The Art of Faking It

EISHA MARJARA – FILMMAKER

 


“I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.”

– Andy Warhol

My father left me with his Minolta SLR accompanied by elaborate hand written instructions while I was vacationing with my mother and sister in India. I was 13 and had no idea this apparatus was going to change my life. What the camera did was act as a second pair of eyes, a framed window through which my senses were awakened as if from a dream of dreary blindness of ordinary seeing, to the magic that permeated the light and dark in the world of matter. I discovered through this mechanical device an ability to recognize what was otherwise hidden. This was my role as an artist, a creator of images: to bridge the gap between the ordinary and the exalted, whether it be light or dark, delightful or dreadful.

I pursued filmmaking and during my final year at university, I entered a nation wide competition held by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and was one of four filmmakers selected to write and direct their first professional documentary. A dream come true? Yes, but I had no idea what reality I was in for. My first feature-length movie “Desperately Seeking Helen” took five gruelling years to complete partly because the story was personal and tragic, and the subject was thematically complex. The film tells the story of my search for my childhood movie star idol “Helen” in the fantastic world of Bollywood.

 

Through the (fictionalized) search for Helen on the streets of Mumbai and extraordinary movie sets, I flash back and tell the story of my mother and her struggles adapting to her adoptive homeland (Canada) and her tragic death on her flight back to India. My mother and sister were killed in the bombing of Air India flight 182 which left Montreal destined for India. It was part coming-of-age story, part story of loss, part mother-daughter story; a search for identity and an exploration of fantasy versus reality. I struggled for years with the writing process, abandoning scripts and narrative hooks that would only lead to dead ends. It came to be called the “Desperately Seeking a Story”story! Then one morning in the third year, I came up with the idea of literally searching for Helen in Mumbai and this search would somehow segue to my own story which lay at the heart of the movie. Helen was always meant to be a metaphor. It had never crossed my mind to interpret her and the title literally! Once I pitched the idea to the producers – without a clue of how I would eventually pull it off – I was off to Mumbai, putting together a crew and seeking out movie stars who knew Helen and showing up on Bollywood movie sets pretending to be searching for this starlet. After weeks of shooting, I returned to Montreal with only half the movie. I still had to tell my story. I went home and began writing the second part of it and that’s when it really got real. I wrote the story in four weeks and went into production all over again.

To simplify the process and keep the budget down, we chose to shoot stills using a Nikon SLR with a motor drive after which I would piece together the images using dissolves and build them into scenes in the editing room. Chris Marker’s film “La Jetée” shot entirely with b&w still photos was held up as an example and inspiration to this approach. What was assumed to be a simple process turned out to be an editor’s nightmare. And the editor with the nightmare was me. I had amassed 8000 stills that had to be edited down into scenes. My entire apartment floor was strategically carpeted with thousands of photos for months. But my biggest fear was not knowing how well this second part of the story would cut with the live action footage of India. It was a creative risk that just had to work. And it did. It worked remarkably well, partly because the story worked. Not only did I learn to become a writer in the making of this film, but I understood that the script is the spine of a movie and without it, a movie simply cannot hold up.

Desperately Seeking Helen (clip) from Eisha Marjara on Vimeo.

“Desperately Seeking Helen” is a feature film that defies genre in some ways. It skirts fiction and documentary, expository narration and confessional storytelling, reality and fantasy, parody and gut wrenching drama. The search was fake, the story truthful. Where “reality” ends and the fiction begins is unclear in this so-called documentary. The film allowed me to break down limitations of the filmmaking form, and in fact re-define documentary as a film genre. The “documentary” I wanted to make would primarily be a vehicle for storytelling that had very little if anything to do with facts and reality but everything to do with subjective truth which included a generous dose of fantasy and a very naked and touching poetic honesty. I came with the understanding that the very mechanical nature of the camera apparatus, or any media, is to distort and manipulate “reality” so I was not going to be making an objective unbiased movie. Forget reality. It serves no useful purpose for me as an artist except to give me ideas of how I can distort it into something else, fictional if not dreamily and scintillatingly fantastic with the single objective of arriving at a subjective truth. The film received a few awards and continues to be talked about.

Daydreaming of Helen from Eisha Marjara on Vimeo.

After the making of the movie I set out to establish myself independently as a filmmaker. I would no longer have the committed financial support of a studio or film institution to make my films let alone be afforded the time to make it. My objective since then has been to write and direct feature films. No simple task getting a production company to entrust a “documentary” filmmaker to make their first narrative feature, especially in today’s economically challenged and highly competitive climate. I decided to make a short film. I had the opportunity to do so in Munich Germany, with the generous assistance and voluntary support of film professionals along with a first time co-producer, Patrick Lange, a Munchener himself and Bonn based Thomas Lenz who connected me with the lead actress Katharina Schwarz.
“The Tourist” is the story of a vacationing loner in Munich recovering from a break up who gets entangled in a couple’s rocky romance. I wrote the script specifically with the budget and production in mind yet also managed to explore the themes I am most passionate about. You guessed it: fantasy versus reality, among others, such as loss, experiences of alienation and the desire to belong. I wrote it with as many outdoor daytime scenes as possible to avoid the high production costs of set design and lighting, and with a maximum of three characters. I selected public sites and streets and followed our lead character as a pov documentary crew would.  A fictional story on a documentary stage. Experiences of my previous film echoing … but at one-tenth of the budget.

 

The Tourist from Eisha Marjara on Vimeo.

Right now I am completing my current short film entitled “House for Sale” which received an arts council grant for production. Nevertheless I am taking my first step at crowdfunding on Indiegogo to finance its promotion in order to launch it in 2012.  I am excited about this film and expect that it will do well with audiences because the story’s unique subject matter resonates on multiple levels. I have had comments from viewers that my short films often feel like features. I suppose the stories and themes they address are large in scale. The dreamer in me says, “Ah yes, larger than life! Larger than reality!”

House for Sale (Trailer) from Eisha Marjara on Vimeo.

Being able to adapt and change in the media climate and wear multiple hats is not easy. It forces you to keep one foot in the real world and the other in the imaginative world while remaining creative in both. Yet without the impulse to imagine and expose what is hidden, the drive to produce is pointless. Stories often come to me during ordinary moments, in those gaps, those lapses of reason when magic appears in the form of feeling and words or whispers, images and sounds. Despite the Herculean effort of making movies, what keeps me going is that golden nugget that  throb of delight of bringing to life what is a private dream. I suppose without reality, there would be no fantasy to speak of, and everything that I’ve said up till now would be meaningless.

BIO:

EISHA MARJARA first drew attention with the witty and incisive “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” which received Honourable Mention at the Semana de Film Experimentale in Madrid in 1994. The documentary feature “Desperately Seeking Helen” a National Film Board of Canada production  won the Jury Prize at the München Dokumentarfilm Festival (2000) and the Critic’s Choice Award at the Locarno Film Festival. “The Tourist” premiered at the Rendez-Vous du Cinéma Québécois in 2006 and was nominated as the best short film at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto. She is currently developing the features The “Adventures of Drew Silver” and “360° Over Berlin” as well as the controversial docu-drama “Lolita Diaries” which puts a lens on girlhood and sexuality through Nabokov’s Lolita.