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Interview: Pratibha Parmar, director of ‘Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth’

Jen Kilchenmann chats to Pratibha Parmar, director of the well-loved lesbian rom-com Nina’s Heavenly Delights, about her new film about ‘The Color Purple’ author Alice Walker.

Pratibha Parmar, director of the well-loved lesbian rom-com Nina’s Heavenly Delights, is hard at work. For the last year or so she has been focused on a project close to her heart: Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth. Jen Kilchenmann steals the director away from her edit suite for a quick chat about this inspiring documentary.

SSG: You are currently in production on your new film Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth. What can you tell us about it? How did the idea come about?

[pullquote_right]Where are the stacks of films about iconic women who have refused to accept the status quo?[/pullquote_right]Pratibha Parmar: I had the idea for the film over a Christmas break when Shaheen (my partner and co-producer) and I were watching a stack of DVDs. These films all happened to be biographies of ‘iconic’ men, such as architect Frank Gehry and artist Andy Warhol, which made me wonder about the absence of cinematic visions of ‘iconic’ women. Where were the stacks of films about women who have refused to accept the status quo? Women who have made ‘herstory’ as well as impacted on contemporary culture?

I came to film making from a passionate desire to see stories about women – particularly women who are queer and/or of colour – who are rarely seen on mainstream television or cinema screens. Alice Walker is rightly considered one of 20th century’s most significant writers, and she and I worked together years ago on Warrior Marks (a film about female genital mutilation) so the time felt right for me to embark on a full-length cinematic treatment of her life.

The journey of making this movie has taken you to an array of places and given you the opportunity to speak to some incredible characters.

Yes, it’s been an incredible journey and I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing people. One highlight was interviewing Yoko Ono in Iceland when she was giving the Lennon Ono Peace Award to Alice Walker for her humanitarian work. Not only did she talk about Alice (they both went to the same college, Sarah Lawrence, but at different times) but she also shared anecdotes about her own work and about her and John Lennon. It was such a privilege to talk to her.

Another highlight was speaking to Jewelle Gomez, who I was keen to interview as I have always admired and respected her support for queer women of colour artists, as well as a commitment to her own unique artistic vision. Jewelle’s pioneering book The Gilda Stories (1991) took a lesbian feminist perspective and broke new ground when, for the first time, a woman of colour ventured into a fictional foray about vampires. Jewelle rightly won a double Lambda Literary Award for this pioneering novel. She has the one of the sexiest voices I have ever encountered, and was a joy to interview.

I could talk for ages about all of the fantastic interviews (with Allee Willis, Danny Glover, Steven Spielberg and many others), but I don’t want to give too much away before you’ve had a chance to see the film!

Funding for any independent filmmaker is hard. What avenues have you pursued?

Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker. Photo Credit: Shaheen Haq

It sure is tough! And even after a number of years in the business, it doesn’t get any easier. Despite this, we’re proud to say we have completed 85 per cent of our filming with just a few small grants as well as major extensions on credit limits on our personal credit cards. More recently support from ITVS who have been fantastic has boosted us.

Now we’re only $150,000 short of crossing the finish line, which for a feature length documentary intended for multi-media distribution is not a large amount. To try to raise some of the shortfall, we’ve embarked on a crowd funding campaign and aim to raise $50,000 in 90 days. We’re offering a whole bunch of perks, including DVDs, signed books, and even private screenings to show our appreciation for people’s generous contributions. We have started off with a strong support from people all over the world who are donating but we need lots more if we are to meet our goal.

Alice Walker could be called a pioneer and game changer, would you agree?

Absolutely! Alice has always been at the forefront of civil rights and social justice, both in the USA and worldwide. Born in 1944 in rural Georgia, her early life unfolded in the midst of violent racism and poverty in the segregated South. Her poor, black, Southern upbringing and her activism in the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s greatly influenced her consciousness and shaped her writing. Being forced to ride at the back of the bus and seeing her parents being brutalised by racist segregation instilled in her a life long commitment to justice and equality. This summer, she was one of the activists on the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza, thus still challenging injustice in her 67th year.

How do you think Alice has impacted on African American and American writing as a whole?

Alice Walker made history as the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1983 for her ground-breaking novel The Color Purple. This paved the way for other women of colour (such as Toni Morrison and Jhumpa Lahiri) to win the award in subsequent years. More importantly, though, Alice’s writing is now widely read and regularly features on school and university reading lists, which makes writing about black women (and writing with queer and lesbian content) accessible to young people and part of the canon of American fiction. Alice has never sugar-coated or idealised the worlds she writes about, and I think this commitment to honest representation has always been key to both her successes and the criticisms levelled at her over the years.

Alice Walker’s influence can be seen beyond the literary world – she has impacted the entire culture. Spielberg’s film adaptation of The Color Purple was hugely controversial and sparked debates about race, lesbianism, representation and film making that we can feel the echoes of today, for example in discussions around the film The Help. As a film, The Color Purple was also a rare opportunity to see an almost exclusively black cast, including Whoopi Goldberg in the role that launched her into Hollywood stardom.

Looking back at when you shot your short Wavelength, then to Nina’s Heavenly Delights, how have you found the landscape of queer cinema to have changed?

Oh yes, it has changed and for the better. There are so many queer filmmakers now making interesting work. It’s good to see a diversity of stories about our lives being put out into the world, not by others but through our own queer lens. I absolutely loved making Nina’s Heavenly Delights and travelling all over the world with it and sharing it with audiences. There is much more openness to our stories.

Do you find that within the film industry there is still a strong ‘boys club’? How easy is it to get women-centric stories out there?

[pullquote_right]Only 7 per cent of directors, 13 per cent of writers, and 20 per cent of producers are female – it’s not hard to see what we are up against.[/pullquote_right]Yes, for sure. When you consider that according to recent figures, only 7 per cent of directors, 13 per cent of writers, and 20 per cent of producers are female, it’s not hard to see what we are up against. Women’s stories are seen as marginal and specific – even more so when you’re talking about queer women and women of colour. Women are usually the first hit in any economic crisis, as we are witnessing all around us right now with the current crisis, and when it comes to our voices in the media the situation just gets worse.

There has been an overall shift in recent years towards strident conservative, right-wing thinking, which adds to the struggle to get funding for films that don’t fit into their retrogressive lens. Stories about straight, white men are still seen as universal, and this is a huge obstacle.

What advice would you have for an aspiring filmmaker trying to fund their first project?

Never take ‘no’ for an answer and keep faith with your own vision, even if it takes a lot longer to get there. In the end you will feel really proud of yourself to see it through. And remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Good luck.

For more information about the film, to watch the inspiring trailer and find out how you can contribute to the distribution of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth visit:



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