The. Film. Is. Complete.

Later this week we’ll be announcing some good news about film festivals. After about seven years, the film is done.

It’s hard to describe what finishing this film feels like. If this was my second or third film I would at least have something to compare it to. But as a first film, and one so deeply personal, there is no experience quite like it.

My friends and family are all relieved. I’ve spent the past year saying, “we’re almost done,” so much so that I think they stopped believing me. But we were! We had a fine cut, then picture lock, then a sound mix, then color correction. Turns out the journey from editorially finished to technically finished is longer than I thought.

Looking back on these past few years has been a strange exercise. I used to complain a lot. We have a lot of footage of me speaking at length about wanting the film to be finished. I would remark to people in private about how I started making this film at the age when the enormity of these events were beginning to soften their hold on me. The film was some perverse way of getting re-entangled with all of the trauma and confusion of my childhood, this time as an adult, as a artist. I would imagine the freedom and clarity of having this film—and these events—behind me and long for that day.

And now that day has come. We have had opportunities to screen the film with small preview audiences, and I’m reminded of why I made the film.

It’s a strange ensemble of emotions playing right now. The excitement of meeting an audience; pride and relief in having finished it; trepidation in how it might be received.

A few people have asked me if it was worth it. If I’m honest, I can’t unequivocally say yes. I can say that I’ve reached some kind of peace with the events in my past and in the film. It’s hard to know if that was because of the filmmaking process, or if it was just the normal mellowing out that happens in one’s twenties. I can’t disentangle the two. Making this film will always be a part of my past, as much a part of who I am as the events I tried to address in the film itself.

Regardless, the film is done, I’m very proud of it, and I hope that by making it, it will do some good in this world.

I want to take a moment to thank everyone for their support along the way. We’ll be posting news about festivals and other screenings soon. So please check back here or follow us on Facebook.

Recent Funding Gets Us Closer

We’re excited to announce support from the Sage Foundation as well as an Individual Artist Award from The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. The grants, totaling $30,000, will allow us to continue working towards a fine cut of the film, expected to be complete later this year. Stay tuned for more information as we get closer and closer!

More information about the grants can be found here.

The Anniversary

Twenty-two years ago today, my father died in Jaipur, India, on the last day of Diwali.  His children and wife were halfway around the world in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

I should preface all of this by telling you how tremendously ambivalent I’ve been writing about today. Making a personal doc, it’s tough to decide what’s off limits in your life. In some ways, nothing really is, especially with material like Unbroken Glass—trauma that has colored a lot of how I lived and viewed my life. At what point can I put the camera down, tell the crew and my editor to fuck off, and just have some time to myself? Part of me wanted to spend today like that, and not write about it or even capture anything about it on film.

Originally the word “anniversary” was especially meant to describe the date of someone’s death. It doesn’t take too much imagination to kind of figure out why that might be. I think when you’re contemplating your own death, the worst thing that you can conceive of is being forgotten. Similarly, when you have a loved one who has died, the worst thing you can imagine is forgetting them. Designating the day that they died annually as a way to remember them doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

It also happens to be the day that everything changed, yet another reason you don’t want to forget it. This is the event, the inciting incident. His death was what started this whole mess. Simply put, if he didn’t die, my mom probably wouldn’t have committed suicide, and I’d have grown up with parents. When I was younger I spent too much time beating my head on what had happened, what might have been if it hadn’t. This is the process, I guess, of wrapping your head around trauma. That matured into the tiny melancholy of observing today the lack of a father.

I realize that anniversaries are overly sentimental affairs, perhaps by design. In the documentary, I’ve engaged in real nostalgia, over-sentimentality, and self-pity in degrees that were perhaps unhealthy and indulgent. It was what I needed at the time. In crafting the film, I realize that too much sentimentality is not something I’m really interested in, (perhaps in art in general), it lacks a kind of relevance outside its own emotional weight. Sentimentality, outside of the handful of people who are touched by it, is simply emotion for the sake of emotion. I worry that it simply inspires pity and nothing more, no compassion or understanding.

That being said, over the last few years, I think I’ve been searching for some kind of significance to this date outside of the weight of its own trauma. The first few decades were just processing, but lately I’ve been striving for some kind of meaning. That might be the ultimate goal, the legacy of Unbroken Glass.

I remember a few years ago I consciously decided that I would spend this date more as a celebration than as something mournful. The idea was to celebrate Dwarka Das Sabu’s legacy more than the lack of Dwarka Das Sabu. The family he started in this country, the people his life touched. I see my dad as someone who grabbed life, got all kinds of shit started, and then got grabbed by life. He kicked up all of this creation: my siblings and me, his career, all on these shores halfway around the world. The fact that he didn’t get to see it through is sad, but we’re here to play out all of this great stuff he got into. The stuff of life, I suppose.

Recently I was in Albuquerque to liberate some old photographs for the documentary. I put most of them in a suitcase, about 40 pounds worth of disorganized photos from my past and beyond.

Somehow one of them must have found its way into my bag, and it slipped out the other morning. Probably from the early seventies, my parents are more or less the age that I am currently. They’re my peers in this photograph.

One thing that has been happening lately is my ability to conceive of both of them as people, human beings with desires, hopes, and flaws. I look at this picture of my dad and mom, and I want them to be like old friends. I want to be able to go over to their apartment and drink some beer with them and talk about their lives, maybe play some bridge.

The anniversary really just starts today. I’ve always kind of marked the progression of the month from today’s date to that date in early December when my mother passed away. There’s something comforting about the fact that it’s in the months of November and December, as autumn passes into winter. Lately the observation of these anniversaries has taken a more abstract tone, watching the seasons pass, thinking about death and time, and observing my own life and its march into the future.

Recently, I was compelled to pick up some Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American poet whose battered volume of The Prophet I can remember vividly from my father’s bookshelf. There’s a passage that I’m struck by today:

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

Some Thoughts on Making the Doc So Far

“As a writer, nowadays, you owe it to your readers to set yourself the most difficult challenge that you have some hope of being equal to. With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that the next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have to dig even deeper and reach even farther or else, again, it won’t be worth writing. And what this means, in practice is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself. Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life. Which is to say: your autobiography.” – Jonathan Franzen, On Autobiographical Fiction

When I was a kid I used to lie to people. I would pretend that I had parents, that they were away, that they were busy professionals. I think part of it was denial, but a large part of it was trust. I wouldn’t tell friends or teachers about this until I knew I could trust them.

This was actually a lot of fun. When you’re a kid it’s fun to have secrets, especially one as big as this. But it could be heavy too, of course. I think when you survive this kind of stuff at such an age, it kind of eclipses your sense of self. I’m not an expert but I think this is a kind of “survivor’s guilt.” I had moments where I felt like I would spend most of my life living the shadow of what had happened when I was six.

Permit me to spend this blog post writing a bit about myself. Not necessarily just myself, but I want to take some space to write a little bit about how the process of making this personal doc has affected me these last few years. So I guess I’m actually going to write about myself-making-the-doc, to keep it at least somewhat related to the goal of this blog.

I started shooting this project when I was 22, fresh out of my internship at Kartemquin Films. Looking back I had little idea what I was doing. I had a vague sense of needing to capture this story, but no real clear plans that it was going to be a documentary, much less the project that Unbroken Glass is now. I was motivated by a tremendous curiosity. A tremendous desire to know more than the scant, fading details I had about my parents lives.

It was going to be a project that I’d maybe only show my siblings. Maybe if they or I had kids, one day I could show them this to satisfy that natural curiosity of wanting to know where you really come from, wanting to know the story of you up to this very moment, stretched back as far as can be remembered. So that was the value that this could have.

As I grew up, I got more comfortable lying about it. When you’re younger, parents play such a huge role in how you relate to other kids. “What do your parents do?” More opportunities to lie. I experimented with telling the truth. Once in college I told a very middle-class girl the truth almost the moment I met her. She didn’t believe me, she thought I was joking. I think it was because I had cultivated a pretty jokey persona in general, (which I think I still have to this day), and hearing such an intense story, especially so soon after meeting someone, didn’t seem to fit in with her conception of me, or her conception of the kind of kids she was going to meet in college.

So even at age 22, I was pretty uncomfortable with the truth.  I think at some point I decided that I would no longer lie. When asked, I would tell people about it, but it’s a weird thing to volunteer.

After several years where I would interview people in spurts and then subsequently sit on the footage, I started thinking about putting this together. Since I had started shooting I probably always suspected that there might be value in making this a documentary for beyond just my family. At some point the story was bigger than just my family. I thought, (and still think), that there are people out there who have probably been touched by the same demons: death, suicide, mental illness, silence. Maybe there would be some virtue in telling this story publicly.

One of the difficulties was realizing how much of my identity and my self was wrapped up in this story. Being an orphan and surviving the trauma of losing my parents was a huge part of whom I was. Telling it publicly was giving it away. In some way giving myself away. What was left of me after these secrets?

And I couldn’t lie to people anymore.

There was a period right after I decided to make this a real honest to goodness documentary until recently where a big part of my identity was the struggle to make the film. I think a lot of first-time filmmakers probably go through something like this, a feeling that you’re laboring in solitude on a project that other people, (funders especially) don’t seem to really appreciate. Stasis. Looking back I realize that I was kind of stuck. The project actually wasn’t moving forward, I was sitting on a lot of footage, getting a lot of grant rejections and generally feeling kind of paranoid and isolated and angry. Everyone tells you to not take it personally, but every grant rejection felt like a rejection of me and my parents story.

That was kind of who I was. I might not have been able to be secretive and special about being an orphan anymore, but I could wear these things as some kind of badge.

There’s a lot of footage from this period where I complain a lot about how I don’t actually want to do this anymore. I complain about how I just want to quit and go back and live my life the way I used to. I was functional. I had freedom.

In the last year, through persistence, but mostly through great collaborators, the project has moved forward. I brought on board a co-producer who turned out to be one-in-a-million, Patrick Lile. I’ve been working with my good friend and collaborator Matt Lauterbach going through the footage and actually making the film. Recently we had a fundraiser where we showed some work in progress. People came! It was exciting. People actually seem to want to hear this story, an exhilarating feeling for any first-time filmmaker.

And that brings me to part of what I’m going through these last couple of weeks or months. After 22 years of living with this, and years making it into the movie, it finally feels like it’s moving forward. We can see the end. The film is going to get made and we’re all going to move on. That’s not to say it’s not going to be challenging or feel impossible again, but it’s a new stage where I’m able to consider not only the film being finished, but what life after this film might be like.

And that’s where the Franzen quote comes in. There was and is a real moment of worry that after I make this film, what of myself will be left? What more can I hope to do, now that this story, so essential to my identity is given to the public?

That’s what I find so enriching about Franzen’s thought, there is always more self to discover. As a filmmaker and an artist, there’s a need to continually reinvent and explore yourself through the work you make, not just a personal doc, but really any doc or serious pursuit. In fact, maybe as Franzen suggests, that’s what makes it a worthy project, one that challenges and expands your very notions of self.

I’m still not sure what exactly is going to happen when the doc is made. Part of me is full of trepidation when I think about this film reaching an audience. That story that I used to carefully guard and only tell a handful of people that I trusted will be given to the public. People will make their own sense of it, draw their own conclusions about my parents and me. And I won’t be able to stop them.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next, the projects I used to fantasize about when I was mired in stasis with this one. It’s exciting to consider the stories that have yet to be told, the adventures that have yet to be had. Sometimes when I show clips of this film people ask if the process has been cathartic. I’m not sure if it was making the film or simply growing up, but I can say that I’m in a better, different place now then when I was when I began this project. And once the project is over, I’m looking forward to doing what Franzen exhorts: to dig deeper, reach even farther, all while working on the story of my own life.

Meet Co-producer Patrick Lile

Patrick Lile is the Associate Producer of Unbroken Glass. Patrick, who is also finishing up his MFA in Documentary Film at Columbia College Chicago (where he is also an adjunct faculty member), was the Outreach Coordinator for The Interrupters, and most recently assisted in the post-production of Life Itself, the soon-to-be released Kartemquin documentary on Roger Ebert.

How did you first get involved with Unbroken Glass?

I was working on The Interrupters as the Outreach Coordinator, when Dinesh approached me about coming on board as a producer. We had known each other for a while – Dinesh actually sat in on my Kartemquin internship interview – and I’d helped out on the project a few times doing various ‘odds and ends’ jobs. But Dinesh had seen what I was doing on The Interrupters, and felt that my experiences building outreach and connecting with the right communities for that film could translate over to Unbroken Glass, and really help take it to the next level.

What was it about Unbroken Glass that made you want to become a part of the project?

It’s important that you believe in a project, and in the case of Unbroken Glass, its themes really spoke to me. Although it’s about mental health in immigrant populations, which is a very dire and relevant social issue, universally it’s about ‘family’. It’s about the ways in which the scars and experiences of the parents reverberate through generations, and how the children, whether emotionally or physically, carry on what happened. Every family, every person, has things in the closet that don’t get talked about. The most important thing our film can do is to empower people to talk about those things, not hide them.

How do you approach producing and doing outreach?

I started running marathons sometime between when I graduated from undergrad and went back to get my masters. The lessons I learned from training for those races is how I frame my approach to documentary filmmaking. You start small – 4 or 5 miles here and there – but it’s those little runs that end up becoming the building blocks for accomplishing something greater. You start with one grant, then another; you find an outreach partner, edit together a group of scenes that you can really be proud of. With every mile marker that you pass, you build momentum and confidence. The legs will get tired, and when they do, you regroup, catch your breath, and start focusing on those small milestones again.

So where are you at with Unbroken Glass?

We’ve run our first half marathon, so we’ve hit the 13-mile point. We’ve teamed up with some fantastic future outreach partners and acquired some grants, and although 13 miles is great, it’s never been our goal. You have to have a vision for the end, that goal for the 26th mile. We have some wonderful milestones coming up as we move into 2014, like Drinks in Progress, and having a rough cut done by the end of the year. But we will continue with our grant writing (both big and small); we will continue to reach out to a variety of outreach partners, and really try to maximize the potential impact our film can have in raising awareness of issues of mental health. It’s a long process, but in a few years we will be able to look back on what we were able to accomplish with Unbroken Glass, and say we were able to succeed because we took so many correct steps early on, and took it one-mile marker at a time.

Meet Our Editor Matt Lauterbach

Matt Lauterbach, who is the post-production manager at Kartemquin Films, is the editor on Unbroken Glass. Matt, who moved into documentary filmmaking from the teaching world, is a firm supporter of documentary as an educational tool, and believes that it is the most powerful way to communicate the experiences, emotions, and ideas of others. He recently helped complete The Trials of Muhammad Ali, is working on completing American Arab, after cutting The Penelope Project.

What is it about the editing process that you enjoy?

Editing is a very reflective process, and I love the challenge of crafting a film and bringing everything together in a way that is true to the film’s subject.  It is also important that you take the viewer on a journey — one that is genuine and meaningful — so that is an aspect I really enjoy as well.

How did you get involved with Unbroken Glass?

Dinesh and I were in the same Kartemquin intern group together, and we began collaborating on projects together. Later, we got started on the intriguingly titled  “Parent Project,” which would become Unbroken Glass. He was at the point where he really wanted to expand its scope, so he approached me to help out. I first got involved as kind of the person off-camera asking Dinesh questions. When it became a Kartemquin project, he was comfortable enough with me to ask me to come aboard as an editor. Trust is a huge part of the editor/director relationship in general, but particularly with this project which involves such sensitive material.

What is your approach to editing Unbroken Glass?

Dinesh came to me at a point when he was realizing that he was too close to the material and needed another set of eyes. It’s been nice because I’ve had the freedom to peruse all of the material and shape the ‘bricks’ that we are going to build the film out of. Right now, we are at a point where we are trying to get the chronological story of his parent’s time together completely straight. There are a lot of memories by a lot of different people, so what we’ve done is create chronological strands of his parents marriage, their immigration to the US, his mother’s decline, and his father’s science career and anger problems.

Sounds interesting, but also very challenging.

That is the part that I am really itching to get to: how do we make this into a film. We have a lot of different parts that individually have strength, but how we going to dip back and forth between present and past, and also ultimately, what is it all leading to? What will be our conclusion? There is so much that we need to try and test out, but that is the freedom of the editing room! You can try things and if it doesn’t work, that is okay.

Ultimately, what is your goal as an editor, and what do you want viewers to take from the film?

My goal as an editor is to be true to the questions and experiences inherent in the footage. In my view, editing is an act of perspective taking. It is an act of empathy. In Unbroken Glass, I think the subjects having to cope with the memory of trauma, figuring out how to find meaning in their parent’s death, and figuring out a way to talk about these things are some of the film’s central themes. However, as an editor, it doesn’t really matter what I think the film should be about. It is about the experiential reality of Dinesh’s journey, his siblings, and his family.

We should also note that Matt has a sharp smile and impeccable taste in Trader Joe’s frozen food, both boons in the doc editing world. Join Matt and the rest of the Unbroken Glass team on September 5th at Schuba’s for “Drinks in Progress.”

Join us for “Drinks in Progress”

If you’re in Chicago, come meet the “Unbroken Glass” team on September 5th at Schuba’s for an evening of drinks and music. We’ll be showing some new clips from the film and .

Our good friend DJ Zak Piper will be spinning records, from his extensive collection of classic soul.  Tickets cost $25, and entry includes one drink and a custom “Unbroken” pint glass.  Proceeds will support the film.

Hope to see you there! More info, including tickets here.

Independence Day

ZToday is August 15. On this day in 1948, India became independent of British rule. 65 years of Independence! Midnight’s children are now senior citizens.  “Jai Hind!” They say, “long live India!”

On this day in 1968, my parents were married. Today would have been their 45th anniversary.

This is just a coincidence. The story I’ve been told is that astronomically, 15th August 1968 was actually a pretty inauspicious day. My father was in a hurry to get married and return to the United States to begin teaching.

Some would say that it’s impossible to talk about Independence without talking about partition. Thousands, (millions?) of people were uprooted from their homes, crossing the boundary of the newly formed states of India and Pakistan. Violence errupted. After partition came decades of political instability, developing world problems, etc. “Birth pangs,” they say. When written out like that it’s a tough story.

And it’s hard for me right now to think about my parent’s anniversary without thinking about what followed. Struggle, mental illness, instability, death. On paper it’s a tough story.

People still celebrate Independence Day, despite what followed. People celebrate the moment of self-determination and freedom. In that moment is the seed of potential, of possibility. What happened after independence happened after independence. To minimize this day’s importance just because of the challenges the country has faced after that, (some of which possibly stemmed from the manner independence was gained), is specious and wrong. Today is a day to celebrate that moment of possibility and promise. That pregnant moment, full of the unknown.

No one is here to really celebrate my parents’ anniversary, I guess it’s not really an anniversary since both of them have past away. Sometimes I worry that in making this documentary I might focus too much on the negative, the social issues that intersected their lives and problems they faced. My sister likes to remind me that our mother loved going out to Chi-chi’s, a Mexican restaurant, and eating chips and salsa until her nose was running.

So I’m going to table all the other stuff, and take today to celebrate that moment they shared on the 15th of August 1968. I picture my dad at that time, younger than I am now, imagining his life stretched out before him, the possibility, the promise, the unknown. He had just gotten his Ph.D, and was marrying a beautiful young woman from his caste. He was doing everything right. He was going halfway around the world to live in the United States. I picture my mother, a teenage bride, unsure of what to do, turning down an offer from medical school to make her parents happy. But maybe she was intrigued and charmed by this shy, curly-haired boy and his intellect. Maybe she was inspired by what this unknown life in America could be, far, far away from the life she knew growing up in Jaipur, India. I hope that on that day they felt the promise of independent India, the promise of America, the promise of each other. They had a moment when it was all there within reach! They were there together, intoxicated on the possibility and the unknown stretched out before them.

Life was happening, and they were living it!

That’s what I’m going to celebrate today. Jai ho!

Subject/Author

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A couple of weeks ago we were shooting in Albuquerque with my sisters. There was a moment when I revisited the bookshelves I had grown up with. I had the pleasure of growing up with a ton of books: children’s books, science fiction serials, far too much Kurt Vonnegut for one household, the stuff my brothers were in to, and perhaps most important for the documentary, books that my father had collected over the course of his life. A first edition of Vivekanda’s Complete Works, an audio book of The Secrets of Power Negotiating, Gandhi’s autobiography: a lifetime of curiosity left behind in books.

As we were shooting, I started to remember this child in love with his dad, a child who would try to understand his mind through the books he left behind. I remember as a kid, sitting in front of those two towering bookshelves full of awe and wonder. What kind of man owned a copy of Mathematics for Fun and Pleasure? Just what kind of advice was contained in I’m OK, You’re OK?

I pulled down one of a three-volume set of stories of Krishna written for children. Suddenly I remembered the story where his mother Yashoda looks into baby Krishna’s mouth and sees the whole universe. Funky illustrations. I was perched on the edge, about to go down this rabbit hole of experience and memory. For people who shoot a lot of doc, you’ve probably encountered this moment before, when your subject more or less forgets, (or stops caring) about the camera, and really begins to have a visceral experience.

But at that moment, my cameraperson started shooting cutaways. A microphone wire was coming out of my pocket; it needed to get tucked in. I guess I had a pimple or blemish that needed some attention before he felt he could get a shot of my face. This is not an entirely unreasonable thing to ask a subject. Being behind the camera, I’ve often had to intervene to fix a faulty mic or some such.

Right before I was a documentary subject in a moment of vulnerability. In the current moment, I was asked to be the director of this project again. I looked up and saw two people telling me that I was remembering incorrectly, I didn’t look the right way. I needed to make a case for why it was more important to simply keep rolling and capture this visceral experience, mic cord and blemish notwithstanding.

But I couldn’t do that. I basically just shut down. “I’m done,” I said.

Looking back, in front of those bookshelves, I really wanted to capture that experience, a man remembering himself as child. I could nearly touch that sense of longing and awe. Instead I fear that this scene is of a grumpy man looking at books.

This is yet another challenge of directing a personal documentary. When are you you, and when are you theauthor? Long ago I realized that there is no actual way to represent my self in the documentary. Doug Block, director of 51 Birch Street and a great advocate for personal documentary, writes that it’s better to consider yourself a character in a film, than trying to represent some kind of essential self.

This is a crucial distinction to make, but one that I feel people have to remind themselves of often. You’re seeing yourself in the edit room, you hear your nasal voice, see your bad posture, etc. Like any project, you have a choice of how to represent your subject. Do you take out the bad completely, take out the good completely, combine them both in some way that you hope resembles, or at least points to the truth? Do you labor to make clear some kind of visceral experience? And what kind of truth is that? Whose truth? The gamble is that as doc filmmakers we can at the very least represent some kind of real experience. But when it’s you yourself, how do you begin?

So far my compass has been my own experience and sense as a person and artist, guided by some really talented collaborators. There have been many times in the editing room, where some cultural or familial thing makes no sense to my editor. There have been moments that I found incredibly poignant, but outside of my personal experience mean little. Deep down, though, we all know how to tell stories, especially our own. We do it all the time in such tiny ways.

This is not unlike the process of making a “normal” documentary. You get sucked into a story: tiny things are blown out of proportion, big things seem to be less important. Most of the rough cuts I’ve seen are this process at work, filmmakers figuring out how much significance to give different things. I think one of the marks of a good documentary is the ability for its author to go on that journey, return, and tell something meaningful to the audience its meant for.

I’d like to think that when I complete this documentary, the experience of being both subject and author of making significant a potentially insular story will only make me a better filmmaker. Understanding what it’s like being in front of the camera, the stakes of telling your story publicly could cultivate a kind of sensitivity to apply to future subjects. After the experience in front of the bookshelves, I do have my doubts. Perhaps this whole experience will make me too cautious, too deferential. I fear that I might lose the essential boldness it takes to shoot a documentary. Until this is over and I can fully process it, I might have to remain a grumpy man looking at books.