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Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Tim Sternberg—'Salim Baba'

By Tom White

This week, we at IDA are introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 17-23. 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 Tim Sternberg, director of Salim Baba.


Synopsis: Salim Muhammad lives in North Kolkata, India, with his wife and five children. Since the age of ten, he has made a living screening discarded film scraps for the kids in his surrounding neighborhood, using a hand-cranked projector that he inherited from his father. A pragmatic businessman as well as a cinephile, Salim runs his projector with his sons in the hopes that they will carry on his legacy of showing films to the local children.


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Tim Sternberg: Necessity. I had worked in mostly feature post-production for almost 15 years, doing everything from picture and music editing to sound effects recording, but had not yet tried my hand at directing. I read an article about Salim on the BBC News website in early 2004 and felt that he would be a great subject for a film. I had the chance to be in India in early 2005, as my wife works there, and I could not pass up the chance to search him out and shoot a portrait of him. Once I decided to do it, amazing people got involved, such as (producer) Francisco Bello, who flew himself over to shoot the film and has been a wonderful partner throughout the process.


IDA: What inspired you to make Salim Baba?

TS: I grew up in film editing rooms and have always been interested in the history of cinema. The fact that this Salim is making his living using the now ancient tools of modernity to make a living--a pied piper who bridges the gap between Lumiere's time and the present--was just too interesting to pass up. With someone like this, you really feel that what they are doing could disappear at any moment, like so many traditional handcrafts have over the last hundred or so years.


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

TS: We shot the film in just over four days in the slums of Kolkata, India, in Bengali. Although we had a translator who was a local and knew the ropes, we were still attracting enormous crowds. We just threw ourselves into it, laughing as we realized that we were, in fact, the show! You will see in six or seven places throughout the film, including the opening shot, where the locals are looking right into the camera. We decided in the editing to use these shots, as they added a subtle tension to our intimate look into Salim's world.
The language was also difficult. We couldn't get a literal translation because it would slow down the interviews and make Salim too self-conscious, so we relied a lot on very brief summaries from our translator, and on body language. After a few hours we really loosened up to each other, although I could not understand a word he was saying most of the time. This led to some funny anomalies when we got our transcripts, such as his explanation of using a palm-reading lens in his projector, which we were very surprised to find out about.


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

TS: Before, during and for the majority of the editing, we envisioned using archival photographs and excerpts from old films to contextualize Salim and his projector into the larger history of Indian and world cinema. When we finally looked at our assembly, which was 20-odd minutes, we realized that this was all unnecessary. Salim is very much alive and surviving in the present with his very particular humor and warmth, which we felt came through without any need for intellectualization or cleverness on the part of the filmmakers.


IDA: As you've screened Salim Baba--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?

TS: The responses have been amazing at both festivals and in private screenings. People have been very touched by the film and have responded to not only Salim's wonderful world, but also our allowing him to speak for himself without any meddling on our part. When you are making films about people in impoverished or abject situations, whether it's around the corner from you in New York, London or North Kolkata, you owe it to both your audience and your subject to not let your preconceived ideas of poverty dictate the story. It all has to come out of the characters, and we were blessed with a really interesting one who let us into his life for a wonderful, hectic week of filming.


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

TS: Agnès Varda is someone who makes such personal films that have a beautiful handmade, artisanal quality. Her film The Gleaners and I really was an inspiration, Salim being a great gleaner in the tradition. Ralph Arlyck did a film that both Francisco Bello and I are very fond of called Finding Sean. Herzog is a great inspiration, as well as Immamura, who, although known mainly for his features, was one of the most interesting documentary makers ever. His A Man Vanishes and History of Postwar Japan As Told by a Bar Hostess are incredibly rare and necessary viewing.
There are too many to mention!


Salim Baba is screening at the ArcLight Hollywood as part of the Shorts Program in DocuWeek.

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