By Thulasi Srikanthan
Once you get the mud of Africa on the soles of your feet, you can never quite shake it off,” says Lalita Krishna, a former Ryerson professor who has just returned from a three-week stay in Kenya where she was filming her latest documentary, tentatively titled Taking it Global.
Now in the process of organizing the piles of photographs and videotape from the trip, Krishna says she hopes to recreate some of the magic she experienced while documenting 11 Canadian teenagers who flew to Africa to build a school for the Maasai, a fiercely independent, formerly nomadic tribe in East Africa.
“My first thing is to tell a story and hope that people enjoy watching it,” says Krishna. “I also hope to leave people with something to think about and hope to challenge their thinking and change their perceptions.”
Set against the backdrop of elephants, giraffes, tea estates and traditional Maasai dances, the story is told through interviews with the community elders, youth and the Canadian students.
“All people see of Africa [are images from] World Vision…and we are bombarded with certain images that North America is superior,” says Krishna. “I think it is really important for people to see what is positive about [Africa].”
The trip to Kenya was the brainchild of the Toronto Catholic School Board and Free The Children, an International non-governmental organization that aims to empower and help children escape poverty and exploitation.
When Krishna heard about the project, she decided to film it.
The documentary tracks the group’s immersion into African culture and their struggle with the language and oppressive heat.
“They had bruises and were tired,” said Krishna, describing how the students got sunburned from constructing a six-foot trench for the school under the blazing Kenyan sun. “Doing it in the heat was no joke.”
In the evenings, the Maasai elders at the campsite often sat around a fire and spoke with the Canadians, who asked the Maasai whether education represents a threat to their traditional ways of life, and if progress means losing one’s culture.
“I posed this question to a village elder,” says Krishna, “and he said: ‘We need to change some of our traditions like circumcision, our piercings and tattoos.'”
Krishna said that his response allowed the group to discuss some of the Canadian teens’ own body modifications.
“It was a nice segue to Lindsay’s tongue piercing and Paul’s tatoos!” she said, referring to two of the Canadian youths sitting around the fire that night.
Along with these points of successful communication, there were also miscommunications, one of the biggest being language difficulties.
“It was really a barrier when [the Canadian teenagers] were trying to teach,” says Krishna. For example, when students asked the Maasai to stand in lines, they misunderstood the directions and disorder resulted instead.
“People would be all over the place,” Krishna said.
However, Krishna thought the experience was useful for the young Canadians, who raised money to go on the trip. Many worked part-time and held fundraisers, collecting approximately $4,000 to $5,000 each.
“These kids are changed for life, they are not going to look at people and make comments,” she said. “They also learned that you don’t have to be rich in Canada to do something for someone else.”
This documentary is one of many Krishna has made. Her other projects include Chaos, Chords & Karma, Sweatin’ It and It’s About Time. Her films, which often examine cross-cultural interaction and the idea of community, have been shown on TVO, Vision Television and Bravo among others.
“I was obsessed with television,” she said. When she graduated, a job opened up at Doordarshan and she got it.
In 1989, she made the decision to move to Canada. She believed her son’s asthma would only worsen if they stayed in India, where air pollution is rampant.
Krishna says Canada became her destination of choice because it was one of the first countries to respond to her immigration application.
“Canada said yes,” she said, adding it could have easily been anywhere else.
When she set foot in Canada, Krishna found she had to build a life for herself all over again. She began looking for jobs, encountering ignorance and racial insensitivity as she made calls and went for interviews at different media organizations.
The situation, when she entered into the workforce, did not improve. The ignorance was evident in media organizations, including TVO, where Krishna first worked when she came to Canada.
“I was constantly aware of the fact that I was the only woman of colour there, then of course more people joined,” says Krishna. “At work, I have encountered [racial] jokes…It took me a while to get used to it…after a while, I learned how to handle it.”
Krishna said she tried to handle ignorance and racism by challenging it head on and she was supported by other colleagues who did not tolerate the racism.
Once, when a freelancer was making inappropriate comments, a colleague refused to do a shoot and said the freelancer’s behaviour was inappropriate.
“You have to have lot of courage to take it on,” said Krishna.
She added that management always supported her on these matters and notes it is always important to tackle discrimination directly.
“If you don’t address it, then it won’t get addressed,” she said. Despite these experiences, Krishna enjoyed her time at TVO.
“It was my first job in the media after coming to Canada, it was a learning experience,” she said. “I did studio directing for the first time and it was phenomenal.”
Soon after, she ventured out to start her own production company called In Sync Video.
“The hardest challenge is funding,” she said. “A major part of the time goes intotrying to get it.”
However, Krishna said that funding is easier to get now that her productions have received recognition on the Canadian and world stage. Krishna was awarded the Chris Statuette at the Columbus International Film and Video Festival for her documentary titled Ryan’s Well, which follows the story of a six-year-old boy who decides he wants to help build a well for a community in Uganda. It was also named Best Picture at the Kids World Film Festival. She has also been nominated at the Hot Docs Festival, Japan Prize and My Bindi Awards.
She learned this week that she received her second Chris Statuette for Chaos, Chords & Karma.
“I feel really, really good,” says Krishna, adding the film was difficult to do as she was striving to make it more edgy and dramatic.
“It is good to know there is an audience for this kind [of work],” Krishna said. “It helps me push for the next thing.”
Looking back on her career so far in Canada, and looking ahead to the January, 2005 broadcast of Taking It Global, Krishna admits that media organizations need to be reformed in order to be culturally representative.
“The bigger producers are not people of colour. We are not represented in decision-making and that is the reason the representation doesn’t filter down.”
She said a diversity of voices in the media is important because it allows for different perspectives, angles and visions to emerge.
“I don’t know if I see myself as a role model, but I certainly hope that many, many more women of colour do enter this field as we do need a variety of voices telling stories in the media,” she said. “There are more people in front of the camera but not nearly the numbers there should be, behind it.”