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IDA Member Spotlight: Nehal Vyas

By Anisa Hosseinnezhad

Black and White image of a woman with brown skin smiling at the camera with her head tilted. A woman with white skin smiles at the camera. She has mid-length, straight black hair and is wearing a black top.

Headshot of Nehal Vyas.

Nehal Vyas is a film and video artist from India, currently based in Los Angeles. Her work explores the idea of national identity through memory, personal history, and inheritance. She is a graduate of California Institute of the Arts, where she received her MFA in Film/Video. Her works have been shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Camden International Film Festival, Indie Memphis Film Festival, True/False Film Festival, REDCAT (Los Angeles), 2220 Arts + Archive (Los Angeles), Automata (Los Angeles), Analogica (Italy) and Mumbai International Film Festival (India). She is the co-founder of the Artists in Revolution Collective, which focuses on developing a nuanced understanding of socio-political conditions across the globe through screenings and discussions in collaboration with fellow artists and filmmakers. She is a recipient of the Flaherty Fellowship (2022), the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Scholarship, and the Lillian Disney Scholarship.


IDA: Please tell us a little about yourself and your profession or passion.

I am a film artist and programmer, born and raised in India—currently based in Los Angeles. My works predominantly focus on the ideas of nationhood, citizenship, mythology, and family histories. Currently, I am very invested in finding new strategies of image-making, and in formulating languages of cinematic resistance. 

IDA: When did you first start working in the documentary field?

I went to an art school in India for my undergrad in 2013—where I wanted to focus on Fine Arts and Textile Design. But the school was designed in a way where one could—and kind of couldn’t help but—take courses in every school of art. And so, I did just that. I made terrible bamboo structures, fell in love with loom weaving, and took many film history classes. But even though I moved in and out of other mediums, non-fiction became the core of everything for me. At that moment, I thought it was just something I was gravitating towards, but looking back, I realize the number of things that pushed me towards image-making. 

In 2014, the Modi government came to power. Almost immediately, many educational institutes in India became the target of our right-leaning government. Knowledge and education became a threat to those in power. History was being re-written, mythologies regarded as facts—those who questioned these oppressive systems were being silenced. It was during those years that documentary became my language of resistance. 

After that, I had the incredible opportunity to work with and learn from filmmakers like Ashim Ahluwalia, Aradhana Seth, Shai Heredia, and Shonali Bose, and it solidified my confidence in the mode of documentary. It was around this time that film and video became my primary mediums. I started to make work using family history and collective archives to further build on the national and political archives. 

How could the personal archive act as a witness or as evidence against a larger national narrative? What did de-colonization mean in a thoroughly neo-colonial world? How could poetry and oral storytelling become an act of resistance? How could art be an ally to the many political movements around us? These were the questions that furthered my art practice.

IDA: Your work fluidly moves between documentary and experimental form. Tell us about your inspirations and some of the thoughts behind your stylistic choices.

Arundhati Roy, who I absolutely love, once wrote an article about censorship and resistance titled Things That Can and Cannot be Saidand I think I make my work thinking about that. As an image maker in the current political climate, these are the two questions I often ask myself—How do we say the things that cannot be said but must be said? How do we share images of violence, anger, and despair without causing damage to those we aim to stand in solidarity with? And that’s when I lean into the experimental—because it allows you to lean into the feeling and to create an image that will create another image in the mind. 

IDA: You seem to be wearing many hats as well. From teaching and directing your own work to working as a producer, curator, and consultant. How do these differing roles help with your own work?

I think everything feeds into each other. I cannot imagine being a filmmaker if I wasn’t teaching or programming. My curatorial practice stemmed from my need to amplify cinema from underrepresented communities and to create a dialogue about the socio-political conditions that these works emerged from. Everything I learn from building these programs and from my classes directly goes into my image-making toolkit. And I absolutely love teaching younger kids. Over last summer, I taught a group of 13–18-year-olds at The Susan Miller Dorsey High School in Crenshaw—and almost every day, I walked out filled with amazement and adoration of their visual freedom. They made me fall in love with films again. 

IDA: Can you talk about your next film—your first feature, Judicial Colony?

I grew up in many judicial houses. My father—a judge—would receive a new posting every three years, and with that, we’d have to move cities, schools, and homes. Each of these homes were in a government-provided “Judicial Colony”. With almost identical brick houses around a park, a temple at the corner of the street, a badminton court, a common milkman, and a grocer—these judicial colonies housed everyone under the District Court system. 

In my docu-fiction project, which is still very much in its early development, I am aiming to understand these residential colonies as microcosms of the complexities and failures that make up our current Judicial system. The film will be set in the early 2000s, and trough memory, re-enactment, family archives, and current justice struggles, I'm aiming to understand the demographic that is the justice system of India. 

IDA: Can you share a bit more about the first feature you are producing, Mother, you have not died yet. But you will. And when you do, you will finally be alive again.

Of course, Mother, you have not died yet. But you will. And when you do, you will finally be alive again, is the first feature film by Advik Beni. Advik is a filmmaker from South Africa, currently based in LA. We met during our time as MFA candidates at CalArts and started to work together on each other’s projects. This film is thematically an extension of Advik’s other work, focusing on Post-Apartheid South Africa and the questions of the “born-free” generation that he belongs to. We are currently in the post-production phase of the film, having shot most of it over the past two years. 

The film is a docu-fiction hybrid—focusing on Lishana, who is tending to her ailing mother, while also alluding to the racial and communal tensions within the Indian townships in South Africa. It looks at the cyclicality of events in a nation and how we find their echoes in our day-to-day lives. 

Our aim is to finish the film this year!