The Filmmaker's Life -- Getting There
September 2008

by Eileen Douglas

© Eileen Douglas
Senain Kheshgi, second from left, onstage during Q & A
at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
world premiere of "Project Kashmir."

Editor's Note

Kashmir, a remote land that lies between India and Pakistan, has been in the news of late as violence between Muslims and Hindus flares there yet again. In a struggle which has lasted 60 years and erupted into war most memorably in 1947 and 1965, tension in the volatile region, controlled by India but claimed by Pakistan, is again high, as it often is. This makes the following article particularly timely. Eileen Douglas writes about the experience of two women filmmakers who journeyed to Kashmir to make their documentary, "Project Kashmir," and in the process learn about themselves as well as the conflict. And in their own struggle they also shed light on what it takes to bring a film to life.

Sitting in the dark in the Walter Reade Theater in New York City at the prestigious Human Rights Watch International Film Festival's screening of the documentary "Project Kashmir," I see there is another story to tell alongside the story on the screen.

And it is one that should encourage anyone who ever dreamed of one day making a life as a filmmaker. Let's take this story as a case study.

"Project Kashmir" is a feature documentary co-directed by two American women, Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel, who also appear in the film. Friends here in America, Geeta's family is Hindu from India; Senain's is Muslim from Pakistan, displaced from India at the time of the partition. That friendship is tested when the two set off to cover the war in Kashmir, a dangerous place divided by deep-seated tensions between Hindu and Muslim, Pakistan and India. The film and its mission are beautifully explained at their Web site,

But that's not the story that brings me here.

When I see Senain onstage doing the Q & A after the "Project Kashmir" screening, I see and know --- and marvel at --- where she's come from to get there.

Nearly 15 years ago, in 1993, when, very last minute, I was hoping to get my tape and résumé in front of the executive producer of a new television magazine show that was nearly all staffed up, the person who answered the phone and who, happy to say, made sure my materials ended up on her boss's desk, was Senain. Truth be told, I thought she was a secretary. Now she reminds me she was a production assistant and the executive producer's personal assistant.

In any case, I was hired. Senain was always hardworking and smart, making sure all ran smoothly from that desk of hers outside the boss's door. After a great run, the show was cancelled. And many of us who were friends scattered. From time to time, I would hear Senain had a job at A&E. At CNN. She had moved home to Georgia. She was living in Los Angeles.

Senain tells me now that even back then, when she was someone I thought was the secretary, she was thinking how she could get to be a filmmaker.

How to get from there to here? Let's call this a study in dogged devotion and perseverance.

To start, there is the idea. What the film is about. Once Senain and Geeta met Kashmiris in America, who even here were ready to come to blows with each other, they were struck by a deep desire to see Kashmir and the conflict at the scene firsthand. They were also struck with the knowledge in their bones that they had a film they knew they had to make. From that moment, they were passionately devoted to making their film happen. Passion, yes. Financing, no.

While working their other jobs, with their own time and money, they wrote proposals, applied for grants, took people for coffee, picked people's brains, went to filmmaker events, reached out for support.

When it was time to commit to the trip to shoot in Kashmir, they still had no grant money in hand.

Instead they "begged, borrowed and scraped." And found a way to go anyway. No matter what. Geeta borrowed some money from her father. Senain, a little from her family. Friends donated two airline tickets. With that they had to buy their camera equipment (they shot video on a DVX 100A), their stock, travel and food for what they figured to be a one-month stay. By this point, they had acquired a cameraman (more on that later), which meant a third airline ticket, which friends helped to pay a little of. Plus, although they were taking no salary, Senain and Geeta wanted the cameraman to be paid something.

Make no mistake. The leap it takes to commit to a shoot, a shoot with foreign travel at that, before there is money on hand is huge, especially when there is no promise, no guarantee, that the expense you lay out will ever be repaid, or the funding you need to finish the film in editing will ever appear.

So they committed. Just before leaving, ITVS came through with what was then a new grant, a DDF for Diversity Development Fund, which offers up to $15,000 for development. Senain says in addition to the small amount of money they had borrowed, they got most, but not all, of that $15,000 figure.

Now there was enough for the shoot to begin.

A word about their cameraman. From talking up their project and showing up at filmmaker events, Senain and Geeta's path had crossed Ross Kaufman's at a film festival. You may recognize that name. Ross is an Oscar winner for the documentary "Born Into Brothels." Only when Senain and Geeta met him he had not yet won the Oscar. In Senain's words, "They clicked." Nevertheless, it took time to work things out. They kept in touch. They had to be persistent to convince him to take on "Project Kashmir." They were. He did. So, yes, they wanted to pay him. But even now with shoot money in hand, they paid him nowhere near his rate (or, certainly, his rate now.) But Ross believed they "had a film here." And eventually he came on board as consulting producer. Drawing top-level people into your dream project is part of the equation as well. And along the way, their outreach did that.

The plan was to go for a month. But Senain, Geeta and Ross ended up staying two months. All that time, they needed to cover housing, food, driver, gas, per diem for the cameraman. That extra time doubled their expenses while in Kashmir.

But they got their footage.

When they came home, grant money began to come in. A filmmaker friend offered to help edit their trailer. They won a DDF mentorship award and with the help of ITVS pulled Vikram Jayanti, one of the producers of the Academy Award-winning documentary "When We Were Kings," into their orbit. Eventually, he, too, became a consulting producer. Slowly, as Senain says, they were building a group of people who would help along the way.

Many people, as those who've been this route know, will tell a filmmaker to "come back and see us when you have something to show." Meaning when you have footage, which always costs money and effort to shoot and then pull into a trailer. Now, for very little money, Senain and Geeta had a 20-minute sample. But even so they had to begin applying for funding all over again.

Being gutsy, they went to Sundance with the trailer. Set up meetings. Talked to lots of people. They were not in the festival. They just showed up there when they knew they would find everyone who mattered gathered. Careful who got it, they gave copies of their trailer, on DVD, to those they thought could most help.

Next, they pitched their project at Tribeca All Access, which Senain likens to speed dating --- a chance for what's called "underrepresented filmmakers" to pitch their film idea to top industry professionals, including many funders. Senain calls it "an amazing experience." They needed to travel to New York to be there. But it was here they met Claire Aguilar, head of ITVS, who asked them, "Are you applying for Open Call?"

And one of the people they knew already, Kate Amend, editor of the Academy Award-winning documentary "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," said, "When you're ready let me have a look." She, too, ultimately became a consultant.

Nevertheless, at this point, Senain was back at CNN. Geeta was temping at a financial institution. Both would do whatever they could on their lunch break, using the Xerox machine. Sending off e-mails. Commuting home, Senain making dinner for her husband and son, then working on the project until 2 or 3 a.m. Putting in 16-hour days.

One year after their first shoot in Kashmir, they needed to go back for more footage. Slowly money was trickling in. There was a nomination for a Rockefeller grant. Something from the Ford Foundation and others. Some were grants you can't apply for. You don't know how you got it. She got her emerging filmmaker fellowship that way and says she was floored when she saw the other people selected with her. She guesses someone who knew her, someone she met along the way, put her name in. All this time, though, she was taking no salary for her work on the film. And the amount of money that had come in was nowhere near what was needed to see the film got finished.

Enter the Big Break.

A month before returning for their second trip to Kashmir, they heard that ITVS would like to fund the rest of the film. They had to adjust their total budget figure, cut some expenses to make their plans fit what was being offered, but ITVS came across with 75% of the remaining budget money. After a mad dash to get the paperwork arranged in time (so, for technical reasons, ITVS could cover their already planned shoot), Ross, Senain and Geeta got back on a plane to Kashmir -- and stayed another eight weeks. Before, they'd been taking in small grants. Now they were a real production company. An ITVS grant is contingent on the filmmakers raising other money. But now they knew they would finish their film.

Senain says she and Geeta would have taken another risk. If they hadn't gotten the money they would have gone to Kashmir for the second shoot anyway. Such is the crazy conviction needed to get to the finish line.

And besides working to get the money. Sell the idea. Pull in the talented people who complete your team, there was another challenge.

Kashmir is a war zone.

When you see the film, you cannot escape the threat that seems to surround these perhaps too curious outsiders with a camera. One a Hindu with an Indian background. The other a Muslim from a family with Pakistani ties. Senain says on the first trip they "knew stuff was happening." They were followed by security and intelligence. One night they heard footsteps while they were sleeping on their rented houseboat. They chose to keep moving as well as they could. There were people on the ground who guided them. People who would warn them when needed. They came to understand "what we could and couldn't do."

© Dishoom Pictures
Senain, left, and Geeta, right, in Kashmir.

In the film's ending sequence we see security close in on them. They flee to home and safety one step ahead of the authorities. They had traveled to a particularly remote and sensitive area of Kashmir to interview a woman with a potentially touchy story. From her perch back home, Senain believes officials weren't really trying to hurt them. They were trying to scare them. And to scare the locals, showing the local villagers that they could and would detain anyone. Even Americans. Nevertheless, Senain, Geeta and Ross show a bravery that a less dedicated filmmaker might not have risked.

Just to make things even more complicated, once they were home with all their footage, the editor they picked lived not in California, where Senain now lives, but in Seattle, where they needed to rent an apartment for six months.

Senain says, "I don't know where it came from," but of finishing "Project Kashmir," she "never, ever, ever doubted it. Once we decided we were going to make this movie, we never doubted. We knew this was a story we had to finish."

Early on, she says, Ross told her and Geeta they had a hell of a project --- and that it would take five years to get it done. Get ready. It will be tough. Just want to warn you. The women didn't think so. Senain says now, "We didn't believe him. But he was right."

Total time: Four and a half years.

What one quality got them through? The answer comes quickly. "Faith. We just believed it was going to exist and had to exist. We knew it was a story that had to be told. Once we went to Kashmir the first time we couldn't get it out of our system." Never for a second was it an issue that she – or they --- thought they would stop.

"You believed in these people. If they are dying for freedom and what they're fighting for --- at my lowest times when I think 'I can't do this anymore,' I think of the Kashmiris and what they are fighting for, then I have to put in the effort to do it. We have nothing to complain about, however tough, whatever obstacles we face as filmmakers."

"Thankfully, people supported us." When she and Geeta got discouraged or ran into obstacles, there were people who told them, "Keep going. Keep going." People like their supporters at the Center for Asian American Media whom they could always call and be bucked up. Or like Cara Mertes at Sundance, where they got an editor's lab grant and a composer's lab grant, who could offer discretionary funds. If you can, Senain advises, find that kind of ally. At a foundation, support group, wherever, for those times when you are feeling like you just can't do it.

In her words, "It takes a village."

Another tip. She looked at it as a real job, not something she was doing on the side. Every day she got up and put in eight to 10 hours of work, even if there was no footage yet, calling people, doing the research, talking to other filmmakers and, hardest of all, doing it without any salary for those efforts, taking odd jobs as they could. Eventually, with the ITVS support, there was some money in the budget for the filmmakers' salaries. But nowhere near enough for the number of hours they put in. "If I break down the number of hours worked and what I spent to raise it, there is no way a filmmaker recoups the cost." In fact, she's still in debt.

Nor is she done. The work doesn't stop. Making the movie is just the beginning. Now they have to come up with a second effort. Releasing the movie. They have a sales agent. But they need to raise money for a multi-city tour around the country.

The rewards, however, are just starting, too.

Senain is working on another project with Ross.

She is no longer the executive producer's personal assistant.

Best of all, "Project Kashmir" will air on PBS in 2009.

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© Eileen Douglas

Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist-turned-independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for ABC TV's "Lifetime Magazine," she is the author of "Rachel and the Upside Down Heart," and co-producer of the films "My Grandfather's House" and "Luboml: My Heart Remembers." She can be reached at