This month, our guest is one of my favourite filmmakers: Sindha Agha. Sindha’s work has always struck me as the perfect combination of art and writing and video storytelling. To be honest, one of the reasons why I wanted to start writing this newsletter was to be able to interview Sindha—to understand how she brings this vast creativity and emotion to every film she makes.
I went through several moments of awe while talking to her, and I hope this interview fills all of you with the same sense of wonder and inspiration. All right, fellow storytellers, you’re in for a ride!
Nikita: Sindha, thank you so much for talking to us. My first question, as always, is how you got into video and filmmaking.
Sindha: I think I was interested in it since I was a little kid. It was something I was naturally drawn to, but it was also something I avoided. I didn't have any confidence about it. In college, I studied political economy and I was like, I'm not an artist–nope, nope, nope—just constantly trying to squash that part of myself because I was so self-conscious.
When I was 25, which was three years ago, I got really sick with endometriosis.
I read something recently that helps me put a lot of what I went through then into perspective. We're increasingly drawn to numbing ourselves and, kind of, numbing our awareness and attention. Making art requires the opposite of that; it requires us to pay really close attention.
When I was sick, I was spending a lot of time in too much pain to really participate in the world or to have meaningful friendships. I was just at home in pain, all the time, and I started writing a lot. I also got into photography, just around the house, documenting my space and body and things like that. I just had this desire to marry the text with images.
I had a friend who was willing to help me make a short film. He's got a camera and he has editing skills. So, I took one of the things I had written just for myself, which was kind of a personal essay, and converted that into a short film, which became Birth Control Your Own Adventure. It's always a cliché to say that illness is a gift. And I certainly would give back that gift in a second if I could, because I hated being sick, but it did force me back into paying attention to myself and paying attention to what I really wanted, which was to do filmmaking.
Nikita: I LOVE THAT so much. Art requires paying close attention. So true. Now tell me more about your film “How to be Alone,” which was also published by The New York Times. How did that come about?
Sindha: To be honest, it was a breakup which I didn't take very well because the breakup came a couple months into being in lockdown for the coronavirus, and I lived alone. So I went from having this one support system early on in the pandemic, when we weren't seeing anybody, to having no one. I felt so incredibly alone.
One of my best friends always says that we're really lucky that we have writing because we can use it to metabolize pain. So, I always think of writing as a metabolic process, where you take something that you're struggling with or that was painful for you, and you get to convert it from this painful calorie into creative energy. (laughs)
So, yeah, that breakup was the reason why I made How to be Alone.
Nikita: I haven't seen a lot of videos where art takes such prominence, but your videos always have this unique quality about them: the design, really distinctive aesthetic elements, the colours, the tone. How did that become your storytelling style?
Sindha: It might come from not knowing any better, to be honest. It might come from not having any formal training in film and not really having a rolodex of references of films in my head, or the knowledge of how you traditionally “make” a film. I’m sort of in this place where I’m merging different mediums together that I’m already working in. So maybe I’m writing in my journal and I'm also wasting time on photo archives online. Or I’m doing photography, making collages, and things like that. Then I’m like, I want this to all come together into sort of a portrait of myself or this time in my life. For me, something becomes a film that way, versus starting from a place of “Oh, I want to make a film.”
Nikita: Once you pick a topic or a story that you want to explore, how do you take the first step of making it? You can continue to talk about “How to Be Alone” because I’m really curious to hear how that panned out.
Sindha: Well, I think I definitely use films to process what I’m going through. I use art as therapy. For How to Be Alone, for almost 30 days, I barely went outside, and didn't really sleep. I was completely possessed by making that film because I kind of needed to go outside of my own body and my own mind and just exist as something else for a while.
In terms of how you actually go about making it, I always try to prioritize the writing because I’ve noticed that you can forgive a lot of things in a film if the writing is good and really engaging. So, I always try to focus on it as if it's just a piece of writing, and I make sure that I really love it and that when I read it, I really feel something. I try not to over-question that either, because I think you can also open yourself up to too many notes or too much self-doubt and over analyse your writing and end up snuffing out whatever that first honest emotion was.
After I’m done writing, I break the script into a spreadsheet, line by line, or wherever I feel a new concept has started. I like to work really fast on that process, and I really value the first thing I think of, as certain words and phrases come to mind. I’m not as interested in sitting around for a long time and trying to logically build a cool visual. I’m more interested in that first weirdest, strangest, most honest intuitive idea that I have for how to visualize something.
And then I stitch it all together. It's kind of a weird ADHD quilt of visuals and story that I really hope makes sense to other people, and usually it makes a lot of sense to some people, and not very much to other people. But as long as it makes a lot of sense to some people that's good enough for me.
Nikita: It makes a lot of sense to me. I made a video in early May when India was reeling with the horrific second wave of Covid. I was in a really bad space mentally. I made what I like to call a video essay, to pretty much process my own emotions. I think I also made it because I've been seeing your work so much, and also I’ve always loved writing. For three weeks, I was basically outside of myself and that just helped me so much. Even though, of course, I wasn't sleeping any better because I wasn't sleeping much at all, thinking about the visuals and the editing. But making it was such a surreal process.
Sindha: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes, it's like a survival skill that we have in a weird way. There are other friends who can forage you an entire meal, so that's going to be their job in the climate apocalypse. Mine is going to be to help everybody make some art so that they're able to emotionally cope through that. [If you quote that you have to mention that I laughed my way through that entire thing.]
Nikita: What does success mean to you for the kind of films you make, and which film has been the most successful to you?
Sindha: I honestly just think of success as what I make and not really what happens after.
I think it's so hard for me to make something that I like, or that I’m not embarrassed by, because I’m probably, to a fault, a perfectionist. So usually, my batting average is two out of every 10 things I make. So for me, if I like it then that's truly a success. It's very hard to externalize what you actually imagine internally. So, I think that sense of satisfaction is success to me.
Success is also when I feel brave enough to follow my own vision and actually lead myself, and ask myself what do I want and to do that thing; in life, that's really hard. Most people don't really like to ask themselves what they actually want and they really don't want to go after that, because then they have to face themselves, and face disappointment, and that’s pretty scary terrain. Even as artists, I think it's easy for us to avoid our true desires.
When I know that I've pushed past all that self-doubt and uncertainty and fear, and pursued an idea that I really care about, maybe then I’ll get to a place where there's no more imposter syndrome and there's just pure white male confidence, and then success will be defined as something different. For now, though, this is kind of it.
On a similar note, some of my friends and I have started coming together once a week to talk about all of our fears and doubts and anxieties—to say what we really want and sort of help each other through that emotionally. There’s a lot of emotional baggage to this whole life choice. I think a lot of times people get caught up in feeling competitive or insecure instead of realizing that we can really just form communities around us and support each other. It becomes so much less scary that way.
Nikita: What are your thoughts on impact? Once a film is done, how do you envision it making an impact?
Sindha: I think it's important not to think about that because I don't ever want to make something with that in mind. But yes, if you're going to take resources and your time and other people's time and use your talent to make something, I think you do need to ask yourself will this be helpful or harmful.
And it doesn't have to be deep, though: it could just be that you're making something comedic and that does help people feel better. At the same time, it’s really easy to just be busy, to not actually feel like your work is aligned with what you believe, or what you want. So, I think about intention more than I think about impact.
Nikita: Your work is quite personal— you have to insert yourself in the story, and I understand that that’s a way to metabolize pain, which is such a great way to say it. But how does it feel to put your life out there?
Sindha: What excites me is that it usually makes me closer to myself and makes me closer to other people, and I like that. But then it can also be difficult sometimes. The day after I put out a video, I get a vulnerability hangover, and I literally will lay in bed with the blanket up to my eyes being like Why did I do that? How embarrassing. But I know it's just going to be 12 hours of shame and I’ll get over it. It's really funny to work so hard at something, think about it, day in, day out, and then to feel embarrassed when it comes out.
Also, at first, I was surprised to learn how much people will think that they know you. I think I just wasn't prepared for the onslaught of people who wanted to talk and reach out and connect, which was amazing but also, I’m not a psychologist or therapist and sometimes strangers will be reaching out with really heavy stories, and I felt like I have to respond to everybody.
I don't feel that way anymore, because I literally can't do it. But yeah, it’s a hard thing to navigate sometimes.
Nikita: We talked about your projects being collaborative, with many people involved in making this one beautiful thing. What parts of this collaborative process do you enjoy the most?
Sindha: My favourite part of the process is writing and directing. In an ideal world that's all I would do. Sometimes, I’ve co-edited on smaller-budget films. I'm not a good producer. My brain just doesn't work that way so I always need a good producer. I also really love composing music, which I’ve started to try to do. I don't even play any instruments, but I had a friend staying with me for a while who is a musician and he helped me compose some music for my own film.
Nikita: If I had to ask you to pick one thing you've made that's the closest to your heart, what would that be?
Sindha: I think a lot of the films that I make are self-portraits and they don't claim to speak for who I will be in the future or the person that I was in the past; they're just sort of little snapshots, old photographs of myself. So, I look at them all fondly and with a lot more kindness than I probably do at the time.
So, honestly, there isn't really one film, but the very first film I made was, I’d say, the most significant: Birth control, your own adventure. From the time we shot to edited it, it was created in four days, and I just can't believe I made such a personal, honest film at that time, when I had no experience doing it,. And then, I can't believe that The New York Times published it. That film allowed me to have a career as a director so I’m really grateful to whatever stroke of insanity made me create it.
Nikita: If you had to give one piece of advice to people who make creative nonfiction videos, what would that be?
Sindha: I’d say that it’s important to be reciprocal. I was doing some more traditional documentary interviewing before I became the filmmaker I am now, and I would always do this thing where I would try to start an interview with the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me. I still kind of do that.
And people usually laugh or their jaw drops. And I’m like, okay, anything you're about to tell me couldn't probably be more embarrassing than that. I just feel like I’m not going to ask this person to tell me anything I won’t be willing to tell them. If you're in a position of power or a position of privilege, keeping that rule in mind will keep you from exploiting other people's vulnerability for your own gain.
The other piece of advice is: Don't wait to feel emotionally ready for the kind of career you want. Don't think you have to wait to be less self-conscious or to have less self-doubt. You can just do it anyway. You can split yourself into two people: a person who's always going to be self-conscious and the person who ignores them and does it anyway. I think sometimes people are waiting and they don't even know what they're waiting for, but usually it's just to have grown and matured and feel more ready for something. But, you make yourself ready by doing the work; you don't become ready and then do the work.
Nikita: That's such a great piece of advice. I want to put it on my wall to read it over and over again. Now, pick one film by a different filmmaker that you think people reading this interview should definitely watch.
Sindha: "Lyrically Bleating Horns" — a narrative film that employs documentary elements, made by my talented friend Varun Chopra.
For those of you who want to watch some more films made by Sindha, here are a couple of my other favourites:
And, for a bit more:
A lot of my conversation with Sindha kept coming back to both of us being Sindhis. That’s what she’s named after. The Sindhi community originated in the Sindh region of Pakistan but is now spread around the world. We talked about the slowly disappearing Sindhi language, culture, food and music, and how so much of it has shaped our identity in little ways. I wanted to add these few lines here to make people more aware of this minority group we belong to that not many people are acquainted with.
And here’s the ever-growing In Sync playlist that now includes some of Sindha’s favourite music, as well!
Thanks for reading. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions about who we should interview next as well as any suggestions to make this series more useful (or to, just, say hello)! — Nikita