Why Filmmakers Should Both Foster Empathy and Subvert Expectations
Film and storytelling is one medium where perspective matters. My background as an Indian American, as a first generation immigrant, as a person of colour, as an editor, both for commercials and films, as writer, and a director, gives me a very specific point of view. Even being a dog owner gives me a certain instinctive sensibility that perhaps someone who has never had a dog of their own may lack. Even my upbringing, my relationship to my parents, also factors into my identity as a storyteller both consciously and subconsciously. All of these factors heavily affect the way I think about stories, the stories that interest me, the characters that I want to see, and the stories I wish to tell. My work, my art and who I am are all undeniably intertwined.
The political climate around the world, Brexit, and for me, particularly Trump’s election as President of the United States, has created a more divided, polarised culture. For many citizens around the world, and Americans in particular, things are either black or white. I think now more than ever, we need to see stories from different perspectives than our own, perhaps ones we haven’t seen or heard from before in popular culture. It’s these perspectives that can help us all see the shades of grey. It’s these perspectives that can help us to see both the good and the bad in us and everyone around us. Representation creates windows into empathy. Whether you have 5 million dollars to make a film or 100 dollars, it’s important to make art that challenges the way we see the world. It’s important to be heard.
However, simultaneously, this political climate presents an interesting challenge for the artist as well as the advertiser. The challenge is to be subversive but also be wide reaching. This climate is pushing me to think about storytelling in more far reaching ways. All my films are character driven. I aim to create strong yet flawed female characters that shatter cliches and are deliberately subversive. I really believe that creating characters we have never seen before and through storytelling, we can build bridges to a less polarised culture.
The film I am working on right now, 'Love Comes Later', is sort of a punk version of the immigrant story. It takes the cliche immigrant story about survival that we’ve heard so many times before and turns it on its head. The story is really about a woman who is forced into a life of crime in order to become an American citizen. But at the heart of it - this is a story about love and fear: two of the most primal emotions that drive us all as human beings. Human trafficking is a common and growing problem in the United States and around the world affecting vulnerable women of all backgrounds. In the U.S., motels are typical places where crimes like these thrive. A couple of years ago, I became a volunteer at a shelter that houses survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking. It was here that I came across several stories of undocumented women and began to search for a narrative thread. However, the more I worked on this story, the more I realised that I didn’t want to tell a story about victimhood, I want to tell a story about agency.
The film leans into the crime / thriller genres so we can hide subversive and poetic metaphors in its DNA. My hope is that 'Love Comes Later' creates a viewing experience that is emotional and visceral, provocative, but not voyeuristic. I want to create an immersive experience that challenges cliches about women, rattles the audience and starts a dialogue.
Both to foster empathy and to subvert expectations are goals that we as artists and creators should all strive for in times like these. As woman of colour, filmmaker and artist, it feels like an urgent responsibility to do so now.
Sonejuhi Sinha is an editor, writer and director at Final Cut