Friday, October 12, 2007

Using Film to Change the World: An Interview with Shalini Kantayya

Sixty years ago, very few people would have seen the connection between peace and hydrology, but today that connection is clear to the foresighted. If we do not deal with the water problems on a global scale, I believe we will see conflict on a global scale.--UNESCO in the Spotlight

Shalini Kantayya
is a filmmaker, educator, and activist who uses film/video as a tool to educate, inspire, and empower audiences. She believes in making films that spark positive social change and recently completed a short film about water rights issues, A Drop of Life.

Shalini finished in the top 10 out of 12,000 filmmakers on FOX’s On the Lot, a reality show by Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett. Below is the transcript of a recent interview with her from the Big Vision Podcast.

Shalini Kantayya: My name is Shalini Kantayya, and I am the Director of a company called 7th Empire Media. The mission of my work is to take the things that I care about the most, women, the environment, and social issues, and package them in a very sexy commercial medium of narrative filmmaking that reaches millions of people. My mission is to take the things that I care about, and to inspire and educate people through narrative story telling.

Britt Bravo: What are you working on now?

SK: I just completed a film called A Drop of Life, which is a film about the future of water; it's about a woman from America who comes to India to seal a deal that would put plastic prepaid credit card meters on the village water pumps so you can't get water unless you have a prepaid card. It's based on a true story of these water meters that exist in 10 countries, including the U.S.

I just think that it's incredibly alarming that by the year 2027, two thirds of the world's population, over four billion people, will not have adequate access to clean drinking water. Water is something that sort of shook me out of my seat. What I am seeking to do now is to make a major motion picture about the future of water that will move audiences and really put this issue on the map.

BB: Where are you in the process and how can people who are listening support you?

SK: The short film is available at, and now I am in the process of seeking development money and looking for very, extremely talented writers to help me in this process.

I want to create a really fantastic story. I think coming from India I've been really moved by stories like the Mahabharata, or the Ramayana, or even Star Wars, for that matter, because it tells you this epic story of the hero's journey. It's so interesting because I talk to little kids today, and Star Wars is still one of their favorite movies. And I think, oh my god, how can this movie dated in 1976, 30 years ago, which is a lot of time in cinema, still have relevance today?

How could the Mahabharata, being 2000 years old, still be told today? Over and over we sit the whole night to listen to these stories. I think that we need a new mythology, we need a new story, we need a new hero, we need a new she-ro, and I think that's what my mission and my gift is, to create really compelling stories that engage people in the most critical issues of our times.

BB: What's the path that brought you to this work?

I don't think I ever made any intellectual decisions in my life [laughs]. I feel like most of the big callings in my life have come in the form of falling in love, these great romances, first with images and then with this river.

I was actually 19 years old, and I was in a Buddhist monastery in South India, it was one of the 13 villages India gave Tibet. I heard these monks chanting this deep throated prayer, it was like 800 monks, and something sort of hit me in my heart, and I knew that there were things I couldn't express in words. From that moment, I started to put imaginary picture frames on everything I saw, and sort of experienced my seeing in this new way.

This was before I knew aperture, or iris or knew anything about filmmaking, it was just almost discovering my sight in a new way, and feeling that there were stories that I needed to tell that I could not express in words. So, filmmaking happened that way and then, on a whim, I was on Fulbright in India, and a friend asked me to document this festival called the Kumbha Mela, which is the largest gathering of human beings on earth where an estimated 70 million people come to bathe in the confluence of these three rivers, at this particular time, because they believe it will wash away their sins and bring them closer to Moksha.

Through working on this documentary I spent 40 days living in a tent at the banks of the Ganga and the Jamuna, and I took lots of baths, and I was really moved by the devotion to a river as a life-giving goddess, even the word "India" comes from the river Indus. But at the same time, I wondered about calling something "mother" and then throwing all this shit into the river. And so I began to question, but it happened through my having such reverence for this river, and having this really personal experience and kind of communion with this river. Then my love compelled me to ask questions, and to take action in some way.

Then I read this book, Blue Gold by Maude Barlow, which I recommend everyone read. It shook me out of my seat. I think coming of age between the United States and India, I've seen the world of the technologically advanced and the material excessive, and the world that can't get a clean glass of water.

I'm just really alarmed that our generation isn't speaking up about it. I think for a lot of us who grow up in the "First World, " and hot and cold water runs--even me, I live in New York. What can I possibly have to do with the environment? I mean my food comes from the bodega, the water runs hot and cold from my faucet. But, then you realize that we're all part of this very fragile ecosystem.

Even in the cities, a transit strike goes off, or there's a power outage. You realize that you're not living inside of a machine, that even urban cities are part of this environment, and that we are all part of an ecosystem. The very simple choices that we make every day really matter.

So that's sort of what brought me to this journey, is this thought that a billion children are suffering every day. Every 14 seconds a child dies because of lack of clean water. Beyond those statistics, I mean, these are children that are beloved to their parents and their communities. I feel like every time a child dies because of lack of clean water that we have failed as a global community.

So I seek to put my voice as a filmmaker, and the sharpness of the tools of major motion picture filmmaking, behind this thing that I care so deeply about.

BB: Your roots are as an independent filmmaker, but you've just finished being part of a big reality show. How do you balance those two worlds?

SK: I know it's really hard to make the leap from a Buddhist monastery in South India, and holy baths in the Gunga, and then a Fox-based reality TV show. It seems like a little bit of a disparity. But I really came to the show, Fox On The Lot, with a very clear intention. I don't know that everyone had the same intention. My intention was to bring our issues to the forefront and to get progressive media onto Fox.

I had four films screen on Fox, and two of them were political in some nature. I feel like we can't shy away from going mainstream. I mean, I really have a strong respect for grassroots documentary. I've certainly done it a really long time. But what I admire about filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas is that they've transformed culture. It's not that they're just filmmakers.

It's hard to imagine American culture without Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas. I mean, they gave us E.T. they gave us Star Wars, they gave us, Jaws, Jurassic Park. These are major pillars of American culture. I feel like what is the most powerful about this work is that you can say, "May the force be with you," anywhere in the world and people will know what you're talking about.

With my filmmaking, I really seek to do that with my work. I'm not thinking small. I really want to reach millions and millions of people around the world, and transform culture with my work. And with that comes the machinery of commercial filmmaking. Of course, that's sort of treacherous territory. [laughs] I won't lie about that. But I think we need to get in there, I think it takes all types. I think some of us need to work within the system, and some of us need to work without it.

That's my goal, is to reach as many people with my work, and have the largest distribution possible, and have the machinery of commercial filmmaking behind me. I mean, when you look even at cinema, there were more women directing films in the Silent Era, before filmmaking became a commercial industry, then there are today. I think that just goes to show that we need to put our money behind women filmmakers.

BB: As an artist and activist, how do you balance your art, your activism, and making a living?

SK: Well, my mom always used to say to me, "Filmmaking, schilmmaking, how you eat? [laughs] "Movies, schmovies. How you eat?" But the thing is that I really honestly believe is that if you follow your highest calling in life, and I've never been more clear, I mean, I have other issues, but following my calling and having passion is not one of them.

I really feel like if you follow what you think is your gift in this world; and if you show up every day, and you work hard, and you're tenacious, that sooner or later it's going to happen for you. You're going to get the resources to do what you need to do. That's what's been happening in my case.

So, for eight years I've been able to--for 10 years actually, I've been able to make a living as a filmmaker. I'm definitely not getting fatter, but I'm definitely eating. [laughs]

BB: What advice do you have for artists, who want to use their art for social change?

SK: I would just say, "We need your voice. We need you to get up, and stand up, and get out of bed when you feel like it's too hard to. Have faith in yourself and speak your truth because we're living in an age where six corporations control most of what we see, read, and hear. I can't think of a bigger threat to democracy.

No matter how you feel about an issue, we have got to have voices of dissent. It's not easy. It's not easy to be the single voice that says, "We need to do this." It's not easy to practice your art, but I feel like we each have our little garden patch of change to make. I would just say to everyone out there, "Speak your truth and have faith in what you know and believe."

BB: You've done a lot of interviews. What is the thing that you wish you were asked about?

SK: Isn't reality TV strange? [laughs] Reality TV is really strange. I'm probably not supposed to speak about it publicly, but I will. I'm really interested in why reality TV has become such a craze in our culture, and I wonder if people listening understand how completely manipulated--now I'm speaking as a viewer of reality TV, no implications of my own show--but how constructed reality TV is and why it is that people like to see that kind of low-brow drama, and the way that it's constructed and why people feed off of it. I think is really interesting.

I think it's a commentary on truth. Are we looking for drama, are we looking for truth? I don't know. I don't know what the answer is. I just see it... I actually kind of see it as a disease, honestly. I feel like the way that we've been taught to consume violence, and to consume drama, and to enjoy people fighting with each other is really a sickness that we have, and I feel like our media is completely distracting us from the things that really matter.

BB: I read somewhere that you interviewed the Dalai Lama. What was that like?

SK: I love the Dalai Lama. I interviewed him in 2002. I had a private audience with him. The work actually started at a conference called, Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence. I was 19 and there were about 200 youth there that didn't know what to do with this idea of nonviolence. How do you practice that? What do you do with it?

On a whim, I ended up speaking on behalf of the youth at the closing ceremony of the conference, and ten minutes later the Dalai Lama gave us $10,000 to start a new organization. So I feel like the Dalai Lama has had this sort of direct impact on my activism.

Also, it was just a wonderful affirmation, because as a youth, I feel like we sometimes don't know what we can do. How do we make change? It seems crazy. How do we stop this war? I feel like when you're young, you feel like, "I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm going to do something."

I think that's something we should never lose. I feel like whether it's a small action or a large action, I feel like that, "I have to do something," is something that I really treasure in youth and people that are able to do that.

And so I interviewed him. I interviewed him in Dharamsala, in Northern India. He accepted on the basis of me standing on the Youth Coalition for Peace and Justice. He came because the Dalai Lama is actually very interested in youth issues.

So, I talked to him, and he is such a charming man. When you're around him, you just want to tickle him because he's so giggly and he has such a presence. There are two moments that I really, really appreciate from my interview with the Dalai Lama.

There was this moment where I was saying, "How do you build bridges between race and sex and sexual orientation."

He said "Sexual orientation?"

And his translator was in the room. He was speaking in English, and you heard a couple of Tibetan words going back and forth. "Ah! Oh! Boys. Girls. Ah." He was understanding what sexual orientation meant.

And then there was another really brilliant moment with the Dalai Lama where I said, "So Your Holiness, you're saying if someone hits you, it's OK to hit them back?"

And he said, "I think so." It was this big epiphany for me because I realized he really does believe in self defense. He's said, "Say you're sorry. Don't do it maliciously." He was saying all of these things, but it was just this really wonderful moment of kind of breaking the mold of what I had thought of him. So that was lovely.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about your work?

SK: My ultimate goal is to do a trilogy of feature films about the environment and to create a mythology for our generation that makes it cool to be a change maker that transforms culture and associates being an activist with being a hipster.

I feel like our culture has to change, and our values have to change, and I think whenever that happens it has to happen through youth. And so that's the target of my films, to reach youth.

You can learn more about food and water issues from Food and Water Watch.


  1. Thanks for the great interview. I love film making and how it truly does have the ability to change the world. It influences people every time they see a film. How will this film about water be directed? What I mean by this is that conservation of water is good, but the real solution is finding ways for us to move water to places more efficiently. Is this the focus of the film, or is conservation the focus?

  2. Anonymous8:50 AM

    Hi Britt.

    The issues of global privatization of water that Shalini Kantayya's film addresses are exactly what Corporate Accountability International's Think Outside The Bottle campaign is about. At the moment, they are working to get mayors in 7 different US cities (including Oakland) to promote public tap water and forego bottled water contracts, but that is just a small part of the overall campaign, which is access to clean drinking water as a global right rather than a privilege for those who can afford to pay.

    I noticed that you referenced Food and Water Watch at the bottom of the article, and in fact that organization is part of this campaign. On Wednesday morning, we had a press conference outside Oakland City Hall, and one of the speakers was Adam Scow, from Food and Water Watch.

    Here is more information about the campaign from a global perspective.

    It would be wonderful if you, as an Oakland resident, would sign the pledge. And if you, as someone with a readership, would promote the campaign in some way, even better.


  3. David--I think that the focus of the film is raising awareness about the issue.

    Beth--Is there an rss feed or e-newsletter that can keep me up to date on the campaign?


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