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Meet a Fulbrighter: Indrani Kopal

indrani

Indrani Kopal
Award-winning Documentary/Filmmaker 

1. Tell us more about yourself

I’m a 35 year old woman, Malaysian-Indian, born and bred in Kuala Lumpur.

I have over 6 years of experience working as a multimedia journalist for Malaysiakini.com, a prestigious news organization in Malaysia. I specialised in short web documentaries focusing on social and political issues, especially the issues of marginalized rural Malaysian Indians. I have also produced dozens of online multi-lingual short features and news videos.

In 2010, I participated in The George Washington University Documentary Center’s International Emerging Filmmakers six-week fellowship program. During this trip, I was so inspired to come back to the US to do a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), that, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship. To my surprise, I learnt that I was actually the first “filmmaker” of any sort to receive a Fulbright scholarship in Malaysia. And so, here I am.

I am currently completing my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Documentary Studies and Production at Hofstra University in New York.

 

2. How did you get interested in filmmaking? Tell us more about the transition from being a video lab technician to a TV producer and filmmaker.

It took me 10 years to figure it out. All the choices that I made consciously and unconsciously, have led me here. I started off as a video lab technician at Limkokwing University when I was 20 years old. I moved on to become a TV presenter, but found my interest behind the camera rather than in front. I produced TV programs for 2 years. When I left to further my studies, journalism found me. In 2006, I joined Malaysiakini, an online news agency in Malaysia, as a video journalist. My immediate supervisor Shufiyan Shukur is completely responsible for cultivating my interest in documentary filmmaking. Together, we produced many short documentaries in Tamil.

In 2007, I produced and directed a documentary entitled “She is My Son” based on the life of a transsexual named Suganya and her mother, Samsed. The documentary earned recognition nationwide when it won the Freedom Film Festival (FFF) award 2007, Malaysia’s one and only documentary film festival organized annually by Pusat Komas. It was the first independent documentary and I was amazed to see that it was very well received. The film publicly screened in KL, Penang and Johor.

A few months later, after publishing the documentary online, I started receiving anonymous emails, thanking me for coming up with it. More and more emails flooded my inbox, and there was one email which touched me, which said that the film has changed her life and her relationship with her family. The writer said after watching the film, she found the courage to screen it to the family members and confessed that she’s a gay.

I finally realised that I was doing something important here. Was I still convinced? Almost. The last I checked, “She’s My Son’ was viewed by 2,053,703 viewers on YouTube, and remains as one of the most popular LGBT video online.

It was a natural transition. I think that’s my predestiny, even though I don’t believe in predestiny, but looking back it does feel like everything I did in the past paved way for me to be where I am today.

3. Tell us more about your documentary which won the Best Short Documentary award at the Harlem International Film Festival 2014?

The Game Changer (US, 2014, 17-min)

“The Game Changer” won Best Short Documentary award at the Harlem International Film Festival 2014 and has been accepted into 10 film festivals in the US.

• The 23rd Annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival 2014
• Sun and Sand, the Mississippi Film and Music Festival 2014
• NewFilmmakers New York Film Festival, Fall 2014
• The 15th Annual Woodstock Film Festival
• The Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival 2014
• The Portland Film Festival 2014
• The 2nd Annual Northeast Film Festival (NEFF) 2014
• Harlem International Film Festival 2014
• 2014 Mosaic Film Experience (Festival)
• Red Hook Film Festival 2014

Here’s the story:

For the last 7 years, Susan and her assistant Bethany have been volunteering 6 hours every Sunday to teach modern dance to the prisoners at the Woodbourne facility. Only 6 dancers that participated in the program have been released and they are still dancing. Susan Slotnick, choreographer and founder of the Figures in Flight Dance Company, formed Figures in Flight 5, a modern dance group at the Woodbourne Men’s Correctional Facility, with the support from Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA), a non-profit organization that brings theater, dance and poetry to prisons in New York.

Her modern dance program is currently the only one of its kind in a men’s prison nationwide, and possibly around the globe. This documentary takes a closer look specifically at the relationship between the intricate process of abstaining from crime and the influence that a dance-based enrichment activity might have on offenders. The piece captures the evidence of the arts intervention in the transformative process that enables the participants to make significant behavioral changes, both in prison and out on the street.

The Game Changer is a short documentary about this choreographer who uses art as a tool to change the lives of long-term prisoners at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility.

The lives of these men whom she touched have never been the same since. Her name is Susan Slotnick. This is her story.

It’s the first installment of my final thesis project entitled “The Incarcerated Rhythm” for my MFA in Documentary Studies and Production program at Hofstra. I’m hoping to complete this project by Spring 2015.

4. What are the differences between filming in Malaysia and the United States?

Oh there are many. Back in Malaysia, I was fully supported by Malaysiakini to pursue and experiment various forms of documentaries or feature multimedia stories, and I was happily doing them under payroll, backed by a very supportive team – probably the reason why I managed to continue make films that I made as long as I did.

But I’m very well aware that this is not common for any independent documentary filmmaker in Malaysia. I’m sure there are grants and some financial incentives available but I know for sure that they aren’t many.

Comparatively, in the US, there are many grants and funding opportunities available for both US-based and International filmmakers. There are also many tax credits and exemptions, incentive packages and specific outreach funding/grants for filmmakers to explore. Many of these programs or initiatives are made available to filmmakers to allow them to commit full-time in completing their creative work.

When The Game Changer was screened at various film festivals, I was simply amazed at how well it was received. In New York for instance, there are enough dedicated filmgoers who would watch a good documentary film on a regular basis, every Friday night or weekends. The support that documentarians receive from the communities or film enthusiasts is overwhelming. What more can a filmmaker ask? I wish this were the scenario back home.

5. Apart from filming the sequel to your successful documentary, could you tell us a little bit more about your other projects in the pipeline?

I have none. I’m so focused on the thesis that I try not to think ahead as much. Honestly I don’t know what to expect when I return home. There’s a lot of discussion in the air, and I am currently being approached by various parties to make documentaries.

I do though have one long term dream that will require me to make several short trips to the US for a few more years. The progress of my thesis film and the success of The Game Changer has inspired me to continue my journey with these men to complete a feature documentary. No matter what I will venture into in the future, this project will always have my priority.

6. What is your ultimate goal as a filmmaker, and how has the Fulbright scholarship helped you in achieving or getting closer to that goal?

I hope I will be still actively making documentaries across the globe and passing the knowledge down to the younger generations of documentary filmmakers. I try to live in the moment and as present as possible. 3 years ago, I did not see myself leaving everything I worked so hard for to come here. But here I am. And I wouldn’t be here if not for my Fulbright scholarship. The women who encouraged me to apply were the game changers of my life.

7. What were the biggest challenges you faced?

To go against the norm and break the rules of convention and expect everyone around you to understand why it’s important for you to make such decisions in life. To me that has been by far the biggest challenge of all.

8. What is the best advice you have ever received?

Live in the moment and just keep doing what you do best every day and see it through.

9. What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers and future Fulbrighters?

You know, I think I’ll just share my favourite proverb (you’ll need to remember this when you find yourself alone, abroad, and when the whole world starts to crumble around you – and they will).

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”.

10. As FAAM seeks to promote collaborative opportunities among members, what interaction would you find interesting?

I look forward for any opportunities that would allow me to collaborate with anyone or in any project or co-develop a program to create awareness about the power of media that empowers youth for social change. At Hofstra, I was a student mentor for a summer documentary filmmaking workshop offered at no cost to participating high school students through a grant. The program selects 10 students from the New York metropolitan area. The selection is done with an eye to metrics of income, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, nationality and neighborhoods. Through the experience of mentoring these 10 students, I witnessed an incredible transformation among these kids and that experience was truly rewarding. I am already thinking about bringing this model back and making it work at home.

Indrani was recently announced as one of the winners of the Bustle’s Upstart Awards. The Upstart Awards were created to recognize the cultural impact and contributions recent graduates are making in arts, technology, film, entrepreneurship, and more.

Photo credit: Indrani Kopal
Written by Malaysian Fulbrighter Nani Abdul Rahman