”Films alone can’t bear the burden of gender inequality in Malaysia” Says Indrani Kopal

Indrani Kopal, the director behind an award-winning documentary filmsThe Game Changer was screened at 17 international film festivals and won multiple awards, notably the Best Student Documentary at the presitgious American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

She continued her streak of success with the full-length film, Incarcerated Rhythm. A project that was in the making for five years, with a budget of a whopping US$400,000 (RM1.62mil). The film premiered in New York last two year, where Indrani picked up the Mira Nair Award For Rising Female Filmmaker at the Harlem International Film Festival.

Films alone cannot bear the burden of gender inequality in Malaysia. If we really want to achieve a” gender-equal film industry” as many others are still trying to, we need to balance women’s participation in both behind and in front of the camera.

What you might not know, Indrani is a self taught filmmaker—honed with skills as a Film and Television Lab technician in Limkokwing university for over 20 years. I was fortunate to be able to interview Indrani by email a while back and asked her a few questions regarding her impact in the film industry and how women are viewed in the aspect of cinematography. 

Your award-winning documentary, The Game Changer which profiles a dance teacher who successfully initiated a dance rehabilitation program in a New York state prisonreceived critical acclaim in the United States. In your opinion, what really makes a film feminist? I wasn’t aware of it. I could see how if an audience want to interpret it as one – it is made by a woman, about a bold and courageous woman who entered all male medium security prison to teach modern expressive dance. It has so many layers to it – that the sociological aspect of the film could be studied from various lenses. But I never intended it to be [a feminist film] honestly.

Your journey toward becoming a documentary-maker was anything but ‘natural’. Tell us a bit about a challenge you have to face on becoming one of Malaysia’s best female cinematographer? In my early days, I secretly always wanted to become a cinematographer or a sound designer, but ended up as an editor instead. But eventually and accidentally, while doing my MFA in New York, we all had to film our own movies and that’s it, I couldn’t stop.

Dystopian sci-fi, experimental, film noir, crime, action, courtroom, historical epic, war, thriller – In the fiction world, while our women storytellers have already started to explore these genres that men used to dominate, we still have a long way to go.

I started shooting documentary films away from journalistic style (that I am used to) and learned to employ methodologies of ethnographic filmmakers such as American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, French anthropologist Jean Rouch and Russian Soviet pioneer documentary filmmaker, Dziga Vertov – all of whom interprets camera as an extension of the filmmakers body, they call it “cine-eye”. It is a technique where one capture reality of life as it is lived. Slices of life, of real people in their real element, doing real things, were filmed in an observational approach. I am deeply intrigued with the roles that the camera plays in filming reality. In my hand, the camera acts both as an observer and as an instigator or a catalyst, and the outcome – is what makes or breaks my films. 

Representation is important, this is one area you’ll learn about the storyteller more. Some of my most successful films are, undeniably, women-powered stories – The Game Changer, Teacher, the Tradition Bearer, Dr Hartini’s HERWORLD series, and even She’s My Son.

What did you notice about the way female characters were represented in the film? I am well aware of their age, complexity of their characters, the way they fight their every-day storms, the way they care and no longer care for many aspects of life – basically the way they represent themselves in the world. My ‘female gaze’ on them is influenced by many theories in the subject of femininity, masculinity, ageism and sexuality. So, you’ll gather most women I capture exhibits strong and bold presence on camera. There are also the others – representation is a broad topic that covers not only gender, it also encompasses social class, race, caste, citizenship, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability and disability – everything that divides people rather than unites them. I recognise it also makes them unique, makes one story different than the other.

Do you have any leadership advice for young girls out there who wish to persuade the film industry? Whether in your heels or not – just pick up the damn camera and shoot. And hope all of above makes sense. I am no one to offer any advice, I, myself, have a long way to go and many things to learn, stories to tell and to do all of above – right.