I'm a Researcher for a director and charity campaigner in Notting Hill, London. So, the idea of using film to raise awareness and educate is never far away. In Jan 2013, I was commissioned to write an article about South India’s transgenders or ‘hijras’. I approached the photojournalist Sindhu Sarathy about including her entrancing photos of the Koovagam Festival. We were united by our determination to tell individual stories with originality, moving away from the often relentlessly depressing documentaries we'd seen before on the topic. A few Skype chats later, the plan to make a documentary was hatched.
Needless to say, India's estimated one million TGs undergo immense hardship on their journey to inhabit the body they feel they were born to live in. The festival offers a rare opportunity to escape, where ‘hijras’ can relax in a unique environment, free from judgement or mockery.
The Koothandavar Festival, in Koovagam, Tamilnadu is an important part of ‘hijra’ history. Each April, thousands of ‘hijras’ visit this tiny hamlet to dance, sing, socialise and re-enact this extraordinary tale of love and grief:
On the eve of battle, the warlord Aravaan prepared himself. He was ready to die in combat but before he did so, he wanted to be married. Who would agree to being a wife for only one night? Lord Krishna, on hearing this, transformed himself into the beautiful Mohini and fulfilled Aravaan’s wishes. The battle dawned and Aravaan was killed. The last thing he saw was Krishna/Mohini standing on the side of the battlefield, wailing with grief.
The festival goers re-enact this display of widowhood by wearing white saris, tearing their hair and sorrowfully breaking their bangles. It is a wonderfully evocative sight.
Our narrative arc is simple. We follow three characters in the months leading up to the festival and then travel with them on the train to Tamilnadu. The film culminates at the Koovagam Festival, against the backdrop of socially conservative India. We hope that this will make for an exciting, thought-provoking and visually arresting documentary.
There is no question that India’s transgender communities encounter daily brutality.
However, this is not going to be a ‘doom and gloom’ documentary that solely focuses on the negatives. We don't want to make a Channel 5-style doc called something like: “Neither Man Nor Woman – Inside India’s Most Shameful Secret’. Of course, some of the stories that we have heard are incredibly sad but there are also tales of hope and strength which deserve equal attention.
We want to make a ‘hybrid documentary’. Here’s our interpretation of what this means:
Sometimes, real life can be limiting, so it’s our job to think up original ways to tell these stories in ways that challenge the audience without bashing them over the head with shocking, horrific tales.
- Ashwini has agreed to choreograph wonderfully constructed dance sequences with our characters, which we intend to splice within the film's narrative
- We’re in discussions with an Indian illustrator about using animation, to illustrate the back-stories of our characters.
Producer/Writer: Tabs Breese
Producer/Translator: Sindhuja Parthasarathy flickr.com/photos/sindhusarathy/
A photojournalist who has worked with the LGBT community within India for many years, her work mostly explores gender and indigenous culture themes. It’s been published in, amongst others: The Times of India, The Hindu and Alternative magazine.
Director: Georgia Oakley georgiaoakley.com
Renowned for her originality of vision, exemplified in her award-winning short films. The shorts she created for Channel 4’s ‘Random Act’ series were viewed by over 600, 000 people. ‘Hush’ and ‘Frayed’ were selected for, amongst others: 51st Annual New York Film Festival 2013, Phoenix Film Festival 2013, Portobello Film Festival 2013, Berlin Short Film Festival 2013, London Short Film Festival 2013 and won the ‘Spirit of Willifest’ award at the Williamsburg International Film Festival in 2012.
DP: Charlie Goodger charliegoodger.com
Fixer: Krishna Pujari
Choreographer: Ashwini Raghupathy
We’ve made £9, 000 of a £15, 000 budget. It was raised through private donations, in response to a pitch document that I mailed out. We’ve covered flights, Krishna’s ‘fixing’ fee for the recce, basic sound equipment, hard drives and all accommodation fees.
We’ve applied for: the Sundance Documentary Fund, the Tribeca Film Fund, the Britdoc Journalism Fund and the Astraea Lesbian Fund for Justice BUT were unsuccessful.
Our feedback was to re-apply, with some footage of the project.
Which is why we need you:
We fly to India in April to film a 15 minute ‘teaser’. We’ll use this to get funding for the 90 minute feature film shoot in 2015. We need this £6, 000 to:
- pay Krishna 8,000R (£75) per day to ensure that everything runs smoothly, from obtaining filming permits to organizing interviews with characters
- rent Blackmagic cameras! They are small, unobtrusive and deliver cinematically
- rent the sound equipment we need for good quality audio
- enter pitching forums on our return from the ‘teaser’ shoot this April & May
In addition, the brilliant India Art Fair team have given us a space to exhibit Sindhu’s photographs. We hope to sell some of her prints: each is priced around 30, 800R (£300).
It’s important to us that you know that neither of the producers (Tabs n Sindhu) are profiting from this project.
10 - 12 Jan: First Recce
Sindhuja flew to Mumbai to meet potential characters, Prasanna & Rajini
30th Jan: India Art Fair, Delhi
6th April – 25th May: Trailer Shoot
1st June: Trailer Edit
1st Aug: Forums & Funds
Start entering the trailer into pitching forums and funds: the Meet Market at Sheffield Doc Fest, the BFI Doc Film Fund, Good Pitch NY, Sundance Documentary Fund, CPH: Dox and many more ..
1st Jan 2015: Feature Shoot
August 2015: Feature Edit
September 2015: Festival Submissions
Including: Sundance, Tribeca, Visions du Reel, Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc Fest, London Indian Film Festival, IDFA Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, MIX New York Experimental Queer Film Festival
September 2015: Premiere of finished feature film !!!
Kaleidoscope, one of the UK’s leading LGBT charities, have been supporting us on everything: from acting as our NGO ‘sponsor’ to advising us on sensitivity issues. They worked with the team behind the award-winning doc Call Me Kuchu and will assist us similarly by co-hosting screenings, helping with outreach and spreading the word.
The UN’s New York-based ‘Free & Equal campaign' have been fantastic too. They have pledged to post our ‘teaser’ film on their website, ensuring that we reach a wide global audience.
America’s only LGBT channel, Logo TV (owned by MTV) have expressed an interest in broadcasting the documentary as part of their online content.
We have been working with some brilliant local NGOs, including: the Humsafar Trust, Kinner Kastoori, Sangama, Sahodari. Plus, some inspirational individuals have given us their time, namely A. Revathi and the filmmaker and founder of the Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, Sridhar Rangayan.
Risks and challenges
1 ) Our main challenge is the same one that all documentary makers face: ACCESS. How to get it? How to maintain it?
Sindhuja has been immersed in the transgender community for all of her professional life. Therefore, we have ready made, strong links with local NGOs and campaigners who are ready to vouch for our reliability and determination to make an authentic, non-exploitative film.
We won't pick up our cameras for the first few meetings, in order to build a solid relationship with our characters. We'll be hanging out, getting to know each other and answering any questions that might arise so that by the time we want to start filming, both sides will be ready.
2 ) We might not receive the funding for the feature film shoot in 2015. We just might not. There are thousands of ace projects out there and not enough money to go around. In which case, we'll still have a great trailer on our hands and we'll keep at the fund raising until we have enough to return and film the feature.
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