Editor’s note: We are launching a blog series, “CAAM Fellowship Behind-the-Scenes,” featuring voices from our first cohort of the New CAAM Fellowship Program, including our mentors and fellows. We kicked off the series off with a reflection from Mentor Karin Chien, a producer, educator and distributor committed to championing independent voices. The second post is from CAAM Fellow Anuradha Rana, whose film, Language of Opportunity, follows Indian families on opposite ends of the globe as they navigate the complexities of choosing what languages to teach their children.
I recently returned from India after spending five weeks this summer working on my feature documentary, Language of Opportunity.
I started working on this film almost five years ago, following families in the U.S. and in India, watching young children grow into teenagers, talking to pre-teens about their schoolwork and hobbies — and talking to their families about the role language plays in their lives. My obsession with what language they want to speak, need to speak, and/or have to speak grew out of my need to explore my own cultural identity.
I have lived in Chicago now for 17 years, but I grew up in an India where we were constantly reminded of the ‘Unity in Diversity’ of a recently independent country through PSAs, songs, and cultural events. I believed it as a child, seeing my neighbors speak different languages at home was absolutely normal and an important part of my heritage, and still believe it. Moving to the ‘melting pot’ of America triggered many questions and anxieties about how this identity, and the languages we speak, will change in the future.
2019 became a major turning point in the film’s narrative and progress in many ways. At the beginning of the year, I received a grant from the Center for Asian American Media. I had consistently been applying for grants for several years and the rejections had been numerous, challenging, motivating, and depressing. I reached final rounds for some grants and received feedback that was sometimes helpful, more often just confusing. Still, I moved my project forward bit by bit, and this grant came at a crucial time for me.
Passion will only get you so far. It got me to India every year and it allowed me to develop and begin filming with my characters, but without funding, you face many challenges and can constantly doubt yourself. Let’s face it, without funding, every new day brings questions about the worth of your work. Can you even afford to do this — financially, mentally, emotionally?
It’s significant also to have someone outside of you acknowledge that your work is important. Funding from a public institution such as CAAM provides that acknowledgment and support. Especially with CAAM, it let me know that I have my community’s support and that people want to see the story I am trying to tell.
Soon after that news that I received funding from CAAM’s Documentary Fund, I found out that I was one of four filmmakers chosen for the new CAAM Fellowship program. Receiving these two opportunities simultaneously was a gift I hadn’t expected. The fellowship pairs each fellow with an experienced industry mentor and I had a windfall with Mridu Chandra (I’m sure she’s blushing!) At that point, while delighted, I didn’t realize how much this would mean for my work and my film.
Documentary filmmaking can be isolating in the best of scenarios. If I had to quantify, more than 80 percent of my work is done alone, in front of a computer or a notebook, or with one other person. But for an entire year I am a filmmaker with a mentor. Every time I ask a question or bring up a challenge I am facing, Mridu will give me a concrete example from her experiences that helps me to figure out what to do. I am constantly reminded that I am not alone.
I’m not sure I can convey how meaningful this can be for an emerging filmmaker. I get to talk to an experienced filmmaker every month. We set an agenda, I have about a zillion questions, she answers about a million of them, and the others get added to my list for the following month. J/K! She tries to answer all of them and then adds some more that I did not think of. Sometimes I don’t have any questions because I’m so overwhelmed. Then I just listen to her talk about making films.
My day job is as a professor of film production At DePaul University in Chicago. I encourage my students to ask questions every day. And yet, with my mentor, I sometimes find it difficult to follow my own advice. How can one be an “emerging” filmmaker after almost 15 years of working in the field?
What I have learned over the last few months is how important it is to have someone to talk to about your own creative work, and how important it is to bounce ideas off a person who has distance from the project, yet who knows me and my goals enough to ask the right questions. This has been the most productive part of my mentorship experience. I now think of my film, and I evaluate my questions with a little Mridu voice in my head. Last week, I wrote a grant application (they are never ending!) and I found myself answering questions I knew she would ask me! I smiled when I realized this.
As I’m sure any creative person will agree, it is so important to find one’s community, one’s tribe. To find the people who will help you because they understand the context. It is important to me, also, that Mridu also has Indian heritage. Her own cultural insights added a depth to our conversations and encouraged me to dig deeper, to make allowances for certain situations, and to plan for others.
I remember when I started this film and the topic of language and identity spread out before me. While I knew the essentials of what I wanted to say, there were so many directions that the narrative could explore. I craved this kind of feedback then — the luxury of having a person who understands the situation, the context for it, and could say “This, yes!”, “Why do you need that?”, and “What are you trying to say here?” Someone who could ask just enough questions and provide just enough guidance to keep me moving forward on a path that led to a film. I finally got it, and it is as amazing as I had expected.
Additionally, having the grant from CAAM has allowed me to utilize the mentorship in a really practical way. I was able to spend 5 weeks in India this summer to almost complete my production phase. In any other situation, I would have taken notes and hoped to remember the urgency of the questions posed and apply them to my work another time/year when I could afford to continue on. This year, I was able to apply the feedback immediately and plan a production trip with concrete suggestions and plans in mind.
I wish all filmmakers could have this experience. I hope that I am, in the future, able to help other filmmakers who need that mirror to bounce ideas off (walls are so passé).
I’m nearly three-quarters of the way through my fellowship. What started out as formal meetings over the phone have become conversations and discussions – Mridu still requires an agenda, haha – but I laugh as I realize that I don’t just have a film mentor, I have a life coach. I look at my work differently. I look at career options, I think of work-life balance. I acknowledge what I have achieved, whereas earlier it was so much easier to only focus on what had not been done. I laugh. I laugh as we talk (and most probably sound very giddy), but it’s good. It’s a reminder that the work we do is a life choice and a passion.
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Anuradha Rana is an independent filmmaker who has produced and directed award-winning films in India, Ecuador, Japan, South Africa and the USA. Her films, which include counter//balance, Preserves, For the Records, and Ring Laila, focus on themes of identity, representation, and varied perspectives in a global environment. She is currently in production on Language of Opportunity, a feature length documentary about cultural identity and immigrant aspirations amongst Indian families, and in post-production on Snowdogs (wt) that follows three women mushers in the Upper-Midwest. Anuradha is the program coordinator for the Diverse Voices in Doc Fellowship organized by Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, Minding the Gap) and Community Film Workshop of Chicago. She was named one of Chicago Film’s 50 Screen Gems of 2019 by Newcity Magazine and one of four fellows for the Center for Asian American Media’s 2019 Fellowship. She is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Documentary Program at the School of Cinematic Arts at DePaul University.
Language of Opportunity film credits: