In the 1950s, economical filmmakers such as Ed Wood and Terry Morse could fashion entire narratives out of found footage to fill drive-in double bills. As film stock and cameras became cheaper, the amateur filmmaker could shoot home-movies and commit transitory life experiences to celluloid and later, home video. As we find ourselves comfortably in the second century of cinema, there are now stacks of footage coming from both traditions for low-budget documentarians to forage within and find more homespun narratives to fill the silver screen.
Following 2003’s acclaimed Tarnation, in which American filmmaker Jonathan Caouette turned the home-movies of his formative years into an introspective psychological examination of his life, a British director has now collated and edited her family’s history into an engaging tale of a bifurcated family separated by land and culture. Alex Fitch caught up with I for India director Sandhya Suri at the ICA in London and asked her about her project to turn decades of transcontinental communication between her émigré father and his family in India into her first documentary feature.
Alex Fitch: When did you decide to take your family’s footage and turn it into a feature?
Sandhya Suri: When I got hold of the audiotapes. There had been Super 8 films I used to watch as well that I knew of, but it was the discovery of the tapes, which really showed there was this exchange of audio letters and films on both sides – forty years of recordings from my father in England and his relatives back in India. So when I realised I had such a long span of material, I absolutely had to make the film.
AF: Presumably the Super 8 films were silent before that and adding the sound made it more real in a way?
SS: Sometimes they’d send us Super 8 reels and the audio reels separately and sometimes as a family we would put our own soundtracks on them, which is why there is some very dodgy 70s music all over the place! We’d either add commentary or send sound separately.
AF: I did wonder: when there’s footage of travelling on a train or going to the beach, is that foley sound that you recorded separately for this movie or was it recorded at the time?
SS: Some of it was recorded at the time. One thing that my father did a lot was soundtracks, he really loved putting on the music that he thought was atmospheric, so for example when he shot snow he took the music from Doctor Zhivago and thought it would really add to the drama when he sent the tape to India!
AF: Was it growing up in that environment that encouraged you to become a filmmaker or was it something you came to on your own?
SS: Well, my sisters have both got very sensible jobs, so maybe I was influenced! I think that the thing that my father taught me most was the importance of documenting, as opposed to cinema, it was the fact that he constantly documented and chronicled everything. That’s why my entry into film was via documentary as opposed to fiction.
AF: What was your filmmaking education?
SS: I studied documentary at the National Film and Television School. I was lucky enough to get this first feature financed directly out of film school – that process was quite quick, making it took a bit longer!
AF: When you look at the kind of Indian films that are available to the general public in this country, it’s fairly earnest titles like Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Earth and Water. In contrast there’s the whole Bollywood tradition. Do you think that perhaps as your film is linking both British and Indian cultures, it’s creating a dialogue between those cultures on behalf of the film’s audience as well?
SS: I hope so. There’s space for Indian documentaries on British cinema screens – I really wish people would come and see more, as there are some really great documentaries out there and there are a lot of interesting things happening in Indian cinema. There’s been a tendency to take a look at Bollywood culture and focus on the kitsch and the funny, but there’s a lot more behind all of that of course.
AF: There are political elements to your film: you add footage of the National Front and some fairly antiquated footage from the BBC welcoming visitors to the country. How much did you feel you had to add that kind of narrative, which is absent from the home movies?
SS: It was a really difficult process doing the editing because at one stage my editor and myself felt we were really disrupting the flow of the Super 8 by bringing in this archive footage. But at the same time, it was really clear to me that the film had to have a bigger feel about it rather than just my family’s story. There were things in my family archive that were implied but were missing so they needed to be reinforced by the archive footage. I felt it was really important to give that overall picture. The film has a lot of different textures and a lot of different colours and media – Super 8, digi-beta and old archive – so I think it added to that as well.
AF: It’s interesting as well that the first footage your father shot of Britain is in black and white and then the first colour footage you see is of India, which is almost what people expect when they see films from that period!
SS: Exactly! He was going through an experimental phase with black and white when he arrived but he always sent them colour film to record on. I think he always wanted to see India in colour – he would have been terribly disappointed to get black and white India footage back when he was feeling homesick.
AF: And he’s still making films now – you open with him taking footage of Egypt to his local camcorder club. I’m surprised that at that point he’s asking for advice on how to have it edited, after a lifetime’s worth of making films!
SS: Well, like every good filmmaker, he’s always learning! Especially with the release of the film and now that I’ve been to film school and taken up filming more, he’s filming less and less. It’s getting more difficult – he’s getting a lot older, he’s in his mid-seventies now – but when he goes on holidays or to major events he still makes films.
AF: Your film shows how back in the 70s the locals were particularly aggressive to the Indians who’d moved to this country. There’s also an undercurrent of that when you show your mother recently attending a meeting where there’s some haughty guy talking about his experiences in India – it seems just as patronising as some of the stuff from the 50s. Did you want to introduce the theme that that’s still prevalent today in certain circles of society?
SS: No, not at all. That scene’s filmed quite neutrally; it’s more of a surreal situation that my mother is part of this club with a lot of elderly white ladies. She was genuinely interested in seeing this man talk about India, because there are not that many opportunities. There’s Indian television, but she still welcomes those opportunities with any link to India and actually, although his words could be construed as a little condescending, they were also very true in many respects. He did end on a very important note about how hospitable the Indians had been when he’d travelled there and how he wondered if Indians arriving in England – in his town, in his village – would get the same reception. He sent out very mixed messages and I just want people to watch and come to their own conclusions about that.
AF: There seems to be a renaissance in documentaries made from found footage – recently there was the American film Tarnation – because the last couple of generations have been obsessively recording themselves, now on video and then on Super 8. Do you think there are thousands of stories out there waiting to be told in the mountains of footage?
SS: I pity the poor young people of this generation who are going to have to go and deal with eight thousand hours of birthdays and weddings and all that stuff because what was easy for me was that each reel of Super 8 footage is three minutes of film. You have to decide and be very conscious of what you’re filming and why you’re filming it. I think with home videos now there’s a tendency to film for hours and tapes are cheap. It’s not the footage that makes the story, it’s the story that counts.
AF: I suppose also that the period of time that’s elapsed is important. There’s a film about London made in the 60s (The London Nobody Knows), narrated by James Mason, and St Etienne recently made a thematic follow-up (Finisterre) but that film doesn’t have the same resonance because you can just go out on the streets and see what London looks like now. So, maybe it’s like the fascination audiences have now with silent footage of Edwardians – 50 years from now people might want to see all this camcorder material to see how people lived back then.
SS: Exactly. Even now I’m very conscious of that. Even though I’m very bad at it because it’s my job as well, I’m very keen to record little fragments of my life that I can add to this whole mountain of footage that we have that I’ve been able to make into a film.
AF: Self-consciously, you seem to edit yourself out of the film. For example, when you’re talking on the webcam with your sister, your face is obscured by your camera. Did you just want to have the camera itself portray you as the narrator?
SS: For me, it was very important that there not be too many narrators in the film. The strength in the film is the immediacy of listening to the audio archive, particularly my father speaking and the ability of that archive to help you connect with him, because they are very intimate recordings. So, adding me as another layer in between, guiding you through the film in a more explicit manner, that wouldn’t be very helpful. I felt that would have diminished the emotional strength of the film, which is why I kept a back seat, but I am referred to and you know that the daughter is making the film. I hope there is an intimacy in the shooting and the storytelling. People generally seem to realise that there is a daughter that made this film and you can feel the love and tenderness in it without my being present.
AF: What project are you working on next?
SS: It’s a little bit early to say but I’ve got a couple of documentaries in development – these are long-term things that take a long time to get funded and to get going…
You can listen to the Resonance FM podcast of the interview here.