Big Screen | Movies

‘St. Louis Superman’, an Oscar-shortlisted documentary by two Indian-Americans

Still from ‘St. Louis Superman’  

Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan are Indian-American filmmaker friends who have often exchanged ideas and shared common experiences, including making films in India. Mundhra co-directed the documentary A Suitable Girl (2017) and Khan made the narrative feature Khoya (2015). And they often discussed collaborating on a film. That opportunity came when Mundhra was approached by Al Jazeera’s producer Poh Si Teng to make a 30-minute documentary.

Mundhra was already contemplating working on a film based on the life and work of African-American activist-turned-politician Bruce Franks Jr. And she asked Khan to come on board as a co-director. Their film St. Louis Superman recently made it into the Oscar shortlist for best documentary (short subject).

In 2016, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement across the U.S., Franks, 34, a Democrat, was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives where most of his colleagues were white Republicans.

His city — St. Louis — had the highest murder rate in the country. The Black Lives Matter movement, and also the killing of his nine-year-old brother, motivated Franks to get a bill passed unanimously on youth violence as a public health epidemic. He suffered depression and anxiety over the course of his term and resigned after three years.

St. Louis Superman is an intimate portrayal of a charismatic man, a father and rap artist who worked tirelessly for his community. Los Angeles-based Mundhra and Khan, who lives in New York, spoke over the phone about the making of this remarkable film. Edited excerpts:

How do two people, in this case, friends, direct a film together? Did you argue a lot?

Mundhra: We’ve had a few arguments, but I have wanted to work with Sami for a while now because I have always respected his artistic sensibility and his integrity as a storyteller. Co-directing is a very natural instinct for a documentary. Documentaries are a dialogue between the subject and the filmmaker, the editor and the cinematographer.

It lends itself much more to collaboration. Sami and I knew our roles at any given time. Sami shot most of the film and he had a very close relationship with Bruce. He lived with Bruce while we were shooting. In such collaborations, you can have a sort of yin and yang balance between two filmmakers, where one could have closer access to the subject while the other is observing from a distance.

Khan: You work with someone because you want to learn from that person. You don’t want to collaborate with someone who has skills similar to yours. Smriti found Bruce’s story and had a vision for the film. During the shoot, if I was capturing a moment, Smriti was thinking of the bigger picture.

Sami, how did you end up staying with Bruce?

Khan: In films such as this, you need an intimacy that can’t be faked or forced. I’ve found that the way to build a bond with the subjects in documentaries is to live with them. We were telling Bruce’s story with him. It’s not a story we are telling about him. So we were immersed in his life to get the daily rhythms.

Still from ‘St. Louis Superman’

Still from ‘St. Louis Superman’  

Bruce’s use of rap to convey his thoughts is fascinating. How did you capture that?

Mundhra: That’s a huge part of his life. So many moments in the film came about from the intimacy we developed with Bruce. We orchestrated none of the magical moments in the film, be it his conversation with his son in the opening scene or the rap battle. We couldn’t have scripted it better in terms of what he says and what he is up against. You can’t get those moments on camera without being there all the time and yet not being intrusive. Sami is gifted at that. Bruce says we felt like family, making home videos.

Bruce is charismatic, yet by the end it is revealed that the pressures of the job and of carrying the emotional burden of the black community lead him to depression. How did he change and evolve?

Khan: He’s such an empathetic person. But in the course of making the film and beyond, we saw him understand that he also needed to take care of himself. He can’t be there just for other people, even though he has the incredible ability to inspire. As filmmakers, it was important for us to show him balance it out.

We didn’t want to lie to the audience and show a feel-good story about an African-American politician who magically connects across races. We wanted to show the dark side too. The personal trauma that Bruce has been through takes a toll on him. The tensions, the hope and the darkness are something we worked hard to show and we talked to Bruce to get it right.

What did he expect from the film?

Mundhra: I don’t think he knew quite what to expect. A year ago, on Christmas Eve, he texted saying he needed to see the film, that he needed some context for his life and purpose. We sent him a link. He got back saying he was sobbing from the first minute. He loved it. He didn’t ask for any changes.

It’s not like we hid our intentions while shooting. It was a very collaborative process. The first thing we asked him when we started was this: ‘If you had 30 minutes to tell people your story, what would you want to say?’ And that was our touchstone as we made the film and figured out the story and the arc.

He told us that until he watched the film, he hadn’t realised the sum total of who he was and the work he was doing.

Still from ‘St. Louis Superman’

Still from ‘St. Louis Superman’  

You are both Indian-Americans with privileged backgrounds, education and upbringing. With this film, you threw yourselves into a very working class, African-American world. Did you know this world before?

Khan: My father is a physician, my mom is a housewife, but both came from very modest backgrounds. I grew up in a working class, blue-collar town in Canada and I can easily code switch. You have different parts to your life. Your friends are from working class backgrounds. You are a certain way with your Indian aunties and uncles. And when you study at a place like Columbia University, you learn to behave in a certain way.

Mundhra: I come from an upper-middle-class background. (Her late father Jagmohan Mundra was a filmmaker.) Sami and I can’t pretend we have first-hand experience with the problems Bruce and a lot of people in his community deal with. We could have crafted the narrative from our perspective, which would have made a lot of us and white people feel good about the world. But we wanted to use our privilege, access and skills to amplify a story that deserved to be narrated. Our approach to filmmaking comes from a place of humility, a desire to learn about other communities and check preconceived notions.

The independent writer and film festival programmer is the author of the recently-published Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 2:34:36 AM |

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