Monday 10 October 2011

Beauty in Truth: a film about Alice Walker

The interview below, by Marian Evans, is cross-posted from Gender Across Borders and celebrates the work of two remarkable women: the writer and human rights activist Alice Walker and film-maker Pratibha Parmar, whose documentary about Walker, Beauty in Truth, is launching next year. 2012 is the 30th anniversary of Walker's great work, The Color Purple. As you can read below, Parmar has much to say about women in film-making, the broader arts culture and beyond.  

Alice Walker
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”.

Director Pratibha Parmar

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 its 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.

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.

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 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.

Alice Walker on her land.