Talk to the Wind

Akshaya Sawant is the director of "Talking to the Wind," which explores the social and psychological effects of climate change as it impacts identity, the idea of masculinity, and the pressures of social structure. Here's a conversation with her.

What got you into filmmaking?
I studied my Bachelors in fine arts in Mumbai. During my undergraduate years, there was this whole DSLR revolution because of Wake up Sid influence, and everyone in art school was exploring digital photography, me included. In my 4th year, I created a stop motion film just for fun. I really liked the medium of the image, sound and storytelling aspect but I was not good at the technical skills. So, I decided to study digital filmmaking and worked as a wedding videographer and editor for a year. I enjoy weddings a lot – but it got stagnant after a point as I had learned everything I had to. I wanted to express myself more clearly. I began to apply for masters’ programs in the UK and USA and got into Emerson College! I came to Boston in 2015 and just graduated in May with my MFA. Talking to the Wind was part of my dissertation. 

Let’s talk about Talking to the Wind. How did it come about?
It all began in 2016. After one of our class shoots, the crew and I were going to get food. One of my classmates – an American - was carrying a gallon of fresh water that he just threw in the trash on our way. It was unacceptable to me. It was drinking water, why would anyone throw it, right? I asked him why he did that, and he told me that he found it inconvenient to carry, and that by throwing it in the trash, he had at least recycled it. It was a startling difference between India and the US, and it hit me with full force how much of a divide there is. Where India doesn’t have enough resources, the US had enough for its people to take it for granted. People were not even aware of how communities lived in worlds that aren’t their own. That was the catalyst. 
My uncle, Rajaram Desai, works with vulnerable communities to bring in tech-based solutions for water access for drought-prone rural areas as part of Centre for Technological Alternatives in Rural Areas (CTARA), IIT Mumbai. Since his work was often a conversation topic for us in most of our family gatherings, I grew up being familiar with water-based challenges and approaches to community-based water needs. I spoke to my uncle and he gave me all the research he had engaged in. He also interviewed for the film.
My uncle told me that the reasons for farmer suicides was the pressure to marry off their daughters with rich dowries as soon as they turned eighteen. You don’t have income coming because of the drought, and the debt cycle continues – pushing the men to take their own lives. That was another catalyst for me to focus on this issue. When we talk about the droughts in Maharashtra, we talk about the lack of water and the government not helping. But we don’t talk as much about the women in these regions and the challenges they face. That set me thinking, and pushed me to work on their stories in the film. 
The film was originally called Kshaya, intending to mean “a disruptive idea.” In my younger days, I was raised living in villages for some parts of each year and know what life in a rural area is like. The film is set in small villages of Beed, Maharashtra. I accompanied an NGO and that helped build trust with the community. Having lived in a village and growing up in part in one, I was able to connect very easily with the people. Another student at CTARA, Satyajeet Santosh, was a friend of a cousin who was in the village for his field study at the time out our shoot. He helped me by introducing me to the people and gave me insight into their lives. We shot the entire film during the research schedule itself. The film was called Price of Patriarchy, then. But when I returned to the US and began editing the film myself, after the final cut, the title no longer seemed to fit. 
The film opens with a poem about the monsoon season by Tukaram Dhande, and there’s a line in the poem where he says that the girl began to talk to the wind, and tells us how she connected with nature. My professor/mentor John Gianvito suggested it and to me, it stood out: talking to the wind means that you are sharing, but no one is listening. That led to the change in the title to Talking to the Wind

As an outsider making the film, one of the key questions to think about is how their stories are being used in your film. What went on in your mind when you were shooting the film? 
I struggled a lot with that. While I do have to deal with the patriarchy in my everyday life, it is nothing compared to what several other people deal with. It was a constant process to check my privilege and to be mindful while engaging with the community. This was their story – and they were in charge of it. I did not want to connect with the people purely to take their stories for the sake of the film: it was not about showcasing “poverty porn”. After the NGO introduced us, I began to move about on my own, and explained what I was doing and told them that if they wanted, they could participate, and at any time, they could say no and step back – at which point none of the material they had shared would be used if they didn’t want it to be used. It was important for the people I was showcasing in the film to steward the process. There were many times when I introspected on whether I had the right to make this film about their stories. I took a break from editing and gained clarity in that time, and returned to the editing desk to place my role in this in the backseat and present their stories in a humane light and not in a voyeuristic one. I acknowledge that I was merely presenting their story – not owning their stories or claiming to be their voice – the entire film is really about holding space and passing them the mic without taking away from their agency.
What were some of your challenges in the process?
Everything was a challenge: and that was also why I kept going. Thinking of this project, reaching out to communities and travelling down to meet with the people each came with its own challenges. Funding was a huge hurdle, too, and being a documentary without mainstream value, I wasn’t able to get much monetary support, and wound up putting money from my own pocket. Later on, I did get two grants that were very helpful. When I look back, I think the production schedule was the easiest part, but when I was there on site, it was quite a struggle every day. I had to build trust with the villagers, and keep their comfort and trust as a priority while they told their studies. My main protagonist in the film is a widow with five children. She was apprehensive about the film at first and I did not want to force her if her heart wasn’t in it. When she saw us interact and shoot the film, she came up to us and said she wanted to be a part of it. I then had a conversation with her so that she wouldn’t feel pressured on any account to engage. She was enthusiastic about engaging and came on board. 
What’s happening with the project now? 

We are currently working on taking the film across to different audiences to scale up the screening experiences, and at the same time to engage with donors to include women in their advocacy and aid approaches toward communities that face water shortage. The idea is also to help communities to engage with the idea of gender equality and to implement the learning in their everyday lives. All funds raised will be used to support the community’s women. When we were shooting, one of the girls was in twelfth grade, and when I spoke to her mother recently, she was married off. She has a younger sister who dreams of becoming a police officer – and I would like these funds to support young women like her.