“I never was a dancer, but I can dance in water.”
– member of The Harlem Honeys and Bears, from “The Honeys and Bears”
In Veena Rao’s LUNAFEST-selected short film, “The Honeys and Bears,” a group of women share their feelings of freedom in the water as part of synchronized swim team for seniors 55 years and older. “I wanted to make something fun, which reflected the joy that these ladies get from the water and from being on a team together,” said the Brooklyn-based filmmaker and producer. “Once I met the team, I really fell in love with them and looked forward to filming with them every time I had the chance.”
Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes” from The Nutcracker Suite complements the women’s movements in the pool. One interesting thing is that while Veena conducted on-camera interviews, she left the footage on the editing room floor. Instead, she decided that “a chorus of voices under their routines made a more visually cohesive film.” And thematically, Veena pointed out, since they work as a team during their routines, each person’s role has equal importance. “It made sense to me to not focus on an individual, but rather create a portrait from different voices who all feel strongly about being on the team,” she explained.
Uncovering human motivation
Like “The Honeys and Bears,” many of Veena’s short films are documentaries. “In real life and when making films, I am interested in what drives people, what they feel passionate about, what brings them meaning, because it is the way I, and hopefully those watching my films, can connect to someone on a deeper level,” she revealed.
When you watch Veena’s documentaries, which are all accessible on her website, you see her subjects opening up about their dreams and fears, fully trusting the filmmaker behind the camera. In “Mumbai Mornings” (2015), Veena captures the world of Abbas Sheikh, who finds purpose in life as an ultramarathoner and hopes his success in running enables him to quit his 12-hour-a-day/six-to-seven-day-a-week job as a jewelry polisher in Mumbai.
In “Carla & Cecil” (2014), New York City-based performer Carla Rhodes related that as a nine-year-old she was mesmerized by ventriloquist Shari Lewis and her puppet Lambchop. While she dreams of one day making it big – she was featured in a local magazine about up-and-coming comedians – Carla airs the difficulty of being a ventriloquist in today’s show business. Along with her circa 1920s puppet Cecil Sinclair, she admitted, “I’m an outsider.” But through Veena’s lens, we view Carla with empathy and poignancy.
Veena has chosen diverse subjects for her documentaries – two women find joy in entering plus-size beauty pageants (“There She Is,” 2013, co-directed with Emily Sheskin), artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg exhibits masks of strangers she has created based on genetic material left behind (“Traces,” 2013, also co-directed with Sheskin), a nudist tries to practice his beliefs in an urban world (“Hangin’ Out,” 2010), an art collector struggles with the knowledge that artists’ works are going unseen in his private collection (“Not on View,” 2009), and an art dealer in New York City finds symmetry in his life as an Aikido instructor (“The Art of Balance,” 2008).
“I think the key to gaining the trust of someone you are filming, is to really listen to their story and be in the present moment with them,” Veena explained. “I think this is really hard to do, because you are constantly thinking of what you need to film, what questions you want to ask, but you really need to listen when you are making a documentary. And this is something I’m constantly trying to get better at.”
Many emerging filmmakers will agree that they want to be accepted into the best festivals, get backing to be released, and receive favorable reviews, Veena noted, “I think fundamentally, I want to make films that are deserving of the trust that the people I film with grant me. The reason I make documentaries is to connect to people, and experience their world for a little bit of time, and so truly representing their truth and point of view is so important to me.” She went on, “I don’t believe that I can make an objective film or that objective films even exist, but I do believe in making films that give power to a character’s point of view and situation, and make the audience feel with those behind the screen.”
From the seeds of creativity to the future
A high school photography class sparked Veena’s interest in filmmaking. “I loved the power of a photograph to connect you so deeply to a moment,” she said. “When I discovered film my freshman year of college, the possibility of creating the same connection with moving images and sound fascinated me, and I have been hooked ever since.”
As a senior at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she made a short film entitled “Mrs. Henderson’s Kids.” In her 2008 documentary, Veena’s former second-grade teacher shared the screen with her collection of more than 2,000 dolls and spoke of her love of teaching. “It’s one of my favorites because I think it reflects how she feels about her teaching career and her collection, and it also felt personal to me,” Veena explained. “It made me realize how deeply influential many teachers have been in my life.”
Her most recent work is the documentary “So You Think You Can Vote?” (2016), which incorporates animation, interviews, and archival footage. The short film was part of We the Voters: 20 Films for the People, a nonpartisan digital slate of 20 short films “designed to inform, inspire and activate voters nationwide with fresh perspectives on the subjects of democracy, elections and governance” leading up to the 2016 elections.
Veena, who is a member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective and the New York Women in Film & Television Documentary Committee, is currently in production on a short documentary about two friends who are both 100 years old and whose friendship of 73 years and running dates back to when they met as nurses during World War II. And if that weren’t enough to keep her busy, she’s also in the research/pre-production phase on two films – one on a miniaturist and the other about a prisoner and his relationship to meditation.
“So far I’ve only made short films, so I’d love to make a feature documentary, and maybe a fiction film down the road,” Veena said. Another goal of hers: “I also want my voice to be strong and clear in my work, which I think is something that often takes time to achieve, and is something I’m working towards.” If her prolific filmography, created in a short period of time, is any indication, Veena is well on her way.
Note: You can see Veena’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.