“Silent Solidarity” and Portraying Sexual Violence on Screen: Jayisha Patel on Her TIFF Short Circle
London-based director Jayisha Patel has amassed an impressive resume in a remarkably short period of time. Since 2014 Patel’s documentary shorts have screened LAFF, SXSW, NYFF, the Berlin International Film Festival and beyond, racking up numerous awards along the way. Her latest VR project — Notes to My Father, the world’s first live-action 360-degree documentary on sex trafficking, commissioned by Oculus — premiered at Sundance. Her most recent short, the Berlinale-premiering Circle, a sensitive portrait of an adolescent rape survivor caught in the endless loop of India’s gender-based violence, made its Toronto debut this week. Currently an artist in residence at the UK’s Somerset House (where she’s at work on her latest immersive experience, After The Fire, a collaboration with DFI’s Anidox:lab), the international media-maker found time to chat with Filmmaker about a wide variety of topics, including working in the short format and addressing empathy in VR. And how Brexit and Trump changed her thoughts about her own TIFF-selected doc.
Filmmaker: Circle took three years to make, and many around you felt that it should be a feature, yet you were always pretty adamant that it be a short film. So why — and how — did you condense such an emotionally heavy story into a mere 14 minutes?
Patel: I think some stories are meant to be told in the short form, and Circle is one of those. The film explores the true story of a grandmother orchestrating the rape of her grandchild, Kushbu. As a filmmaker, I felt a responsibility to represent this as delicately as possible, and this meant creating through a minimalist lens where emotion and tone were prioritized over lengthy plot details.
Had Circle been a feature, we would have had to have many more dramatic beats than we currently have within the film in order to sustain the audience’s attention. Given that this story is such an extreme tragedy, including more drama would have made the tone of the film sensationalist and/or exploitative. Keeping it as a short therefore enabled me to tell this story with restraint so that the most important parts of the story could be translated to an audience without compromising its delicate tone.
Limiting information on the literal events, and instead focusing more on the emotional consequences of what Kushbu had gone through, also felt more sincere and reflective of how Kushbu saw her own experience of abuse.
The short form also allowed me the opportunity to invite a viewer in to inhabit a space, rather than explaining all of that space. Laying all the information out in a longer film would have made the audience rationalize this type of abuse, and I think that would have been very problematic. This is because it would have been easy for a viewer to think that although what Kushbu went through is terrible, it is an extreme tragedy that does not happen in their own community. It would have prevented them from questioning the reality in front of them to its fullest extent, and in turn the misogyny that lies within their own realities, including here in the West.
Magical realism enabled us to tell the story in a short space of time while still allowing events to resonate with their proper emotional depth. It was the tool that allowed me to take viewers into Kushbu’s internal world. This is a world that is not seen, but rather felt.
Fires, heavy fog, and dark forests color the vast expanses of pristine land, serving as an outward manifestation of Kushbu’s inner pain. Such symbolism allows the viewer to interpret Kushbu’s world in a way that can be personal to them. The intention was to juxtapose the stunning rural landscapes of Utter Pradesh with the dark reality of her internal life in order to challenge the viewer in a visceral way.
Filmmaker: I find it fascinating that what you’ve described as your own “changing identity” over the three years Circle was shot — along with Brexit and Trump — changed how you viewed your film. Could you elaborate on this?
Patel: Sure. Initially, I came to understand that her grandmother had orchestrated Kushbu’s rape for money. However, this seemed like a rather literal justification, and I was no closer to really understanding what this revealed on a structural level within the region. Ironically, it was the political climate in the West with Brexit and Trump’s election that forced me to see Kushbu’s circumstances and her grandmother’s role within them in a new, more layered light.
As a British woman of color who is a child of immigrants, the political climate with Brexit and Trump proved to be emotionally challenging. I was confronted by the fact that the racism that I had feared was now overtly present and justifiable to many. This new reality was most painful because it made me see how I had always experienced racism in the past and yet denied and internalized it in order to survive it.
I had done this by being ashamed of my ethnic roots and distancing myself from them. I would regularly sit in silence when macro-aggressions were made against me and other people of color. I changed my accent in order to fit in more, and even my name so that is was easier for white people to pronounce it. I tried to attain whiteness if that makes sense. I did this to fit into a power structure that was not in my favor. Reflecting back on this enabled me to see that I had in the past internalized prejudice of my own self as a reaction to the indictment of Western racism. I had been in a society where whiteness was considered superior and the norm, and therefore I felt that I was “less than” because all around me were signals and behaviors that alluded to that.
I therefore unconsciously disapproved of myself and, in turn, anyone who looked like me. In the same way I had internalized racism in order to survive it, I could understand how women in Kushbu’s region had internalized misogyny in order to survive a deeply patriarchal society. Imagine that you are a women in the region where Kushbu lives, and you have been told or treated as if you are worthless your whole life and there is no one to challenge that. You could start to believe that, not only are you worthless, but so are other women around you. In this way, the grandmother did not feel she was doing anything wrong. From her point of view, women deserved to be treated in this way. After all, she had been treated in such a way in her past. I am saying this in no way to justify her actions but rather to try and understand where they come from.
I went back to film with this new understanding. In the rural villages near where Kusbu lived I asked older women why they think her grandmother would have done such a thing. Many said words to the effect of, “She did it because it was done to her. We women deserve to be treated that way.” I feel that there is a theme there that is not only specific to that community either. Circling back to the West, if we look at why so many women voted for Trump, one could make similar conclusions for some of these voters perhaps.
Filmmaker: Your creative team included natives of the Utter Pradesh region that you filmed in. How did this choice affect both story and process?
Patel: I could not have made Circle had it not been for that choice. Having a regional team enabled me to be confronted and challenged over the limitations of my own gaze as a British filmmaker.
For instance, it was my team that had to remind me that emotions are not expressed in the same way in the region as they are in the West, and therefore it allowed us to find an alternative language with which to create. Magical realism was the tool we used because the abuse Kushbu goes through is so normalized and not outwardly expressed that it allowed us to show everyday events in a new light. It was also a political choice. I feel magical realism has been used as a way for POC to create through a lens of solidarity with other POC, and that felt very right here.
Having a regional team also helped build trust and allowed the people in the film to share certain things in a way in which they would not have done otherwise. It also allowed me to pick up on details they shared which were important, which I would have otherwise missed. For instance, in the final scene of the film, Kushbu’s three-year-old cousin sings a disturbing nursery rhyme song about a bus conductor who leers at young school girls. The song is not overt in its message so I could not tell what she was singing about but my producer picked up on it. It was an everyday detail that showed how normalized such abuse is that I would have missed had it not been for my team.
The choice also made the process of filmmaking easier. The place where Kushbu lives is a rural red-light district. There is no real law and order, and therefore one has to understand the local politics of behavior in order to be able to film there. I was not allowed to film as a female at the wedding. Therefore, I got a male DP to film such scenes, which I directed partly from the back of a 4×4 that was parked in the late hours in the red light district. Certainly that was not ideal, but it enabled us to film in a way I could not have otherwise done.
Similarly, the region where Kushbu comes from still practices caste-ism. Kushbu’s grandmother knew I was of a lower caste to them (by my surname). I was therefore not allowed to enter their kitchen or film in it. Therefore, on one of the shoots we had a DP who is of the same caste as Kushbu’s family, which enabled us to film certain scenes.
Filmmaker: Ethically, how do you go about working with children and young women who’ve been traumatized, and often with the complicity of family members who you also include in your projects? How do you ensure an emotionally safe environment?
Patel: The way I met Kushbu very much informed the way in which an emotionally safe space was created. I first met Kushbu in 2014 through a film I was commissioned to make about the Red Brigade, a vigilante group fighting the prevalent gang rape culture in Utter Pradesh, India. While the other girls in the group were confident and loud, Kushbu seemed lost and far removed from her surroundings. I recognized this emotion as something I myself experienced in the aftermath of my own rape. Despite us not speaking the same language, Kushbu and I connected through our shared experience of sexual abuse.
Although our individual circumstances are vastly different, our conversations, as women, came from a place of solidarity which helped created a safe space. Such solidarity was silent at times. It came from a look or an embrace between us rather than from words. At times, such solidarity came from having the understanding of what type of questions were appropriate to ask and what not to.
Given that Kushbu is a minor, I then asked Kushbu’s mother for permission to film with her once a bond was created.
Filmmaker: One of the things that most excites me about the #MeToo movement is that it employs the same crucial life lesson I learned from LGBTQ activism decades ago — never allow yourself to be shamed. If you proudly “out” yourself you’ve just deactivated the most powerful weapon societies around the world use to keep folks marginalized. As an international media-maker focused on gender-based violence, though, do you see this message resonating with developing countries — or even within immigrant communities in the West? How is your non-Western impact campaign culturally specific (if at all) in addressing such issues?
Patel: Although I agree with that line of thinking for how we can work towards providing a more egalitarian society here in the West, I don’t feel that one template can fit all. I think it can be easy to assume that part of female empowerment is about overt resistance, such as speaking out and protesting on the streets. While this is absolutely what should and can be done at times, this is a form of resistance that can take place if one is from a relatively privileged position. But how can women from a rural village in India show their resilience? What form of strength is organic to them and their community? This film was about exploring the latter through Kushbu’s story. I wanted to create a space where Kushbu could speak for herself rather than me or someone else speaking for her.
One of the main reasons for making this film came from the fact that, at the time, there was a lot in the international media about the gender violence taking place in India. It was from a Western perspective and came from this line of thinking that there needs to be overt resistance and to never be silenced or shamed. It felt as if the Western media were speaking on behalf of Indian women. The notion of white feminism saving women of color from their culture is deeply problematic, given they are more than capable of speaking and acting on behalf of themselves in a way that is organic to them.
Feminism looks like different things in different places because women are oppressed in different ways. Looking at Kushbu’s world from such a Western perspective can be problematic. It fails to contextualize the story, or indeed validate her experience as a woman living in rural India. For one, outing yourself in such a place could mean death, and therefore female empowerment takes on a more convert form. Which for me is no less powerful than what we have in the West.
If we look at this film from a Western perspective, it can be easy to see her as disempowered and a victim rather than a survivor. If we see the film through Kushbu’s lens, we see her sense of empowerment on screen.
Kushbu has been abused since she was very young. Just being able to survive such abuse takes immense resilience. There is one scene in the film where she shares with her mother that it was her grandmother who orchestrated the rape. For her to be able to say that is a sign of her strength. She knows there could be repercussions, but she doesn’t care. In that moment she needs to express herself in defiance, and so she shares it with her mother without expecting a response.
During her wedding to a man she does not know Kushbu looks directly at the camera for the first time. This for me was the ultimate sign of her strength and resilience and refusal to be shamed. She is effectively saying to us the viewer, “I see that you see me and what is happening to me.” In that moment a young woman who has been objectified her whole life turns the tables and becomes the subject, and makes the viewer and all those around her the object. She has shown her refusal to be shamed in covert ways, but they are no less powerful.
Filmmaker: Considering your choice of subject matter, and the fact that you lecture on VR, I’m quite curious to hear your thoughts on the hot topic of the “limits of empathy” in virtual reality — and how the medium is often alienating rather than connecting viewers (since research shows that empathy requires a third-person perspective rather than the “taking on” of another’s experience). How do you wrestle with the empathy factor in works such as the Sundance-premiering Notes To My Father (the world’s first live action 360 documentary on sex trafficking)? Is it even necessary?
Patel: Gosh, that’s such an interesting question, and I could write an essay on it! I think VR can be alienating because it can give a false sense of connection, and by doing so increases unconscious bias that both the creator and the participant have. Transporting one into the shoes of another enables one to cross physical borders, but not necessarily cognitive borders. If we look at the life of a woman in rural India through our Western template we don’t end up feeling the deep connection we need to despite our best efforts. We may feel sympathy but not empathy, and sympathy actually creates a distance because the one sympathizing assumes a moral superiority even if they are unconscious of this.
I really think that for true empathy to exist, one has to have experienced that same type of loss and/or privilege, and then be able to translate this to the viewer. A lot of the work in VR so far has been created from a Western gaze looking at non-Western communities. This is where the loss of connection comes from because it can lack authenticity and miss lots of nuances. This also happens in film, which is why allowing marginalized communities to tell their own stories can only lead to better quality filmmaking. However, due to VR’s visceral nature, everything is felt more, and therefore if there is a loss of connection or an incorrect gaze it resonates more deeply.
With Notes to My Father, I wanted to go beyond empathy to a place of solidarity so that the viewer could connect with Ramadevi and her story in a different way. On the one hand, a certain level of empathy was a given because I was creating a film about sexual violence having been a survivor of gender violence myself. However, given our circumstances were vastly different, I had to be very conscious of my own limitations and make up for this through certain creative decisions.
For instance, Ramadevi’s native tongue is Telugu, so we cast an English-speaking voiceover artist, acid attack survivor Sneha Jawale, to narrate the script. It was important for me to have a woman who had gone through her own trauma, who could relate to Ramadevi’s story in some way. Sneha being a woman from rural India was able to bring empathy to the story – to understand the subtleties and type of inflection of emotion needed for each word in the voiceover to resonate the proper emotional depth. Steeping the film in specificity meant that even if the viewer could not relate to the specific extreme tragedy within the film, they could connect with the authenticity from behind the camera.
On a wider level, the story explores the relationship between a sex trafficking survivor and her father, who played a direct role in her ordeal. I asked a lot of my key creative crew to explore certain aspects of their relationships with their own fathers so that together we could create from that emotion. Myself and my team embraced our own vulnerabilities in the hope that the viewer could do the same when experiencing Notes to My Father.