Interview: Paramita Nath

Paramita Nath

I met Paramita Nath a few months ago when we were classmates at the Summer Institute of Film and Television in Ottawa. We were both in Peter Wintonick’s Docology workshop and over the five days we were there, I got a glimpse of both her perfectionist side and her considerable charm. Near the end of the week, she let it slip that she had a completed short film that she might like some feedback on. Despite playing back on a small laptop screen, Found (review) knocked our socks off. On the last day of the workshop, she found out that it had been accepted by the Palm Springs Shortfest. Since then, the film has played several other US festivals and now, on the eve of Found‘s hometown premiere at TIFF, I sat down to talk to her about her background and the experience of making her first short film.

James McNally (JM): How did you get into filmmaking in the first place? I know your background is much more varied than filmmaking.

Paramita Nath (PN): I dabbled for a few years in different things. I’m also a painter, and I always struggled between the two worlds of music and painting. A lot of people told me I could only choose one, and that was not me. I had to do both, and so I explored different things. When I moved to Toronto, I explored contemporary dance, choreography and worked in that world, but I was fascinated by film. I got to know Larry Weinstein through mutual friends, and I was writing a paper on Shostakovich and Kandinsky, their exchange of letters back and forth. I knew Larry had made a film on Shostakovich, and so I got in touch with him to ask if I could get a copy of the film, and that started this exchange with him about film. He was kind enough to let me sit in on all of his editing sessions and his final mixing session for his film Beethoven’s Hair, and so I was fascinated to go behind the scenes of filmmaking. He was just starting work on Inside Hana’s Suitcase (review), which I ended up working on. While he was doing the post-production on Beethoven’s Hair, all his films were being mixed at Tattersall Sound and Picture. I would sit there all day, watching. Soon Larry started asking my opinion, and so it forced me to think. There was a moment when Beethoven’s Hair was done, and we were sitting at Tattersall for a playback and note-taking. There were all these people including Jane Tattersall, his producers, these people from Rhombus, and me. He gave me a notepad and asked me to tell him what was right or wrong with his film, which was incredibly humbling and an honour that my opinion mattered. That really drew me in and I learned how this was done.

JM: With all the different types of arts background you possess, what part of filmmaking appeals to you the most? Is it the visual part or something else?

PN: I think it’s the fact that I can use all of my skills in this one medium. While all this was happening with Larry, I was doing my Master’s at York University, in Interdisciplinary Studies. I really struggled with that degree, because it turned out to be very academic, much more academic than I wanted it. But my supervisors were very kind and thought that my degree should have a creative component and that it could be film, because that was what I was interested in. So then I started making my first documentary, but I was such a beginner that when I first started shooting, I didn’t even know how to use a tripod.

JM: Where did you come up with the idea to make a film about an artist?

PN: I was studying with a pianist named Andrew Burashko, and he’s the artistic director of the Art of Time Ensemble. He had a great influence on me as a student. He’s a concert pianist but he’s interested in all the different art forms. He’s collaborated with Peggy Baker, who’s one of Canada’s top modern dancers. He works with theatre artists, he works with the ballet. He really goes outside of his realm of classical music. My thesis was about the creative process and collaborations. How does something travel from being an idea to something concrete? Partly because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I start things and then it freaks me out that something is looking not that great and then I stop. I was struggling with that and not finishing things. So it was important for me to go through the process of imperfection, of shaping something. So it became a project for me as a person rather than just a school thing. My film was about The Art of Time ensemble, and I filmed their entire 2005-2006 concert season. They had four concerts, I went to their rehearsals, filmed shows, did interviews, but the film ended up focussing on one show which was a tribute to Shostakovich on his birth centenary. One of the pieces in the concert was his Second Piano Trio and Andrew had commissioned a modern dancer, Andrea Nann, to do a piece to accompany the live music. She in turn brought in Nick de Pencier (later to serve as director of photography on Found) and Peter Mettler, and they did live video mixing and projection to the piece.

I was extremely lucky to meet all of these people and get into all of their heads. Not only did I have Larry Weinstein, but now I had Peter Mettler talking to me about cinematography. How to look into a camera, what to think about. I was getting all these lessons. I didn’t have film school, but I had these people as my mentors.

JM: What happened to the finished film?

PN: It ended up being about The Art of Time and the creative process. It was 49 minutes long, and I edited it, too. So I taught myself Final Cut Pro, which is scary with a deadline! The great thing was that I didn’t know what I was getting into. If I did know, I don’t think I would have done it. The film was not perfect but it taught me how to go through the whole process of filmmaking. I’ve just filed it away, but I may do something with it in the future.

JM: What was the genesis of Found?

PN: After I graduated, I got a job working for Xenophile Media, and one of my colleagues there asked if I wanted to work on something together, and I thought that would be great. The Bravo!FACT deadline for funding applications was three weeks away and I asked him if he thought we could do this and he assured me we could, so he asked me what I wanted to make a film about.

I remembered that during the time I was making my thesis film, I’d met Souvankham [Thammavongsa]. I love poetry and read a lot of it. In fact, I remember that it was at a show curated by Andrea Nann, the dancer from my first film. The show was called The Whole Shebang, and it had three parts to it. It had dance, it had literature, and it had music. The literature part had three authors. One was Michael Ondaatje, the other was Dionne Brand, another big name, and the third was Souvankham. Tiny Souvankham, in the middle of these two big authors. Her voice really stayed with me and I knew I wanted to do something with her. At that time, I was on a student visa (I’m from India) and I wasn’t eligible for any kind of arts council grants. But I was desperate to create art, to do something. I happened to be living at this lovely bungalow by Christie Pits that had a huge living room. I had dreamed of having salons, and my roommate had a baby grand piano, so I ended up curating a series of four salons that celebrated different art forms and artists. We had film screenings, Larry’s film screened there, I played, we’d have musicians flown in with Aeroplan points, we’d have art exhibits, food sponsored by different people, or sometimes I’d cook. One of the events was called Small Arguments, which was based on Souvankham’s first book. She was not available for that event, but we had Ross Manson, an independent theatre director, do the reading from her first book, and then I brought in a friend of mine who’s a marimba player from Montreal, and we picked music to complement the poems. Then I commissioned a still photographer (who eventually also did the stills for Found) to do a photo exhibit based on Small Arguments. But I still didn’t feel like it was close enough. I wanted to be more involved. Later I was invited to the book launch for her second book, which was Found. As soon as I saw the book, I knew it was a visual book. I could see it come alive, especially because there was this element of a notebook. But I put it to the back of my mind, I didn’t think it would be possible.

Flash back to last year, and I knew I wanted to make the film about her. I wrote up a first draft of a script and a proposal for Bravo!FACT and we got the funding.

JM: What was the timeframe of all of this?

PN: Well, the concert was in 2004, and Found came out in 2007. But I never thought it would become real. It was kind of a dream. So then in 2008, when this opportunity came up, I thought this would be great. And so we did it. Once we got the Bravo!FACT funding, there was no going back.

JM: Was that funding enough to cover the whole production?

PN: Well, I never got paid. You never make any money, and neither did my producer. We did get some additional funding from the Toronto Arts Council, for post-production. That’s what I thought was incredible, with both Bravo!FACT and Toronto Arts Council, that here is me, who’s never made a film before, or at least a film that’s been released. I had a little five minute demo reel, with some stuff from the Art of Time film, and I wrote a proposal, and based on that they gave me money, to make a film. I just think it’s incredible that they took that risk.

JM: That they put their trust in you.

PN: Exactly.

JM: And it’s paying off, because the film has been really well-received.

PN: It feels quite unbelievable, actually.

JM: What are some of the festivals that have accepted the film?

PN: Palm Springs Shortfest was the world premiere, and then the L.A. Shorts Fest, and the Rhode Island International Film Festival. Next is the Toronto International Film Festival, and then there’s the Edmonton Film Festival and the Reel Asian Film Festival. These are the ones I’ve heard from.

JM: And it may go to Europe?

PN: We’ll see. I’ve submitted it, so I hope the Europeans like it. (Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, the film has been accepted by DOK Leipzig, and will make its European premiere there in late October or early November).

JM: Going forward, are you still interested in collaborating with artists, or are you thinking of different subjects?

PN: Though I’ve lived in Canada for 13 years now, I’m still from India. I think when you live in a country you were born in, you kind of take it for granted. When you leave that country, people want to know where you’re from, what is it that you bring with you, so you become a mini ambassador for your country.

JM: So you’re feeling homesick?

PN: A little bit, but also I’ve learned more about India than I ever cared to learn about when I was in India. While I was there, what I was interested in most was Western classical music.

JM: Have you been able to travel back a lot?

PN: Not a lot, but in the past 13 years, I’ve been home three times. I’m going home this year, and a lot of the ideas that have been in my head recently are all inspired by India. Right now, that’s where my head is. But that being said, I still love the stage, so I’m also thinking of some collaborations with stage work, and film, and dance.

Found screens before the NFB doc Reel Injun during TIFF. Here are the screening dates:

  • Tuesday September 15 at 5:00PM (AMC 2)
  • Thursday September 17 at 6:15PM (AMC 7)
  • Friday September 18 at 1:00PM (JACKMAN HALL – AGO)

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