Member Spotlight: Sonali Gulati
Sonali Gulati is an independent filmmaker, a feminist, a queer rights activist, and an educator. She teaches film at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts. Gulati grew up in New Delhi and has made several films that have been screened at over five hundred film festivals worldwide.
Her films have screened at venues such as the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and at film festivals such as the Margaret Mead Film Festival, the Black Maria Film Festival, Slamdance Film Festival, and BlackStar Film Festival. Gulati’s award-winning documentary film I Am was broadcasted on public television and cable TV in the U.S. and Portugal. Her documentary film Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night, was broadcast on television in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Asia, and North Africa.
Gulati is a Guggenheim Fellow and has received support for her work from the Creative Capital Foundation, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Third Wave Foundation, Tribeca All Access, and World Studio Foundation. She’s also won awards and recognition from the Robert Giard Memorial Fellowship, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowship, the Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts, and the VCU School of the Arts Faculty Award of Excellence.
IDA: Please tell us a little about yourself and your profession or passion.
I’m an independent filmmaker, an out lesbian, a feminist, a community organizer, a queer rights activist, a solo parent, and a filmmaking professor. I grew up in New Delhi (India) and came to the United States for college. My interest in filmmaking began through ethnographic films, where I began to ask the question: who gets to represent whom? I believe in the power of personal storytelling and self-representation. As a South Asian out lesbian living in the United States, I am deeply invested in not just our stories being told by us but also in advocating and creating spaces where historically marginalized people’s stories are present, where we are loud, lit, and ablaze. I don’t view documentaries as “truth-telling,” “objective,” or “strictly based in reality.” I acknowledge and embrace the performative and fictional aspects of the documentary medium. I enjoy telling stories in unique and groundbreaking ways by questioning and pushing boundaries of what can or cannot be included in a documentary film. I also enjoy using humor as a way to engage and invite audiences to think critically about social justice issues.
IDA: When did you first start your filmmaking practice?
I started making films in 1998 while I was volunteering for The History Project in Boston, documenting under-represented histories. I borrowed their Hi-8 camera to shoot my very first film titled Sum Total. It was a personal film where I was trying to imagine what my matrimonial ad would look like as an Indian lesbian.
I was closeted then but was struck by the suicide notes left by lesbians in Kerala declaring that they were the only ones who felt that way. I felt this urgent need to say, “No, you’re not alone,” and so I started creating films about being an Indian closeted lesbian using just my first name. I edited my first film (Sum Total) with the help of my friend Nishit Saran, who snuck me into the editing lab at Harvard University.
IDA: Your work fluidly moves between fiction and non-fiction modes. How does that process work for you?
I see fiction and non-fiction as quite fluid, where boundaries overlap. I see narrative/fiction films in some ways as documentary films where we are using the best take or “documentation” of an actor’s performance. I see documentary films as fiction films starring non-professional actors that are re-presentations, where we are all (including myself) in some ways performing for the camera. I don’t have any qualms about blending those genres as long as I’m not fooling my audience. For example, in my film Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night about call centers in India (distributed by Women Make Movies), I choose to include footage where the “subject” of the film mentions that I’m shooting this film. I want the viewers to know that I’m very much present behind the camera, and therefore, what we are viewing is a “performance.” I also retell the story of what led me to make the film in the first place through scripted voice re-enactment and animation.
In my film I Am (about LGBTQ+ families in India, distributed by CAAM), I hold an audition with actors who play the role of mothers, and I record their reactions to my coming out to them as a lesbian daughter. I create a short film using this audition footage and replay it as an excerpt of a film within a film. I think that as long as I’m being authentic and not misleading my audience, I can take such creative leaps to criss-cross between fiction and non-fiction.
IDA: Do you have any advice for young filmmakers or those who are working on their first film?
I want young filmmakers to know that one doesn’t have to own fancy equipment to make films. I encourage my students to ask the same questions I ask myself before I start a project: Why am I (Sonali) making this film? And why does this film need to be made? Answering these questions helps me arrive at answers to what is my unique vision or perspective that I bring to this story. And, what is so compelling about this particular story that I must make a film on this subject matter? I also encourage young filmmakers to look within their own families and communities for story ideas. When people from within communities tell their own stories, not only are they more authentic, but they’re also far more sensitive and thoughtful of those who are in the film and whose stories are being told. I also encourage young filmmakers to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary and to view individuals in our films as participants and collaborators rather than “subjects.” Lastly, take creative risks. Step out of your comfort zone; be imaginative and creative because that’s how we will tell stories in new ways.
IDA: Lastly, is there anything you would like to share with our members?
Yes, I’d like to make an appeal to documentary filmmakers who are privileged by race, gender,
class, caste, sexuality, etc., to help create space for people to tell their own stories. Recently, I was approached by a white filmmaker who is making a film on a queer rights activist who recently died. I realized that she was asking me to be a consultant just so that the film could have this “Brown Dyke'' stamp of approval. The filmmaker struggled to even explain why she wanted to tell this specific story. She spoke of how she found Brown female producers for the film so she could justify in grant proposals how Brown people were attached to this project. I know funders are asking this question of what is our connection to the subject or people in our film, but I think that the responses to those questions need to be looked at through an intersectional lens.
Lastly, I would also like to use this platform to call attention to the broken system of awards, how certain films make it to the top while others don’t, and how this system is so directly linked to money. Even within the IDA Awards, after the IDA jurors have shortlisted the top films, IDA members vote for the awards, which influences the final winners. However filmmakers can purchase IDA’s eblast advertising for $5,500 to send emails to all IDA members, thus influencing voters. Which filmmakers can afford that? There is something wrong with a system where one can pay to influence voters, not to mention the submission fee to even enter into the awards pool. There is no separate category for low-budget films or films from the Global South, or by women of color etc., where submission fees could be waived or are reduced.
Editor’s Note: Sonali Gulati’s observations and concerns about the accessibility of awards campaigns for filmmakers is an issue that IDA understands and has been working to address in the interest of storytellers. In 2022, IDA launched the Awards Campaign Access Initiative, a program that provides complimentary “For Your Consideration” screenings and advertising for independent films without a distributor attached. IDA also offers discounts for independent filmmakers when advertising with IDA upon request. For many years, IDA has provided fee waivers for submissions for the International Documentary Awards, and in 2023 we partnered with The Podcasting, Seriously Awards Fund to expand the impact and awareness of our fee waiver programs. This Fund supports independent BIPOC, Queer and Trans audio professionals. We hope to continue this conversation within our programs for members, with the hope of building a more equitable and just documentary field.