Experimental | Film Festivals | Filmmaking | Interviews

The Sum of Her Parts

1 May , 2000  

Written by Stephen Brophy | Posted by:

Sonali, the filmmaker of 'Sum Parts' talks about her goals and beginnings, both as filmmaker and activist.
Wth multiplexes and wide release, filmmakers more and more frequently are removed from their own films. Film festivals, however, provide that rare opportunity for filmmakers to once again be recognized as part of the equation. Kathleen Mullen, the Film Program Coordinator for the Museum of Fine Arts Film Program in Boston and curator of this year’s Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival, strived to bring the filmmaker and his or her work together again, and Mullen’s inclusion of short films in the program makes possible the contribution of this year’s only local filmmaker to the festival.

A young Indian lesbian named Sonali made a five-minute video, "Sum Total," with the editing help of a friend, at first for her own amusement. She plays with and rearranges various images of herself and of things that represent the different elements of her, finally creating something like a visual poem. Her friend talked her into showing it in public, an experience which has helped her to feel the power of her identity as an activist/artist.

Once she started showing it in public, she couldn’t stop. "Sum Total" has been or will be seen at the Women in the Director’s Chair Film Festival in Chicago, as well at festivals around the world in Hamburg, Turin, New York, Tucson, Seattle, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Berlin, Ottawa, Montreal, Sydney and Melbourne. In addition, it is part of this year’s Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (May 4-20).

As evinced by the rounds "Sum Total" is making, this is a video that makes good use of its five minutes. Its unique look is due in part to Sonali’s collaboration with Nish Saran, a recent graduate of Harvard’s film program who has received the editing credit on numerous prize-winning films by other Harvard filmmakers. He returned to New Delhi last year to teach filmmaking and AIDS prevention to part of the city’s teen population. NewEnglandFilm.com recently spoke with Sonali about her goals and motivation, both as filmmaker and activist.

NEF: How did you come up with the style of "Sum Total"?

SONALI: I wanted to experiment with the idea of using different art forms and blending them together, like photography, poetry and music. It seemed to go well with what I was trying to achieve in terms of summing up pieces of one’s fragmented identity along the lines of gender, race and sexuality. I tried doing that even while shooting in terms of using fragmented images that when put together portray a whole.

NEF: You use only your first name in your filmmaking career. Why?

SONALI: I prefer to go by my first name only as an attempt to overthrow patriarchy. Last names usually follow a patriarchal lineage, and I guess it’s the feminist in me that wants to renounce the system. It’s my small step in attempting to make the political more personal, and therefore I prefer to go by my first name only.

NEF: What do you see for your filmmaking in the future?

SONALI: It is essential that my films not only address the struggle to define what it means to be political, but also embrace and expand what it means to be an artist. I feel extremely fortunate to have found a creative medium through which I can speak to mass audiences to tell stories that have been shrouded in silences.

I am currently in the research stage of P-FLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] video documentary specifically the South Asian community. The South Asian community in Boston is extremely supportive of artists, and there is some great new talent here, including people like Ashwini Sukhthankar who edited the book "Facing the Mirror" [published by Penguin], which includes writings from Indian lesbians, and poet and performance artist Priyanka Sinha, whose writings have been published in the "Zenith of Desire."

NEF: The film is intensely personal, but you collaborated with Nish Saran to achieve its distinctive look. How did the collaboration work?

SONALI: The fact that Nish and I share the same geographical and cultural history really helped him understand what I was trying to achieve in making "Sum Total." That level of understanding made all the difference when we sat at the editing table. The idea of summing pieces of one’s identity together was woven into the style of editing we incorporated, especially in the way we handled the poetic aspect of the film.

NEF: How do you feel that the fragmentary nature of the images in your work helps to express your identity?

SONALI: As a South Asian woman living in the United States, I find myself on the periphery of two distinct cultures, negotiating my position in the face of varied, divergent and often contradictory influences. While I am aware of my privileged position in receiving a quality education to which very few women in India have access, I also feel conscious of my marginality as an Indian, a woman, and a lesbian.

As an individual who has witnessed prejudice, one continually feels the need to change the structure of power and privilege, which is why I’m an activist at heart. I feel that the experience of living without a history of my own kind as an Indian lesbian has often felt like living without the reassurance of a reflection in the mirror. I made "Sum Total" to create a reality for myself that represented all the parts of which I am composed, without any exclusion or censorship.

As for the public screenings, I guess you could call it a fearless act of claiming public domain which I think freed me from the realm of secrecy and silence. I have to say, it was an empowering experience and the response from my first public screening last year made me realize how powerful it can be to fuse art and politics from a place of passion.

(Sonali laughs)

Initially I just made the film for me!

‘Sum Total’ screens Saturday, May 6, as part of the series ‘Girlplay: Lesbian Short Films’ in the Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival at the MFA in Boston. Sonali will be present at the screening. For information on tickets and show times, please call the MFA box office at 617-369-3770.


'Sum Total' screens Saturday, May 6, as part of the series 'Girlplay: Lesbian Short Films' in the Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival at the MFA in Boston. Sonali will be present at the screening. For information on tickets and show times, please call the MFA box office at 617-369-3770.