Leslee Udwin is a British filmmaker and human rights activist. Most recently, she has written, directed and produced the critically acclaimed documentary “India’s Daughter” — a film that plunges into the patriarchal world surrounding the brutal gang rape and murder of medical student Jyoti Singh in New Delhi, India, in 2012 and the continuous violation and assault against women’s rights globally. Through the retelling of this horrific event, the film examines the epidemic of oppression against women across the world and encourages audiences to take a stand through observing the mass movement of public protests — fronted by countless numbers of women — that followed Jyoti’s murder.
Her previous work includes the TV movie “Who Bombed Birmingham?” (1990), “East is East” (1999), “Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution” (2007) and “West is West” (2010).
“India’s Daughter,” which was banned by the Indian government, opens at The Village East on October 23, followed by a Q&A with Udwin. The filmmaker spoke to Women and Hollywood about the censorship, the difficulty of interviewing rapists about their crimes and the anger, optimism and personal funds that went into making the documentary happen.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Laura Nicholson. Parts of this post are disturbing.
W&H: Give us an update on how everything has been going since the making of “India’s Daughter.”
LU: It’s incredible. I’m so honored and thrilled — we’ve got the kind of support you just dream of. This time last week, Meryl Streep gave the most generous and spirited introduction to the film imaginable and has said that she will campaign until this film gets an Oscar. Katie Couric moderated the Q&A, which was impassioned and very forceful. We also had Gloria Steinem lead the standing ovation. It’s the kind of thing dreams are made of when you care so much about disseminating a message.
W&H: What is it about this film and the issues involved that is drawing people to it?
LU: What the film documents is shocking — and we underestimate shock in filmmaking a lot. When something is so shocking precisely because it holds a mirror up to truth, people sit up and take notice because it moves them — it gets into the heart and the soul. The film was always designed as a campaign, so it’s doing its work.
I came at this film with a fire in my belly, a passionate heart and anger that I always carry inside me. I feel very angry that women are kept out of decision-making processes in the world. Everytime I see a report on television about another war being prosecuted somewhere through male-dominated decisions, I get infuriated. We are still — as women and girls — violated and at the bottom of the heap of the world’s concerns. Enough. This film asks the question — in a quintessential, powerful and shocking way — how much further into moral crisis can we really descend? What’s the next step in the devaluation of human life?
W&H: It’s a big step from being drawn to an issue to actually making a film. Talk about how anger became a tool for your filmmaking.
LU: I’m no stranger to campaign filmmaking, but as a producer. In this instance, the reason I directed the film was very banal: Because I was making the film out of my own pocket (I am still carrying a massive debt), I couldn’t afford to hire a director. That’s the simple fact. So I thought, I’m going to do it myself. The first film I ever produced, “Who Bombed Birmingham?,” released 6 innocent men from incarceration after 17 years of wrongful imprisonment. I’ve always had a caring for oppressed groups and injustice. To a large degree, that always fuels me. So this film was a compulsion.
W&H: Talk about the difficulties that you encountered while making the film.
LU: There were many difficulties heaped upon me, ranging from losing the support of the police to the prison changing its mind about my access at a certain point, to a local partner blackmailing me for money, to two key interviewees refusing to go on camera. The worst, of course, was the emotional and psychological stress of sitting for 31 hours interviewing rapists and finding out that they’re not monsters, but in fact normal men who have been educated and programmed by a patriarchal society to think of women as valueless.
But it was optimism for change that drew me to the story in the first place, rather than the darkness of the gang rape. We’ve heard and seen countless stories like this. We’ve seen reports of horrific gang rapes. Is it more horrific that her intestines were pulled out, or that another victim’s eyes were taken out after the rape? Or that a stick was shoved up the woman in Rohtak and broken in half in her? Or that the little 4-year-old girl, who just last weekend, was gang raped and slashed from vagina to anus and had to undergo a three-hour operation to have a colostomy bag fitted before dying? It’s a pandemic across the globe. They happen with relentless regularity. It wasn’t the gang rape that encouraged me to make this film — it was the optimism of seeing a huge mobilization of open hearts and people who demanded change and fought for justice, for Jyoti Singh and for women generally, to be safe, autonomous and have respect.
I’m on a regime now of sleeping two hours a night. During the filmmaking, I was sleeping three hours a night, seven days a week. You think your body can’t take that, but it can when it’s fueled by hope and optimism. I’m an activist. I’m advising the UN Human Rights office on the solution, which is a revolutionary, world-changing education initiative. I’ve already got eight countries to endorse a human rights curriculum, from the first day of a child’s entry into school.
W&H: Is this an organization that you have created, or are you working directly with the UN?
LU: I’m advising the UN, which means we’re working in tandem. I have created an NGO in the US, which is called the Equality Studies Global Initiative. We’re in the process of recruiting a committee of 20 global experts and visionaries on education, human rights, gender and psychology. We also have a representative of UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), the UN Human Rights office and UNDP (United Nations Development Program), as well as two NGOs on this committee. From next year, we’re going to be designing and constructing a human rights curriculum. Starting in 2018, we’re finally going to bring this missing dimension to education, which has been woefully neglected until now.
W&H: Your film was supposed to premiere both on the BBC and in India on Women’s History Day on March 8th, but the Indian government banned it. Do you think they understand the mistake they made?
LU: They must understand that they have made the most misguided and ridiculous mistake. You cannot ban a film in a digital era. If they were concerned about bringing shame on India, it’s the ban that brings the shame — not the film. Audiences across the world that have seen this film are immediately responding and saying, “Yes, this is our problem too. No, this doesn’t only happen in India.” If they just understood that lifting this ban would allow India its rightful place as the only country in the world that has gone out with so much passion and commitment, so admirably crying, “Enough is enough” as far as the violation of women and girls’ human rights is concerned. When they lift that ban, they can hold their head up high as a country that leads the world by example.
W&H: What do you want people in the US to think, or feel, when they leave the theater?
LU: I want them to introspect. I want them to look at that statistic at the end of the film that tells them that 17.7 million American women have been raped. That’s actually an outdated figure — the figure now is far more horrific. I want to shake them out of their lethargy. Nobody in the world should think for one second that they are immune to this disease. One in four girls on college campuses is raped. The Equal Rights Amendment bill has not even been ratified in this country — from that point of few, America is way behind India. India at least has Article 14 of the constitution, which guarantees equal rights to women — America doesn’t have that. I want them to understand that they are as guilty — it’s just a question of degree and characteristic. When they pay women 72 cents to the dollar for equal work done by men, that is a violation of the human rights of women. That is yet another symptom of the disease that is gender inequality — and it’s that same disease that causes men to rape women. That is why my education initiative is about human rights — it’s not just gender equality, it’s human rights. The bottom line is this: Do we accord value to another human bring regardless of their race, religion and gender? It’s all the same thing.
If it’s compulsory to learn mathematics, how in God’s name is it not compulsory to learn human rights?
W&H: What are the things that move you as a result of the film and your hard work on this issue?
LU: A picture that came through to me last night, and my heart just stopped — it’s the most rewarding, moving and beautiful thing that has happened to me on what has been a challenging and difficult journey: I saw a photo of young girls, with some men in the background I’m happy to say, protesting the recent rape of the little girls in New Delhi. The three girls in the front are holding three placards. One says, “Don’t teach me what to wear, teach your sons not to rape” and one says, “Thank you, Leslee Udwin.” That is the reward. That is what has made every centimeter of this horrible journey into the heart of darkness worth everything. That is the achievement.