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Sapna Samant & 'Kimbap'

I feel very proud that a New Zealand film, Kimbap, written and produced by Sapna Samant and directed by Alex Kyo Won Lee, won Best in Show and the Audience Choice Award for the best film by a male director at the Bluestocking Film Series this year and then travelled with the Bluestocking selection to the LadyBug Festival in Sweden. This all feels special, because Bluestocking is the influential showcase for provocative, well-produced short fictional films featuring complex female protagonists – and the only film event in the world to require female protagonists. Submissions must also pass the Bechdel Test and Bluestocking is the first United States film event to receive Sweden’s A-Rating, which informs consumers that films pass the test.

Best in Show judge, Thuc Doan Nguyen from The Bitch Pack, which advocates better representation of women ‘on the page’, said this about Kimbap
I chose the film because of the excellent acting, the relationship between mother and daughter (also the one between the two children), and the handling of racial and cultural differences as subject matter. All the elements came together well and were refreshing to me.
Kimbap’s writer and producer is Sapna Samant, of Holy Cow Media, which she set up in 2006 to tell stories across all media. She produced The Asian Radio Show, a contemporary and irreverent show about the Asian diaspora in New Zealand from 2008-2012, the only such show on commercial radio. Sapna was a freelance producer for Radio New Zealand before that, and on the WIFT Auckland board for two terms. She also won second prize in Auckland University’s short story competition in 2013.

Kimbap is about a migrant family and how they make their place in New Zealand through food and love. Kimbap is Korean sushi. It also symbolises inclusion.

Broadcaster Sapna, with Liyen Chong

Where did the idea for Kimbap come from?

I was inspired by a true event in Christchurch, New Zealand. A Korean family, a mother and her two daughters, committed suicide and one of the issues that came out of the discourse after was the loneliness and isolation of non-English speaking migrants to New Zealand. I felt great empathy with this family. Here I was, someone who spoke fluent English, and yet I had experienced isolation and loneliness as a migrant to New Zealand. The other issue I learned was the concept of the goose family. These are families where the father lives and works in Korea while the wife and children migrate to an English speaking country for the sake of the children's education. Of course such distances would compound the alienation of any migrant. However I wanted to tell a sweet, simple tale rather than a dark, desolate one which many New Zealand films are. For, if a migrant comes into a host society and feels an outsider, there are also many opportunities to come out on top of the situation in a positive way.

Why did you choose to develop the idea as a film, rather than in the other mediums you work in – fiction for the page, radio, television?

It could only be told as a short film because there are many visual aspects to this story. I could not have possibly described the food, the clothes, Eun Mi’s inner feelings, her mum Ai Sook’s helplessness or Ropata’s cheekiness and Mrs Finch’s racist attitude on paper. As it is I was breaking one of the cardinal rules of scriptwriting by writing about a culture that I was only superficially familiar with, and whose films I loved. It took me two years to make sure I was doing the right thing. I researched Korean traditional and popular cultures, the diaspora, the fashions, the food, I bounced my drafts off my Korean friends. Even then there were moments on set when I wondered whether I was respectful enough. Yet, my work as a radio producer, and general shit stirrer seeking better representation for ethnic communities helped me to create this project.

You want to tell ‘stories with a conscience’. What does that mean to you? Who has influenced you as a writer?

My aim, with my writing, is to generate discourse, and for those who listen, read or watch my work to think. I know it sounds lofty and self-righteous but the idea is look at ourselves and our place in the world, to acknowledge others, and to realise who we can make things better. This does not mean I tell my audience what to do and be on-the-nose. No. It is important to entertain and to be irreverent and those who can will figure it out. Interpretation of my writing is not in my hands. I can only try to be an excellent storyteller.

Who has influenced my writing? First and foremost it would be my grandfather. He was an amazing storyteller. All the Indian myths I know, and some I have forgotten, he told us at bedtime. He was also an avid reader and I picked this habit from him. We would read the newspaper together. So naturally when I write I want to be like him, to be able to tell a story. He passed before I discovered I could ‘write’. Another person I want to acknowledge is my English teacher at school. Writing is not something one is encouraged to have as a career or even a hobby but Miss Pardiwala pushed me to write. It has taken me a long time to become confident about my writing. Apart from these two, it is mostly other writers and storytellers-from Shakespeare, Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Janet Frame, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master Hindi writer Premchand, Marathi (which is my mother tongue) writers Pu La Deshpande and Shivaji Sawant…it is a long list. Charlie Kaufman, Billy Wilder, filmmakers Guru Dutt, Vishal Bharadwaj, Nasir Hussain, Vijay Anand, Akira Kurosawa, Majid Majidi, Asghar Farhadi, Wong Kar Wai and many others. The Mahabharat, the greatest epic on this planet, is a great source of inspiration and I consider Ang Lee one of my gurus.

You also work as a doctor. Is that part of your ‘conscience’? How does it fit with your storytelling work?

Dr Sapna 
I trained as a doctor in India and was a GP for nine years. Then I got bored. When I moved to New Zealand I knew I could not practice on my Indian qualifications. So I decided to explore other aspects of my brain instead of pursuing the usual pathway on which foreign doctors have to requalify. I did a Masters in film, tv and media studies at the University Of Auckland and worked as a freelancer. My stories and work was mainly around migrants, refugees and minorities, and I also did voluntary work with refugee organisations. Through this work I realised I had very high intercultural communication skills and a way to connect to people such that they trusted me with their stories. It was a responsibility and I had to find a way to use that for larger benefit (not that storytelling has no value). So when I was encouraged to return to medicine by people in these communities, I decided to do it. I knew I would return to medicine one day when the time was right. This is now. I intend to work in the very communities whose stories I want to tell. Rather, whose stories I will be permitted to tell. Being a migrant or a refugee is more than just moving to a country where you can ‘settle’ to integrate and become a model minority. It is a lifelong process that affects your health and wellbeing too. I also see the need for social marketing (what used to be health education) such that communities have access to and understanding of health facilities. I seek to find the balance where medicine and media meet, feeding into and informing each other. Maybe I am mad but I think it can be done.

You’ve said that you can’t understand New Zealand filmmakers’ dependence on the New Zealand Film Commission, our state funding body. Why is this?

I think there has to be another finance model for films, for us to be able to make commercially viable that don’t necessarily play only at film festivals, that travel the world and entertain everyone. They don’t have to be big budgets but enough to make good productions that also pay the crew. The idea is to make sure your investors get their money back, sometimes even before the film is released. I have often thought about this and created a template once but put it out of my mind because I first want to finish my hospital training which is very time consuming. Then I will get back to polishing the template. It does not mean the film commission funding should never be used. If you can get it then great. If not then think of other ways to do it. (Maybe I am stupid or just perseverant?)

Alex Kyo Won Lee directed Kimbap and this is the first year that Bluestocking has included men directors. How and why did you choose Alex? Did you not want to direct?

Alex Kyo Won Lee, Caddell and Petra
Alex and I were ushering at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland when we got talking about the New Zealand shorts we had just seen. Neither of us was impressed. We exchanged the current scripts we were writing to get an opinion. Alex is Korean and he was quite taken aback that I had written a Korean story and it was fairly culturally correct. He also liked the story. So I said to him, I’ll produce if you want to direct and that was it. A draft or two later we were in production.

My scriptwriting teacher at Auckland University, Shuchi Kothari, wanted me to study directing at film school after I finished my masters in film, tv and media studies. I had a student loan to think about and to prove to my parents that I had not wasted my life moving from medicine to media/films. Since then I have of course produced a lot of radio (which actually ‘directing’, as you know) and I also made a documentary film on the Indian community and have directed a documentary trailer, Dance Baby Dance/Naach Gaana Hum Aur Tum which can qualify as a mini-doc. So I am getting there. I will direct one day and they will be stories very close to my heart because only I can tell them. But I also want to write for others and write for every medium I can think of. I love to write. Even if no one will read me ☺

What are the differences for you between producing and writing? Do you find one more satisfying than the other?

Writing is a lonely process, so internal I don’t want to be with anyone. I try not to get attached to my work such that I can be brutal at the end. So when I produced Kimbap I was okay when the dialogue changed and then the final edit was a bit different from the original script and I was okay with that too. Production is about people, about hustling, about keeping everyone and everything on track and budget and I enjoyed that too. I would love to produce for others just the way I would love to write for others. I have not yet decided which is more satisfactory because both writing and producing fulfil me in different ways.

Where did you find your wonderful actors, especially the children?

That is quite a story. I was acquainted with Seong, Petra Oh’s father. He owns the Graphic Novel Café on Shortland Street in Auckland. I had pestered him a lot when I was writing Kimbap. I invited myself to his home for a Korean meal and asked Alba, his wife to make make the smelliest Korean food ever. Petra was an opinionated, naughty and very smart child then. So when we were casting I asked Seong if he would like Petra to audition and she fit the bill right away. Caddell Samuel came to us via my Maori networks. When we sent out a casting call to the agencies the parents were very reluctant to be part of a free gig where they did not know anyone. So I asked Ngarimu Blair of Ngati Whatua, whom I knew, whether he had any boys in the whanau and it turned out he had two nephews. Caddell was such a sweetie.
Sapna & Caddell
He turned up very stylish in his skinny jeans, high tops and hoody and was very shy but did well. Both sets of parents trusted me with their kids. They would workshop every weekend at my place and I would make ham sandwiches for them (even though I don’t eat ham or pork). I savoured every moment of their company. Rhayn, the kid at school, was my neighbour from downstairs in Auckland and I knew he and his mum would agree.

Jane came on at the last minute. We had auditioned an amazing young Korean actress who had flown up from Christchurch just to audition for the role. We workshopped for a month but her grandmother fell sick so she had to return to Korea. So we asked another lady who had auditioned to fill in. She was a chef not an actress. We workshopped for a week and she even took leave from work but her boss had an accident so she could not make it. Finally I called Stephen Kang and asked for Jane’s contact. She was the lead in his film Desert and although she seemed too young for the role she has done a great job. We met at the medical school building at Auckland University, where she was studying pharmacy, a week before the shoot and she agreed. There were no workshops and no dress trials. In fact her clothes were in boxes because she was moving house. My friend Sian, who is a trained actor and singer from the United Kingdom but is mostly a life coach here in New Zealand, agreed to be Mrs Finch.

'A hungry crew is an unhappy crew': Sapna prepares food for the cast & crew

Which parts of the project did you find most challenging and the most rewarding?

The script was the most challenging. Like I said before I was breaking the cardinal rule of by writing a story about a culture I did not know. I had to make it interesting and sweet but not emotionally manipulative. Also the ‘less black and more white’ rule of writing means agonising over every word to make sure I could convey as much as possible with minimal scripting. I think writing a film script is the most difficult writing I do. With radio, once you have a template you are good to go. With short stories or novellas you just write and style as you want then figure out the word limit if there is any. With a film script you have someone else to imagine it visually without much description between Fade in and Fade out.

The most rewarding part is obviously being screened at film festivals. The laurels means a lot.

When you’re both in New Zealand, the film is a Korean story and you’re strongly influenced by Indian cinema, how did you negotiate the style of Kimbap, or did you just leave that to Alex?

I let Alex style it as he wished. The hat I had on, as a producer, meant I took a backseat with the look and feel of Kimbap. We disagreed on a few things but that was as a writer.

I am strongly influenced by Indian cinema, the entire spectrum of Indian cinema. Which includes Satyajit Ray and new age Marathi cinema whose art house films are on par with European and Iranian cinema. So not everything I write or want to make would be kitschy Bollywood song and dance. Ray’s film Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) is on my all-time top ten list. It is a masterpiece adapted from a short story by Premchand, one of our greatest Hindi writers and for which Ray also designed the costumes and did the animation. Bob McKee does not mention this film in the chapter on adaptation in his book Story, because he probably never heard about the short story. If you want to learn how to adapt I recommend watching this film and reading the short story. For me the influence of Indian cinema is only beneficial.

You seem to have been very strategic in the festivals you’ve submitted to. What festival advice can you offer?

I made the mistake of indiscriminate submission with my first documentary, Dance Baby Dance, which was about the Bollywoodisation of the Indian diaspora in New Zealand by the mainstream (Pakeha). I did not pause to think that (a) no one cares about middle class Indian diaspora and (b) the Western world and even Indians like the idea of Bollywoodisation because it keeps us exotic without the need for discourse about space and culture.

With Kimbap I did a specific search on Withoutabox that led me to potential festivals. I also subscribe to newsletters that keep me informed. That is how I could be strategic. My advice to anyone submitting films is to study the festival and see how they have been trending with their selections then decide, say a prayer and send a screener. I also recommend putting aside an amount for entry fees in the budget right from the outset. This is an expensive business because festival fees are usually in USD, Euros or pounds.

What’s your next film project?

A short script about an Indian family in New Zealand and cultural displacement. My first draft is almost done but I am sitting on it, letting it ripen.

Dance Baby Dance

Sapna on Twitter

Bluestocking series

The Bitch Pack

Lady Bug Film Festival programme 2014


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