A few days ago, we brought you the scoop on journalist, Joya Dass’ inspirational documentary, “First Sight.” Now, I have had the honor of interviewing this talented journalist and director! Over the years, Joya has established herself as a reputable journalist and anchor on NY1, CNN, and also AVS. I grew up watching Joya as a host on AVS, so it felt really surreal to me to have a chance to interview her. I had high expectations for the interview and, trust me, Joya definitely lived up to expectations in her answers, which reflect the same class, intelligence, and eloquence she displays on TV as a host.
Read below for the full interview!
UA: Most of us know you as the host from AVS, but probably not many are aware of your director avatar. What got you interested in making documentary films? Did you take classes, or having been in the industry, did the transition come naturally?
It’s funny. Over the years, some people only know me from my business news avatar. Others know me from the AVS host avatar. Some know me from both. Regardless of whether I’m doing a piece on the Facebook IPO or Shah Rukh Khan becoming part owner in an IPL cricket team, I’m still in the business of telling stories that are non-fiction. So the transition to documentary filmmaking, or telling a longer non-fiction story wasn’t that much of a stretch.
What I will say about news is this: Everyday, you’re getting a product out the door, quick and dirty. There’s rarely time for beauty and production values. So the documentary filmmaking goal was borne out of a desire to take the time to make everything beautiful—-from the casting of the characters, to the camerawork, to the music to the visual effects. And tell a compelling story.
UA: What motivated you to make a documentary on this particular topic? What was your ‘vision’ (sorry couldn’t resist the pun) in making this movie, and did the final product meet your expectations?
As I was turning 30, I found myself undergoing a renaissance. As 29 rolled into 30, I began embracing my Indian heritage. I bought a ticket to Calcutta and touched Indian soil for the first time. Met my grandmother and cousins for the first time. That inaugural trip planted a seed. I wanted to figure out a way to be in India for more than the 10 vacation days. I wanted to figure out a way to combine work and my love of travel. I wanted to do something to give back.
The idea germinated for about 8 years. It’s an overwhelming feeling when you consider how many races, events, and nonprofits are conduits to “giving back.” On my last trip to Calcutta, May 2009, the idea hit me. I could use my skills to make a film. I’d ally with a humanitarian cause. That would be channel by which I could give back.
I got connected to Sankara while emceeing an AIDS Charity event. The rep over heard me talking about my desire to do a documentary. What’ s the saying about, making your intention clear, and the universe lines everything up to meet you. It happened that day. The project was greenlighted and by December 2009, I had assembled a crew of 5 guys and we headed to Tamil Nadu India to shoot First Sight.
The final product is beautiful. Its all of my two years of not working full time. I poured my heart into it. But i was very hands on from the get go, from choosing the cameraman (marcelo bukin) to the casting of the children, to the music to the maps that zip you trhough the long lettered south indian towns.
I worked hard to make sure “First Sight” was a compelling story first, and a message about Sankara Eye Care Institutions second. As I was editing the film, I would host a rough cut screening in my living room every second Friday, inviting friends to watch and give feedback. What was working. What was not working. What important messages were not coming through? 53 versions of the edited film now exist. I was treading the fine line between making a movie and making a 50 minute PSA.
The Day After Tomorrow was a blockbuster Hollywood action movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal. An Inconvenient Truth was a successful documentary with a huge outreach campaign by Former Vice President Al Gore. Both were about the impact of global warming. but as a 2010 New York Times article put it, the hollywood-ized “Day After Tomorrow” appeared to be more successful in altering attitudes among young and undereducated audiences. Why? Because it was a rip roaring story. Not a preachy documentary.
In the last year, myself and my producing partner Greta Knutzen have formed a production company, Avenue Media, providing media campaigns for nonprofits, foundations and socially responsible businesses. We are using new media tools to analyze, from a project’s inception, how audiences get social and political messages through entertainment TV shows and films, and how these messages can be embedded. I wish I had this information when I was first starting to produce First Sight.
UA: Was it difficult making this movie as an independent film and raising money on a grassroots level? If you had even more financing for the movie, would you want to change anything?
Difficult isn’t the word. Mind-numbing is a better adjective. I’d be happy to never ask anybody for a charitable donation again. But then again, looking back, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. The process was amazing. How this went from a germ of an idea, to fundraiser, after fundraiser, silent auction after silent auction, to a whole film. If I had more financing, I would have stayed in Indid longer and done more character development. Observed Ranjith Anitha and Balaji for longer. Made the 2 doctor characters more developed. I would go back and follow up on the kids and find out how they are doing today.
UA: What has the response been so far in the US and India?
The response has been super. I often get a quizzical look, when I say the words “curable blindness.” but this film silences all those questions. “beautiful” is the adjective I get most often. I have done one screening in India. I hope to do another series with the foundation in September.
Balaji. I noticed him right away when I walked into the pediatric ward. He had a face that just begged to tell a story. This 15 year old kid had a chromosomal disorder that was causing his retina to rip away form the back wall of his eye. Had he come in at the age of 6, pressurized gas could be used to push the retina back into place. But after a certain age, nothing doing. Meanwhile, he’s supporting his whole family with a gig at a nearby t-shirt factory, because his father is a drunk and doesn’t support all 7 children. We could only follow his story so far, because the father had a moment of sobriety, and decided we were exploiting him for commerical reasons and whisked him away.
UA: What can we all do to help out with this great cause – ie. trying to reach a cure for eye disease?
My next screening is Tuesday, June 19th at the Disney Theater. I’ve launched a campaign on Rockethub, To buy tickets, please go to http://rkthb.co/7941. All proceeds go towards the Sankara Eye Foundation and their goal to help eradicate curable blindness in India by the year 2020. Please host a screening of the film in your home or at your school if its dedicated to eyecare.
UA: Have you already thought about what your next movie venture will be, or will us fans have to stay patient?
I want to do a big important film centered on finding women a voice, whether it’s set in India or Africa. I grew up in a household of domestic violence where women had no voice.
I cut ties at 18 and left to self-finance college and graduate school. It wasn’t a pretty picture, but it’s my picture. This subject is very near and dear to my heart.
UA: Any other message for your fans and viewers of UrbanAsian?
Never ever take ‘no’ for an answer. If I could only count the number of people who told me I was never going to make it. There’s always a way. It may be over, under, or the long way around. But there’s always a way.
Photo Credit: Jen Painter