Culture is what defines who we are, Dreams define who we want to be, Life is what sustains both. Electric Bento is honored to have spent time with Purdah director Jeremy Guy as we discuss his own experiences making the documentary.
Telling someone’s life story can be daunting. Whether it is a biographical film where the subject’s story is turned in to a dramatic narrative or a documentary which follows a subject, finding the right angle from which to make a compelling portrait of someone’s life is a strategic decision. Telling someone’s story from halfway around the world and from within another culture complicates matters even further. However, when the story is told effectively, when the story unfolds effortlessly, our differences melt away. We are no longer alone in the world.
Jeremy Guy’s eye-opening documentary, Purdah is a look at family, culture, desires and dreams. Electric Bento had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Guy to discuss his experiences capturing Kaikasha and the Mizra family. The film premieres at the Dances with Films festival this evening.
When you met Kaikasha, what said to you “this is a story I need to tell”?
Kaikasha’s story captivated me immediately. In her first interview, Kaikasha told us that she didn’t know any other Muslim women playing cricket and that her father just recently allowed her to remove her burka in order to play the sport. We knew right then that Kaikasha had a unique story to tell and probably had a very interesting family life as well. Seeing that Kaikasha was navigating all of these obstacles to follow her dream, and that she did it with such optimism and charisma, we knew we had to have Kaikasha tell her story in Purdah.
Once you gained Kaikasha’s trust, how did you conduct research for this documentary?
Purdah was intentionally made as a very personal film about Kaikasha and the rest of the Mirza family, so we focused our research efforts really on getting to know the family and learning more about them personally while filming. Rather than conducting research in a more traditional sense, we simply put a lot of time in with the family to get to know them, and for them to get to know us, and then we let them tell the story. There were still a lot of nuances of the culture, the sport of cricket, and Kaikasha’s community that I had to learn about as someone who was not from there, but our local crew was amazing at collaborating and helping me to learn more every day.
What was it like to shoot a documentary in India?
Shooting in India is fascinating, grueling, and rewarding at the same time. Sometimes the logistics of filming in India can be overwhelmingly challenging due to so many factors, but I feel like I shot some of my most beautiful work while we were there.
How long was your shoot?
We started filming for about three months in 2011 and then had a long hiatus, but continued shooting on and off until the very end of 2014.
Did you encounter any significant challenges that altered either Kaikasha’s story or the narrative that you ultimately share with the rest of the world?
Kaikasha and her family experienced some really significant and even tragic events in the middle of making Purdah that dramatically affected their lives and thus the path of the documentary. There’s no way that we could have known where their story would have gone, but we followed the real life events as they unfolded, and ultimately I think the story revealed a more complete picture of the lives of the Mirza sisters and the immense challenges for many Muslim women in India.
What was your favorite on-set moment or anecdote?
One of my favorite moments came during a scene that we included in the film when Kaikasha and her friends are shopping for jeans. It was simple, but it felt really relatable, like something I’d seen countless times in the US. Then the girls started to barter with the vendor and one of the girls asked if the salesman thought the girls were rich because they were being filmed. He responded with “aren’t you”? It was both funny for everyone involved and a reminder how we affect our surroundings while we are filming. The scene doesn’t necessarily drive the main narrative of the film, but it was so relatable and funny, and I welcomed how organic and authentic it felt when they broke the fourth wall.
What is your top tip for documentarians?
Making documentaries can be a very, very long process and documentaries usually do not have the budget or glamour of scripted films, so I believe it is really important to surround yourself with great crew and people you trust because you will need to rely on them for the long haul ahead of you.
What do you hope audiences will take away after seeing the film?
Roger Ebert famously said that movies are like “a machine that generates empathy.” At the early screenings of Purdah, a number of people expressed to me that our documentary allowed them to relate to people and learn about a culture on the other side of the world that they otherwise never would have known much about. I know that I, as a man, was able to really learn a lot from these women and the challenges they face in trying to support their family and pursue their passions. Particularly given the current political climate, I hope that audiences, both outside and inside India, can empathize with women in such a challenging situation like the Mirza sisters and share in their hopes and dreams.