iSEE Q&A with “Catching the Sun” Filmmaker Shalini Kantayya

OCT. 23, 2015 — Shalini Kantayya, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, educator, and eco-activist uses film as a tool to inspire and empower audiences. Her newest, and first feature-length, film “Catching the Sun” — focusing on the future of clean energy in America — will be screened as the keynote event of campus’ 2015 Sustainability Week, 5 p.m. today in NSRC 149. We spoke with Kantayya a few days ahead of her presentation to learn about her filmmaking style and motivation for addressing tough world challenges through film. Her answers have been minimally edited for brevity and clarity.


iSEE: Why do you choose to take on hard topics – water scarcity, human rights, food, and now renewable energy – in your filmmaking?

SK: Probably guilt! I come from like a south Indian medical family, and they all do something useful with their lives. I’m the misfit artist, but I’ve had the privilege of being around people who are … daring to take on some of the worl’d biggest problems in small and big ways. I think about the things I care about — water, food, energy — in the future and I think about how they affect that ladder of opportunity for people.


iSEE: From what we’ve seen, your films tell a narrative centered on central characters, not talking head interviews with officials and community members. Is it more or less difficult to make films this way?

SK: (It has been) one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, actually. Especially in character-driven documentary, you’re waiting for life to unfold in front of the camera, and you’re following people trying to get a job over several years or you’re following a young civil rights activist and his journey to the White House. It takes a long time for that much life to unfold. It’s a really big commitment, and you have to be the kind of person where you are writing your story, but life is also writing it.


iSEE: Because of the story-telling nature of “Catching the Sun” and some of your other work, do you ever get criticized that you’ve blurred the truth about issues, or not been thorough enough in covering all the angles?

SK: I would resist any notion that this is Fact. It is a story that is true to life. I don’t think anyone in the film feels I have misrepresented them. I’m not a journalist, the job of a documentarian is creative nonfiction.

Everything I portray is going to be through the filter of what I think. I feel like I try to be open-ended. I try to ask questions. I try to present the facts and show what I’ve observed and let other people make up their own decisions. But ultimately what I really hope to do is spark a conversation, and so sometimes if people get upset or bothered by something, I welcome it! That’s what so wonderful about the society that we live in, that we can have this free exchange of ideas about things that are so vital to the future of the world.

I hope (the human focus) is the strength of “Catching the Sun.” I feel like climate change and clean energy get talked about in sort of these namesless, faceless, ways that don’t have human stories attached, and I feel like even the environment and sustainability are sort of divorced from the way we talk about economics and jobs, which is right away emotional, right away personal, right away middle and working class families. Clean energy has this really human story that we’ve been missing.


iSEE: What is the most rewarding part of filmmaking for you?

SK: Seeing the film with an audience; when the lights come up after the film is over. It’s not like a live performance — filmmaking happens sometimes years or months before the audience sees it. You’ve made the film alone in the dark somewhere in an editing room. It is when you see the film with an audience, the lights come up, and the audience has a conversation or has a new thought or makes a connection they didn’t otherwise make — that’s the most exciting part of the filmmaking process.


iSEE: Can you summarize your personal environmental philosophy in just 10 words or less?

SK: Leave it better. Think about the person who comes after you.


iSEE: In your opinion, what’s most imporant thing college students and young professionals can do to make a difference in the world today?

SK: I want to emphasize that college students really have the power to change the world. This has happened throughout history. I think one of the most important things they can do is – like what you’re doing at the University of Illinois – changing campus policy, making your campus more sustainable. For example, having solar on your campus buildings so students and future engineers and other influential people have the opportunity to see renewable energy work right where you are.

“Catching the Sun” will be screened in Room 149, National Soybean Research Center, at 5 p.m. today. Shalini will offer some remarks and invite conversation after the film. Free pizza will be provided.

Kantayya is a Sundance Fellow, a TED Fellow, and an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Policy Fellow. She and her work have received recognition from the Sundance Documentary Program, the Independent Filmmaker Project, the New York Women in Film and Television, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.