Somerset House Studios

SUBSTRAND: A Profile of Jayisha Patel

13 Mar 2019

Using technology to create documentary and VR experiences, Jayisha Patel's filmmaking process places emphasis on collaboration, the prioritisation of emotion and avoidance of spectacle; an approach evident in Circle, selected for last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and current work in progress The Darkroom, a film Jayisha is developing whilst in residence at Somerset House Studios.

A golden gauze across the screen obscures and encircles women working the wheat fields. The strange, rustling sound of the grass severed by scythes and gathered between two hands is so close it's as if it’s brushing against your ear. Behind the pasture’s whisper, the women working the field are talking about Khushboo, the child at the centre of Jayisha Patel’s Circle, whose grandmother orchestrated her rape and arranged her marriage to a man she’d never met.

Drawing on such sensitive topics — couched in fear, familial trickery, and shame as they are — demands sensitivity in both form and production. The 14-minute documentary took Patel three years to make. Over these long periods she fostered relationships with Khushboo and her family that were rooted in trust and consent. This proximity is essential, she says, to avoid a particular normative documentary tendency towards spectacle.

Jayisha Patel, 'Circle' (still)

She cites the BBC programme Tribal Wives — a show in which British women spend a month with indigenous tribes around the world — as a good example of a bad documentary. The central premise is that tribal women can help white, western women find something they’ve lost. That loss could be nebulous, like their purpose or material, in one participant’s instance, her mother. And it is exactly the kind of ethnographic spectacle Patel wants to avoid.

Cuba provided a counter to this unwitting inheritance. After finishing a degree in economics in Nottingham, Patel chose to study film at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV in Cuba. Founded by writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it was here that she re-conceptualized her gaze, her way of producing work, and her very way of being in the world. She found what she calls a ‘confrontational space’ in which she could unpick her received (and western) ideas about narrative and the gaze. Notable for its pedagogical breadth, the school introduced her to different cultures of filmmaking from Abbas Kiarostami in Iran to France’s Nouvelle Vague. It allowed her to meet with big name directors like Francis Ford Coppola. And it exposed her to narrative devices like observational documentary.

Jayisha Patel, 'A Paradise' (still)

In contrast to Tribal Wives’ brevity and invasiveness, her long-term and intimate relationships with the participants in Circle allows her to push beyond polemic, easy condemnation, or essentialism so that she can instead uncover the misogynistic and patriarchal grounding that has caught these women, generation upon generation, in a circle of internalised misogyny.

Collaboration and a range of filmmaking methods appeal to Patel. The synopses for each of her films are scattered with collaborative, auxiliary aspects: an interactive component through which those affected by a films’ topics can interact and form bonds of solidarity, partnering with online digital platforms like AJ+, a mention of machine learning. Although not all of these ideas stick, (‘It’s better to strip back. Simplicity itself is the most powerful’) Virtual Reality emphatically has. Some time in 2011, she was asked to speak on a documentary panel at a film festival and ‘Someone there put a VR set on my head and I was hooked’ and so the ‘surrender and suspension of your everyday senses’ engendered by simulation was woven into her repertoire.

VR experience of Jayisha Patel's 'Notes to My Father'

It should come as no surprise then that for her latest film, film itself is not enough. The Darkroom makes haptic references to the senses, drawing on their associative capacities, weaving touch and scent into its tale of unspoken grief between a mother and daughter. Working with a professor at Columbia, Dr Courtney Cogburn, who is examining the effects of media-based cultural racism on the body, the story of intergenerational trauma is told through a VR headset. But it is of the body, too, and whilst you watch you might also experience the scent of wood burning, feel fat droplets of water hit your skin, at one point arms might wrap around you, pulling you close, like you are a vulnerable child and someone bigger, more responsible, and protective is pulling you towards their chest.

She is predictably reluctant to be hemmed in by one form, like VR. Theatre, film, and music all interest her. What’s important, she says, is that any creative process prioritises emotions — vulnerability, grief, and trauma — over the technology used to convey them. ‘My hope is that, in watching my films, viewers can access what’s also unspoken within them’. Experiences of fear, loss, and trauma, shared by the participants, the viewer, and Patel herself, is where the power and potential for solidarity lies.

From 16 - 18 March 2019, as part of a Somerset House Studios partnership with British Council Peru in collaboration with the 2nd Peruvian Festival of Film Directed by Women, Jayisha Patel will head to Lima to lead a two-day practical workshop of VR and Filmmaking addressed to female directors.

Words by Cornelia Prior