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We Stay Here | An Interview with Vinit Parmar

Interviewed by Rohan Bhattacharya

Cult Critic- You have worked as a location sound mixer, and a sound designer in many productions, what made you want to jump ship, and sail the winds of film direction?

Vinit Parmar – I worked as a mixer for 3-4 yrs from 1998 to 2004 nearly full-time until I started teaching field audio recording in a university, and that opened the door to exploring-directing when I could not fly away for 6 weeks on a production but had to be local for a semester long commitment.

Cult Critic- It is believed that documentary films are harder to make than fiction films, as a documentary filmmaker yourself, do you agree with this?

VP – Doc films are harder because fiction work is planned and if everything goes according to plan and budget, its quite straightforward. Nothing is straightforward and every step is a challenge in doc work, including access, budget or lack of it, story and structure, production, time-commitment, and distribution/dissemination. What may “trend” as a subject now will be a dead subject 3-4 years from now when a doc could be ready for distribution.

Cult Critic – Your previous documentaries were on the LGBTQ community and their hardships, and on differently abled people, what made you want to showcase the plight of the refugees next?

VP – In 2015-17, nearly 1 million refugees flooded into Germany, so I had great access to the refugees. At the same time that I was filming these children in Moabit, Berlin, I was filming an LGBTQ Syrian refugee in another part of the city.

Cult Critic- Did you lay down the foundations of the narrative of ‘We Stay Here’ during the post-production, or was the film made entirely on the edit table?

VP – The post-production of We Stay Here took 2-3 years of struggle and wrangling to construct a narrative. The narrative was strictly created based on editorial discovery and exploration. Thank goodness for B-roll!

Cult Critic – Besides directing the film, you were one of the cinematographers, and also the editor. Do you find yourself behind the lens in most of your projects, or was this your first time taking on the arduous task of handling the camera?

VP – As a micro-budget filmmaker, I find myself doing it all, so I tend to edit what I shoot. So, in the field, I am the Fixer, Location Scout, Production Manager, PA, Camera Operator, DP, 1st Camera Assistant, Sound Recordist, and such other positions to film on location. It typically helps to know in the edit the behind-the-scenes in order to connect the dots of events and relationships for context. However, it definitely hampers the editorial process when the editor knows the behind-the-scenes stories as the personal bias lowers the objectivity needed to assess the content.

Cult Critic – While watching your documentary, if felt has if you have experimented quite a lot with frame-rates and shutter speed. Some of your slow-motion shots looked choppy at times. What was your idea behind these decisions? Did you want to achieve any particular effect?

VP – The choppy look and grainy look was intentional to make it look like things are breaking down, similar to the society that is supposed to be living in harmony. There is no clarity, consistency, or pleasant feel to living as a refugee.

Cult Critic – The children must have been a handful! They were gorgeous and so full of life and energy. Was it challenging to shoot them as they sprinted from one corner to another, got into fights, and cycled around the campus and on the roads?

VP – have two children of the same age so I felt I could understand them and communicate without actually speaking Albanian or Arabic or German. Working with children is always fascinating and enjoyable but it requires quite a lot of patience, and this means being OK with not getting “the shot” because kids will not necessarily cooperate. And in a documentary setting, there was no “direction” or instructions given to children. How does then one get a wide of the event when one needs to cut to a CU of the same event from another angle? But, following them was part of the challenge, hence bumpy shots and poor camera handling. Their attention span was quite short so “coverage” was never possible. There was no “through-line” of intended action because kids do not want anything but just to play, explore and have fun no matter if they are citizens, legal residents or refugees, so how does one make a film about something other than “play-time?” As you can see from We Stay Here, the kids did not understand the concept or meaning of “Wir Bleiben Hir,” or the title of the film, “We Stay Here”, which was a chant they recited in the film based on East German citizens uprising in 1989 just after the fall of the Berlin Wall in order to remain in West Germany. That song is historically relevant for outsiders (East Berliners) wanting to remain with the West Berliners. Now, its kids from other countries who want to remain and not be expelled. So, kids typically did not understand any reason why I was there, nor should they need to care. It was my job to give their struggle some context.

Cult Critic – Editing a documentary requires an exceptional mastery of storytelling; it is undoubtedly one of the hardest tasks in the entire production process. Choosing the right moment from a shot amidst thousands of rushes must have been challenging to say the least! As the editor, how did you tackle this humongous responsibility?

VP – It took 3 years of editorial work and about 15 different script drafts to find a thread of the story based on the footage after everything had been translated and put on a string-out assembly. I had built-in bias from having shot the film that I need to get distance from. So, time helped there to offer some objectivity. Thank goodness I worked with a talented filmmakers Ricardo Angola Hernandez and Robbie Anderson who assisted with editorial notes and suggestions. Really, this story is all told through the edit. I started the process by starting on small sequence pieces that could work, ones that were inspiring and meaningful scenes, then built around them a series of larger sequences to create longer links or loops for sense of conflict or opposition. So, the editorial process was a sort of dance between such developments, exploration of unrelated shots, and VO and interviews of the house manager Kirstin to link all of the stories together.

Cult Critic – While the parents understand the gravity of the situation they are stuck in, the children are busy living in a colorful world of their own. How did you manage to bring these contrasting emotions together while also maintaining a harmony between them?

VP – I purposely did not want to interview parents, as their “story” or plight has already been told countless times in many refugee or asylum stories. What we do not see is what the children experience, which is the “play” or colorful life in their private world, secluded from the chaos and conflict of the parents’ reality. So, I basically used contrast editing and embedded it into the structure of the storyline, with problems the shelter faced, such as eviction, arson, and racism and protests against refugees. The chaos the kids feel is also connected to their loss of the house manager who goes on maternity leave, and that chaos is also comparable to the chaos in the parents’ world. Things get worse for everyone until there is a resolution, either good or bad, either staying in Berlin or getting expelled.

Cult Critic – You have spent more than just a couple of days with these families; you have felt their sorrow and anguish intimately. Has staying with them changed the way you perceive the world around you? Have those moments resonated any particular emotion within you in some way or the other?

VP – I spent 3 months over 2 years with the kids, and I gained their trust to just be in their private space and observe. Yes, I began to appreciate their hardship they faced and the courage they had to generate to survive, both physically and mentally. I always respected migrants and refugees, and I wanted to portray their struggle, which most take for granted. Most of the burden actually fell on the mothers, who were the main caretakers of the children. The fathers were, in my general opinion, coming from traditionally conservative and paternalist cultures where male-female roles were carved out in old fashioned cultural norms. So, the fathers, if they were around, hardly spent time with their children. Most of the parents were depressed, as they could not work and everyday was the same, to wait to be processed. Life was boring, sad, uneventful, and a waiting game. Patience was a virtue. So, I had to work hard to look beyond their poor state of mind, and to focus on what was more appealing for a film-story—one cannot make a film on boredom and depression, as no audience would watch it. It’s not an appealing film theme. I had to reach into other emotions that could tell the story. We see the hidden life of the kids in their conflict, and how their conflicts of possession of bikes, or a ball, reflected the larger world conflict around them. Children grapple with limited resources in the same way people do, but at least kids’ emotions are raw and authentic, while adults typically do not reveal their true intent. Here, what you see is pure and sincere. I liked that about working with kids and it was accessible to the audience.

Cult Critic – The theme of darkness vs. light is visible in ‘We Stay here.’ It is most prominent when you’ve shown the stark contrast between the frenzied German crowd and their cries of hatred towards the refugees, and the refugee children chanting the slogan of ‘we stay here’ like a merry hymn, while dancing around in the streets. With such subtle but impactful montage edits, you have given spark to the candle of hope in the darkness. Realistically, do you believe that this candle will stay lit, or will it be consumed by the darkness surrounding it?

VP – Humans only live day to day on hope of a better day, so we would have perished long ago if we did not have the capacity to keep the candle of hope burning, if only in embers, as a glimmer of positive outcomes for another tomorrow. There is even a say, and a song on this point, that it is darkest before the dawn. The reality is a mix of positive outcomes and negative ones as some families stayed in Germany and some were expelled. But, they may try again as the war in Ukraine is bringing into EU another batch of refugees who hope to remain. Some of these families have tried three times to enter for asylum, and now will be barred for 10 years. They have risked their lives for a better life as they hope. Their struggle is emblematic of the human condition.

Cult Critic – Do you have a message for filmmakers who aspire to make a documentary just like yours someday?

VP – My message to filmmakers like myself is to band together to help each other, through some sort of network of support, whether it be through mutual assistance in the field or through emotional support and story-advice. We are struggling as it is to convey stories and deliver them to an audience—we need all the help we can get. I will not make a penny on this documentary and my purpose in film was never to make money—if money was the goal, I have chosen the wrong profession. Rather, I chose filmmaking to carry a torch of awareness and entertainment, and hopefully, it will make an impact to change how people think about the subject-matter. So, I hope indie filmmakers will be more dependent and band together, so maybe critical reviews and film festivals are a place for us to find each other for this network-building.

The 2nd message is to start small, be humble, take on passion projects and be mindful of one’s film “footprint”—what is the causal impact of one’s film making on the participant one is documenting? We have a duty to not cause harm but to only do good. I hope one can be mindful of one’s sustainability footprint as well. We are only here temporarily on the one planet we have so we ought to tread lightly on it as we embark on our journey.

PS- Thank you for these insightful questions. Thank you for watching WE STAY HERE and talking with about me about this film. I’m really honored.

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