyes. And that, essentially, is how women’s stories are often seen and told. Through the eyes of men. So a woman dancing to an ‘item number’ is fine, because a woman can be anything, including a reduced object, from a man’s point of view. For her to have her own ambitions and desires, upsets the apple cart and is resisted.
That said, we must recognize that the victims of patriarchy are multiple. Men and women both internalize and justify it in different ways. My lipstick-sneaking uncle justified it by invoking verses of the Bible, and what they say about how women must dress for the glory of God. My grandmother latched on to it, and would instruct her daughters-in-law the same way. Structures of film production invoke the Bible of commerce.
I recently saw a wonderful documentary film, Childhood. The film is centered around a kindergarten for six-year-olds in Norway. The sixth year is considered the crowning year of childhood. The children live near a forest and inhabit a world of myths, games, make believe, poetry and theatre- unbound by the tyranny of educational goals. It is a delightful film, even if almost utopian. I believe that education, overall, can and should gift us with an imagination. But often, even the liberal arts are burdened with a sense of precision.
It is understandable why engineering and science studies are considered safe by our often risk-averse families. It is believed they have a trajectory of sturdy, linear growth. Art is messy. So many of us only get to explore its wonders for ourselves later in life, because it is not part of our early education anyway. And even if it is, we are rarely the keepers of our own choices, sometimes even after school education.
I believe that education, overall, can and should gift us with an imagination. But often, even the liberal arts are burdened with a sense of precision.
Q. Could you name some of your favourite writers, directors, and films? Of the films you’ve watched, what according to you is the most memorable film with a female protagonist?
That would be an unending answer! But some of my favourite directors and writers are Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Pirjo Honkasolo, Amrita Pritam, Alice Walker, Agha Shahid Ali and Dharamvir Bharti. I’d love to talk about two women protagonists in two contemporary films, that have stayed with me.
Jennifer Brea in her film, Unrest
Full disclosure, Jen is a friend. As a Ph.D. student at Harvard, Jen was struck by a leaden, excruciating tiredness that left her bedridden. Doctors told her that it was stress or psychological trauma. She eventually did her own research to discover she had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, an autoimmune disease that brought her, among other things, neurological dysfunction and debilitating exhaustion. It afflicts tens of thousands in the world, of which 70-80% are women. Many of them are bedridden- they have not touched the ground with their feet in years or sat in a chair. Jen’s film, while a personal diary that opens up to stories from around the world, is also an astute, wise and gut-wrenching exploration of the mysteries, misinformation, and lack of diagnosis surrounding ME. I was struck by how prevailing social attitudes can move to quickly plug gaps in the medical space. Back in the day, the overwhelmingly large number of women suffering from ME were dismissed as hysterical, and their illness as something that exists in the head. (They still are.) Months after seeing Unrest, I still tear up remembering Jen in a moment of great fragility, reflecting upon her ‘nothingness’ as a person, as a woman, and how she can possibly have nothing to give, as a wife to Omar, and a potential mother. But through the film, Jen is astounding in her strength and the hope that she hands out at the end of the film, saying, I’m still here.
Elsa Dorfman in Errol Morris’ The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography:
Elsa, now nearly 80, is a photographer specializing in the large-size Polaroid 20″ x 24″ format. When she was young, women were only expected to be youngs. In the film, she shows an image of a couple- a man with his PhD and the woman holding her baby- to emphasise the social roles and conditioning back then. Elsa had reached her 30s, and felt ashamed to not be married at that age. She came into the world of photography. And persisted to become a master practitioner of her rare craft that she has now honed for over three decades. I love feisty Elsa and her rumination on the transience of time and photography, and how we see ourselves through them. And on the shifting nature of technology, particularly because machines and their workings are often considered the very preserve of men.
Q. What do you wish to tell young women who are hoping to pursue filmmaking but are in a dilemma about its legitimacy as a career?
If I’d become an engineer because it was considered secure and respectable, I might still be unhappy and that should make engineering illegitimate for me. We must start by questioning the idea of a legitimate career.
I’ve found filmmaking tough and lonely- creatively, financially and emotionally. And yet, its joys and challenges are rewarding for what they are. The challenge of crafting a story with sounds and images. I feel very grateful for what it brought me. It took many struggles, still does, and always will. It is good to ask yourself, will you still be happy being a filmmaker if, for some time, it brings you nothing of what you dream it to? What will keep you striving? Find out what will keep you anchored. And do your ground work. Prepare for the nuts and bolts of filmmaking by seeking out information and perspective. Make a plan A, B and C, and know none might work. Now dive in. You miss 100% of the chances you don’t take.