Goat Tree Productions

Goat Tree Productions is a film production company committed to examining complex social issues through innovative storytelling. Utilizing both film and written journalism, we focus on social justice issues, women's empowerment, and sharing the voices that don't get the attention they should.


That's a Wrap! (...for now)

Four months after touching down in Delhi to begin production on India’s Mothers (working title), we were back in the air again, America-bound.

No one said making a feature film would be easy, and we’ve certainly experienced that over the past few months. There’s been some turbulence along the way, but overall it’s been a rewarding 2017 thus far.

We’ve made fantastic headway on the project, gotten great footage, secured inspiring characters. We set out to make a film, having a vague idea of what it will look and sound like. To finally see that film take shape and take on a life of it’s own, is a bit like what I imagine it feels like to have your child walk or speak for the first time.

We have a few more legs of the journey ahead of us, but we wanted to take a moment to tell you all about the progress we’ve made and what’s up next for Goat Tree.

Some highlights from our first stage of production:

  1. We got powerful and informative interviews with key players in the field of reproductive rights, from organizations like the Human Rights Law Network, the Population Foundation of India, and the Centre for Health and Social Justice. With our “expert” voices in place, we’ve been able to script the history / policy sections that will lend structure to the film.

  2. Zoe received a Fulbright grant to continue our work on the film, and for her to conduct related research on the topics of reproductive justice and India’s population control policies.

  3. We secured inspiring characters who invited us into their worlds. We’re excited to introduce you to characters like Mitilesh, a woman in rural Madhya Pradesh who decides to get sterilized, and Devika Biswas, a health activist fighting to change the system.

What’s next?

  1. Zoe returns to Bombay in July to being her Fulbright grant period. She’ll be working on archival research and research concerning the rise of non-consensual IUD insertion.

  2. Annie and Zoe will be based in NYC for the next few months, to begin scripting and editing! Now that we’ve secured most of our footage, we’re able to start putting the film together. This will allow us to figure out what filming we will still need to do when back in India.

  3. …But editing costs money. We’re now back in the fundraising game, seeking post-production grants and funds to support the costs of an editor and animator.  

Thank you all for flying with us, and we look forward to continuing this journey together.

They're just not that into you.

“When journalists like you come to interview us, we know that we are being interviewed so we tell you everything. But, we don’t know what is the impact of these recordings, whether or not are they reaching the ministers so that they can take some steps regarding the issues. Now, you have come from America, you’ve recorded my statements, it is upon you to remember these stories, to remember what you recorded and for what, to think about how these recordings can help our situation. To think about it all once you’re back to where you came from.”

         - Rupchandra, husband of Shrimati who died at a sterilization camp

Often when we go in to film a community we are on a tight time frame. It’s difficult because we don’t want to be transactional, we want to genuinely connect with those we are filming from a place of empathy. We want to share their stories with the world and we want them to see the importance of their stories. But with so little time it’s sometimes hard to connect without seeming like we just need something from them that we are going to take and then disappear, leaving nothing for them.

It takes a degree of trust that often we don’t have time to actually earn.

We have to think about what people’s motivations are for participating. For people like Rupchandra, who lost his wife at a sterilization camp, the reason for sharing this story is obvious. Something bad happened and maybe by telling us about it, the participant can get some degree of justice.

For others, I believe we are a novelty. When working in rural areas with women, discussing with them their choices of contraceptives and what influenced that decision, women don’t necessarily think they’ve suffered any injustice. And it’s not up to us to convince them that they have. But they’re willing to share with us a window into their lives, to discuss their decisions with us because we’re interesting, something out of the norm.

While filming in Madhya Pradesh we met a woman named Mitilesh, and after dispelling some rumors (we were getting paid obscene amounts of money to do this, we were going to steal land from the village, we were witches), we were able to really bond with the family. We spent time playing with the kids, dancing with the women, gossiping. Mitilesh still calls our translator every Sunday to check on how we are doing and give us an update. This bond led to a willingness to participate. This was something interesting, we were friends.

But this week we found a group that didn’t have any motivation to participate. We are trying to film a storyline in Delhi slums about IUDs that have been inserted directly after childbirth without women’s consent. It’s a growing phenomenon as sterilization wanes in popularity, and is another example of the “population control” mindset. We have now been to two slums and both times have failed to gain community buy-in in order to be able to film. Two thunder storms and an angry husband didn’t help but fundamentally the problem was they didn’t want to be part of the film.

Unlike the rural women, they were not entertained by our presence. They are busy. Western people come all the time and try to “help” them. They’re over it.

And unlike the survivors like Rupchandra, they didn’t see the importance of this issue. Yes, the doctors should have asked them before inserting an IUD. No, they didn’t want it. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small piece of copper inside of them that prevents them from having more kids. That’s nothing compared to the fear of their homes being demolished without warning -- something that has happened three times already -- or their kids not having clean water. In the context of their lives, having an IUD inserted without consent is not the most pressing issue.

We have been speaking to academics who describe this dilemma as one of reproductive rights vs. reproductive justice. If we came in and asked them only about their reproductive health, we would be taking a rights approach. But reproductive rights don’t make sense without a larger context of human rights. They are embedded in a context where they are facing a whole slew of injustices, focusing on one is pointless because it doesn’t take into account the full picture.

What we have tried to do throughout this process is to take a justice approach, to ask about generally their situation and then to focus in on the issue we are making the film about, reproductive health. We want to film people in their contexts, to understand their circumstances that lead to certain choices.

But even so, sometimes being so short on time we cannot fully take a reproductive justice approach. For this group in particular, we will need to invest more time just getting to know them and building trust. Building up an understanding of this context before we start to delve deeper into the specifics of their reproductive health situations.

By asking about their context first, the issue they’re facing that they themselves identify as more important, we can create a better motivation for them to participate in the project and we can share a clearer image of their lives with our audiences. We can show them this complexity, how reproductive injustice is just one injustice of many these women face. They face a system of inequality, not a single problem.

Documenting / Provoking

We were in a remote village outside Araria, Bihar, just steps away from the Nepal border, gathered in an empty school room. In this room, 4 years ago, dozens of women were sterilized under gruesome, unhygienic conditions. Ten of those same women were sitting there with us to tell us about the lingering health conditions they still face because of the botched surgeries.

We were interested in their stories primarily because this camp spurred an investigation headed by activist Devika Biswas, who took their case to the Supreme Court of India. In September 2016, the Court ruled that sterilization camps were to be phased out over the next three years.

What we did not know, heading to Bihar in order to meet these women, is that they had no idea their narratives had inspired a Supreme Court case at allThey had no idea their experiences had affected national policy. When Devika read the ruling to them in their regional Thethi language on camera, this was the first they were hearing about any of this.

As we were filming them listening to details of the decision, the women became increasingly angry that they hadn’t received any compensation from the government after their sterilizations. Many have incurred significant medical bills for lingering health issues. They asked Devika what they could do to demand the compensation they believe they deserve. Hearing about their continued pain, Devika herself had become agitated to do something further for these women. She suggested taking their testimonies to the Bihar state government. The question became how to do so, when these women can’t write? She pointed at the camera. Video testimony, of course. Suddenly, we were players in this unfolding action. After filming the women’s testimonies, Devika took our video to the Bihar minister of family planning, and we filmed that meeting as well. It’s a film inside a film in the most self-reflexive way, as we capture the minister watching our footage. We were simultaneously participating in the narrative, leaving traces within the narrative, and capturing the narrative on camera.

Devika Biswas reading the Supreme Court order to sterilization victims

Devika Biswas reading the Supreme Court order to sterilization victims

If we hadn’t come to film, would these women have ever known about the court decision? Would Devika be reaching back out to the government to demand compensation on behalf of the women? Probably not. But what does that mean for the film?

As a documentary filmmaker, I feel my job is to document, and observe. That is not to say that documentary film is in any way objective - it is not. The moment you point a camera at one thing and not another, you are making a choice, and your voice is indirectly embedded into the film. However, the idea of affecting events somehow seems to be something different, somehow a breach of the implicit contract I make with my subjects as a documentary filmmaker. We quickly went from observers to instigators, the mere presence of the camera as a tool for inquiry a direct cause of the events we then continued to film.

I am concerned, perhaps, with the ontological implications of documentary filmmakers becoming intertwined the events that they then film. Am I stepping outside of some category of “documentarian” when I cease to just document, but to provoke? But this distinction between documenting and provoking: it quickly reveals itself as weak, and ultimately unimportant.

The mere presence of the camera, in any situation, alters the reality you are “observing”. The camera will cause events to happen, because subjects are unavoidably aware of themselves as subjects, as actors. Our situation was an extreme example of the camera affecting reality, but that causal relationship always exists.

This question drew me back to Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, a quiet documentary that explores what it means to place a camera in front of a subject. Johnson, historically a documentary cinematographer, weaved a film out of outtakes from other pieces she had worked on. These vignettes allow the viewer to question the complex relationship between subject and observer, and the subtle yet consistent way in which the camera shapes the reality it presents. Her comments off screen, her careful selection of a frame, her direction of subjects remind us that there is a person behind every camera, and there can be no objective lens. This relationship is precisely what makes documentary film what it is.

The illusion of objectivity, of “truth” that the contract of documentary presents is misleading and unexciting. Documentary is, at its essence, the portrayal of a reality that exists only because a camera has been placed in front of it. The most moving documentaries explore and embrace that essence.


The Line of Solidarity

When working in the social sector often we are faced with difficult situations. Whether it is working in a refugee camp or watching dozens of women get sterilized – processing these situations can be difficult. Faced with our own privilege, it’s hard to know how and to what extent to act in solidarity.   

Let me give you two examples. Prior to arriving in India I was visiting a friend in Greece who works in a refugee camp. The camp is in the North, along the Macedonian border and it is cold. My friend lives in a small apartment with very little heating. She never cooks and takes a strange sort of pleasure in making herself a little miserable. This allows her to feel solidarity with the refugees she works with, and less guilty about the fact that at the end of the day she can retreat to her own space inside. That on weekends she can drink beer and socialize with friends. She sacrifices her own mental and, to a degree, physical health in order to assuage this guilt. 

Second example: on Christmas Eve we filmed in a sterilization camp in a district hospital in Madhya Pradesh, India. Women were treated roughly: dozens were lined up on the floor like match sticks to recover after a hurried invasive tubal ligation surgery (a surgery that we were invited into the OR to witness by a proud surgeon). It was appalling. The next day I was admitted to the same hospital for a terrible bout of food poisoning where I was given a private room and treated on by seven doctors. I did not turn this special treatment down.

My friend acts in solidarity, at the expense of her health. I did not act in solidarity, to the benefit of mine. So the question is, to what extent are we ethically obligated to act in solidarity?

Perhaps a useful lens to use to examine this problem is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics — not to get too academic. Aristotle says we can describe virtues as things that are destroyed by excess or deficiency. In this case if we say solidarity is a virtue, then the excess of that virtue might be moving into the refugee camp or, to a lesser degree, what my friend is doing in depriving herself of warmth and real meals. Nothing is being gained by the refugees she works with by her making herself miserable. The deficiency of virtue, conversely, would be a total lack of solidarity/empathy with those around us, eating a lavish meal in the middle of a starving village.

But of course, situations are rarely this clear cut, and finding the balance, that line, is often more challenging in practice.

In the case of the hospital: do you accept the special privileges? Or do you turn them down in the name of solidarity, of equity?

A few thoughts on this. First a side note on the feeling itself, the uncomfortable truth is that it is uncomfortable. I think it’s good to feel that discomfort, it’s how we should all feel even when we are not facing this reality directly. This discomfort should drive us forward to fixing that imbalance to create something better, something more equal.

Second, on determining where the line is: I tend to think of things in terms of maintaining my own capacity to continue fighting the good fight, e.g. cutting myself some slack in accepting special treatment. But I’m unsure whether that’s simply justification for choosing the more comfortable path. Maybe this is just me trying to rationalize my acceptance, trying to get my friend to take better care of herself. 

Using the Aristotelian logic, ultimately I think we need to weigh the harms and benefits for ourselves and those around us to find the balance. For the hospital scenario it comes down to the speed of my recovery versus the harm on the psyche of those around me. On the one hand, I might actually get more sick by refusing. On the other, I am a hypocrite for sacrificing the principles of equality and valuing human rights equally – one of the points of the film we are making – and that might harm the mentality or self-worth of those around me.

By accepting my private room privileges, was I denying somebody else something? Was I perpetuating ideals of inequity by showing them I too thought I deserved better treatment then them? I am not sure; I like to think I was not harming those around me too much by accepting the care, that I am morally just in prioritizing my concrete well-being over the possibility of harming someone else’s morale. Though perhaps they would be the best judge of that.

That’s not a very practical solution, I cannot survey those around me each time about their respective thoughts on my room privileges. I suppose we each need to make the call of where the line is, where is the moderate or appropriate level of solidarity. I hope Aristotle would agree. 

Welcome Aboard

Hello and welcome to the newly minted Goat Tree Productions blog. After a long 10-month take-off period, we have now reached cruising altitude.  Co-pilots Anne Munger and Zoe Hamilton have safely arrived in the Indiasphere where they will remain for roughly five months, steering this adventure. We thank you for joining us on this journey, and we welcome you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. 

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