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Whistler Film Festival 2014 Interview: The Backward Class director Madeleine Grant

The Backwards Class - At Whistler Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

'THE BACKWARDS CLASS is a hopeful, beautifully shot documentary about a group of students offered the chance of a lifetime. They are the first class of students from the most underprivileged communities in India (the so-called UNTOUCHABLES) to try to graduate from high school and go on to top level universities. If they succeed, they will be breaking a cycle of poverty that has lasted generations.' Director Madeline Grant on her film THE BACKWARDS CLASS which screens at the 2014 edition of the Whistler Film Festival.

Is this your first Whistler Film Festival experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

This will be my first Whistler Film Festival experience and I am super excited to be attending both screenings!

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?

I originally trained in fiction filmmaking at the University of British Columbia and worked in the local Vancouver film industry before, during and after completing my degree. THE BACKWARDS CLASS is my first feature documentary but I have been working in the Vancouver film industry for over 8 years by the time we started shooting.

How did this movie come together from your perspective?

Teamwork! There is no way we could have made THE BACKWARDS CLASS without the talent, dedication, and perseverance of our key collaborators; my producing partner Jessica Cheung, editor Aynsley Baldwin, directors of photography Nathan Drillot, Chris Hebert, Mike Rae, co-editor Greg Ng and our executive producers Murray Battle and Miranda de Pencier.

What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?

Shooting halfway around the world from our home base; the cost of travel alone was prohibitive! We were also shooting in a remote location with fluctuating power, no internet access and at most one bar worth of cell phone reception in one specific corner of the school property. Stumble over that rocky terrain and nine times out of ten you would lost connection! Financing the film was also a huge challenge; extremely time-consuming and absolutely excruciating when business practicalities hindered the storytelling process.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?

On the beverage side, it is all about 'Trucker Chai' which is tea so strong with spices a spoon would stand up in it! I think we only saw it called 'Trucker Chai' in a single cafe in Bangalore but we loved the description of this common style of tea and were forever trying to replicate that spiciness back home in Vancouver.

On a more introspective level I think what kept me going was a combination of the story itself and the people who supported the documentary, both crew, family and friends. The Shanti Bhavan students embody an ideal of hope that is globally meaningful and very close to my heart; they are living proof that given the opportunity any child can succeed. It was a core concept I was always able to come back to, and I think also drew our main collaborators to invest so much of themselves into the project. As we worked together over what turned into a five-year process, we were able to reinforce one another on both a professional and emotional level. I can not speak highly enough of how much our collaboration and the support network around us facilitated the completion of this project.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

Having two of the main students we shot with attend the world premiere at Hot Docs International Film Festival, along with a large number of our crew, was quite simply the best. We had finished the film three days before their arrival but it did not feel complete until they had seen it and of their own volition declared it to be exactly as it happened and felt in real life. That was the highest accolade I could have hoped for.

Tell me about the 'technical' side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on/format and why it was decided to be filmed this way.

I loved working with all three of our directors of photography and learned on THE BACKWARDS CLASS that I am a director who prefers not to be operating the camera myself. I shot a bunch of stuff myself when necessary, and that offered wonderful access in some cases, but ultimately the most productive shooting was always while working with the others, when they could focus on the visual and technical side of things and I could focus on events happening both on and off camera. Trust between the director and director of photography is essential, and it was a wonderful experience to develop those working relationships. Because we were living and filming with the students pretty much twenty-four hours a day, we developed a quick shorthand including code names so we could communicate without drawing attention. Ultimately this last was maybe more for our own amusement than practicality, but it definitely proved useful at times!

We shot with a variety of cameras on HD, mostly on an HVX with a 35mm adapter. The use of the adapter was something we really prioritized; it was not always possible in low-light situations but the results when using it were breathtaking.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie in Whistler?

I am really excited to be screening at Whistler, especially because one of the main students in the film will be attending the screenings as well. She has never flown outside of India before and will be seeing THE BACKWARDS CLASS for the first time!

After the film screens in Whistler, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to show?

The film has various pending festival screenings and will be screening theatrically in Canada in the new year.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

I have found film to be a collaborative art form that can be extremely rewarding both from a creative and professional perspective. Find people you work well with and devote yourself to working with them, both on their projects and your own; strong working relationships inevitably factor into the quality and/or quantity of the projects you are able to complete.

And finally what is your all time favourite movie? Or film festival movie?

My favourite is hard! Most captivating film festival documentary would go to a film I saw at IDFA 2011, where we were pitching THE BACKWARDS CLASS. My producing partner and I were so exhausted from all the prep and festival activities we were convinced we would fall asleep as soon as the lights were dimmed, regardless of what movie was playing. We were so wrong. Within the first minute of the Kartemquin Films release THE INTERRUPTERS we were hooked and essentially watched from the edge of our seats throughout the entire feature length show. Lesson learned; the power of a great doc is formidable!

This is one of the many films playing at the 2014 Whistler Film Festival. For show information, tickets and for other general information on films and events, point your browser to the official website HERE.

Be sure to follow instant happenings of Whistler Film Festival on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a photo or two. You can also follow the festival on my Instagram at jason.whyte!

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 12/05/14 02:36:12
last updated: 12/05/14 02:48:33
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