Megan Foo's Blog

The Potency of Documentary Film: Interview with Siddhi Sundar

“[i]By showing hunger, deprivation, starvation and brutality, as well as endurance and nobility, documentaries inform, prod our memories, even stir us to action. Such films do battle for our very soul.[/i]” - Theodore Bikel, Film and TV actor
Documentary cinema has always fascinated me. From a nonprofit perspective, documentaries not only shed new insights into the absurdities of the human condition, but also function as innovative platforms to inspire people to act. What better way to demystify world affairs, than the juxtaposition of raw footage and firsthand eyewitness accounts? What better way to imbue people with a sense of awareness, than the artistic blend of images and commentary?
Often times, we are so engrossed in the documentary we watch on the television screen or in theaters, that we remain forever unaware of what happens behind the lens, with the directors and filmmakers. Two days ago, I had the chance to interview Siddhi Sundar, a documentary filmmaker who is currently in India to work with several grassroots nonprofits, including one of Givology’s partner organizations, the Asha Foundation. While in India, Siddhi plans to further her passions for making documentaries and inspiring social change by creating a long-form documentary piece on grassroots initiatives and rural education reform in India.
[b][i]1. What is your background? Why did you decide to volunteer for Givology and more specifically, the Asha foundation?[/i][/b]
I read the following quote by Cornel West that really summed up much of my recent sentiments about being a "bystander" as opposed to an active agent of change: "You've got to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. A thermostat shapes the climate of opinion; a thermometer just reflects it." I mentally reference this philosophy everyday now because acknowledging and discussing the presence of social problems but leaving the actual work to someone else seems a bit too convenient. I come from a broadcast background, which while a tremendous field in numerous regards also, as a result of media codes and ethics, restricts a journalist's physical and emotional involvement with the story and its development. I began to seriously experience this frustration last summer while shooting a documentary about adoption. As someone taking a theoretically unbiased role, I found myself unsatisfied by simply exposing stories whose fate I, and the average passive audience, ultimately had no real stake in. Thus, while I will always be a storyteller at heart and use media, specifically filmmaking, as a tool for exposition, I'm shifting gears to focus on how tangible change can be made in developing communities, specifically at the grassroots level. Cornel West's notion of being a thermostat involves constant conviction in the potential for creative answers to challenging questions, even at the micro-level, that can be found with the right mindset and the right people. Givology seems to embody this ethos, and having the opportunity to be a pair of eyes from abroad to share my observations of localized educational impact seemed like a truly valuable experience, both for myself and a larger reader base. I am a film and political science major at NYU, and recently my studies in the latter have led me to research education in India, a behemoth developmental need being tackled by many but yielding few fruitful results. As part of a broader research interest in the capacity for education to be a mitigating factor of political violence, I designed a trip this summer that would allow me to explore rural education reform in severely resource starved regions that were at some point or are still affected by violent activity. I chose to partner with Asha for Education first and foremost because of the sheer scope of projects the organization sponsors throughout India, especially in the rural scheme. The Asha internship coordinator did a phenomenal job narrowing down projects based on my research interests in rural, remedial education reform in specific geographic areas, and even after contracting the list of potential sites, I still had so many initiatives to choose from. I think what Asha is doing is amazing, and being able to work under the guidance of such inspired and devoted people throughout the course of the summer is something I am so grateful for.
[b][i]2. How did you become interested in making documentary films? What inspires you about making documentaries about non-profit organizations?[/i][/b]
My interests, as discussed earlier, have transformed quite a bit in the last two years, and with this has come a realization of documentary film as more in line with grassroots developmental change than traditional journalism. Filmmaking allows for voice and stance, something largely absent in the world of what should, by code, be "objective" reporting. It's very difficult to not lean one side or another when it comes to being involved hands on with social development, especially when that change involves kids. Documentary provides an outlet for me to be the "thermometer" via compelling information while actually trying to be, in the smallest of ways, that "thermostat" out in the field with these education projects.

[i]Siddhi Sundar, photographing in a coal mine[/i]
[b][i]3. Can you tell me a bit about your current film project/concept? Can you tell me about your work with the Asha Foundation? [/i][/b]
Initially, I wasn't going to make a documentary out of this trip as it was going to be fundamentally research and fieldwork tailored. But enough push from various sources has convinced me to do some sort of a long-form documentary piece on grassroots initiatives in rural education reform in India. The concept is still in the works, and in all probability will be until I return home and sit at the editing table to craft the best story I can out of all the captured material. I'm going to be working on three projects in three different locations on this trip: Payir in Tamil Nadu, SEEKHO in Bihar, and VARUN in Varanasi.
I will begin my trip in Thenur, a village in Tamil Nadu. Here, I will be working with Payir, a rural empowerment facilitation center that works to create/rectify absent/broken social infrastructures in resource starved villages via sustainable agriculture, education, health care, and civic systems. Founded by the immensely inspirational Senthil Gopalan, a Detroit-based software engineer who returned to his hometown to devote himself to work he found more intrinsically and extrinsically valuable, Payir has thus far made significant strides in multiple social ventures, including the construction of a fully-functional outpatient health center, a paddy plantation for organic farming initiatives to boost local agricultural efficacy (training villagers, producing compost for fertilization, etc.), “self-help” groups to forge intra-group dialogue amongst villagers for both personal and collective empowerment, and education projects for kids between the ages of four and 14. Most recently, Payir has kicked off a large-scale supplementary malnourishment program for schoolchildren in the district of Perambulur via a detailed implementation plan and evaluation methodology. I will be involved hands on with implementing practical solutions to many of these initiatives, and will document as much of it as I can, especially the education angle.
In July, I will head up north to a village called Bishanpur in the Kishaganj region of Bihar to work on rural remedial education (Bihar has historically been and still is an active Naxal zone: [url=][/url]). While I am psyched about every project I’ve chosen on this trip, I am especially looking forward to my time in Bishanpur. This is chiefly because the school I am working in is very much in its infancy (but has already made such tangible progress), which gives me a more active role in both the brainstorming and execution of ideas that could carry long-term potential. The school, called SEEKHO, was founded fall of last year by UPenn graduate Zubin Sharma, who took a semester off to work with India’s largest educational NGO Pratham in Bishanpur. While interning, an admirable combination of spark, drive, and relentless belief in a cause led Zubin to create a much-needed educational infrastructure in the village, which ultimately took the form of a primary center in the Bishanpur [i][font=" times="" new="" roman","serif"]basti [/font][/i]that is currently serving about 80 students between the ages of six and 12 in math, English, and Hindi education. SEEKHO has also recently built a secondary center in Bakhotola in response to the social distance generated by the caste-based system (a culture of inexorable spatial disparities in all of India but especially Bihar), which leads to students of lower-castes in the [i][font=" times="" new="" roman","serif"]panchayat [/font][/i]being abused on their way to the main center. I’m also going to try doing some fun projects leveraging media to empower voice, which should be rewarding in all regards.
And finally, I will head to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh to work with VARUN (Voluntary Association For Rural Upliftment and Networking), another Asha for Education sponsored project that works under three umbrella goals: boosting rural literacy, providing better technical and vocational instruction to villagers to engender sustainable skill sets, and implementing solutions that will allow for the integration of more marginalized populations into mainstream society. I am unsure at this point of whether or not I will be working in Varanasi or Chaundali (neighboring village interiors still an active part of the Red Corridor, India's insurgent violence belt).
[b][i]4. How is the Asha Foundation different from other grassroots education projects?[/i][/b]
Asha is unique because it acts as a grassroots facilitator, which is organizationally vital in a country as developmentally chaotic as India. The benefit of having an umbrella organization aggregate these smaller initiatives is that it allows for fairly strong sponsorship across the board (many Asha projects are supported by international project stewards and funders, especially in the US) and the ability for volunteers and donors to pick projects within the context of their interests, which range in the Asha database from community based interventions and non-formal education centers to educational experiments and government-focused projects. I think the reach is quite incredible, and urge anyone interested in education reform to check Asha out.
[b][i]5. What is the most challenging aspect of your job? [/i][/b]
The biggest challenge of this trip is undoubtedly going to be embracing the notion of mind over body. I was born and raised in American comfort, and never questioned basic day-to-day needs like sanitation, clean water, extreme temperatures, etc. because I never had to. My trips to India thus far have been in urban centers like Mumbai and Bangalore, so the realities of rural life are very much foreign to me. But that was a huge part of the trip design, I wanted to be as physically challenged as I was mentally throughout my work, because I'm a huge proponent of the mind-body dynamic. When these two elements are in sync for me, like when I run or trek long distances, I feel most alive. While living in rural India is certainly not the same as a traditional workout, it will force me to adapt physically alongside the gradual mental integration. I'm of course nervous for all of this, but equally exhilarated. Necessity trumps desire in these circumstances, and will guide me in regards to what I need and what I don't, both on this trip and beyond.
[b][i]6. What do you enjoy the most about your volunteering?[/i][/b]
The journey officially begins[font=" times="" new="" roman","serif"] tomorrow[/font], so we will see!!!

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