Festival of Lights marked my departure from the documentary tradition for the first time in my professional career. I had always been attracted to the works of Margaret Mead and Mary Leaky, and directing documentaries afforded me the opportunity to explore new worlds. The idea of exploration is a theme I’ve always been drawn to, so it felt natural that my narrative debut would partially shoot in the Amazonian jungles of Guyana. The challenges of shooting a film in this landscape, and on a modest budget, was an epic but unforgettable voyage.
I was born in Guyana and spent a chunk of my childhood there before my family moved to New York. Guyana is a small country in northern South America, just a little smaller than Idaho. It’s a culturally rich nation, with a population that consists of people of Indian, African, European, and Aboriginal descent.
In Festival of Lights a young family is torn apart when Reshma (played by Melinda Shankar) and her mother Meena (Ritu Singh Pande) leave their home in Guyana and flee to America, leaving behind Reshma’s father, Vishnu (Jimi Mistry). The film opens on the Diwali parade – a colorful, motorcade procession – which is the last moment of real happiness in the family’s life.
The first hurdle came early in the planning stage – I had to raise the seed money to shoot the annual Diwali Parade. Since the parade is a massive production that only comes by once a year, it was important we capture it. I learned my first lesson during this period – if you keep moving forward, resources will present themselves to you. Through friends and family I was able to raise the money needed to take a small unit down to Guyana, and the footage we captured shines brilliantly in the final film.
When we returned to the US, I joined forces with Durga Entertainment as producing partners, which launched Festival of Lights into full production mode. Our second major obstacle came when we realized there wasn’t a film rental house in Guyana. Producer Graziano Bruni and our production team had to ship nearly four tons of equipment from the US to Guyana. This was just the tip of the iceberg, however. When we learned there wasn’t a film commission in Guyana, we had to act as our own clearinghouse. After a tussle with customs, Graziano managed to get our equipment out of customs in time for the shoot. They released everything except the plastic prop guns, which looked too realistic and were seized. Thank goodness our art department managed to come up with some exciting alternatives.
One of the most thrilling experiences of working in Guyana was traveling into the interior jungle. Part of the film revolves around a prison and we managed to get permission to shoot at Mazaruni, a maximum-security prison. After a 30-minute ride from Georgetown to the port city of Parkia, we boarded a jet boat, large enough for crew, actors and equipment, for a two-hour ride through the choppy waters of the Mazaruni River. Finally, in the town of Bartica, we joined fellow inmates on a government prison boat bound for our final destination. It was a memorable, yet somewhat numbing experience.
Guyana was a beautiful, textured, canvas for the story of Vishnu, Meena and Reshma. Its geographic diversity allowed us to create beautiful, striking images. It was personally gratifying to shoot on location with the cast and crew in the country of my birth. Sharing Festival of Lights this November, for Diwali, in theaters across the country is a victory for everyone involved in the filmmaking process.
The film opens in NYC and LA on November 9 and More information: Festival of Lights.
Shundell Prasad (writer/director) is an American film director and screenwriter of Indo-Guyanese heritage. Shundell’s first documentary film, Once More Removed – a journey back to India has screened theatrically in New York, Toronto and Atlanta; the film has also been invited by various governments for screenings worldwide, including London, Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Port Louis (Mauritius), Port of Spain (Trinidad & Tobago) and Georgetown (Guyana). Once More Removed aired on India's Star TV. Shundell’s second documentary film, Unholy Matrimony: Escape From Forced Marriage was shot in Islamabad, Pakistan and Pakistani Kashmir.