Meet the Filmmakers: Megan Doneman--'Yes Madam, Sir'

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the
reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Megan Doneman, director/writer, of Yes Madam, Sir..

Synopsis: Yes Madam, Sir, narrated by Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren and filmed over six years, tells the compelling story of one of India's most iconic revolutionaries, Kiran Bedi. An Asia Nobel Prize winner and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Bedi is one of the world's greatest living change agents, yet remains an intriguing paradox--deified by millions for her commitment to social justice and her public stance against corruption, and vilified by the establishment as a publicity-seeking, uncontrollable megalomaniac. Yes Madam, Sir carries the audience through Bedi's controversial work life, from manning Asia's largest and most notoriously corrupt and brutal prison, through her effort to weed out corruption in the Indian police force.


IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking, and what inspired you to make Yes Madam, Sir?

Megan Doneman: I started out in the film industry working on studio feature films as an assistant editor. I never aspired to be a documentary filmmaker. But I found by the time I had worked on a couple of other people's movies, I desperately wanted to develop a film project of my own. I had heard about Kiran Bedi from my mother when I was
12, and even at that age her story intrigued me: the quintessential controversial revolutionary; the outsider. Later when I was looking for a film project, I saw Bedi in a TV interview; she was very feisty, charismatic, enigmatic, contradictory, heroic, tragic. Ultimately a paradox--more than you could ask for in a leading character. I decided her story was the one I wanted to make.

Ideally I wanted to make a feature film, as her story is incredibly epic, but I knew no one was going to fund a 23-year-old woman who had never directed a feature film. I saw the astonishing documentary Hoop Dreams, and it thoroughly inspired me to tackle Bedi's story within the feature documentary medium-as well as the questions: what drives a person to go against the status quo, to continually stand in the face of enormous opposition without ever backing down, and all the while bearing the huge cost of these choices?

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

MD: Every minute was a challenge. There wasn't one easy moment making this film. I was a young, naive, blonde, western woman, filming without a crew, without funding funding, in India, making a film about one of the most controversial, iconic, revolutionary figures in Asia.

After I saw that initial Kiran Bedi TV interview, the other producer, Laraine Doneman, managed to track down her e-mail. Kiran and I began corresponding. As soon as I had a break in one of my film jobs, I went to the airport, bought a camera duty free, read the instruction manual on the plane, and landed in Mumbai, where Laraine was. Laraine and I caught the overnight train to Delhi, got robbed of everything--except for the camera, which I had chained to my seat. We landed on Bedi's doorstep with nothing. It was then I seriously asked myself how the hell I was going to pull this off. Bedi instantly agreed to allow me to film a story on her life. So from that day on, over the next six years during intermittent shoots, I would travel to India, live in Bedi's house, and film her in her personal and professional life, around the clock. I had my camera in my right hand, my boom mic in my left hand, and all the equipment strapped to my body. Working in sweltering heat, I often got sick, and was attacked frequently, briefly kidnapped and often harassed. I drew on every single professional and personal skill I had learned in my life up to that point, and then some.

After shooting on and off for over six years, with 500 hours of footage in three languages, I then faced the more enormous task of raising external funds and editing those 500 hours into the final 95-minute feature version called Yes Madam, Sir.

How did I overcome the millions of obstacles and mountains along the way? Many days I didn't, other days I did. But at the end of the day, I couldn't escape the rather annoyingly obvious question: How can I give up on making a film about a person who never gives up herself?

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MD: My vision didn't really change; [it became] more evolved. I made this film independently, which of course means you have a major fight on your hands, and you're continually haunted by the prospect that you may never finish it, and if you do, that maybe
it won't find distribution.

The main and priceless advantage to going the independent route is that you have 100 percent freedom. I had no one breathing down my neck dictating what to shoot. I didn't want to go for the base, salacious details or the scandal. Kiran Bedi has had a constant presence in the media for the last 30 years and the stories were so conflicting. There is a great newspaper headline about her that reads, "Messiah or Narcissist?". This exemplified how much Bedi polarized the public opinion. I literally wanted to "point-and-shoot" and see where the story took me, where
the truth lay. I wanted the story to tell itself. The only thing I let dictate me were the themes of the story that intrigued me from the beginning-- the "David and Goliath" aspect; the outsider; a woman in a man's world; a public person in a secretive world; a revolutionary in an archaic world...etc. And the themes continued to guide me throughout the editing process. What I am most proud of is that the film is not a hagiography; it is balanced. Sycophantic pieces hold no interest for anyone.

IDA: As you've screened Yes Madam, Sir--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MD: From the moment we premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival during opening weekend, we have played to many standing ovations and packed houses. I guess this has surprised me. Audiences always say how inspired they felt watching
this flawed hero go in again and again to fight these enormous tragic and sometimes comical battles. I guess it helps us to face our own obstacles in our own lives. What has surprised me from a filmmaking/editing point of view is how similarly the audience responds, no matter the nationality, gender or age. They all laugh at the same bits, and cry and gasp at the same bits. Throughout my
career working in editing, I have sat through many test screenings and it is rare that the audience unanimously reacts. I find this unanimous reaction to Yes Madam, Sir endlessly fascinating.

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MD: As I said previously, Hoop Dreams inspired me to use the documentary medium to portray the epic and complex life story of Kiran Bedi. And then later, Capturing the Friedmans. The structure of Friedmans and the ambiguity of the story really lent themselves to approaching the editing of Yes Madam, Sir and its thoroughly enigmatic and often contradictory lead character. Hoop Dreams and Capturing the Friedmans are astonishing films that both manage to
completely transcend their genre. Both are in-depth, multi-layered, with every moment compelling, and finally deliver such profound statements on society. What more could you ask for in a film, let alone a documentary?

Yes Madam, Sir will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

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