As a filmmaker I have learned to look at my life as I would any film. In any feature you can have many plot points, but at least two are critical. The first plot point typically comes at the end of the first act. It is a turning point in the main character’s life. The second plot point usually comes near the end of the second act. It is typically the turning point to some kind of resolution — good or bad, but it leads to some ending.
It took a while for me to get to my first plot point, but when I did, it opened doors to a whole new world.
While completing my master’s degree in broadcast journalism at Northwestern, I broke a story on an autistic Pakistani child filing for asylum in Chicago. After the story aired on the Northwestern News Network, it was picked up by the national media. Because of all the publicity, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in an unprecedented move, granted the child asylum based on medical issues.
During this time I believed broadcasting to be my calling. I received much recognition for this story and soon earned my first television reporting job in Green Bay, Wis. It wasn’t long before I started to get discouraged. I covered traffic, bad weather, city council meetings, fires, murders and car accidents. When I moved to my next market, in Michigan, it didn’t get any better. Though I was the faith and diversity reporter, my nickname quickly became the “death reporter” because I was frequently assigned to talk to victims’ families, who were more willing to share their stories with me than with a general assignment reporter.
These families touched me more than they could have ever imagined. I learned how they grieved and coped and how a piece of them died with their loved ones. I trained myself to confront these tragedies and to console those who were suffering moments after a loss. I knew if I could reach out to people in need then I could in some way bring peace to their lives.
At this time I decided to leave TV reporting and start a film company, Dungby Productions, in Boston.
This was my first plot point. And it was a risky move. I invested my entire savings into it. Two investors, out of pure kindness, helped me buy equipment. I started applying for grants and soon realized there were few out there for filmmakers. I was very fortunate to partner with two talented filmmakers who have a beautiful cinematic style. Still, it took sheer perseverance to get our documentary company off the ground.
I truly believe it is my duty to open the eyes of my community to see the injustices of the world. Filmmakers have the ability to change people’s opinions and make them aware of the social issues that the media and our politicians choose to ignore. Through our films we are trying to document the lives of those sacrificing everything to help others. In turn, we hope our audience will be inspired to improve the lives of the deprived.
I never go into a film project expecting that millions of people will watch, but I do expect that those who do watch will have open hearts and open minds and will leave wanting to do something — even in a small way — to make a social change.
We are currently working on two films that we hope will at least stir discussions and lead to some political change.
The first is a documentary on the 1948 Palestinian refugees living in United Nations Relief and Works Agency camps in Jordan. The film will document the testimonies of a handful of refugees, who make up one of the longest-living refugee groups in world history, and explore what is in store for their future.
It was a challenging project because almost all the refugees mistrusted us Americans to tell their story. During filming we were hit with rocks, threatened, and carefully monitored by the camps’ police, who tried numerous times to interrupt our interviews and meddle with our footage.
Even in Amman, Jordan’s capital city, it was difficult to operate. We were there during the 2005 hotel bombings, and we knew there were plenty of anti-American opinions. There were times when we even questioned whether we could finish production. But no matter what happened, the next day we would look at the footage and realize we had moved an inch in the right direction.
Hopefully when this film is released, Americans will understand one perspective of the Middle East crisis and realize there is no perfect side. There are flaws in both the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives. We know our film can’t bring peace to the Middle East, but hopefully it can lead to important discussions that may help improve the conditions in these camps.
Our first feature-length film, currently in production, is on the Maine Troop Greeters of Bangor and the sacrifices that these war veterans and elderly retirees make day and night to greet U.S. troops heading to and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Bangor International Airport is where troops get their last hug before heading overseas, and for the fortunate, this is the first piece of U.S. soil they’ll step upon when they return home.
This has become a very personal and emotional film for us. We all have watched thousands of young men and women go off to war. As we capture the relationships between the greeters and the troops, you can’t stop from feeling overwhelmed by the kindness and compassion that these senior citizens and war veterans give to complete strangers. You don’t realize what a greeting like this means until you talk with a career serviceman, a veteran of both Vietnam and Iraq, who weeps after finally getting greeted. It’s these moments, when you talk to these soldiers, when you realize the enormous impact a welcome can make.
Last year the Skoll Foundation commissioned us to do a video on Roots of Peace, a nonprofit organization that helps restore peace in war-torn countries by removing land mines and teaching local farmers how to grow high-value crops in their place. In Afghanistan alone there are reportedly 200 land mine casualties a month — and a majority of these casualties are children. About half of these victims die before they can get any help, and the others, if lucky, make it to International Committee of the Red Cross clinics, where they learn to use prosthetics to rebuild their lives.
Through this film Roots of Peace has been able to showcase its work and raise money for land mine removal. In February Roots of Peace showed the Afghanistan video at the nonprofit’s 10-year anniversary celebration at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C. Attendees included key members of the White House, Pentagon, U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and Congress.
I knew long ago that I wanted to help people. I didn’t know what God would have in store for me, but I realized if I was going to be fulfilled in life, I had to let him guide me. Making films is hard. Finding funding is even harder. I wake up every day wondering where I will find the energy to search for grants, talk to investors and network with people. But then I look at how far we’ve come — how many lives we have touched in such a short period of time — and realize that too many people are relying on me to fight for them.
Our film company was founded with the idea that we could spread peace by telling stories. I have learned that it takes more than just me to make that happen. It takes a group of people committed to change to bring peace. I believe films and videos can touch your soul if you let them. We hope our documentaries will produce a positive change.
I don’t know what my second plot point in life will be but I am hoping for a happy — and peace-filled — ending.
Gita Pullapilly (GJ00) is a film producer for Dungby Productions in Brookline, Mass.