YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Land of My Dreams
Nausheen Khan (Director)

Interviewer: Wakae Nakane

Being an effective voice

Wakae Nakane (WN): Could you tell us about the process leading to the development of the film project? And what made you decide to take up your camera in the first place?

Nausheen Khan (NK): I was visiting Jamia Miliya Islamiya in New Delhi, where I studied filmmaking, for a photography exhibition of Iranian photographer Azadi Akhlaqi. As I left the hall where the exhibition was taking place, there was tear gas shelling and I suddenly realized that I was in the middle of a confrontation between the students and the police. I immediately started filming it on my phone and got curious about the incident. That’s how I got to know about the citizenship bill and what the protests were about.

Jamia was home to me. During the two years that I spent in the university, I became an artist, and I am very connected to that place. When I saw the police harming my home, it was an instinct for me to immediately do what I do best and tell the story of what’s happening.

My priority at that time was to archive everything that was happening as much as I could and try to capture people’s voices. A lot of media was present there, but they would usually talk to one representative or a head of the student council or some professors. However, there were thousands of students and I felt like everybody’s voice was so important. This was particularly the case for women’s voices because it often happens unconsciously that many men would speak for women.

I knew that the regime would try to suppress this narrative completely because they also own most of the national media channels on television. So I wanted to at least capture the voices of all the other students. I also discovered the Shaheen Bagh protest on the same night when it happened. It was the parents and mothers of the students who were at the receiving end of the police brutality who started this protest. I immediately connected with them because I started thinking that this could have happened to me and what would I have done?

After filming for three months, I had a lot of footage, but the COVID lockdown happened. However, I was lucky enough to meet somebody who was a senior filmmaker who’s also been here at Yamagata, Amar Kanwar. His support and advice taught me how to see this in a more objective way because I was very full of emotion and anger at the time. He taught me how to respond and not react. And he advised me to not look at the footage immediately after I had shot it because it was still triggering me. He also encouraged me to write about everything that I was feeling. Once I had all my emotions down on paper, I was able to see them from outside instead of them just brimming inside me.

Once I had those thoughts and I had a lineup of all my footage, I was planning to make a more journalistic or a fly-on-the-wall film where I would just silently record everything that was happening. However, a few months later I realized that the thoughts that I had collected were very difficult things to talk about such as your identity, your friendship, your family, your love for your country, how you feel about your religious community. When I went through that process of realizing why I was feeling hurt, why I was feeling angry or why I was so emotional about this topic, I had with me a collection of very evocative thoughts, which I felt like maybe a lot of people would connect with.

That’s when I realized that I should tell this story from my own personal point of view. Then I spent the next three years making this film. The process was more about owning that voice and refining my thoughts and trying to say a lot in less. That process was also very difficult because my film is a self-financed film. I didn’t want to censor anything, but I realized that to tell a story effectively, one must be very precise and intelligent in the way that you choose your words, how you speak about your situation.

WN: You mentioned that at first your priority was to record what is happening in front of you, and the resulting materials were massive. How did you choose the footage you used for the film from the documents you had recorded? What are some of the criteria for the selection process?

NK: I organized the footage chronologically and my first cut was three hours long, but I wanted to make it shorter. The first thing that I did after that was to remind myself about the intent with which I began filming this, and I reminded myself that it’s about the women’s voices. There were a lot of men at the protest. They were speaking on the stage, and there was a constant battle between them as they were continuously trying to take control of the stage. In contrast, I noticed how beautifully the women were handling this situation and ensuring that this remained a leaderless movement, which is a very difficult thing to do in India because everybody is very passionate about politics. There are a lot of people who would come there just to practice their speeches. I did away with all the men in my lineup. Even though I kept some of the voices that I felt were important, I removed most of the footage where men dominate the space. Once I did that, the film automatically started to have a robust story which was deeply connected to my own story. Then I was more easily able to incorporate my thoughts into the story of the protest. I took out everything that I had written, and I highlighted things that I had felt about the women and I took it from there. That was one process that helped me prioritize which footage I should use.

In the beginning I was hesitant about using footage from my phone because I’m a cinematographer and I wasn’t happy with shaky footage which is sometimes out of focus or underexposed. I was very worried about how it’s going to reflect on my work as a DOP. Then, my well-wishing friends who were part of the filmmaking process continuously reminded me to not give too much priority to the look of each shot and just prioritize the content and the story. After a while I got over it. I wanted to show the spread of the movement in Delhi. The movement is of course spread across India and abroad. I wanted to ensure that all the protest sites that were happening in Delhi, I would have all of them there. I was also documenting a lot of other things, but once I had my voice-over written down, it helped me to eliminate a lot of the unnecessary things.

WN: Your introspection and reflection on your own identity are deeply woven into this document of the drastic social upheaval in India. I think the journalistic approach and the inclusion of your personal story successfully achieves a delicate balance in telling a story of yourself and your country. Could you please tell us a little more about your creative decision to place your personal story in this film?

NK: As I was editing, many things were happening. Every day there was news of new things and I wanted to include as much as I could so that I could at least touch upon the important things which you won’t find in the mainstream media, nor will you find people even talking about them because there is a lot of hesitance.

While editing this film, I listened and read a lot more, including issues concerning other women’s movements around the world. During the process, I was trying to make my intent more selfless and make my intent less focused on anger. Sometimes there is so much inside you that it becomes easy to be spiteful and criticize because you are at the receiving end. I continuously had to introspect every day and write a lot and think a lot about what I’m thinking and to keep myself in a place where I’m able to communicate without pointing fingers and blaming. I knew it would be difficult to show this film in India even though I would love for some of my friends to watch it who don’t agree with my political views.

I always had this in mind that I will be showing this to an international audience. That is why I had to give enough context not only in terms of the political situation there but also of the situation surrounding women, as well as why this is such a big deal for us that so many women were out in the streets late at night for the protest. In the beginning what happened with my film was, there is a lot of news footage where leaders of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) are present. When I got feedback from my peers on it, I realized that this is not the right way to tell this story because I don’t have to respond to everything that they say. I started to think that I have to just respond to my thoughts, and I must respond to what the protest meant and what it entailed for us in India.

Contagious empowerment

WN: I was intrigued by the way the film shows how all these women across different generations are connected through their strong political convictions and affective ties. How do you view women’s role in the movement? Could you elaborate on the points you mentioned earlier on the reason why you decided to emphasize women’s presence in this documentary.

NK: If this movement was not led by women and women were not at the forefront of this movement, it would have been easier for the establishment to crush it. Because there’s so much pressure on different kinds of women in society, I think we are resilient from the moment that we are born and have adaptability and a natural discipline.

There is also a feeling of love and care among women, and we’re not ashamed to be caring. I immediately connected with that emotion. On the first night when I spoke to some of the mothers, I knew that this was a very important story because as I said all the media that came there was focusing on leaders and activists who are already famous or who’d done other political movements. All the questions that the media were asking the women were very different from the questions that they were asking the men because they already assumed that the women might not be as intelligent as the men. I was very angry about that, and I started asking women the questions. Hearing their answers, I was a little surprised to see how much they knew about the history and society in India and how much they read despite their busy schedules. They have to take care of their families, but still manage to take the time to go to the protests every day. There was also a natural discipline that they had formed–like a roster. For instance, if ten women would go to drop their kids off to school, ten other women would come and take their place and all of this was organically structured. The way it was happening was beautiful. If there was a male leader who became the face of this movement, I think it would have gone down a very different direction. I feel this whole thing was only possible because it was a women-led movement. There was an absence of hatred or animosity because there were so many women present on that street who had that energy of love. Everybody felt very included over there because the women were so welcoming, they treated everybody like their own children. This would not happen in protests where there are a lot of men like the ones I have shot in India. I’ve shot a few protests in Kashmir where there are only men and it’s a completely different environment.

I also felt they were able to sustain it for so long and create the impact and connect with so many women across India and abroad because everybody knew that this is not just about the citizenship bill this is also about questioning the constructs of gender. Just by being out on the street or just by sitting together itself is like a big resistance not just to the regime but also to the patriarchal structures that compartmentalize the roles of women, using unsaid rules. That’s why I felt this movement is so special because it was resisting a lot of other things especially in the Muslim community in India. I would say it never happened before that so many Muslim women came out at night, and united organically without any leader.

WN: You mentioned in the film that “the deeply ingrained norms were now changing” when you saw women taking to the street for protests in Shaheen Bagh. Could you share with us your observations on how the situation has been changing regarding women’s general marginalization and their awareness in the course of the protest movement?

NK: This kind of empowerment is contagious. We started to see more women speaking on stage, talking to the media, or appearing in a debate. For instance, women like Bilkis Dadi became a symbol of Shaheen Bagh, and she also became famous all over the world. When you see these women who are brave and speak their mind, it gives you the courage that you can also do it.

Talking about my mother, I didn’t even know that she was so aware of everything about the protest, and she knew all the women that she was following on the news. She was also having these discussions with her friends.

There are a lot of women including student leaders who were interrogated and went to jail like Safoora Zargar. It gave a message to the rest of the country that they are important and that’s why they are being troubled. It gave us a lot of hope, and encouragement to support them and be there for them in whatever way that I can, whether it is capturing their voices, archiving it, or talking to other people about it. Even after my screening, there were so many women who wanted to share their thoughts and feelings with me. I felt like I could see that they were feeling inspired. It’s like a chain reaction and it spreads. I would say that I don’t know any more if there can be another Shaheen Bagh or a similar woman-led movement, but I do think that something inside us changed after this movement. We have started viewing things critically and speaking about how we feel because this movement showed us that it’s possible and there’s a lot of power in it.

Media portrayal of minorities

WN: You included some popular media representation from movies and TV news footage in your work. What kind of role do you think popular representations play in shaping people’s ideas or views in India and how do you situate yourself as an independent filmmaker in relation to the media industry?

NK: I used to work in the media industry as an assistant cinematographer. Working in the industry was a very aspirational thing for us in college. After graduation, all my friends flocked to Bombay. However, the experiences that I had as a female camera person were so disappointing, and I became disenchanted with the entire process of fiction filmmaking. I don’t know how to put it, but escaping male advances became a priority for me and everything else took a back seat. I just wanted to learn camera and lighting, but I wasn’t taken seriously. It took me a lot of time to break ground even with my own lighting team because I was also young. Although I was able to make friends with them and work with them eventually, on every new set that I went to, it would take me a week to just convince them that I know how to use a light meter. I had to prove myself every day and I started to think, why should I do that? I don’t need their validation to be a filmmaker, and this is not the only place in the world where people make films. You can make a film anywhere and I don’t need this big camera. I don’t have to go through this because it was destroying me inside to the extent that I forgot that I just wanted to be a filmmaker.

I also found it is very problematic how women and minorities are portrayed in the movies. I never went to watch any of the movies that I worked on. Because I knew they were so problematic I wouldn’t be able to stand it. And then I started noticing it more and more with some of the newer films that are coming out. They are so aligned with what the establishment wants us to believe, but I think films are supposed to do the opposite. Then I started noticing this in the songs I featured in the film, which I had loved as a child. The songs were used in patriotic films, and they are very popular.

And representation is so problematic in the Bollywood industry and in the Indian media. If you talk to somebody else who is maybe following the national channels and then you talk to me, you will think that we are talking about entirely different countries. Because there is nothing in common. Their narrative is completely different. Everything is fed to you even through entertainment. You are getting the messages such as Muslims are scary, they are not to be relied on, Muslim women are a certain way or Dalits are a certain way, or the LGBTQI community is a certain way. They are also fetishized in a certain way.

Commercial filmmakers are so used to these tropes. Making profitable movies is such a big priority for them, and it’s easier to feed the people what they want to hear and their prejudices and their biases because we enjoy watching content of what we already know and agree with. That’s why I think the media industry is getting more and more problematic. The news is completely owned by the state, and we now have a lot of “WhatsApp forwards,” where people in my parents’ generation believe misinformation and propaganda just because somebody they know sent it to them. I think that the government knows how to fuel this and create more fear of others and to polarize through these messages, images, films, songs, and all kinds of alternative digital social media. I don’t know how to form an opinion anymore because every media outlet seems to have their own motivation. It’s even more confusing for somebody whose daily job is not to make films or to do research or to think about these things. It’s hard to know what the truth is unless you invest in thinking critically. Even in my conversation with my friends, I feel there is the lack of willingness to go beyond what’s being told to you and lack of willingness to engage in a deeper way, to analyze, be critical, and be open to alternate voices.

I think in the future it’s going to be a little bit of a challenge for people like me working in the independent space to be able to communicate because everything is getting so segregated. The deepening polarization makes it more and more difficult for us to tell the story which doesn’t fit the mainstream view. That is where I think the role as an independent filmmaker becomes valuable to let people think critically and not to make people believe the state-controlled media output.

The power of music

WN: I was intrigued by the songs that people sang and played on the protest sites. Could you tell us about your creative decision to include various scenes of people singing and playing musical instruments? Could you tell us about the role of music in social movements in India?

NK: Music is an important part of our culture across communities. There is the tradition of oral history, and music is a part of our daily lives. Many people who were involved in this movement are also artists and they made these very catchy slogans that spread like wildfire. Through music they were able to reach a lot more people. Even at the protest site, many performances and popular artists would come in solidarity with the women. They would entertain the protesters and that entertainment helped raise the issue because the media outlets would come there to cover the big artists.

It was a beautiful collaboration. A lot of poetry was written during this time which went on to become very popular songs and music videos. I have made a lot of music videos in Kashmir about protests. I think I naturally shoot musicians as I feel music has a lot of power even without words. I tried to capture those moments and all the music over there, but in the end, I only included the bits that were also making sense to the story, in the sense that they take my story forward and tell the audience about what’s going on. The song, “Hum Dekhenge,” that is there at the end of my film, became very popular because it really captured the emotion of the protest. Every time I hear it, even now I’m talking about it, I’m almost tearing up. It’s not a song about India, but it’s a song about oppression worldwide. It’s about responding to oppression with stoicism, calmness, and faith in the power of whatever you believe in. I think music was very important in making this a global movement because those songs became popular. That’s why I think it was an important part of my film.

WN: Speaking of music, could you tell us about your collaboration with the music composer, Kush Asher?

NK: Kush and I have been friends for a few years, and we’ve collaborated on a lot of other films before. I think he and I have this nice chemistry where, for instance, I’ll describe a bizarre scene to him, and he’ll be able to make music on it. Even though he mainly works in the Bollywood industry, not in documentaries, he’s a very good musician and a music educator who is very invested in his art form. I’m very drawn to his dedication to his own work and to see him being so eager to learn. I always connect with him about that, and I think we’ve grown together as artists. During COVID, when he was in Bombay and I was in Delhi, we did a lot of other collaborations. Everything was remote but that was never a challenge for us because we have spent a lot of time together not only working but also just talking about our own ambitions, our inclinations, and passions.

I told him right away that I was making this film. He told me to send him scenes, and he would just let me talk about the context because the context was very new for him when I began making this film. He had no idea what was going on with me, but he was a very attentive listener, and through our conversations he would try to create the music. There was a lot of back and forth because while we were collaborating, I shifted my creative choices in my editing process multiple times. I made six or seven different renditions, and he was there with me all through the three years even though he knew that I didn’t have any money for a soundtrack. He just supported me unconditionally through the endless rounds of changes while we were trying out different approaches. Although he gained nothing financially from this collaboration, he was so dedicated to it throughout the three years. I respect him for how committed he was, and it was a big support for me. Even telling him about the context helped me a lot because then I understood how I needed to explain it. He was my first audience, not just a music composer as he was always the first person who would see my cut and then he would ask questions. It was a very wholesome kind of an exchange which not only helped the music but helped my storytelling. He’s like a proper collaborator and that’s why I wanted him to be here in Yamagata for this moment because it’s a big moment for the two of us as we’ve fought it out during difficult times.

Film as document

WN: I think your work shows the compelling case of the power of the documentary in social movements. How do you view a role of documentary in the context of social upheavals?

NK: I made the decision to use the documentary format very early on. At first, because the issue was so pressing, I thought I should give this footage to the BBC or somebody so that all over the world would know this is what the Indian government is doing here. I think the BJP government is very good at managing their image and doing public relations, and that’s how they are getting so much support and global attention. That’s why I also didn’t try too much to get financing because I wanted to be unbiased and didn’t want any influence on my narrative by sponsors. That’s why I was prepared to struggle myself. I was okay to do that even though it’s very hard and I’m still in a lot of debt. I really wanted to maintain my position and it was very important for me not to have any pressure of money.

In terms of the stylistic choice, I had this teacher called Simon Chambers who is a filmmaker, and he showed us this film called Cowboys in India (2009) in Delhi. He was a person who would break the fourth wall very often and talk from behind the camera. I was inspired by his documentary, and it came very naturally to me to be speaking and include that in the edit.

Watching films at home on a laptop versus coming to a documentary festival are very different. At film festivals, filmmakers are in the same hall and then you can interact with them later. It just changed my life. I went to this documentary festival called Film South Asia in 2020. It happens in Kathmandu in Nepal, and that was my first film festival that I went to. At that time, I was very demotivated because I had no money, and I had to take up a job to continue my project. But when I went to the festival, and saw the films and women filmmakers, and I talked to them, I saw the power that it had on me. I then quit my job from Nepal. From that festival I just emailed my boss saying I’m not going to be joining back, and I went back and edited my film in six months. I put everything that I had into it because I was so motivated after just attending four days of this festival. The experience I had there was powerful because you realize that these issues that we’re talking about are so universal in a way.

When I speak with all these people here from different places like China, Pakistan, Iran, Taiwan or Hong Kong, I realize what it means to make a documentary, why we must continue to do this no matter what, and how important it is for social movements to be documented in this way.

The form of documentary is important because the intent of documentary filmmakers is so different from fiction or news because we’re trying to create a space in time, have a document which we can refer to years later, and document voices from margins that would otherwise not get the chance to ever be accessible unless we made these documentaries. When we come together and exchange thoughts about each other’s countries and social movements that we are documenting, it gives us so much power and hope. I saw this documentary today in the morning about Myanmar, and I felt after months I’m not alone at all, and there’s so many people like me who are shooting, editing, and collaborating despite whatever is going on with their countries and in their lives. I think it’s very important to make documentaries, watch them, and talk about them. I feel the social movement has an extended life now for this reason. These movements can continue forever as we can continue speaking about it through these films. That was the purpose of me making this film because I never wanted the people of India and the world to forget about Shaheen Bagh. Because we have so much information overload now especially with social media, it’s so easy to forget things. That’s why I wanted to dedicate myself to this art form because I wanted the movement to remain.

Compiled by Wakae Nakane

Photography: Oshita Yumi / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2023-10-10

Wakae Nakane
PhD candidate in the Division of Cinema and Media Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Her research interests include documentary and experimental film. Her publications have been included in such anthologies as Female Authorship and the Documentary Image (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), and Women and Global Documentary (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).