Director Mystelle Brabbee‘s doc “Highway Courtesans” follows independent minded Guddi from 16 to 23 ass she begins to question a centuries-old tradition of sanctioned prostitution that started with palace courtesans and now forms the economic core fo her community. Though the village girls willingly serve truckers to provide for their families, modern influences have begun to change their ideas about their freedom and choices. Brabbee discusses with indieWIRE her early days’ work with the Nantucket Film Festival, her traumas with a translator while making her film in India, and why one should also be proud of ‘rotten tomatoes.’
What are your ‘roots’ in film?
I started working as an intern with the Nantucket Film Festival in 1996 a few months after its inaugural festival. That was also the same year I started working on “Highway Courtesans”. I quickly became the film programmer for NFF (we were all green and learning to run a festival by the seat of our pants). And the juggle between film programmer and filmmaker began. As the festival grew, my time to work on doc was less and less to the point where I brought our editing equipment in the festival offices and I’d literally run between festival desk and the desk where my editor sat diligently working away.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I’ve came to NYC to study theater. After graduating from Tisch School of the Arts, I realized it wasn’t really theater I was passionate about but rather, the larger outlet of storytelling. I began finding other ways in which I could be involved in with storytelling. I grew up in an Indian community and had traveled to India when I was young so for my first project–and I didn’t necessarily start calling myself a documentary filmmaker until this project was about eight years old–I thought the Bachara community was a perfect undertaking not realizing it was an incredibly naive and ambitious undertaking. I chose a topic that was way out of my league: it’s in a language I speak less than 100 words of, it’s about a culture within a culture, each shoot was a big ordeal with visas and travel time. And of course, the hardest part is that I chose subjects that didn’t necessarily want to be part of a documentary (although they would have delighted in the opportunity had I told them this was a Bollywood film).
Did you go to film school?
No film school. That’s partly why this film took me nine years to make. In fact, I’ve actually made this film about three times. I even cut this doc entirely in 1998 and realized it was thin and not something I wanted to share with the world, after having worked on it for three years. I shelved it for almost a year and then asked some hard questions about why it didn’t work and went back to work.
How did the the idea for “Highway Courtesans” evolve?
A friend gave me an article written in 1988 in the magazine India Today. When I first read the article, it was 1995 and the internet wasn’t a great place to do research, so I found nothing else written about the Bachara community. I went to India with the one lonely article and some low-tech camera and sound equipment, and I had no clue how I was going to get into the community or who I would find to translate for me. Once I arrived, I found the only person in the nearby town who spoke English (which was terrible but still better than my Hindi). We went into the community and immediately rumors were flying about who I was and why I was there–the most common rumor being that I was from an American human rights organization that would try to shut them down. Naturally, they didn’t want to speak to me.
The area surrounding the Ratlam Highway is a heroin and opium region and there is a tenuous balance between the drug lords, the police and the Bachara women. My presence disrupted that balance and the police told me to leave within 12 hours or they would throw me in jail–along with the family I was staying with. That was the end of my first trip. I had enough footage to come home and put together a trailer that eventually got me my first grant.
I returned two years later with a different type of visa and phone calls from all the right people in New Delhi. This time, the police rolled out the red carpets and much to my dismay, provided me with a six-man police escort into the Bachara Village–despite my pleas to let me go alone. Obviously, the police presence reinforced the wall between the production crew and the Bachara girls.
Three years into making the doc, it occurred to me I was very naive in my approach with this documentary. I had an idea about the community based on the initial article I read (that it was matriarchal and that the women were held in reverence and treated with affection for their roles as prostitutes) so I would only turn my lens on images that support my thesis. When I finally decided to go back in 1998 after the first cut, which I [thought] didn’t work, I opened my lens a little wider and took in what they were actually giving me. At that point, I had to reconcile my feelings that this may not be the story I wanted to tell.
That trip coincided with the main subject of the film we have today, Guddi, approaching us and saying she wanted to share her story. Up to that point, all the footage we had was outsider, B-roll looking footage. There a is scene 15 minutes into the film where Guddi is in the car taking the film crew out of the village to a location unknown to us. She is literally taking us on her ride at that point and we are going to meet her boyfriend (which is forbidden in the Bachara community). That’s when the story finally began to gel.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
Translation. Language issues and also being solicited by the truck drivers myself. As a director, one is supposed to be in control of their film. The language divide was so wide that I was wildly out of control most the time. In the early years, I was working with a translator from a nearby town who would only translate one sentence when the women were clearly giving him three minute answers. Later, I was sure my key to access with the girls would be with a female translator. I then found a young female filmmaker from Bombay who seemed ideal. That is, until I realized she was translating my questions with her agenda attached. She would ask leading questions that started with, “don’t you feel bad about….?” It often wasn’t until a year or so later when we translated the material word for word in New York that I realized she was off on one tangent while I had thought she was following my line of questions. I felt like a fool. On subsequent trips, I would make us watch footage together at the end of each day on the camera and she and I would go round and round about the tone she was using with her questions. In the end, the aggressive questioning is often seen and felt in the film. But the girls have great responses–often answering hard questions with questions.
How did you finance the film?
No financing for three years and then a Soros Foundation grant came in (now the Sundance Documentary Fund), which was followed by a grant from the Filmmakers Collaborative. A couple of private investors came in towards the very end with small sums for post-production but there were many years in between where we went on trips to India on good intentions and air. On those trips, I couldn’t afford to bring a camera person along so I would shoot and also give a camera to my translator.
Like most films that span these kind of years, the budget was cobbled together and at dry times, I would beg people to stay involved. Todd Williams, our editor went way beyond his call of duty by offering to go to India on his own dime to do a pick-up shoot while I was locked with the Nantucket Film Festival. I called the girls ahead of time so we wouldn’t waste time with access and he got some of the best footage in the last and final year.
What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
After finishing the film, this was a question I was asking a lot. It was more in the terms of when do you celebrate? When you lock the picture? When does the film get into it’s first festival? When will a distributor pick it up? When do you win an award? Or do you wait to feel successful and celebrate when you have a theatrical release? A friend pointed out that therein lies the answer to my happiness. I decided to take each little one of these markers as mini-success. At a certain point, you collect a ton of “Nos” and ton of “Yeses” and your film has its own life. You dettach and move on.
I saw a panel [that had] many of the great doc filmmakers: Albert Maysels, Richard Leacock, Fred Wiseman etc, and clips were screened from many of their docs. It occurred to me that not every single one of their films were great. But in some strange way, they all seemed just as proud of the rotten tomatoes as they did the ones that were critically acclaimed. And they just kept working for the love of it.