By Katie Chambers
Hailed by historian Robin Kelley as “one of the most powerful and inspiring documentaries of our era,” NYWIFT member Kavery Kaul’s Long Way from Home is the moving and provocative story of three remarkable girls entering ninth grade at top schools steeped in bias towards race, class, and culture. Sarah, Sage, and Cindy – all young women of color – face questions of belonging and offer an eye-opening perspective on the struggles facing young girls of color.
Indian-American filmmaker Kavery Kaul’s documentaries challenge who “we” are and who tells that story. Her credits include the Imagen Foundation Best Doc Short Nominee Cuban Canvas, Back Walking Forward, One Hand Don’t Clap, and the upcoming The Bengali. Awarded Fulbright and Logan Fellowships, her TEDx Talk calls for stories that break the divide.
Though Kavery made Long Way from Home nearly 15 years ago, the issues still resonate in today’s climate of racial injustice and civil unrest. Kavery sat down to discuss how she put together this incredible portrait and what – if anything – has changed in our culture in the years since.
What inspired you to make this film?
I went to schools like the ones in the film. In those days, I was the only girl of color, the only young person of color, in sight. When I became a parent, I remembered that experience vividly and wondered what our educational system would be like for my brown children. Those are such critical formative years. They reflect where we are as a society.
How did you meet the girls and decide to focus on these three in particular?
I spent many months meeting girls through personal contacts and organizations like De La Salle Academy and the Oliver Program which guide young people in their efforts to secure educational opportunities. I was looking for girls of different backgrounds and different personalities. Because there’s nothing monolithic about what we tend to generalize about as diversity. I wanted to make a film about girls who would bring the specificity of their experience to the larger story.
The film exposes the nuances of racial and cultural disparity in our country through the lens of our education system. And also some of the common struggles of “belonging” that plague all teenage girls. It’s been nearly 15 years since the film was released – what, if anything, has changed?
The question to ask is not so much, what has changed, but why haven’t things changed. And do we really want inclusion? That means a seat at someone else’s table. That doesn’t mean we’re seen or heard.
How did you gain access to the schools? And to get the kids to open up to you?
I had many lengthy discussions with the schools. I was very clear that they would have no say in the filmmaking process. But once they gave me the go-ahead, I wasn’t going to ask them why they were willing to take the risk.
It was also the year the girls were all applying for admission, so there was no guarantee that the girls I chose would get into the schools that would allow me to film. So I was dealing with concerns on all fronts.
The girls contributed so much to the film. They knew we would be filming at home and at school over the course of the year. They knew I’d be asking them to share their thoughts and feelings openly. It was a trust that we developed by spending time together before we started filming and between shoots. My filmmaking style depends on that trust, because my work is character-driven.
I spent time with the girls’ families too. As a woman of color, I knew that their lives at home are such an important part of the film. Where they come from shows how much they could offer to their schools and to the world where they’re headed.
What are some strategies for shooting in that environment so that your presence doesn’t interfere with the children’s development?
With the girls, I wanted to let them tell their own stories, grapple with the challenges they faced each in her own way. They were characters in my film. They were also young people finding their own voice. It was important to give them that respect.
I work with crews that know how to be invisible. To get the best results, we planned ahead, we moved quietly at the shoots, even using hand signals in place of verbal communication sometimes. In the schools, over time, young people forget you’re there. They have too much to do anyway. And that’s when you capture interesting moments.
What was the reception to the film when you originally presented it? What do you hope audiences take away from it now?
The film got shown in many gatherings of girls, boys, filmmakers, educators, and advocates for societal change. People were drawn to the personal perspective of the girls, their freshness and honesty. Film-related audiences were interested in my clear choice of an intimate approach to the issues. There were viewers who identified with the girls, those who appreciated the chance to walk in their shoes, and those who were uncomfortable because they felt challenged. I welcomed the whole range of response.
When Long Way from Home came out, the film sparked a lot of talk about what needed to change. I imagined that maybe, maybe, it might become a historical film by now. But today’s audiences need to ask why do we still not know and respect one another. When will we take responsibility for our own shortcomings? Because saying the right thing is one thing, doing it is another. Setting out to change the world outside is one thing, changing one’s own mindset is another.
Have you stayed in touch with the girls? Where are they now?
The girls have grown into wonderful and accomplished women. They all graduated from their high schools, finished college, and are pursuing demanding careers of their choice. With a degree in African and African-American Studies, Sage works in the world of emerging technology. I’m thrilled that she’ll be joining us in our post-screening conversation. Sarah studied film and television as an undergraduate. Today, she’s a film producer and writer based in Cairo. Cindy is a college professor of global history with a focus on South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Watch Long Way from Home as part of the NYWIFT Member Screening Series on September 10-14, and join filmmaker Kavery Kaul and film subject Sage Garner (pictured above with her mother in the featured photo) for Q&A on Monday, September 14th at 5 PM. Register now.
Learn more about Kavery Kaul at www.kaverykaul.com.
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