‘I Am’ – A Conversation with Sonali Gulati

by | November 27, 2013 at 1:24 PM | Cinema Asian America, LGBT, XFINITY ASIA, Xfinity On Demand

"I Am." (Photo: Sonali Gulati)

This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents the award-winning documentary, “I Am.” Made by the Virginia-based, New Delhi-raised filmmaker Sonali Gulati, “I Am” chronicles the journey of an Indian lesbian filmmaker who returns to Delhi, to re-open what was once home, and finally confront the loss of her mother whom she never came out to. As she meets and speaks to parents of other gay and lesbian Indians, she pieces together the fabric of what family truly means, in a landscape where being gay was until recently a criminal and punishable offense.

The feature length debut from veteran short filmmaker Gulati, “I Am” has received accolades and prizes from screenings at film festivals world wide. Gulati sat down to discuss the making of her latest film.

“I Am” is a quite personal film that unfolds in complexity as it moves from your own story to those of many other LGBT individuals in India. Why did you choose to move beyond your own family and bring in the stories of others in this film?

SG: For “I Am,” the project idea from the very beginning involved bringing stories of LGBTQ people living in India to light. Back in 2004, when I started the project, I felt that these stories were often forced to be invisible and silent, so it was very important for me to change that. The choice of including my own story was a decision that I took later on (years after I had begun shooting) and my personal story functions mainly as a structural device to hold the stories of my participants.

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What has been the response to the film across the very different settings you’ve presented it at? The film has screened at a range of film festivals, including Asian American, LGBT and South Asian events, internationally.

SG: The response to the film has been phenomenal. From the world premiere at IFFLA (Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles) where the film won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary to screenings organized at home by community members, I have experienced the love and support by people who are straight and queer, Asians and non-Asians, friends and strangers from across the globe. I still receive emails from viewers who request for the DVD to be sent out as anonymous gifts to friends and family members. Viewers have shared stories of the impact that the film has had on their lives and that is perhaps the most gratifying aspect for me. I am a filmmaker and an activist (and an educator), and so making films that effect social change is at the heart of what I do.

You have written that you find yourself “questioning, pushing, and crossing boundaries of genre (as a form) by mixing traditional “documentary” with “fictional narratives” or even making the “fictional” aspect of “documentary” more transparent. How did you arrive at this method of working? Was it through an iterative process where the form that best suits your stories has emerged, or through a more deliberate strategy?

SG: I come from a school of thought that believes that documentary films are not “truth-telling” devices. I believe that documentaries are as much fiction as fiction itself. So I like to blend those boundaries of genre and I do that by using a variety of tropes such as making my presence (as a filmmaker) felt in the film. I don’t make myself invisible like most traditional documentary filmmakers do. As a result, viewers can see that my participants are at some level “performing” for the camera. By “performing”, I don’t mean that they are not telling the “truth” or not being honest, but that they are “presenting” themselves, just as I am presenting myself and the way that we all present ourselves to the world that we live in.

In “I AM”, there is a short segment that is a film within a film and it includes mothers (who are professional actors) who react to their daughter coming out to them. I shot this primarily because I never had the opportunity to come out to my mother before she died and so I don’t know (and will never know) how she would have reacted. So I created this imaginary story that has multiple outcomes and felt that I had the creative license to include that fictional narrative, as long as I am not fooling the viewers.

At 71 minutes, “I Am” is the longest film that you have made to date; prior to it, you have focused on making short films between 7-26 minutes. Can you discuss “I Am” in context of your body of work and how it connects or is a departure thematically and formally?

SG: I Am is indeed my longest work, both in terms of the duration of the film and the six years that it took to make the film. It is in some ways my most personal work to date, not just because it tells my own confessional story but because of my personal investment in the stories of all the people that I met over the course of making this film. There are stories of families that I could not include that are as compelling as the ones that are included in the film and I often wonder what to do about that.

What are you working on now?

SG: My next project is a documentary film on doctors who claim that they can cure homosexuality. It is a very pervasive phenomenon across the globe that is deeply rooted in homophobia and it affects peoples’ lives. I stumbled into this subject while shooting I AM.