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Crybaby An Interview with British filmmaker and activist Meera Darji

Nov. 2, 2018
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A filmmaker by trade and an activist at heart, Meera Darji uses her love for storytelling to advocate for marginalized communities and misunderstood causes. Her past projects include “Transindia,” a documentary about the transgender community in India and “Majoor 9195,” a film about the lives of female construction labourers in India, to name a few in an expansive body of work.

Less than a decade into her career, Meera has already received much critical acclaim and international attention for her films. “Transindia” won Best Documentary Short at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival in 2016, as well as the Best Factual Award at the Royal Television Society in the UK. Meera describes her desire “to tell the purest form of truth through cinema” as a driving force in her creative work. When she’s not behind the camera, Meera is a lecturer at Coventry University. Meera is currently in the midst of production on her newest documentary project, Glass Walls, which looks at the vegan activist movement in the UK.

What came first for you, the activism or filmmaking?

I didn’t really know at the time that I could be an activist—it all started with the idea of telling stories. My ultimate goal is to change a law, and I think you can do that through debates and conversations and petitions and all of that, but sometimes to get a message out there, because how else are people going to know there’s a problem, the best way is through the medium of film. And so I started with film as a medium to tell a story that’s engaging, entertaining, and informative, and then show it to others to spread awareness. That leads to conversation, and ultimately change.

How did you get into documentary filmmaking?

I did media production at university for my undergrad, and there we had a couple of documentary modules. I never expected to go into documentary because I always had this kind of idea that it was conventional, and it was boring, and it was factual, and I didn't really like the word “factual.” Until my mentor—he’s a radical activist and filmmaker, and the way he taught documentary was definitely not conventional. He talked a lot about truth in cinema, and he showed us a lot of films by Vertov, the Maysles brothers, and Werner Herzog. That side of cinema was not something I was aware of at all, and as soon as I watched the films I thought, “this is amazing because this is the truth.” You see films in cinemas and they all have problems, but they’re reconstructions, so why not go to the root of that problem and just film it as it is?

Which social issues are you most drawn to? What activist causes have you chosen to take on in your work?

With all of my documentaries, it starts off with an idea that there’s a community out there that is marginalized or ostracized, and I try to tell that story in the truest way. It makes me angry and passionate when I see people who suffer because of something that happened a hundred years ago. That’s what drives me, the ignorance, that people aren’t doing anything. As I’m researching and as I’m writing I realize I’m actually being a voice for [the community], I’m almost campaigning for them. I don’t heavily rely on online material, I just go direct to the source, directly to the subjects and their communities to see for myself.

Documentary is largely a journalistic tool, which calls upon the notion of “objectivity” in reporting. Do you feel that the journalism and activism aspects conflict in your process/work? Can you remain objective when you’re so passionate about the subject of your work?

Whatever I make, I’m already so passionate about it. I can’t separate my personal views. I try to still keep a distance, to a certain extent, but because I’m so invested in their lives and I’m so passionate it is difficult. So I don’t strictly separate it, I actually embrace it. If you’re not passionate it shows, and then you don’t get the right stuff because your heart isn’t in it. In the films, I try to just cover everything; I try to understand the history of it and where the root of the problem is. During the research [for “Transindia”] I even spoke to people who did not accept transgender people, or when I spoke to their parents I didn’t know what their reactions would be. In the latest film I’m making, the one about vegan activists, I feel like it is going to be very difficult to separate myself as an activist. But ethically, I try to just keep filming. I don't cut often, I don’t stage things. Before I even start the camera I tell [the subjects] my motives, what the film is about, why I’m doing it. It’s not fair otherwise, it’s selfish.

Tell me about one of your earlier films, “Transindia.”

“Transindia” explores the lives of the Hijras, the transgender community in India. So it tackles the basic questions, because if people don't understand what something is, how do they accept it? So it’s about understanding of what a Hijra is; why they do what they do, why they beg, why some of them end up doing sex work. It shows the whole cycle from birth, to marrying into the community, to death as well. It’s seeing their lives from inside, as just normal human beings. Hijras are marginalized and there is a lot of negative misconceptions about them, so this is asking, are the rumours true? And the documentary answers them by showing the entire spectrum of who they are. It also looks at the laws, some which still exist. It’s the lasting effects of British colonization, so some Hijras still can’t marry, can’t adopt, they can’t buy houses, and this is all under the supreme court of India. Yes, they are legalized as a third gender, but they still don’t have the same privileges as heterosexual people.

“Majoor 9195” is now in post-production, can you tell me about that film?

So Majoor means “labourer” in Gujarati (Indian language). It’s an observational documentary showing three different construction sites and looks at the women construction workers. Whenever I talk about the film, I always say that these women are the backbone of India’s economy. It’s strange because they build houses, and commercial spaces, and offices where they will never be able to live in, and they know that. Being a labourer in India, you are completely voiceless. These women, some of them don’t have names, they don't remember their age, they aren’t registered as workers. These women are literally nameless, they’re just a number. So I try to give them each names, a title that appears when they come onscreen, just to give them that little bit of recognition which they’ve always lacked. The film looks at their whole lives, I go there in the morning from 4:30 A.M. to evening to show when they wake up, how they travel to work, what they do, coming home, cooking, eating, where they sleep, all the way back to square one. It tackles equality in the workplace. Men and women are paid equally, but the women do a lot more work, and pay is very small. It looks at the corruption side, where site owners keep money and give less to their employees. Health and safety, or lack of. Some women are pregnant, some walking barefoot, no harnesses, helmets, shoes, or gloves, their kids playing on site with glass and wires. It’s also about women empowerment, the idea that they’re construction workers, but they're also mothers and sisters and wives.

Your most recent film, “Glass Walls,” is about vegan activists, which deals more directly with the subject of activism itself rather than just advocating for the vegan movement. What has the experience been like for you so far?

It actually didn’t start with me being a vegan—during the filming I became vegan, which is interesting because the very first footage is of me being a vegetarian. The angle I’m taking is observational. The documentary is about a group of activists, but mainly one activist, and I follow her journey. So the film is basically breaking the stereotype of an activist. Because everything they do is peaceful. When you say the word “protest” it sounds very violent and extreme, so I’m kind of detaching this label from the vegan activists. A lot of these people don’t call themselves activists because it effects their careers and how people view them, so they don’t get taken seriously. It also informs the audience of what a vegan lifestyle is, and the truth of what the meat industry is like.

What do you want people to take away from this film? What impact do you hope this film will have on viewers? What social actions do you hope viewers will take after seeing this film?

A few things; I want to break the stereotype of an activist so people will think, “Oh ok, they're not that bad,” and hear [vegan activists] out. Just an understanding of where their food comes from, and understanding so when [viewers] buy these products, they can make an informed choice. I’m not saying everyone has to go vegan, but I want them to make the connection between their morals and actions, because you don't actually realize.

You mentioned your ultimate goal is to change a law, do you have a specific one in mind?

Yes, loads! But it’s difficult to say a particular one — each project probably has three or four attached to it. With “Transindia” and the Hijras, it’s just basic human rights. Hijras still can’t marry, they can’t adopt, they don’t have the same rights as heterosexual couples. For “Majoor 9195,” the women may want to do [construction work], but at least have health and safety precautions, minimum wage, which India doesn’t have, and make sure they're looked after. With “Glass Walls,” well, just end all slaughter houses (laughs).

Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation in the midst of working? How did you deal with it?

Not scared so much, but kind of threatened. On one construction site (in the making of “Majoor 9195”) we got permission to film. We came the next day and continued filming and this guy was telling us to stop filming, and was being quite angry. I just kept on filming and he threatened us that he was going to call the police. I did kind of get scared. I don’t know why I stopped filming—I should've continued! I tried to sneak around back, but it didn't work.

It really is brave work!

For the documentary I’m making here in the UK, as a person holding a camera outside of slaughterhouses, I always get threats. They’ve got a record of me. I get direct threats, but it’s fine. I remember the first time I was filming a vigil, my hands were shaking, I was scared because I thought I’d be in trouble. You know those time when you’re not allowed to film but you do it anyways? My heart races, and sometimes my instinct is to just stop, but I’m learning to just keep it rolling, whatever happens. You have to just be resilient, and be brave. For the documentary’s sake, you have to be in situations that are hard or dangerous. I have to do it, I can’t not capture that side of it. Documentary is not glamorous, at least the stuff I make (laughs).

You can see more of Meera’s work here, 

Illustration by Megan Schaller