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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Norah Shapiro – ‘Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile’

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Norah Shapiro - 'Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile'

Director/producer Norah Shapiro left a career as a public defender to
pursue the adventures of documentary filmmaking as a vehicle for
exploring the complexities, paradoxes, and complications of human
existence. Her
feature-length documentary If You Dare
(about a Minneapolis theater company that mentors at-risk children)
premiered at the 2009 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, was an
official selection at the 2009 Docs for Sale at IDFA in Amsterdam, and has its broadcast premiere on Minnseota public
television.

For her current project, Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile, Shapiro traveled several times to Dharamsala, India, home of the
exiled Tibetan government, to explore the role of a Western-style beauty
pageant in a culture that has traditionally prized inner beauty over the skin deep. (Flying Pieces Productions)

Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile will play at DOC NYC on November 16 and 17.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

NS: Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile is an unusual coming-of-age story about a young Tibetan-American woman struggling to hold on to her Tibetan identity in the melting pot of America, and how a beauty pageant ends up being the unlikely vehicle for her getting closer to her own “Tibetan-ness.”

W&H: What drew you to this story?

NS: I was hooked from the outset by the inherent paradox of Tibetans in a beauty pageant. Once I learned a bit more about the pageant’s colorful and sometimes polarizing organizer, I knew I was on to something. It wasn’t until I was a few years into making the film that I realized, in many ways, the question of what is “Tibetan-ness” is very much related to my own personal questions about cultural identity.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

NS: Probably the funding piece. Also the sheer logistical challenges of following a story over time that takes place on the other side of the planet. That said, this was also one of the most fantastic aspects of making this film.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

NS: I’d like them to think about how things can seem simple on the surface, but like much in life, are far more nuanced and complex. How a beauty pageant that, in most contexts can be easily dismissed as a sexist construct, can play a deeper role in the Tibetan exile community.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

NS: First, follow you instincts. Second, find other women to collaborate and work with! I have some really wonderful men who are important parts of my team, but it has been critical for me to have talented women filmmakers as mentors, collaborators, editors, etc.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

NS: In the case of this particular film, perhaps that I am seeking to tear down the pageant, or the opposite, that I am promoting it uncritically. In fact, it’s neither. There are parts of this pageant that, for me as a feminist, were and continue to be troubling, such as the male-gaze aspect of any beauty pageant. But I also appreciate how it offered certain opportunities, both at the individual level for the contestants, as well as for the community as a whole that otherwise don’t exist.

W&H: How did you get your film funded?

NS: It was cobbled together over time. In the beginning, it was completely self-financed. As I cut together some of the early footage, I was incredibly fortunate to receive funding from several foundations to keep going, including the Jerome and McKnight Foundations. I also received funding from the state of Minnesota through their Arts Board and the Legacy finishing fund. We also held an Indiegogo campaign and secured a number of private donations through our fiscal sponsorship at IFP Minnesota.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

NS: Harlan County USA by Barbara Kopple. I had the opportunity last April at Hot Docs to hear her give a talk, in which she discussed making the film and showed excerpts. I went home and re-watched it from start to finish and found it even more riveting and inspiring than ever in terms of the content and her courage, restraint, and passion in following and telling that story.

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