Channeling the Martha Within (minus that whole megalomania and prison sentence thing)

April 17, 2009

Channeling the Martha Within (minus that whole megalomania and prison sentence thing)

Monday marks the 113th Boston Marathon, which got me thinking that making a film is like running a marathon. A marathon that involves carrying a shotput in one arm and throwing a javelin with the other while running hurdles every step of the way.

Whether these hurdles are creative, technical or financial, they can crush your epic celluloid career before you can say Camera d’Or. The important thing is to know that every filmmaker encounters hurdles. The other important thing is to figure out what gets you to clear those hurdles so that you can make it to the #%$@ finish line.

* * *

Like tens of thousands of other women who are part of the crafty grrrl movement, I have found that when the going gets tough, the tough get glue gunning. So much so that my family now refers to me as Brown Martha. I have a closet full of quilling paper, embroidery floss, Gocco gear, soap making molds and eight years worth of Ready Made Magazine to back up my credentials, so minus the martinet persona + insider trading that goes along with such a title, I’m sort of proud of this nickname.

As such, when I came across something called a case bound tunnel book at a local Paper Source, I knew I had found the newest jewel in my little empire.

Look mommy, it's a case bound tunnel book!

Look mommy, it's a case bound tunnel book!

Whee! This was my first attempt at a case bound tunnel book, which, in case you can’t tell, is the grown up version of a pop-up book. It took about four hours from start to finish and I made a number of errors along the way. I probably also have some nerve damage from gripping an Exacto knife for that long, but that’s a small sacrifice in the long quest for Empire. Regardless, four hours spent doing something creative and not related to my film helped me sit down and do other uncreative, film-related tasks (like transcribing and translating hours and hours of interviews). Which is why I thought that I would mention it here.

* * *

I realize that some Lazy McLazingtons skipped all of the calorie zapping, wrinkle eliminating, life transforming secrets in the first five paragraphs of this post, so here are the Cliff Notes:

  1. Like filmmaking, many crafty endeavors involve problem solving.
  2. And creative problem solving in on one project can bleed over into other projects.
  3. Besides which, a film can take years to make. In the meanwhile it’s helpful to have pursuits that offer more immediate, tangible, creative gratification.

* * *

If you share my penchant for decoupaging and glitter gluing your way out of your creative funks, you might also enjoy 43 Folders, a blog dedicated to “improving the quality of your career and life by managing your attention in a way that allows you to work your ass off on the creative projects that matter most to you.” Check it out then get back to work!


Amidst all the green, a whole lot of Red

February 20, 2009

Amidst all the green, a whole lot of Red

I kept thinking that I would post something (at least once!) while in India.

But a shoot takes a lot out of you. A shoot in India, even more. Starting with electrolytes. Note to self: next time you’re stomach is not in top condition and you are negotiating the 75+ degree difference between a New England winter and the swamp that is south India, try not to pass out again from dehydration during a great interview where someone is telling you about his days as a heroin addict, how he balances his communist politics with a job for a multi-national car manufacturer and why he named his daughter after this Soviet-era cosmonaut.

Nonetheless, this first shoot was, by any measure, a success. Now the real work (capturing, logging, transcribing, translating, sequencing, cutting, re-cutting, re-re-cutting) begins.

* * *

The day after we left for Kerala, The Economist ran a piece on its blog about the recession’s one-two punch to Kerala’s remittance based economy.

The Gulf gaveth, the recession taketh away

The Gulf gaveth, the recession taketh away

The lush state of Kerala in the south of India generates most of its foreign exchange either by exporting people or importing them.

It earned almost 20 billion rupees ($500m) from foreign tourists in 2006 (the latest year for which figures are available) and about 245 billion (in the same year) in remittances from Keralites working abroad, 89% of whom go to the Gulf.

The state has an astonishing 24.5 emigrants per 100 households. Kerala’s per capita output is one of the lowest in India, but its per capita expenditure is one of the highest…[And] the Gulf economies where most of these NRKs work are slowing. Some construction projects are on hold. As a result, Kerala may have to brace itself for a wave of reverse migration. [link]

Then, this article on laid-off foreigners leaving Dubai turned up in the New York Times on Feb. 11th, the day before we got back to Boston.

One of many abandoned luxury cars destined to go on the auction block in Dubai. Going, going...long gone.

Going, going...long gone.

With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield.

The government says the real number is much lower. But the stories contain at least a grain of truth: jobless people here lose their work visas and then must leave the country within a month. That in turn reduces spending, creates housing vacancies and lowers real estate prices, in a downward spiral that has left parts of Dubai — once hailed as the economic superpower of the Middle East — looking like a ghost town. [link]

We passed most of Feb. 10th on an utterly depressing 15 hour layover in Dubai. Think Las Vegas on steroids, minus the fun. Reading this article on Feb. 11th made me wonder what lies ahead for the restaurant staffers whom we chatted with during the layover: a waitress who had a two year old baby back in Manila, a newly arrived young waiter from Cape Town, a restaurant manager from Colombo, and of course, service workers aplenty from Kerala.

Dubai is a major destination for Malayalis (people from Kerala, known as such because they speak Malayalam) and while in India, we heard a number of stories from young men who had recently returned home after getting laid off from jobs in Dubai and other Gulf states. The conundrum of Kerala is ever more apparent in the current economic slowdown.  This very well written article (from a series of insightful NYTimes articles by Jason DeParle examining the consequences of global migration) puts it best:

Plagued by chronic unemployment, more Keralites than ever work abroad, often at sun-scorched jobs in the Persian Gulf that pay about $1 an hour and keep them from their families for years…Far from escaping capitalism, this celebrated corner of the developing world is painfully dependent on it.” [link]

* * *

Amidst the verdant greenery of Kerala, a whole lot of Red

Amidst the verdant vegetation of Kerala, a whole lot of Red

Working through The Suck

January 12, 2009

Working through The Suck

Wise men sayeth that a documentary is made three times: once when it is conceived, another time when it is shot and then again when it is edited. Each phase is an opportunity to discover new truths about the subject matter, as well as new truths about oneself.

Three years after being inspired by a young boy named Stalin in a south Indian town called Moscow, my director of photography and I are finally on the verge of leaving for our first shoot in Kerala. With less than 72 hours before we leave Boston, the checklist of things that we need to do grows ever longer. And so does the mental list of things that might thwart us from Taking Care of Business.

A 15 month stint in India left me well acquainted with the myriad factors that are most likely to hold us back: heat and humidity, mosquitoes and chikungunya, random power outages, statewide strikes, gastrointestinal distress, kamikaze drivers, obstinate bureaucracy, nosy neighbors…

I might as well add killer robots, nuclear armageddon and black holes to the list, because the aforementioned circumstances are also pretty much out of my control. In other words, there’s little use worrying about all of this.

Which hasn’t stopped me from worrying.

* * *

As I move from conception to shooting, I have come to realize that I lose sleep about such things as a way of avoiding a bigger fear – that I am not not capable of making a film as good as the one in my head, that my many failings with hold us back.

My DP occasionally doubles as my personal Yoda, and so I asked him, Oh DP-san, what if I’m not good enough or smart enough? Doggoneit, what if people don’t like me OR my film?

Disappointment is inherent, grasshopper, said he. Use it to drive you forward.

* * *

The truth is that the end result will never lives up to the awesomefabutabulous version of My Good Name Is Stalin that plays on a continuous loop in my mind. That’s just the facts, ma’am. The only way to close the gap between where I am and where I aspire to go is to keep working through The Suck.

For the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great…it’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.

But your taste – the thing that got you into the game – your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy.

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point, they quit. And the thing that I would say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be…it didn’t have the special thing that they wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is that everybody goes through that…you gotta know that it’s totally normal. The most important possible thing you can do is to do a lot of work. [link]

* * *

So what then if you get past that phase and you are still muddling through The Suck?

Years ago I listened to an interview with five Pulitzer Prize winning authors, all of whom admitted to cringing when they read their earlier work. Not the stuff they wrote when they were angst ridden teenagers, but the stuff that earned them a Pulitzer. And so I figure that if Jane Smiley and Richard Ford have done epic, best-selling, award winning work that occasionally makes them cringe, then who am I to be immune to pangs of inadequacy?

No matter what stage you are at, if the creative work that you are doing doesn’t match up with the creative work that you aspire to do, this video at the top of this post (featuring Uncle Ira, once again) is for you. It is easily the best five minutes that I have ever spent on YouTube. At least since this (which amounted to five minutes because it begs to be viewed more than once).

Stalin: the Greatest Russian in History?

December 17, 2008

Stalin: Greatest Russian in History?

Hirsute or not hirsute...

Hirsute or not hirsute...

NPR and I have this telepathic thing going on, they just don’t know it.

I say this because Morning Edition ran this story on Stalin on the day that I officially began working on My Good Name Is Stalin as an FIR.

It felt like a timely bit of validation for my project, one that also made for good ‘GBH water cooler conversation. I even thought of the coincidence as a little auspicious. Stalin’s myriad atrocities however…not so auspicious.

Russians have the chance to pick the greatest Russian in history during a 13-part TV series that began airing there this month. Internet voting has already generated controversy by temporarily putting Soviet dictator Josef Stalin at the top of the list. [link]


A recent survey indicates that a majority of Russians today support Stalin’s policies. The NPR report includes a man-on-the-street interview with (a guy whose name sounded something like) Igor Stepanov, who states that:

“Whether the consensus decides that Stalin was good or bad for Russia will have to be seen. But it wouldn’t be right to ignore his role in history.”

* * *

On a less somber note, my friend Farhana kindly alerted me to this piece, also courtesy of NPR.

Prof. Steve Jones, head of the biology department at University College London, took a look at portraits of Russian leaders since 1917 and noticed a very curious pattern. Male pattern baldness, to be more precise.

With that, a song was born. Hit it :

Lenin was bald

But Stalin was hairy

Khrushchev was bald

But Brezhnev was hairy

Andropov bald

Chernenko hairy

Gorbachev bald

Yeltsin hairy

Putin is bald

Medyedev was hairy

They switch back and forth

The pattern is scaaaaryyyyyy…

 (Hey, hey, hey, hey) [link]


The ten men who have lead post-Tsarist Russia may have excelled at quelling freedom of speech, but efforts at suppressing the powers of the Y chromosome have proved a little, uh…hairy. 



“If everything was planned…”

December 16, 2008

“If everything was planned…”

My director of photography and I are currently planning for our first shoot in India. We bought our tickets and our visas have been processed. Our Kerala-based associate producer has begun scouting out interviewees. We are awaiting word on additional development funds. We are making our lists and checking them twice. 

Amidst the pressure of planing a shoot that will take place on the other side of the planet, I am trying to remind myself that India will shake loose the best laid of plans, and in doing so, India can also grant you the things you didn’t know you needed. 

I am also keeping Errol Morris’ famous and wise words in mind:

“If everything was planned, it would be dreadful. If everything was unplanned, it would be equally dreadful.”

A good mantra for documentary shoots in general. And, oh yeah, for life itself…

Self liberation

December 2, 2008

Self liberation

I realize that I’m not saying anything new by making note of the self-indulgent nature of a blaugh, but I was reading a collection of E.B. White’s essays and was amused by the idea that we blaughers are just a modern iteration of the essayists of yore…

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest…Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

From the foreward to Essays of E.B. White

With that said, hey, here’s some shameless self promotion courtesy of the Boston Globe.

WGBH HELPS FILMMAKERS: Two Boston documentary filmmakers are getting a leg up on their debut directorial projects thanks to WGBH. Kavita Pillay of Cambridge and Chico David Colvard of Somerville have been named filmmakers in residence at WGBH in a program that begins this month and lasts through next June. They’ll get a stipend, workspace, and input from WGBH staff as they complete their films. Pillay began her film career as an associate producer with Northern Light Productions; her “My Good Name Is Stalin” began when she traveled to India as a Fulbright scholar in 2005 and met locals with Soviet-inspired names. Colvard teaches courses in Race, Law & Media at UMass-Boston; his “Family Affair” looks at the law, visual arts, and cultural identity.

That’s my show and tell for today. Tune in later for more of my self-liberation…

Listening Is an Act of Love

November 24, 2008

Listening Is an Act of Love

In 2001, as I was making the transition to a documentary career, I had the good fortune to hear Ira Glass speak at DoubleTake Magazine’s summer documentary institute. His insights (on how to find stories, on the failures of American journalism, on the art and science of putting together a show like This American Life) were captivating, but what stayed with me the most was his closing comment.

I wish I could give you his exact words, but I recall it being something to the effect that modern documentarians work in the tradition of Scheherazade; after 1,000 nights of telling her tales, Scheherazade managed to turn a misanthropic maniac into a loving human being, and those of us in her wake are trying to do some version of this. In examining the lives of others, we come away a little less judgmental and a little more compassionate, both towards others and ourselves. In listening, we commit an act of love.

* * *

I mention this to offer a segue to StoryCorps’ wonderful collection of interviews. Given that Friday marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, this book is the most thought provoking $15 gift that I have come across yet. And even the most attention-deficit non-readers among us have time to read a few pages. I opened the book to page 196 just now and and read an interview with a nurse named Mary Caplan who recounts her brother’s untimely death and the ignorance surrounding AIDS just two decades ago. “Grief,” she says, “is when you get up the next day and you see the sun, and you say, ‘Will I ever think the sun is beautiful again?'” Grief, ecstasy and everything in between, it’s all in there. If you have a heartbeat, chances are that you will find something to like in this book. 

* * *

Speaking of this Friday, it also marks StoryCorps’ first National Day of Listening.

This holiday season, ask the people around you about their lives — it could be your grandmother, a teacher, or someone from the neighborhood. By listening to their stories, you will be telling them that they matter and they won’t ever be forgotten. It may be the most meaningful time you spend this year.

StoryCorps is a national treasure, one that reminds us that everyone has stories and that all of us can be documentarians. For more info on how you can participate in the National Day of Listening, go to the site and click on participate.