Geeta Gandbhir On Being The Slightly Shrill Person In The Room

Geeta Gandbhir
“I spent a lot of time in my career, being what I like to call the slightly shrill person in the room, the person who is always pointing at people.”

On July 10, 2020, filmmaker Geeta Gandbhir commented on Matthew Heineman’s Facebook post: “This is a great project. I said this to Matthew Hamachek as well, and feel compelled to ask you — in the spirit of being anti racist — why did you both, two white men opt to direct this film?”Gandbhir is an Oscar and Emmy-winning Director-Producer-Editor and a mentor for CAAM’s 2021 Fellowship. Her comments came after the Oscar-nominated Heineman had announced that he, with Matthew Hamachek, would be making Tiger, the HBO-backed documentary series on golfer Tiger Woods. What ensued was an industry-wide debate (aka Tigergate) on documentaries and the ways in which their makers need to be accountable to racial equity and gender justice.

“I spent a lot of time in my career, being what I like to call the slightly shrill person in the room, the person who is always pointing at people,” Gandbhir says to me with a laugh, “I think sometimes it made people uncomfortable, but I continued to do it.” And it is perhaps because of this that every person who has gone on to be mentored by her, has emerged as a strong critic of the inequities of the documentary ecosystem.

Geeta Gandbhir family
A young Geeta (fourth from left) with her siblings and family members,

Geeta Gandbhir grew up in the Boston area with her sister Una and brother Ashwin. Their father, Sharad Gandbhir, immigrated from India to the US in the 1960s to study chemical engineering and was certain he’d not be able to stay in the states after graduation. With the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Mr. Gandbhir decided to stay and was soon joined by his partner, Lalita. “My mother had always wanted to be a writer. So she encouraged our interest in the arts. I don’t think she wanted us to make a career out of it, but she made us take art classes. I also did theatre and she was supportive of that,” says Gandbhir. Their mother pushed Geeta to study the sciences and Una to become a lawyer. With her elder daughter, the senior Ms. Gandbhir succeeded. In 2018, Una S. Gandbhir was appointed as a superior court judge for the Third Judicial District serving Anchorage, Alaska.

Judge Gandbhir studied at Bryn Mawr college, the setting of college life stories that opened up her filmmaker-sister’s world: “She would come home and tell us all about the classes she was taking. She was studying English and Anthropology and she loved it,” Geeta Gandbhir remembers, “She did the eldest child thing and paved the way for us.”

“Was your mother upset that you didn’t take up science?” I ask since filmmaking is not a dream a lot of South Asian children are allowed to have growing up.

“I was so rebellious that my parents were happy I went to college at all,” Gandbhir replies.

Following a childhood spent marveling over the Indian long-series mythological comics, Amar Chitra Katha, and Star Wars, Gandbhir studied visual art with a special focus on animation, at Harvard University. There, she was working with artist Suzanne Pitt on one of her independent films when Spike Lee was making Malcolm X and teaching at Harvard. “I thought he was one of the most provocative and interesting filmmakers of our time and I happened to run into him. I introduced myself and then basically stalked him around the campus,” she says. Serendipitously, Pitt was moving to Wisconsin and Gandbhir’s stint with her was coming to an end. Lee offered her an internship and helped her make the connection between the sequential nature of editing and animation. She started working in Spike Lee’s editing room where she met Sam Pollard, who continues to be one of her mentors and closest friends. Incidentally, Pollard was the only Black producer on Tiger. “I became Sam’s assistant. Back then, apprentices were actually cutting on film. So we had to sit next to the editor all day. When Sam took a break, you handed him the trims, as they were called. And then sometimes he would step away and ask me to finish a scene, while he was gone. As he worked, he was constantly teaching me things, ” Gandbhir explains.

Spike Lee, Geeta Gandbhir, and Sam Pollard with their Peabody Award for If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010)
(L-R) Spike Lee, Geeta Gandbhir, and Sam Pollard with their Peabody Award for If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010)

It was also where Gandbhir met Tula Goenka, who is now a Professor of Television, Radio, and Film at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. At the time, Goenka was working as the Assistant Editor on Malcolm X. Goenka was one of the first South Asian women Gandbhir met within the industry, and for most of the editing jobs Goenka went on to get, she would insist upon Gandbhir joining her team. “I had incredible mentors,” Goenka says, “And that is what I tried doing with Geeta too. Whenever I had an opportunity to edit something, I would take her with me. Of course I appreciated her work but one needs to trust someone as a human being to work with them and I had that with Geeta.” Within an industry starved of women of color in the early 1990s, Goenka recalls forming an instant camaraderie with Gandbhir. With a wide smile, she relates stories of the two of them living in Brooklyn, cooking big Indian meals, and watching the Oscars together. “Being an active mentor came very easily and early to Geeta,” Goenka says, “Even back then, when we needed extra hands on our project, she brought in her friend, Emily Gumpel.” Gumpel, as Goenka informs me, is now an award-winning editor and teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Ashwin Gandbhir, perhaps following his sister’s footsteps, is also a filmmaker and editor.

In a career spanning more than three decades, Geeta Gandbhir has worked on a range of films on racial justice, social inequity, and gender ―narratives and documentaries―and won several awards for her work in films like When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009), A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers (2015), Prison Dogs (2016), I Am Evidence (2017), and Call Center Blues (2020). She recently co-directed the six-part series Why We Hate for Jigsaw Productions and Amblin Entertainment, for Discovery. Gandbhir has been nominated for six Emmy Awards and has won four. As editor, her films have been nominated twice for the Academy Award, winning once. “She is just really very good at what she does and she’s very focused. She always has been. Her presence within the films she works on, makes them better,” says Goenka. More recently, Gandbhir was a part of the filmmaking team of the Peabody-winning PBS series Asian Americans. She was also one of the field directors for And She Could Be Next, directed by Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia.

Lee and Gandbhir met in 2017 when they were both part of Chicken & Egg Pictures’ Breakthrough Filmmaker Award cohort, where they instantly hit it off and became, as Lee puts it, each other’s “festival wives”. “As mid-career Asian American women in documentary, we had both seen a lot and had similar experiences,” Lee says, “A-Doc was still in formation and I thought Geeta’s voice needed to be present at our first strategic planning meeting at the Ford Foundation.” It is the same voice today that empowers collectives like A-Doc and Brown Girls Doc Mafia to keep demanding changes till the documentary industry serves all its stakeholders. “She has incredible empathy for struggling people and it shows in her films. She is a filmmaker who never exploits her protagonists’ misery,” Lee says of Gandbhir.

Even with the phenomenal work Gandbhir does, one may argue that it is her advocacy and her ceaseless mentoring of younger BIPOC talent, including serving as a mentor for CAAM Fellowships, that makes her one of the most empathetic and resilient storytellers working today. “She is always asking questions. Sometimes I feel all Geeta does all the time is mentoring,” Lee says, “She is always looking out for others and making space for them.” Gandbhir actively collaborates with younger colleagues like Samantha Knowles, with whom she is working on a soon-to-be-announced HBO documentary series.

“Where I am in my life right now, I think of really wanting to make sure that I pass the torch. At some point in my life, I do want to retire,” says Gandbhir, “I want to make sure that I open the door as much as possible, for as many people as possible.” This, she tells me, is the primary reason she formed Beyond Inclusion with her BIPOC colleagues. The group pushes to break down gatekeeping and open up the documentary field for stories of all kinds, especially those told by BIPOC storytellers.

Geeta Gandbhir
Illustration by Andre Sibayan

“The hardest thing about organizing is the feeling of being alone. Geeta speaking out against the Tiger team empowered me to call out the ways in which PBS was failing to serve the diversity of the country,” Lee adds, “I am always calling her for advice.”

“I’m interested in so many things that there’s never only one story I want to tell. Equity lies in being able to tell any story we want to tell,” says Geeta Gandbhir. Does she feel the pressure to stick to narratives of her community, as a South Asian? “I actually do not concern myself much about whether or not I’m representing my community, because just by existing as a South Asian woman in the industry, I’m representing my community. What is important, however, is that we keep pushing back against the white supremacy,” she explains. “I want us to be able to make really trashy films, and yet find funders and producers for our next film. That is true equity,” she signs off.

Bedatri D. Choudhury works with documentary films and is a culture journalist. Born and raised in India, she lives in New York City.