“The Place We Grew Up In Will Always Influence Us, And You Can’t Escape That”

Archita Kashyap - 64 weeks ago

Dominic Sangma’s Rapture is the only Indian co-production to feature at the Cannes Film Festival this year. The Film Hashery caught up with this surprisingly down-to-earth filmmaker before his trip to Cannes.

(A candid image of Dominic Sangma (Image courtesy - Dominic Sangma's Facebook page)

Dominic Sangma learnt filmmaking at the esteemed Satyajit Ray Institute of Film and Television and also teaches his craft here. As a filmmaker, he has brought global limelight to the unseen, rare and bucolic beauty of Meghalaya, and cultures of the Garo mountain tribe. Sangma’s first film Ma.Ama won acclaim at MAMI and other international film festivals. He travels to Cannes this year with his second, Rapture, also a film about family, community cultures and drawn from personal experiences of growing up in geographical India’s best kept secret, the stunning North East. The Film Hashery caught up with the filmmaker before rushing off to Cannes. 

Your film, Rapture, builds upon a classic local experience, and very region specific context. It doesn’t aim to cover a larger common denominator while looking for an audience. Did you choose to keep it that way? 

No matter what the story is or where it is based, human emotions are the same everywhere. Even though the plot is built on a local experience, and is region specific, the experiences of audiences while watching the film can be boundless. They will connect to the film at different levels, may be in fact more than what I put out on the screen. I think the selection in La Fabrique itself explains what I am trying to say.

How did you make it to La Fabrique Cinema? Was the process difficult or complicated? 

It was my producer Xu Jianshang who applied to La Fabrique when she was studying a course in film production at the Busan Asian Film School. Simultaneously, she was working on Rapture for six months in that School. I am sure it must be tough to make it to La Fabrique, as they select only ten projects amongst lots of applications around the world.

Your first film, Ma.Ama uses a technique that some filmmakers in NE India have cracked effectively in the last few years - of utilizing the surprise element and honesty of untrained actors. Do you repeat this in Rapture

Using non-actors is nothing new. Many great directors have done it before. Masters like Robert Bresson, Bela Tarr, even Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Carlos Reygadas have done it many times. 

For me I have to use non-actors, because there are no professional actors in the Garo hills. As a director I have to know what I want from them, I cannot simply hope for some surprise elements to come out from them, I imagine and wrote everything in the script before shooting. I am very particular about faces, about their body languages and their everyday gestures, I have to spend so much time observing them before casting them, I have to study about their background and life history to get what I want from them. Otherwise it will be a total failure. As a director I am very keen on capturing on film what we overlooked, what we missed in everyday gestures because we are always looking for some grand gestures. For example, in Ma•Ama, there is a scene where my father does a video chat with my sister in Turin Italy, I wanted to capture his joy and surprise of being able to talk to his daughter through a video chat. Before that scene he has no idea about this technology. I have to have this knowledge about his life; otherwise same emotions won’t come out. Its scripted but I used certain methods to capture it and its captured forever. I won’t be able to do this same scene ever again.

Whether Rapture will have this same style or not you have to watch the film to know it.

(Official poster of Ma•Ama)

How has culture in Meghalaya influenced you as filmmaker? It’s a verdant beautiful state that hosts some unique tribal cultures but also suffers from inter-ethnic hostilities. Do these elements influence your films? 

The place we grew up in will always influence us, the memories that we have will somehow sieve in to our work, and you can’t escape that. Not only these, I have to also mention about the influences of books I read, films I watched; all of these have become a part of what we make.

Ma.Ama was uncompromising and sometimes, indulgent in your visual storytelling. Do you bring these elements to Rapture as well? 

From the beginning I decided to be uncompromising with Ma•Ama, it was like a test to myself, whether I am cut out for making films or not. I gave everything to it, lots of friends and family supported me no matter what, especially my producer who have so much faith in my work that she gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do and I am very happy that I made Ma•Ama the way I wanted to make; and I didn’t have to give in to demands of the market. 

Honestly a director cannot afford to indulge, I really didn’t indulge in my story telling, everything for me was a necessity, there is nothing that I can cut from my film. At the moment of making it I have to be sincere and honest to myself, to my feeling.  There might be some mistakes which I will come to know later, but I think if there are some, those mistakes also will reveal my internal world, will reveal who I was as a person at that time because I tried to be honest and sincere to myself.

How did you find a Chinese co-producer? That is quite an achievement! 

I think it’s a blessing. My Diploma film Rong’kuchak from SRFTI was in competition in the film festival in her film institute Beijing Film Academy. She saw my film there, we chatted for a long time about the film and about films and filmmakers we love. We came to an informal agreement that if either of us makes films in future, we will help each other. That was in 2014, when I started working on Ma•Ama I told her about my script and she agreed to come on board to help me make the film, the rest is history.

Finally, how have exhibiting and attending Indian film festivals like Mumbai Film Festival and NFDC’s events helped you as filmmaker? 

I am very thankful to Mumbai Film Festival, they discovered Ma•Ama, after so many rejections from so many film festivals, Ma•Ama met its audiences in MAMI. It was the only Indian film in International competition section of MAMI, it got good reviews and people started talking about it.

It was only through NFDC Film Bazaar I could complete my film, they supported me with DI in Prasad Lab. NFDC Film Bazaar is one of the best platform for filmmakers of the country, in fact Emilie Pianta Essadi from La Fabrique and Pierre Laburthe from Institut Francais saw my pitch for Rapture last year in co-production Market in Film Bazaar NFDC.


Rapture / Ma•Ama / Rong’kuchak / Dominic Sangma / Cannes Film Festival 2019 / Cannes 2019 / La Fabrique / SRIFT / Meghalaya

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

Sign up to get access to the stories behind films and conversations on cinema worldwide.