Festival Spotlight: Sanjiban
Written by Alli Rock | Posted by: NewEnglandFilm.com
At his company, Unrendered Films, Ben Pender-Cudlip uses his camera for “artful documentary storytelling.” In Sanjiban, Ben undertook a unique documentary project, telling the story of Sanjiban Sellew, a man he only ever knew in death.
Ben tells us what it means to explore “the space and time between the end of one journey, and the beginning of another,” in this short documentary.
Alli Rock: How did you know Sanjiban Sellew?
Ben Pender-Cudlip: I never met Sanjiban, nor did I know his family before shooting this film.
I heard of him through a mutual friend, my film professor Larry Burke, who helped carry Sanjiban up the hill to find a headstone. Sanjiban’s passing coincided with the International Documentary Challenge, a timed competition I had signed up for earlier in the year. Knowing that a man’s life had recently concluded — and that there was some very moving documentation of his illness — I had to explore whether I could make a film with Sanjiban’s family, even though I was hesitant to ask for access at such a sensitive time.
I phoned Larry to ask what he thought. At the moment I called, he was sitting with Sanjiban’s brother, John, editing selections of Sanjiban’s films for an upcoming celebration. I don’t have a very clear memory of what I said, but I got tentative permission from John, and then Sanjiban’s wife Cynthia, and then his sister Susan. That afternoon, my small crew and I drove from Boston to western Massachusetts. In the evening, I met John and a few other family members to talk about the project. The next morning, I filmed the cremation.
AR: What led to your decision to make a film out of this emotional journey towards death, and also towards burial?
Pender-Cudlip: Believe it or not, I didn’t set out to make a film about death, or the rituals of cremation and burial. When I make a documentary, I try to put myself in a rich situation and then respond to it, rather than setting out to tell a particular story. I didn’t know when I started about the scenes that would become the core of the film — that Sanjiban’s body was enshrined on the kitchen table, or that he was going to be cremated in front of us. All I knew going in was that his family and friends were clearly remarkable, and that emotions would be very close to the surface.
AR: Did you find that making this film was a very different experience from other films you’ve made, because of the subject matter?
Pender-Cudlip: With this film I had a relationship with the subjects that I haven’t experienced before, because I entered their lives very suddenly and at a very delicate time. It says a lot about Sanjiban’s family and friends that they put me in such a position of trust. They were very welcoming, and thanked me for being there and for capturing what they weren’t able to.
At the same time, I’m used to being in some pretty weird situations when I’m shooting observational documentary. I have a job to do; I’m there for a purpose, and my task is to capture what the people around me are experiencing and share it with an audience. So I didn’t think twice about following John into the room with Sanjiban’s body, or sticking around in there, alone, to shoot close ups and cutaways.
AR: How has living and working in New England affected who you are as a filmmaker?
Pender-Cudlip: I think that certain types of documentary are all about making it up as you go along. You get in over your head and find a way to make it all work. I got a lot of practice at this at Simon’s Rock College, a tiny liberal arts school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. As the only film student in my class of forty or so, I had to make my own path. The self-reliance I learned there has been very useful to my work and freelance career.
I live in Boston now, and deeply value the nonfiction community we have here. In particular, the DocYard screening series brings some outstanding filmmakers and their work to Cambridge and is a gathering for local filmmakers. That venue, and those friends, are very important to me.
AR: How was your experience at the Camden International Film Festival?
Pender-Cudlip: It hasn’t happened yet!
Sanjiban is screening as a part of the NewEnglandFilm.com Festival from Sept 1 through October 15. Check it out here.