There’s always a little bit of preamble between subject and interviewer before things go on the record and when your subject kicks off talking with you about Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, then you know you have found someone interesting and special to talk too.
Attending Hot Docs for their world premiere, I got the chance to sit down and talk with director Amy Benson as her film Drawing The Tiger, an emotionally wrought and gripping story of a poverty stricken Nepalese family who rests the hopes of generations on their highly intelligent daughter who attends school only to never come home again debuts in mere hours down at the Scotiabank Theatre at 6:30PM on Wednesday night. And with the recent devastation in Nepal with the earthquake it makes this cinematic capsule all the more salient and relevant.
We talked about getting access, finding the story in the hours of footage that was shot and maintaining that balance of objectivity while some very emotional things are happening all around them.
Dave Voigt: I loved the film, and it really hit me on an emotional level that I really didn’t expect and I was curious what was ultimately the impetus and the motivation for this project because I can imagine that this is something that you don’t necessarily know what you have until much later in the process.
Amy Benson: Well, yeah I mean that is why it took so long to finish because it had initially started off as a movie about the importance for education for young girls. When we first met Chanta, she was just a stellar example of why education for girls is just one of the best things that we can do in the entire world. This movie will prove it and she will be our star because she is just so kick ass and we she committed suicide it was obviously so heartbreaking and it gutted us emotionally, but then the movie had to change. I went straight back to Nepal with what little grant money we had left to make this film about girls education because I just had to know what had happened. I then learned that suicide is the number one cause of death for women and girls in Nepal and that is when I knew how important this story was, because she wasn’t the only one. The I got really naive because we were going to make this movie about suicide amongst women in South Asia and Chanta would be our case study but after interviewing anybody and everybody whoever had any contact with her we determined that we really never would be able to come up with a definite answer on why she did this. Suicide is just one of those things where we never really know because we look back with our stereotypes about developing countries and wonder if she was abused or forced to marry or even being sold in sex trade, and don’t get me wrong…all of those things happen, but her case was just so much more complicated and complex in ways that are more human that we can all relate to.
DV: I can imagine that even on the best of days that it isn’t easy to gain the trust of your subjects, but how much work did you and your team have to do after everything had happened in order to finish the film.
AB: Actually, that wasn’t all that hard at all and I think that it was partially because we were initially hired by an NGO to tell Chanta’s story. They hired by husband and I to go to Katmandu and basically shoot this promotional piece for their non-profit. They chose her as their example of what education for girls can do, which was great and that is how we met her initially. She got it right away, and was the power house of the family, even her brother who she was living with at the time asked her what she wanted to do and she was very eager to have her story told. Then after she died, our co-director told them that we were coming and all that they really knew was that we knew Chanta and had pictures of her but we just had to go, even beyond the film, I had this intense need to just meet her mother after she died. We had pictures and video that they had never seen and I just felt a responsibility to go and share them because initially they just didn’t have a lot of pictures and while that has changed now since everyone has a cell phone, at that time it felt so important to go. I think we ultimately go access because we knew her and met her and also filmmakers just have such power, really incredible power. Walking into that village they wouldn’t have said no to us. It was just one of those things, and I mean it will always be the documentary filmmakers biggest dilemma and it should be as we debate and question what we do with this power we have with our camera’s. I felt like we had known them for so long that the negotiations were a non issue and we are friends but it is a different kind of friendship because while we theoretically have the resources to change their entire lives, we can’t and what happens next in the relationship and the next chapter of the film is something we’ll just have to figure out.
DV: When you are in the moment shooting it all are you conscience of trying to maintain that objective balance that you have to keep up (and which I think the film does quite well) because you know these people and you are friends with them, or does it ultimately hit a boiling point of where you just have to do the right thing?
AB: While we were filming and honestly this is probably the funniest thing ever but we don’t speak Nepalese so there were so many things that they might say that we would never realize until years later when we were getting the translations done and we would marvel at the stuff that happened that we were clueless about. However on a basic level while we were filming there was a sense of that human connection and it was in the room with us all the time. Then back in the editing room with our fantastic editor Fiona Otway who I just can’t say enough good things about her because she has this way about her where she would ask us questions that would just help us find our way in the edit, and it really helped to uphold the integrity of the entire piece throughout. With well over 200 hrs footage to cull through there were plenty of things that we didn’t put in the film for a variety of reasons. We could have tried to manipulate it to make more of a “Whoa” kind of story but it just wouldn’t have told the entire story.
DV: I’m ultimately curious to hear where your head is at and to see if you have achieved everything that you had hoped for on the eve of the world premiere with this movie which is such an emotional experience that you are now sharing with the world?
AB: I mean it comes down to two things, the South Asian audience and the audience here in the West. Obviously here in the West, I would love for it to start a discussion of how truly complex development is and how we need much more of holistic approach when we go into countries like this because just like us these people are pretty complex and we need something a lot more thoughtful rather than just throwing money at it. I mean I don’t have the answers for that and neither does the movie really but if it can start that discussion and also to show how globalization is effective people even faster over their then it effects us. In South Asia we are just applying for festivals now and it will be on TV in Nepal but I am so curious to see what that part of the world is going to say and react to it.
Drawing The Tiger has three screenings during Hot Docs and is one of those emotional gut punch of a movies that will stick with audiences long after the credits roll.
Wed. Apr. 29th at 6:30 PM at the Scotiabank Theatre
Friday May 1st at 4:45 PM at the Scotiabank Theatre
Saturday May 2nd at 9:15 PM at the TIFF Bell Lightbox