May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian/Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands. AMERICA REFRAMED is pleased to offer our UNFILTERED readers this month, essays by our featured filmmakers that explore identity and beyond, all marked with revelatory and insightful observations.
In his UNFILTERED blog entry below, Unbroken Glass filmmaker Dinesh Das Sabu writes about facing depression and trauma in his family and his own life, and what it’s like to share such a personal story in his film.
Since the world premiere last October, I have attended every public screening of Unbroken Glass. It’s about 50 screenings so far at festivals, community organizations, or at colleges. As a first film, and as a personal film, it makes sense to accompany it. Having poured my heart into this for the better part of my professional life, of course I was curious about how audiences would react. Similarly, audiences have questions, comments, experiences they want to share with me after watching something so personal. Sometimes I’m joined by social workers and psychiatrists; other times it’s just me and a microphone.
Even after 50 screenings, sharing the film is a profound experience. Perhaps this should not come as a shock. As a personal documentary, that level of disclosure and honesty makes for a different film-watching experience. Storytelling itself is a strange and miraculous thing. It allows me, a South Asian American orphan, to transmit my experiences to folks regardless of who they are or where they come from. We can sit together and examine all of the complexity and contradictions.
Director Dinesh Das Sabu and moderator Howard Reich (Chicago Tribune arts critic and producer of Kartemquin film, Prisoner of Her Past) on Feb 17 2017, opening night of the Unbroken Glass theatrical run at Gene Siskel Film Center. Photo credit: Nastasya Popov
“Is it cathartic now that the film is complete? How do you feel?” Invariably, someone asks a version of this question. It always gives me pause, though it’s a completely valid question to ask.
“Catharsis” as we typically use it means “purification or purgation of the emotions primarily through art.” Interestingly this word, which we now mostly use as a psychological phenomenon, comes from Aristotle’s Poetics, as a description of literature or art. A viewer or audience might experience catharsis in the Aristotelian sense after taking in a tragedy, but given the material in Unbroken Glass — as well as that it is a documentary — perhaps the subjects did too, in a more immediate, therapeutic way? I don’t see these phenomena to be mutually exclusive. The synthesis of the different senses of the word speaks to the importance of storytelling itself in people’s lives. Just as we use narrative to recount and experience our own lives, a kind of literary analysis is a perfectly valid means of understanding and making meaning from the very experience.
Shot of director Dinesh Das Sabu from film – filming himself while on train traveling in India. Photo Credit: Dinesh Das Sabu.
I often start answering that question by observing that I was 24 when I started making the film, and 31 by the time it was complete. At 24, I did not intentionally set out to make sense of these things. I did not intentionally set out to grieve. At the time, I just had a lot of questions about my parents and a documentary seemed like a good excuse to go about finding answers.
Perhaps this is how grieving begins. I think we have an impoverished sense of what grief and catharsis actually are. We want to “get better.” We feel somehow entitled to get better, to regain a sense of life before trauma. But that was not my experience. Grief was not “getting over it” or “moving on.” It started in painful admission, and proceeded as an evolution of self. I once shot a lecture by Helen MacDonald, the author of H is for Hawk, who suggested that in grief, we evolve into new people that are capable of holding the old grief without it spilling over. Grief isn’t a switch that gets flipped or a reversion. It’s a process, one that takes a lifetime. Maybe it is the stuff of life itself.
We started editing the film, and an interesting thing started happening. Not only were we shaping the traumatic events of my family’s past into a narrative, we were shaping the last five years of my life into a narrative as well. Of course we didn’t change any facts, but we experimented with how to convey those facts, the stuff of storytelling itself. While I had perhaps already come to terms with the events themselves, the storytelling became something different. It gave those facts, and my experience of it, a new kind of meaning. With context, it became something I could communicate; something an audience can watch and relate to, perhaps even experience catharsis of their own.
My parents and their story had private meaning to my siblings and extended family. But in making Unbroken Glass, their lives have a much broader significance. It’s not that they didn’t matter before, but now that we have a film to share, their lives seem to exist in a different relief. I think this gets to the heart of what we do as filmmakers. Storytelling isn’t just an end unto itself; it is a way of understanding and engaging with the world around us. It’s a way to create meaning and to create communities. I was able to do that on a personal level with my own family’s story with Unbroken Glass.
Director Dinesh Das Sabu with his 4 siblings on vacation. – Arvind, Didi, Sandeep, Dinesh, Seema.
It’s a real honor to be able to share Unbroken Glass on America ReFramed. In a single week we will reach magnitudes more people than we have in 50 screenings or if we could do 500 screenings. I often tell audiences that I’m still wrapping my head around the experience of having made a film about all of this. As the film goes on to broadcast and exist in a space without my personal presence or even attention, I imagine I’ll be wrapping my head around the experience for a while longer. With or without the film, I’ll still be thinking, trying to understand grief and what we did with Unbroken Glass.
Unbroken Glass by Dinesh Das Sabu will have its U.S. television premiere Tuesday, May 16, 2017 at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel (check local listings), as part of the award-winning documentary series AMERICA REFRAMED. The film will be available and free to view online for audiences across the U.S. at www.americareframed.org from May 17 to June 15.