Today’s Featured Interview brings us Ms. Indrani Kopal- a talented and inspiring award-winning documentary & filmmaker who is also a lecturer at Taylor’s University. The former video journalist at Malaysiakini has recently released a film of her own- Incarcerated Rhythm which has gotten the attention of the media locally and abroad. If you’re a aspiring filmmaker, Ms. Indrani is here to share about her personal journey. Enjoy!
1. Hi Ms. Indrani, please give us a brief introduction about yourself!
I am a Malaysian documentary filmmaker and I specialize in short and feature documentaries, and I do have a special interest in biography films that functions as cultural memories and national identity. I have always been curious about the lives of others. Interviewing people and hearing extraordinary stories for the six years working at Malaysiakini from 2006-2012 fueled my interest in people around me. From “illegal” temple demolitions that created an uproar among Tamils in Malaysia, to the investigative documentary that shook Malaysia as it focused on a slavery case in Bahau, Negeri Sembilan, to a family that escaped after being bonded laborers for three generations, these stories convinced me of the importance of everyday lives. Being able to tell stories of workers rights, the plight of the urban poor, land evictions, poverty, stateless citizens,death-in-custody, gender and sexuality, these are all ongoing themes that have become a part of me as a filmmaker, stories that have influenced me profoundly. Giving a voice to the ‘voiceless’ has become a mission as I continue to grow as a filmmaker. ”Incarcerated Rhythm” is my feature directorial debut. The film focuses on the integration process of the men back into society. The film follows six men during their first year of freedom after they had spent over a decade learning modern dance in a federal prison in New York. Now free they have to navigate old relationships, secure a job, and decide whether to continue dancing. I spent five years making the film. The 80-minute feature chronicles the journey of six prisoners whose lives have been transformed through a modern dance rehabilitation programme led by dance instructor Susan Slotnick.
2. What made you decide to make a feature length documentary?
Honestly, it was the story, really. I know now that not all stories are meant for feature. Some stories are best told short and sweet. Knowing what length works best, comes with experience and story sensibility I guess.
3. Is there anything in particular that inspired your recent film, Incarcerated Rhythm?
In 2013, I began to collaborate with an incredible dancer and choreographer – Susan Slotnick. Susan, a white Jewish woman has spent most of her life teaching dance in the most unimaginable place – a medium security men’s prison, in Woodbourne, New York, with mostly men of color.
This film project will serve to humanize the millions of locked up black, brown and immigrant men. There are many documentaries about mass incarceration but this new film shows these men in a light in which they have never been seen before anywhere, dancing their hearts out with courage, dignity, hope and belief in themselves.
The effectiveness and the transformational power of dance as a freedom practice recently became an important research topic for many scholars in the restorative justice are and psycho-therapy studies.
Most of the prisoners and ex-offenders like Andre who participated in the dance program claim that dance helped them to gain courage,confidence, a high self-esteem and a feeling of being secure. Studies and research has revealed that the sense of freedom through dance that the prisoners experience not only helps them to escape from chaotic, harsh,authoritative and suppressing prison environment, but also helps them to connect to their personal emotions and build ties with the world outside.
4. What was your experience like during the production of this film?
Growing – that was my experience. Learning, unlearning and re-learning – everything that you thought you knew. I experimented many techniques in this film,to prove that sometimes you have to let go of your control, and auteurship power and allow people you are filming to also participate in telling their own story.
5. What motivates you to tell this particular story?
This project is very personal to me, because for about 15 years of my life, until very recently I suffered from a severe hair loss problem for due to hormonal imbalance. No modern and traditional treatment worked. As a teenager stepping into an early adulthood, I battled with a very low self-esteem and lack of confidence to face the world and challenges that were staring at me.
In 2002, I decided to take Classical Indian Dance classes at the age of 22, to help cope with my anxiety and depression. My dance teacher, Indira Manickam, through the dance helped me to build my self-esteem and gain the confidence that has since taken me far in life – it liberated me from my own ‘prison’ that I was trapped too long. So, based on my personal experience, I truly understand the power of dance and healing, and I can imagine how it has helped the men in prison to experience freedom despite their confinement.
6. Please tell us about your experience getting your film made.
I couldn’t have finished this film without my producer and the film’s music composer, Derek Burrows. Having Derek and few other close friends to believe in it and to continue to support my vision was very helpful. Filmmaking is a community effort, one can’t live in a bubble if you are in this business. From the very beginning, it was a joint effort. And without my late friend Sunny Kalara, crew and good friend Ray McClure, Hofstra professor Aashish Kumar, producer Derek Burrows, EP Maran Perianen and my sound designer Jeson Gonzales from Soundniverse Studios, “Incarcerated Rhythm” wouldn’t have seen the daylight at all.
7. Please tell us what you’ve come to know about the local film industry during this process?
This film was made abroad, so, I was nervous about screening it locally. I can’t talk about the local industry, not ready nor qualifies enough to do that, but I can say this, I was amazed with the local audience, who embraced the movie above and beyond my own expectations. It goes to show, never ever underestimate your audience or undemine them. Treat them intelligently with your storytelling, and they will appreciate it.
8. What could an aspiring filmmaker do to get their own film off the ground?
Be obsessed with story, rather than the technology. Observe, learn, take criticism with a grain of salt, never stop learning. We always retell stories, but who is telling them does matter, learn the craft , learn it with respect and dedication, and keep creating, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Filmmaking is an art – that was passed down from one legend to another, so, I would go back to the history, go back to 1930s, 40s and 50s, watch classics – non-fiction, noir, experimental,…and foreign films, get acquitted with the unknown and the uneasy. And take it from there.
This is why I went to the film school.
9. What were some of your biggest highlights in the production of
Relationships. Trust. Faith. Documentary storytelling is unique that way. Everything else is technical and common in filmmaking.
10. What advice would you offer to people who want to make a film and/or get it premiered in Malaysia?
Unlike other countries, Malaysia’s film industry is still an infant. It’s hungry for great and quality contents.If you have a good story, that captures our local sensibility, rich hidden culture (hidden – not sanitized or western mainstream, but hidden buried deep in the kampungs or plantations or in the psyche of its people) then you do have something to offer to the WORLD as a Malaysian, not just to Malaysia.
11. Any personal mottos?
All or some of above.
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