Opinion | How working on a graduate film inspired me

Dayna Li, staff writer

In December 2018, I embarked on a trip to work for several days on “Ghazaal,” a graduate Dodge thesis production shot in Pataudi, India, a small town about an hour and a half away from New Delhi. I arrived in the early morning hours at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, and met some other crew members who took me to our location, an ashram that served as one of the locations for the 2010 movie “Eat Pray Love.”

The film, directed by Ragini Bhasin, a senior film production major, is about a young Afghan girl living in India as a refugee, Ghazaal, who gets her first period in a refugee camp and is looking for resources to deal with it. Bhasin wanted to normalize the otherwise taboo subject of the menstrual cycle. As someone who also wants to make socially-motivated films, this trip was important to me. I am also interested in issues pertaining to refugees after doing research as an undergrad on refugees, asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking.

I felt daunted by the idea of shooting abroad, since I know there is a lengthy approval process for Dodge College of Film and Media Arts films to be shot internationally. I met Bhasin in Greece last summer, while I was visiting the Skaramagas refugee camp to prepare for my own cycle film, “Qafas”. Bhasin was visiting the Moria refugee camp, as she originally considered shooting “Ghazaal” in Greece.

The process of making my film “Qafas”, which is about a Syrian family, involved interviewing refugees in Skaramagas, getting a casting director to hire Arabic-speaking actors (as the film was in Arabic), and researching production design of Syrian homes. Bhasin went through a similar research process and also got a local casting director. She even directed the film in a language she was not familiar with, Dari.

Going out behind the ashram on Bhasin’s set in India, I walked into what could be mistaken for a real small refugee camp, were it not for the camera crew assembled. Clotheslines hung between tents. People lined up along a chain-link fence, looking as if they were lining up for food, but they were actually preparing for the next scene they would be shooting. Being immersed in this new world, staying in the ashram and viewing the countryside took some adjustment after spending so much time in Orange County.

Bhasin’s story follows Ghazaal in several different situations as she looks for a way to cope with her period. She sells objects like socks to other children to try to make enough money for sanitary napkins, steals sanitary napkins from the store, rinses out her underwear in the shower and argues with her father.

The set was what made the film most vividly come alive to me. In the early morning hours, when the sun rose over the camp, or in the evening, when the grounds were dark but the crew clustered around a lit tent, it took on a life of its own.

One night, we shot a scene between Ghazaal and her father inside their tent when they start arguing, and then Ghazaal leaves the tent. Outside, there were small campfires set up, which added to the vibrance of the scene. The fires accentuated the colors of the tents, the writing on them and the clothes hanging in between them. Although it was freezing, it was one of the best moments on the shoot. In that moment, it felt as if I was really in a refugee camp, not just a film set.

“I always aspire to make socially conscious films. Something that makes the audience thinks about societal norms and where the world is heading to and what can come out of it,” Bhasin told me. “I don’t want to victimize the characters who go through a difficult situation. I don’t want the audience to necessarily sympathize but be able to relate.”

Producer Kevin Wang also spoke about his attraction to the film’s content, saying that one of the biggest reasons he decided to produce the film was “because I wanted to do something that is not completely fictional. It has to do with a serious social issue. By doing this thesis it’s more than just creating a simple story. That’s why I decided to it.”

For me, being able to take part in this project inspired me to push the boundaries of what a short film, whether a part of Dodge or separate, can achieve. While the idea originally seemed daunting to me, it comforted me to see that a project of this scope in a school environment could be possible, especially one that was shot internationally. It was impressive to me that Bhasin worked with many child actors and improvised many of the scenes, as well as that she directed in a language unfamiliar to her.

After working on “Ghazaal” and also completing “Qafas” this year, I feel more confident about approaching films with similar content. Both of our films screened this month. Seeing the films on the screen and getting an audience reaction was a reminder of what has motivated me to make them, and it gave me more inspiration for making human rights films in the future.