MEMBER OF THE MONTH - SONIYA KIRPALANI, Sprocket Science Films
In this new monthly interview series EDN will focus on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group.
Our third EDN member of the month is Soniya Kirpalani. Kirpalani comes from a multicultural background, which resonates in both her work and her way of working. Her company Sprocket Science Films has addresses in both India and the United Arab Emirates and her current project in development 17 Not Required Indians deals precisely with a conflict concerning these two countries. Among Kirpalani’s previous work are titles such as: Threads of Tradition (2008), Silken Synergy (2010), DoBuy (2010) and Love Arranged (2011).
EDN has talked to Kirpalani about two of her current thought provoking projects, and how it is to work in the documentary field in India, UAE and Europe.
EDN: Could you please start by telling us a bit about your background – how did you in start in the documentary business?
SK: Whilst studying Psychology and Economics at university, I perused media studies through Trinity College London’s external programs and under Bollywood guru Aasha Chandra. At 16, I commenced working as an assistant director when I was invited to act in two Bollywood films as main lead. But this only made me realize that my first love was being behind a camera. Being from a typical traditional Indian family, marriage and motherhood followed. I kept my love for media alive through writing and when my responsibilities were done; I went back to media.
Late 2007, I was invited as an observer for an EDN session. Here, I was asked to pitch a ‘concept’ and I presented Threads of Tradition. Leena Pasanen, the EDN Director at the time, was supportive of the project and she guided me through the possibility of developing it further. Very naively I slated it for MipDoc CoFund Challenge at Cannes; pitching it in April 2008. I won. Since then, there has been no looking back. With EDN as my film/ media school, my director’s bootcamp and also my marketing partner, today I hope I have delivered on my commitments. Today, the 19 international nominations and five major awards – including two national awards – which I have won, is all thanks to EDN and the organizations it introduced me too, which helped me find my own pace.
EDN: You are at the moment working on the project 17 Not Required Indians about 17 Indians in prison in the United Arab Emirates who were set to receive death sentences for murdering a Pakistani victim, despite less than convincing evidence being made available. Could you tell us more about this project and what stage it is in now?
SK: When Human Rights lawyers brought to light that 17 Indians were given the death sentence for allegedly murdering 1 Pakistani, in UAE 2010, they also mentioned that they were tortured, their confessions forced and they had no representation. This challenged my very understanding of Islamic law that deems ‘eye for an eye’. I was shocked further when Human Rights exposed another 1785 Indians languish in UAE Prisons, approximately 200 on death row. That’s when I realized, it wasn’t about just one case; but went much deeper.
Documenting this appeal process became critical, not only because it highlighted every challenge most South Asian migrant workers go through in regions where they have no one to represent them. Whilst researching it, I realized it was a more universal issue; most naive migrant workers sell their home and hearth to pay for jobs; they buy that one way ticket into slavery. From immigration onwards they bribe their way, until they reach their destinations, only to realize the jobs are fake, their visas illegal. With no way back home, most of them end up enslaved in labour camps or in prison cells.
We were lucky to commence our journey right at the beginning with the appeal process, with close access to Human Rights lawyers as well as the defence lawyers. This gave us two different POVs. Sharing spaces with some of these 17 families revealed how far reaching this migrant curse is and how it affects even their family’s lives. Sharing their family’s highs and lows witnessing how they are pushed into a corner we saw how everyday people can rise to affect change. Visually documenting this metamorphosis; capturing them gathering proof on camera working against two powerful systems has been a very interesting process.
Media has played a superb role. Web leaks of 1 min from our shoots have kept the transparency, raised awareness and inadvertently kept the case alive; this was possible only due to the support of mainstream media, who would highlight them. I have only now begun to understand the true power of media. This also got us the assistance and support of the local authorities who have been supporting us in building outreach to create real change. 75% of our production is complete; the edit process has commenced. We hope to show a 20min at IDFA, we are looking for completion funds and working on our outreach program simultaneously; we hope to deliver this film by April 2012.
EDN: In September we received the good news that the 17 Indians’ death sentences had been pardoned and that their papers were being processed for their earliest release. What is the situation now?
SK: Sadly, they are back behind bars again for technical errors on the Appellate Court verdict. The case will now be reopened at UAE’s Supreme Court as the Judiciary realized that some important factors had been overlooked. Much as it was heartbreaking news for the families and the 17 men; the ‘Blood Money Compromise’ a payment of 1 Million US$ to one deceased’s family was unprecedented, it was paid by Indian political wannabes who hampered the defence team. This left a lot of loose ends, which the Court is now working to rectify.
The 17 men have taken it bravely and are determined to fight the Damocles Sword hanging over these heads; they find a ray of hope in the Shairya Courts, looking for a fair closure to their case.
EDN: There is a growing number of Indians in prisons in the United Arab Emirates who are forced to sign confessions and take part in sham trials for crimes they did not commit. Do you think the case of the 17 Indians will help the other cases and how does your film tackle this overall problem?
SK: It’s not just Indians, its people without representation. Coerced confessions aren’t the only issue; it’s the complete breakdown of communications that leads to huge errors in the investigative processes. UAE is a nation where 80% expatriates live under the diktats of 20% local Emiratis, a minority setting rules for an alien majority. With 150 different nationalities coexisting in this small region, the language barrier is a high hurdle.
Worse still is the situation of migrant workers who cannot even sign his/her name. With no representation, they don’t know what they are up against. Through this case, these issues are highlighted effortlessly. Not just for the audiences, but also for the local authorities that are very open minded. They are quick in addressing all the errors - like they have now made ‘legal translation’ mandatory for all expatriate cases.
We were lucky to get different point of views of Local Lawyers vs. Human Rights Lawyers that reveals the secretive Shariya System. Through prison phone calls and re-enactments we are able to highlight the challenges the 17 inmates face throughout the trial. This film reveals how two emerging nations often don’t have wherewithal but are flying planes whilst building them.
This case has set many precedents for change; an ‘Abuse Helpline’ has been setup for both within and outside the UAE prison system for migrant workers. They are now working on creating a ‘Migrant Awareness Program’ for which they have invited us. The film was also able to document the misdoings of the largest democracy in the world, raising questions on the intent of Indian bureaucrats who allow abuse of their nationals in foreign lands.
The timing is perfect; Arab springs and a tumultuous election process in India, so we hope to use this as a window for change. Our outreach program has also been effective; our web-leaks supported by mainstream media in both countries kept the case concurrent. We managed to raise resources for some of the families. The project was nominated for Good Pitch Sundance, where we were lucky to receive a lot of support; Bertha Foundation came on board with funds to complete the production and to build a far reaching campaign.
EDN: You are used to working in the midst of different countries and cultures and you yourself have a multicultural background. How does this affect your work and is this a common underlying theme in your films?
SK: I have largely been working across SAME- South Asia and Middle East. These are nations with similar cultures, similar issues but often juxtaposed point of views, but also natural extension boundaries. I speak most of the languages, relate to issues and challenges faced by people in these nations and there is an empathy that leads to understanding with people; it’s also easier sharing spaces with our protagonists, as language builds bonds and gives intimate access.
My western education and learning gives me a more international POV on the subjects. My teams add further to this dimension. Sometimes I may get myopic, and then Emily Harris, my co-producer, scriptwriter and editor, based in London, uses her experience and understanding of international storytelling to make up for my flaws. Similarly Saurabh Vishwakarma my DOP and my co-director, adds his experience in cinema to bring the larger than life effects to the small screens. But most importantly my protagonists reflect their inherent energies, representing new mindscapes reflective from their diverse and ever evolving cultures.
To make my projects interactive, I always try to stir two different points of views, sometimes not just in the film, but also through cross media platforms. This invokes strong community reactions and involvement from different parts of the world. It further opens up the project, inherently giving it a multicultural involvement, as the web environment can be truly free and open and gives us even deeper insights on how to continue to evolve the project
EDN: At the moment you are also in development with the project The Veiled Issue, which is one of the selected projects for the 2011 Crossing Borders training programme. Could you tell more about this project and why you decided to venture into it?
SK: The most controversial piece of cloth in our post 9/11 world is a Muslimas veil. Polarized on this issue, powerful debate rage over the world on forced veiling / unveiling of women; as distrust resonates with veiled women are seen as carriers of religious baggage from radical Islam, being slowly socially alienated. Amidst this conundrum I was lucky to find women bridging a mid-path developing ’veiled solutions’ that rips away at stereotypes and makes veiling more acceptable.
This film will offer powerful insights, through first person stories of woman working towards change. It is a reflection of their emotional reality, revealed in a deeply human manner, asking crucial questions on women’s rights and freedom of expression in an increasingly polarized global world where there is a huge political power play on issues like Islam and Islamophobia. Raising a mirror, I hope this will uncover a new dimension on veiling and give both worlds a chance to view the same subject through each other’s eyes and understand diametrically different perspective.
EDN: How do you think it can benefit a project like The Veiled Issue to take part in the Crossing Borders workshops?
SK: I wanted to develop The Veiled Issue across seven countries; my starting point was to share the project at a workshop / session with mentors, tutors and other participants. I was lucky to get into Crossing Borders, where I started to develop it further. This process is like a prism; which reflects the light of myriad thinkers, passing through as rays of light, refracting in numerous ways.
Mentorship was the best thing I received at the first session of this workshop. For me this is critical as I am still learning the ropes of the trade. I have no access to training or development in my regions, so this advice helped thresh out wheat from chaff. Guided by extremely successful and experienced filmmakers, who are my co-participants adds another paradigm to Crossing Borders.
Co-production is important for a project like The Veiled Issue. This will also be my first film where I am seeking co-productions to take this forward and at Crossing Borders I was able to understand this process.
Critiques and comments were taken with an open mind; this lead to a whole new understanding of how I wanted to pursue this project. I am refining it as we speak. Crossing Borders is a three-part programme and my next session is about more in-depth development work in Leipzig in October.
EDN: Your films are often thought provoking and challenge the viewers’ perceptions. To put it as a cliché - do you believe in documentaries as a way to change things in the world?
SK: Someone recently referred to me as a ‘Crusader with a Camera’ but I am not sure it is a conscious effort. I want to share heart-warming stories that could syncopate sensitivities of emerging east, which can create a new awareness that reflects in change. I was lucky to affect a mandate change with my very first film DoBuy. Silken Synergy also was a film that was meant to reveal grassroots eastern culture but I never expected to be caught in crossfire and capture the courage of Colombo’s creative community on camera!
Love Arranged is a humorous movie about two young beautiful women looking for ‘suitable boys’ through the ‘arranged marriage’ route vs. their mother’s wishes who want them to have love marriages. This little twist revealed the modern face of India. With 17 Not Required Indians and The Veiled Issue both topics naturally question stereotypes and challenge governments. Both raise debate and dialogue on human rights and personal rights, with these documentaries I truly hope to change policies.
EDN: Your Company has administrative headquarters in India and an office in UAE. Could you describe the current state of the documentary scene in these two diverse countries?
SK: I work out of India and live in UAE. India gives me the access to great teams, low entry point barriers and is backed by a strong tradition of documentary. However UAE is a great trampoline for talent also; its more international with so many cultures, it’s a melting pot, which also has very talented people to work with. The stories of both these ever evolving countries provide constant fodder for the imagination. Their stories are challenging, change is inevitable and I feel I am lucky to be in both countries at a time of their renaissance and their risings.
Whilst India has an age-old documentary producing tradition; it lacks the will to develop it further, as Bollywood’s cut and paste culture makes it no longer lucrative. With no channels for Documentaries, TV that’s dedicated to Soaps or Reality Shows, it’s nearly impossible to breakthrough. With no funds, no state nor public finance companies to fund projects, very few pitching forums, it’s killing its best talent pool of documentary directors. The reason to keep going is some international funds and an appreciative audience.
UAE is working consciously to develop talent; great new international film schools are flourishing; liberal government funds and development assistance nurtures the talent here. Sadly the best is restricted to Emiratis, which leaves filmmakers like me out in the cold. I hope change is imminent, and directors like me will have to prove our mettle through good films. But otherwise, DIFF / GFF the Film Festivals have proven to be great open venues for supporting us. There are pros and cons to both countries, but I truly feel blessed to have access to a vibrant ever-growing culture and I hope that slowly we are able to prove our mettle and get support - from funds and from filmgoers alike.
EDN: You have been present at many markets and industry events in Europe and among other things won awards at MipDoc. Why did you take the step to Europe and how has this benefited your projects?
SK: My dream has always been to share eastern stories with a global perspective; so the only place I wanted to start was a place where tradition of documentaries was mature and deep – so Europe was a given. MipDoc 2008 was the first place where I super ambitiously –and very naively- went to pitch. Honestly I wasn’t looking for funds at that stage as I knew I couldn’t qualify for most of the funds, I was seeking mentorship and training and I was lucky to get this through both MipDoc and EDN. They understood my lack of experience and supported me through my project’s development, financing and now marketing.
Making inroads in Europe, catapulted my project into limelight; it got me permissions to shoot in places I would never have access to, opening unbelievable opportunities, even though it set high expectations and standards for work. Thanks to a brilliant team and the way the story evolved naturally, I hit an all time high when DoBuy was released and won several awards, as well as the highest viewing rates at MipDoc the following year. It has since won UAE’s national award and gone one step forward to change cultural mandates. Today, when I think of it, I know had I not taken it to MIP would I have never been able to do it in such an international manner or market it so well.
EDN: Last but not least what are you up to next?
SK: Currently I am working on scripting my first feature film- a Bollywood –to- Hollywood crossover. But as my passion lies in docs, I am also in pre-production of a dream documentary on Soniya Gandhi; the most powerful western woman in the eastern world, as she prepares for the world’s largest election.
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