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Filmmaker Masterclass: Director Alessandra Zeka on the Art of Documentary Films

The film maker's "Harsh Beauty" has drawn overwhelming interest across U.S campuses, drawing in students from film and gender studies.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   10-08-2016

Some of the best film projects are born in peculiar circumstances. "Harsh Beauty," a critically acclaimed film which follows the lives of three Indian eunuchs, Jyothi, Usha and Hira Bai, would never have been made if the Spanish American documentary film maker Alessandra Zeka was not burnt out by the tedium of war.

“I had just completed "Te Durosh" (To Endure) which portrays the struggles of three generations of women from Albania. I was in Kosova and the mood was dark with the war. I was weary with the blackness around me,” said Alessandra Zeka who is one of New York’s top documentary filmmakers.

“Then a friend told me to go to a place suffused with sunlight and colour and handed me a copy of "Neither Men or Women” by Sarina Nanda. I loved the book. I flew out to India and attended a week-long music festival by eunuchs in Kovalam. I fell in love with India. The rest is history,” she said.

Filmed over four years and accompanied by a vibrant soundtrack, Zeka's "Harsh Beauty" has drawn overwhelming interest across American campuses, drawing in students from film and gender studies.

"Beautifully shot and edited, "Harsh Beauty" is a useful film for studies courses concerned with gender, culture and sexuality," said Cade Bursell, filmmaker and assistant professor of cinema, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Zeka's thought-provoking documentaries have focused on Albania, Rwanda, India, Taiwan, Central America, and the U.S. Her films include "Te Durosh," "Harsh Beauty," "Katrina and the 3 Million Dollar Tiger," "A Garden Grows in Harlem," and "Summer Ghosts."

Born in Spain, Zeka studied cinematography at T.A.I in Madrid and then moved to New York City in 1989. She studied film and video production at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Zeka talked to Braingainmag.com about following her passion for film and the secrets to being a good director.

What would you tell a young person wanting to be a documentary film maker?

To anyone contemplating a life in documentaries, I’d ask two questions. First, do you mind if you’re poor? Second, do you want to be exposed to the worst as well as the best in humanity? Answer no and then yes, and hey presto — you’ll find yourself bent over a camera at all hours, or looking hopelessly at hundreds of hours of footage. You may not be rich, but you’ll have a good life.

When making documentaries, finance is often hard to come by and logistics have to change, but there are few things as rewarding as finishing a film you have been working on for a long time. It is important to enjoy this process even when it’s a struggle and to grow from each film, not only as a storyteller, but as a person.
 

Why are you drawn to documentary film making?

My life has been spoiled by documentaries. I can't deal with most fictional representations because reality seems too interesting. Good documentaries wrest a degree of coherence from the contingent mess of life. I am always on a quest — for the perfect nonfiction story, with enduring characters, and a variety of powerfully signalled messages.
 

You dispensed with the more conventional styles of making a documentary film in "Harsh Beauty."

Yes, I wanted to portray a non-anthropological view of the eunuch community. I didn't want talking heads from universities spouting their theories. I wanted to create intimate and poetic portraits of my subjects by letting them tell their own stories. I wanted to give them a voice. I followed three extraordinary eunuchs in India over years and documented their lives and hopes. One of them was Hira Bai from Hyderabad who dabbled in politics, then there was lovely Usha who was a Tamil prostitute in Mumbai who died and Jyothi who also started out as a prostitute in Mumbai but gradually gravitated towards religion and started conducting prayers in her village. My film is in Hindi and Tamil with English subtitles.
 

Was it difficult to win the trust of India's eunuch community?

In the beginning they made fun of me. They just tried to get money out of me but I just kept coming back. They got so used to me hanging around them that they started to share their meals with me. Soon I not only ate with them but got drunk and sang songs with them in the evenings. They kind of adopted me as a sister. By the end of my long stay in India they were protective about me.

My associate producer Sumitra Prasad from Mumbai also endured good and bad nights till we got accepted by the community. Dr P Manorama who was working with eunuchs living with HIV was also very helpful.
 

What is an important trait for a documentary film maker?

A natural curiosity and a genuine interest in people. It helps to have great interview techniques: an ability to make your subjects comfortable, identify with them, and capture their humanity. You have to learn how to get to the heart of your subject and shape your story. I am fortunate that I am able to make quick and easy connections with people. I try to make things look easier than they are. People often underestimate how difficult, and how vital, it is to get this right.
 

Is it important to go to film school?

Plenty of working film makers, very successful ones at that created their own apprenticeships to replace a film school education. This is definitely an option, and for many people it’s the only option. That being said, filmmaking, like painting, playing the piano or being a rocket scientist, takes a massive amount of time and dedication to master. In exchange for tuition, film school will give you structured time to practice your craft in a safe, constructive environment. This is perhaps the greatest gift a school can offer. It also introduces you to all the new technologies, and helps you learn how to be able to use them effectively.
 

Did India have a lasting impact on you?

Traveling and living in Mumbai, Hyderabad and the rest of India changed me as a filmmaker. I now eat Indian food once a week and mutter Hindi and Tamil swear words when I am under pressure.

 

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.
 

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