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Sarita Khurana is a director, producer and writer whose work focuses on South Asian stories and female subjectivities. However, alongside individual achievements—namely, her feature film A Suitable Girl, winner of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival Best New Documentary Director prize—her on-the-ground efforts to advocate for structural change and equity through the medium of film can be felt from Queens, New York to Mexico, India and beyond.
With a deep appreciation for the power of self-reliance and self-actualization, Khurana is well attuned to the work of a range of nonprofits and startups creating opportunities for Asian and South Asian communities and creatives. Inspired and informed by that collective effort, she co-founded the Cine Qua Non Lab based in Morelia, Mexico and New York City to support independent film that has a global and humanistic sensibility. Stateside, she’s been busy with a recent mini documentary on South Asian seniors and the coronavirus and her work as a video producer for the George Lucas Educational Foundation, where she is currently chronicling the move to remote learning due to the pandemic.
Image still from the short film Home, Delivered by Sarita Khurana
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Recently, you were commissioned by the Asian American Documentary Network to direct and produce the short film, Home, Delivered, part of their series on COVID-19 in the Asian American community. Can you tell us about the project, navigating filming in dangerous times, and the importance of documenting undertold stories?
SARITA: There has been so much anti-Asian sentiment circulating on the news, on social media, and out on the streets during the pandemic -- fueled, in large part, by Trump’s racist rhetoric. As a way to disrupt mainstream narratives about Asian Americans during this time, and to document stories about what is really happening in Asian-American communities around the country, A-Doc (the Asian American Documentary Network) put out a call for COVID-19 stories.
A-Doc started a few years ago, and works to increase the visibility and support of Asian Americans in the documentary field. There are only a few spaces that really nurture and support people of color in the film industry. Organizations like A-Doc, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, and Firelight are unique spaces in an industry that often negates our stories, does not fund us, and structurally makes every effort to keep us out of the room.
For the past year, I have been in the researching phase for an upcoming project on immigrant seniors. I was already in conversation with India Home, a community-based organization that works with South Asian seniors throughout Queens. When A-Doc put its COVID-19 call out, I immediately thought of them and the amazing work they have been doing during the pandemic, including running Zoom classes, doing check-ins with seniors who were feeling depressed and isolated as a result of the quarantine, and organizing a food delivery program to get essential groceries and meals to seniors who couldn’t leave their homes. Queens, where I grew up as a kid, was also on my mind a lot, as it was all over the news, dubbed “the epicenter of the epicenter,” and was inundated with a terrifying number of COVID cases.
In terms of putting the film together, there were a lot of risks to consider. It was a complicated situation that required many conversations, negotiations, and a lot of “game day” decisions to make sure everyone was safe. I worked with India Home’s program director to set up interviews over Zoom with seniors across Queens -- from Jamaica, Sunnyside, Jackson Heights, and Elmhurst. There couldn’t be any contact with the seniors, which meant I didn’t have the luxury of trying things out and getting a feel for people and their stories in person, in the ways I normally would. But I think the interviews worked well, and a nice opportunity for many of the seniors to really speak about their isolation and the fears they were experiencing in the moment. Somehow, we still managed to create intimate connections during an otherwise socially distant process.
I decided to film for one day and focus on the home meal deliveries. There is something about food that is so foundational in every culture. Filming required a lot of coordination and planning, but most importantly, trust. The first conversation was with my partner, about what kind of risks we were willing to take for the project. During the pandemic, we have all had to think a bit more about our family’s health every time we leave the house. The second was to find a Director of Photography who I had already worked with, since it was important to have that communication and trust already in place. I asked my colleague and friend, Amber Fares, who is a DP and a director, and who lives in my neighborhood in Flatbush, and she was game. I scouted Halal Diner (where the meals were being prepared) and met everyone beforehand, so I had a good idea of what I wanted to capture, and how the day would go.
Once the plan was set, we got our PPE together, and got to work. We practiced social distancing on set, Amber shot and I directed and did the sound. There was some risk involved, but I think we did well.
A-Doc released and promoted different COVID-19 stories throughout the month of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. I love that Home, Delivered was part of this larger series. There was an immediacy to the storytelling, and it was amazing to have a supportive platform for funding and distribution.
Image still from the documentary A Suitable Girl by Sarita Khurana
DUGGAL ART SCENE: In 2017, your feature film A Suitable Girl world premiered in the Tribeca Film Festival and won the Best New Documentary Director prize. That project took over half a decade to complete. However, despite their differences in process and length, in both A Suitable Girl and Home, Delivered, primacy is given to first person narratives. The presence of talking heads or outsider perspectives is superseded by your subjects’ points of view, creating a very sublime experience for viewers. Is this a creative choice?
SARITA: A Suitable Girl took seven years to make, and Home, Delivered only took about three weeks including all the editing! They are, of course, very different documentary films. The first follows the trajectories of three young Indian women over four years as they navigate the culture of matchmaking and marriage, and is a verite-driven film; and the other is a two-minute micro doc, more immediate, and filmed in direct response to the current moment. But you are right, I did make a similar choice in both, to center the subjects and have them drive the narrative. I’m interested in people authentically telling their own stories. I can start out with an idea, but then it is really their lived experience and the everyday nuances of their lives that makes the story. I listen, watch, and learn from the people in my films, and use my cinematic sensibility to represent their world. My work, for the last two decades, has centered on the perspectives of South Asian women, those on the margins, and young people. I want the viewer to feel invested in the people on screen. Hopefully, this builds empathy and a deeper investment in the humanity of others.
The lake house residency Cine Qua Non Lab in Tzintzuntzan, a small town in the state of Michoacán, Mexico
DUGGAL ART SCENE: You are a co-founder and board member of Cine Qua Non Lab, an international development lab for feature films, based in Mexico and New York. In 2018, two projects received international acclaim: And Breathe Normally, winner of the Sundance 2018 World Cinema Dramatic competition; and, Museo, winner of the 2018 Silver Bear Screenplay award at the Berlin FF. Can you tell us about your work with Cine Qua Non Lab and the importance of this type of organization within the film industry?
SARITA: I started Cine Qua Non Lab in 2010, with my friend Jesus Pimentel Melo. We met in film school at Columbia University, where we often workshopped our scripts and films, and received feedback from our peers. This community was a really important part of our creative development, and Jesus and I would talk about what we were going to do after film school. One summer, we decided to experiment with our own mini-screenwriting workshop, and invited a few friends to Jesus’ home in Morelia, Mexico. We spent a week workshopping our scripts, carving out some time to write on our own, and helping each other. The location where Jesus and his partner, Ladimer, live is quite beautiful. It is about an hour outside of Morelia, on a lake, in the mountains -- and makes for a perfect writer’s retreat.
One week writing by the lake feels like three, because there is also no internet! It is a perfect place to get some work done. After our initial workshop, Jesus, Ladimer and I got to talking about creating a space for filmmakers, which later became Cine Qua Non Lab. I had worked in arts education spaces, with community-based organizations, and also had been part of starting other not-for-profits, including South Asian Youth Action and The Educational Alliance’s Out-of-School Time programs in the Lower East Side. As a young South Asian woman, artist, and activist in the early 90s in NYC, there was a lot of energy around creating our own institutions to address the specific needs of our community. We had to create spaces for ourselves since none really existed. The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, South Asian Youth Action, and the South Asian Lesbian & Gay Association, were all started around then, and are all still around, two decades later. So, for me, starting Cine Qua Non Lab felt very natural.
One thing we were always clear on from the very beginning, was that we were designing a residency for filmmakers that we would want to attend ourselves. Cine Qua Non Lab is a residency for filmmakers by filmmakers. I think that is what has made it a success. We made a residency that privileges creative work, that asks filmmakers to make an investment in each other’s projects, and that creates a supportive community that continues even after you leave the lab. In 2010, along with Christina Lazarid and Lucila Moctezuma, we put out our first official call for submissions, and launched the Screenwriter’s Lab. Manuel Alcalá, whose script, Museo, won the Silver Bear in 2018, was actually in the first cohort of filmmakers that came to the lab. At the time, we didn’t know if our small lab would have any traction, or whether any of the films whose development we supported would eventually get made, but we did have a strong vision in the kinds of stories and artists that we wanted to support. We wanted to create a space for emerging filmmakers, who did not have support from bigger institutions. We also intentionally made our lab international in scope, in order to amplify a diversity of voices and stories. In part because I am South Asian/Indian and Jesus is Mexican, and we knew first-hand how challenging it was to see our stories get mainstream play.
We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary last year, and it's been very gratifying to support the work of so many fabulous filmmakers, and to see many of the films we developed get made. But it’s also been very challenging to run a small arts organization in Mexico and the U.S., and make it sustainable. We just held our first virtual lab during the pandemic, and it was amazing to build a space not just for developing work, but also for building community in this particular moment. We continue to have big dreams for the lab -- I would love to have a documentary lab one day, and we’re hoping to start an animation lab next year.
A workshop at the Cine Qua Non Lab in Mexico
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, what are you currently working on? Do you have any works-in-progress that have been interrupted due to COVID-19? What changes do you see coming in terms of how films get made as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic?
SARITA: Earlier on during the pandemic, I was working on a new documentary about an all Muslim girls’ basketball team in Milwaukee. It was going to be an exploration of Muslim girls’ identity in America over the course of a basketball season, which was also going to coincide with the 2020 elections happening across the country. I had already been to Milwaukee twice to research and film some interviews with the girls, their families, the coach, and the school principal. But when the pandemic hit, and schools shut down, the entire basketball season was up in the air. I had to put that project on hold, after investing time, energy, and some money in it. Even now, we don’t know what it will look like for schools to open in the fall, and whether there will even be a basketball season.
Right now, I am in a year-long film fellowship with the Center for Asian American Media. I have a mentor for the first time in my filmmaking career, Ramona Diaz, who is a bad-ass Filipinx director. The project I am working on during my fellowship is about a South Asian senior retirement community in Florida. It’s the first of its kind, creating a community specifically centered around Indian culture. This project started from a very personal place -- my own parents are getting older, so I have been thinking about what they want to do, how my brothers and I will support them, and how we will all manage. This retirement community for South Asians asks some interesting underlying questions about building a cultural home away from home in America, what it means to age ‘alone’, and the shifting dynamics of South Asian families. I’ve been doing Zoom interviews with some seniors in Florida, writing treatments and imaging the film. I am tracking the situation in Florida and wondering when I will be able to go down, do some more research, and start filming.
In parallel, I also work as a video producer for the George Lucas Educational Foundation, where I make documentary shorts about schools and education. It’s been crazy busy since the pandemic hit. We’ve been documenting stories about schools and remote learning, what the kids, teachers, and parents are going through during the pandemic. Two of my productions got cancelled at the start of the pandemic, and we’ve all just been figuring out how to make things remotely, using archival footage, animation, audio, photography and user-generated content.
In terms of filmmaking during the pandemic, there are lots of important conversations happening in our community right now. Many projects have been stalled or cancelled. Many people have lost their livelihoods, and the inequities built into the system are even clearer now. The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed many in the film industry to reckon with systemic racism. BIPOC filmmakers are calling for more equity, inclusion, and access in the film industry, which we’ve been doing for years, but there is amplification of our voices. We need to change the playing field and ask whose stories are getting told? Who is getting to make stories about our communities? How can filmmakers of color be better represented and supported in the industry? How can we structurally rethink and reimagine the whole system? In The Pandemic is a Portal, Arundhati Roy asks us to reinvent and reimagine what life on the other side can look like, and what it is we really want to come away with. It’s a powerful call to reimagine, and I’m glad to see that the default structures are being challenged. We’re not going back to business as usual.
Watch Home, Delivered: https://youtu.be/TEeM6FD4Z3I
Watch the trailer for A Suitable Girl: https://youtu.be/DWYekS59PrI
Find out more about Cine Qua Non Lab: www.cqnl.org
Find out more about Asia American Documentary Network: www.facebook.com/AADocNetwork/