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Vancouver Internaional Film Fesival 2010 Interview – “I Am” director Onir

"I Am" - Playing at VIFF 2010
by Jason Whye

“I Am” portrays lives in modern contemporary India; people who are lonely, broken and searching for love, dignity and freedom. “I Am” is a statement for independent film makers in India against the popular Bollywood portraying a reality hitherto untold in mainstream Hindi Cinema.” Director Onir on the film “I Am” which is screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

This is my first trip to VIFF, but I have travelled to many film festivals with my first film “My Brother Nikhil” which screened at over thirty five international film festivals. I have also been in the panel for the Talent Campus at the Berlin Film Festival, and the Script Lab at Locarno Fest.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I was growing up in a tiny small place which is the capital city of Bhutan, in Thimphu. Every week mom would drag us to the only theatre in the city for a movie. And somehow from ever since I remember I have wanted to be a part of this. But the desire was not vocal until I was about fourteen when my sister took me to my first film festival in Kolkata, India. I saw “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata”. I did not know how, but I knew that there would be no turning back from cinema.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

“I Am” is a unique project. I have wanted to direct films which dealt with these themes for a long time. But it is almost impossible to find financing for this kind of cinema. My friend and producer suggested that I write four stories that were interconnected and that we look for financing separately.

This was the beginning of what is probably the first crowd sourced film through social networking sites in India. We put up posts in our Facebook about the theme of the film and asking people to support us financially or as talent. Today “I Am” has nearly 400 volunteers from 35 cities across the world as co-owners or co-producers. The entire crew and cast are people working backend because they believe in the film. The cast of the film comprises of the best known names of contemporary sensible cinema in India.

For me as a director/producer this has been an extremely humbling experience. To see the trust of face people who have become a part of the “I Am” family.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production? What was your favourite moment of the process?

The biggest challenge is financing and to find the correct distribution so that the film can reach its audience. During the shoot the biggest challenge was how to complete each story in six days and shoot at extremely volatile places like Shrinagar (Kashmir).

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

The film is shot by Arvind Kannabeeran. He had shot my first film “My Brother Nikhil”. For me, Arvind is someone who implements the phrase “less is more”. As my budgets were as good a as nothing I was initially thinking of having four different cinematographers so that it would not be too difficult for anyone to spare six days for me. Arvind was keen on doing all the parts, the challenge being how to give each story a different style. We shot three of the stories on 16mm and one on 35mm. Later the entire film went through a digital intermediate.

Talk a bit about the experiences that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

All the stories are based on real life stories. So while making the story that was about a child sexual abuse survivor I received a letter and a cheque from a student from the city of Pune, India. The content said that he was a survivor and has been feeling the need to find voice for his anguish for long. He felt that the film has liberated him. He wanted to contribute form his pocket money and sent us $50 (USD). That was very touching. Every few days I get such messages in my Facebook inbox. At time survivors come and meet me and talk to me. I feel overwhelmed at their trust and fortunate that they can open up for the first time to me. Our film will premiere in New York on September 18th so I still have not had any audience questions.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

All good cinema inspires me to want to create and find a space for myself. My inspiration for this film has been real lives and people and the need to voice my thoughts of what I believe needs to be talked about in our society. That was the sole driving force as I feel that is the only tool I have.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

Having been here I really don’t know what else now. As a kid I wanted to be a sailor as i loved the idea of travelling. Maybe I could be running a film club or be a musician.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

I would love to direct Gael Garcia Bernard and Javier Bardem

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I think critical/media response to a film is very often of key importance especially for independent films. At times where cinema going is an expensive proposition critical acclaim helps a film bring in more audiences. And this needs to be supported by proper marketing as well.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

You could catch that film on a DVD because you would have most likely seen something like that many times before. Experience my film and you will cherish the experience for much longer.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

It took me ten years to start my first film, all I kept telling myself is that I do not have a choice. I still keep telling myself that.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

“My Brother Nikhil”, my first film. It changed my file. Till then I was living for a dream. After that film I started to live in that dream.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’10 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff10 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 10/05/10 09:19:13
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