Elayne McCabe '06, with footage she shot in India: "You're asking a lot when you point a camera in someone's face and say, 'Tell me your story,' and I hope none of what I've done seems exploitative." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Through a Lens Darkly
Two stints in India give budding documentarian some tough lessons about filmmaking, and life
By Sean Smith
It's one thing to learn about filmmaking in the comfort and safety of a college classroom. But there's no education like lugging a video camera into an impoverished Indian village and coaxing a 10-year-old beggar and his family to tell their life story. Or filming survivors of the 2004 tsunami as they describe losing their families and homes.
Twice in the past six months, Elayne McCabe '06 has traveled to India to capture the human condition at its most desperate. During the recent semester break, she accompanied a group of Graduate School of Social Work students on a service trip to Tamil Nadu, which is still recovering from the tsunami more than a year ago.
Last summer, McCabe spent five weeks in Dharamsala - a refuge for many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, as well a landing place for natives of the periodically volatile Kashmir region - where she worked on a project under the auspices of BC's Jacques Salmanowitz Program for Moral Courage in Film.
To call these learning experiences is putting it mildly, says McCabe, a history major and Film Studies minor from Salem. Her trips to India forced McCabe to confront essential questions about poverty, suffering and injustice, but also her own response - artistic as well as personal - to what she recorded.
"I want to be 'a person' before 'a filmmaker,'" says McCabe. "When I film someone, I have to think about the camera, whether it's getting enough light, how the sound is - but meanwhile, they're giving me such a profound story and I want to be present for that and be able to connect with what they're saying.
"It's a tension I'm still struggling with."
Prof. John Michalczyk (Fine Arts) - a renowned documentary filmmaker himself - says his student's quandary is not only understandable, but also the positive expression of a desire to understand the larger world.
"Elayne is very adventurous and willing to take risks, not just artistic but personal - no small consideration for a young woman in a place that is not the safest," says Michalczyk, noting the recent capture of journalist Jill Carroll by Iraqi insurgents. "She went right in and came face to face with dire poverty and the effect it has on people's lives."
McCabe didn't start out as a film student, but as a history major she recognized "the power that film has," especially when she took a course with Michalczyk. Her interest in Dharamsala inspired by a research paper on Tibetan refugees during her sophomore year, she decided to obtain funding through the Salmanowitz Program to support her film project in India. She completed a year abroad in Japan and journeyed to Dharamsala.
It was McCabe's first time in a developing country and she was at first "completely overwhelmed." But she befriended a Kashmiri shop-owner, Nazir, who served as her occasional interpreter and guide. Nazir didn't know how to make a film, says McCabe - "Of course, I don't either," she quips - but "I gave him an idea of where I wanted to go and see."
On one such outing, McCabe encountered 10-year-old Shakti, one of the many beggars in the city. "He was very charismatic and outgoing. He asked if he could 'borrow' 10 rupees from me." McCabe befriended Shakti, who allowed her to come meet his family in the tent village where they lived. Shakti's father had died of snakebite a few months before, McCabe recalls, and "begging was a family business for Shakti, his mother and sisters.
"I didn't always have Nazir with me to translate, so often I was just following them around with a camera, trying as best I could to capture something of their lives. It was hard to make too much of a connection, because we were so exotic to each other. And they didn't know quite what to make of this situation. They expected that I would give them something, so I gave them 20 rupees."
Later, McCabe met a middle-aged Nepali couple that lived in a cardboard shack with their daughter and son and arranged to film them.
"They were so welcoming. The husband makes probably 100 rupees - a little more than $2 - a day, and they bought biscuits and teas to serve me. I almost felt humiliated by their kindness."
McCabe is continuing to edit the footage from her summer visit and will submit the final product to Michalczyk later this semester. "It was a real trial by fire," she says. "I was so worried I was doing something wrong, and I wasn't sure what I was getting on film. But I was there, doing it, and I learned a lot."
Her education continued when she went along on the GSSW trip to Tamil Nadu over the semester break. The circumstances were different in many respects, she notes: Translators were provided, and most of the arrangements were taken care of by the host organization, the South Asian People's Initiative. McCabe was accompanied by GSSW student Laura Dunne, enabling her to focus more on the technical aspects of filming.
None of this lessened the emotional impact of the experience on McCabe. Interviewed a few days after her return, she quietly recounted a meeting with a fisherman who was clearly struggling with the loss of his wife in the tsunami.
"When you're sitting there filming, you're not necessarily conscious of what's being said, but you get the gist, and it's powerful and a little frustrating at the same time because - even with a translator - you're left in the dark as to what's really being said.
"The big issue for me, both during this trip and the one last summer, was I didn't want to make a spectacle of the people I filmed. You're asking a lot when you point a camera in someone's face and say, 'Tell me your story,' and I hope none of what I've done seems exploitative."
McCabe hopes to continue her work through a Fulbright grant that would take her to Indonesia. "I think I've found something I'm really interested in. I don't know if I'll be good at it, but I know I want to follow where it leads."
Michalczyk says, "I believe that when students like Elayne do these kinds of projects, they bring back a new consciousness about the human condition, which sparks them to build awareness. And that puts them a step ahead of many of their peers."