After tragedy, life (and art) goes on: An interview with Chicago-based documentarian Shawn Convey

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One of the bikers of Wild
  • Shawn Convey
  • One of the bikers of Wild
Shawn Convey is a Chicago-based photographer currently at work on two documentary films. The first, now in postproduction, is a still-untitled portrait of Kolkata Sanved, a human rights organization in India that uses dance-movement therapy to rehabilitate child victims of human trafficking. The second, which has the working title Wild, depicts a motorcycle club in Herzegovina that's created a sanctuary for a few hundred wild horses. Convey is still in the process of shooting that project, which he began two-and-a-half years ago; as he explained when I spoke with him last week, he plans to return to the Balkans this spring to complete principal photography. He also talked about the challenges of making documentaries single-handedly, his love of travel, and the moral obligations of depicting victims of tragedy. You can read more about Convey's projects at his website; our conversation is below.

Ben Sachs: How long did it take you to shoot your documentary about Kolkata Sanved?

Shawn Convey: I was [in India] for four months, shooting continuously from pretty much the day I arrived. My girlfriend had arrived four months before me for an internship, and that's how I first heard about them; she was doing research [on it] for her internship. I started reading the story about these people, and I was just blown away. I was like, "This has to be documented." Not only was the story so incredible, but [my girlfriend] would have this incredible access.

This one woman, Sohini Chakraborty, basically loved dance, but she didn't have any therapeutic training or anything like that. She realized that dance could be used as a means of rebuilding oneself. And she started working in shelters and orphanages to donate her time, using dance as a way of building these girls back up, because so many of them were victims of violent crimes. You have to keep in mind that in India, with the caste system, many of these girls figured that if they had been abused by other people, their bodies were tainted and could no longer be worthy for anybody else, including themselves. So getting them back in touch with their physicality allowed them to have control over their bodies, to see that there was nothing wrong with them.

Sohini had concentrated on seven girls—disciples, so to speak. By the time I met them, they were pretty much rehabilitated. Also they weren't girls anymore; they were young women. So they were starting to go out with Sohini and expand her program. They were reaching hundreds and hundreds of kids every week, with these workshops for 30 or 40 girls at a time.

It's been a few years that I've worked on this now, because I've been doing it completely by myself. But I thought [when I started], "If I don't capture this now as best that I can, then it's not going to be there for me to go back to." Because [Kolkata Sanved] is a much larger organization now than when I started.

How did you get permission to film the organization in action? It sounds like they deal with very sensitive situations.

Sohini and I made an agreement about what could and could not be said and what could and could not be filmed. It was and still is an arrangement I'm very comfortable with because. It seems like so many media outlets are looking for a sensationalist angle to exploit [with sensitive subject matter], and that's exactly what I do not want to do.

I did not want to tell the easy story. It's very easy to present the facts of these unthinkable tragedies, but what I want to focus on is what happens afterwards. Because what makes a person is what they do with a tragedy, what they do with the struggle. And what struck me—not only about these girls [in Kolkata], but also the bikers in Bosnia—is that their tragedies weren't isolated incidents.

I think another failing of a lot of media outlets is that when they do portray [victims] in a positive light—when it isn't sensationalistic—they take one person and turn her into a superhero. They'll present this person as such an incredible specimen of humanity, and you the viewer sit there watching and feel like a piece of shit. I mean, you might be inspired by this person's goodness, but you could never see yourself doing things like [they've done].

What was amazing about [Kolkata Sanved] was that you had a lot of people that had nothing—and I'm talking about their concept of nothing, not our Western concept of nothing—and they were doing incredible things all together. I mean, Sohini started it, she was the instigator, but the film doesn't really focus on her. It focuses on the trainers and their day-to-day lives.

I'm taking my time editing the film, because I really think I can do it right [if I take longer]. I feel an obligation to tell their story correctly—and they're a little annoyed with me, to be honest. They want this film done so they can use it for promotion. And I could have finished a film, but I wouldn't have fulfilled my promise to show them correctly.

Wild
  • Shawn Convey
  • Wild
How did you find the subjects of Wild?

It was partly a matter of keeping my ear to the ground and partly a matter of luck. Shortly after I came to Chicago about seven years ago, I sold everything I owned and I got a one-way ticket to Bosnia. I wanted to understand what was going on in the Balkans 15 years after the war had ended, because I want to know how people go on. There's always that question: What now? No one there was brought up to fight in a war; they just woke up one day in chaos with guns in their hands. I wanted to know how they were living now, not in a political sense, but what they were doing to better themselves.

I moved there without a concept. I didn't have a preconceived notion that I wanted to prove. I just sat around and I listened. And after being there for a couple of years, this one story stuck out for me about these people who were saving wild horses. This was the first time I heard of wild horses in the area, and—this may sound a little untrue—but it was the first time I heard about anybody in that area caring for animals. They had so many other large issues they had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I mean, the unemployment rate is, unofficially, around 70 percent; eighty percent of the GDP goes back into the government. So, caring for animals isn't something that most people would have time to devote themselves to.

This was happening a couple hours away from where I was living at the time, Mostar. So, one day a friend of mine and I got on a bus, and [the people we contacted] met us at the bus station. We hopped in a 30-year-old Range Rover with two dudes, and we drove about an hour up a mountain, and pretty soon we were hanging out with wild horses.

At that point, I just thought it was kind of neat. Then, we found out that they had been soldiers and that pretty much everybody in the area was. And from there, the whole story started coming out. I found out it wasn't just some people doing the work, but that it was a bike club. Then, I found out that the bike club was founded and led by a guy who had led about 250 paramilitary troops to protect this town and he had done that when he was about 20. Then, I found out that this group is focused almost solely on humanitarian efforts. And it kept getting deeper and deeper and deeper.

Every time I'd go back, they'd give me something else. And it wasn't to keep me there, but because they got more comfortable and they started talking more candidly.

WILD-10___Convey_2012.jpg
  • Shawn Convey

How long have you been shooting the movie?

I've been going back for about two-and-a-half years. I've had to feel my way through this, because these guys are pretty hard. They're not mean, but the whole area's been hardened. People around there aren't so trusting or open.

I've learned this is a pretty common thing in documentary filmmaking—"research footage," it's called, where you figure out what your boundaries are with your subjects, how far you can go. I'd say that I figured that out about last year. Since then I've been trying to figure out how I can get enough money to stay there for two-and-a-half months and film nonstop. I've got quite a bit of footage already, but I need enough to put it together. Also the story's changing now.

What's it like coming back to Chicago after you've immersed yourself in these situations you're filming?

It sucks. To be honest, it's really tough. I really like living in Herzegovina. It's easier to be a foreigner than a local there. I was in a point of privilege, even though I wasn't living the high life. I had the freedom of movement, which many of the Muslims—who are either the majority or the minority, depending on which part you're in—do not. It wasn't until very recently—I think it was last year—that they were allowed to move more freely in the east.

It's just a beautiful, simple lifestyle, and I got used to it. So, coming back here, everything feels so extravagant, even unnecessary. I mean, I came back over the years, but living [in Chicago] you find yourself falling into similar patterns you were in for so many years. Now, I'm just constantly trying to stymie those patterns and keep my eye on what's important and what's real. I've been using the excuse that I'm only temporarily back and then I'll go somewhere else in the next couple years. I think that keeps me on a good track.

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