By HTP Editorial

“Hossein Martin Fazeli has been writing and directing dramatic and non-fiction films for the past 17 years.  His films have been broadcast around the world, including on BBC, ARTE, SBS, and Canal+. 

“His film, The Tale of The Two Nazanins, about an Iranian teenage girl imprisoned on death row, was broadcast on major networks such as the BBC and CBC and is credited with igniting an international campaign that saved her life.

“In 2007 he was short-listed by the Sundance Institute to take part in their International Filmmakers Award. His films have won 37 international awards.”

Hossein Martin Fazeli

Q & A:

Who is Phoolan Devi?

Phoolan Devi was a low-caste Indian village girl with a strong and uncompromising sense of justice whose ‘big mouth’ got her into a lot of serious trouble. When the powers to be could not silence her into a life of subordination, they had her kidnapped by a gang of high caste bandits who gang-raped her for 10 days. In an unheard of act for an Indian woman, let alone a low-caste girl, she ran away, took justice into her own hands and hunted down the men who attacked her. She became a bandit leader, but her banditry was not about random stealing and killing. She became some kind of a ‘Robin Hood’, stealing from the rich, giving to the poor and dispensing rough justice on those who abused women and girls.

Phoolan became the most wanted outlaw in India, with a price on her head to match. And although the authorities unleashed all the power of the state, including the Indian Army and Air Force, she could not be captured.

After being on the run for five years, she finally surrendered, on the condition that she would not be executed, and went to jail. In jail she transformed, became a buddhist, went on a regular diet of yoga and meditation and renounced violence! After spending 11 years in prison, she was pardoned and released. Once out of jail, she entered politics, ran for parliament and was elected in a land-slide! This shook India to its core and was extremely sensational news everywhere!! It was the first time that a low-caste women, let alone a low-caste women with a bloody past, was voted into the Indian parliament. While in parliament she fought for women’s rights and for the abolishment of the caste system. Now, since I hate to spoil the story for you, let me stop here. The ending is not nice or happy, but it’s a testament to the power of her convictions! There’s mystery to be solved here!

Why is she important?

She is important because of two main reasons: one, she is an exemplary case of a woman’s will to fight against incredible odds for justice and dignity. That’s no small feat in rural India where violence and injustice is the order of the day and the pressure to accept that order is uniform and widespread. In a fiercely patriarchal society like India what she achieved was unthinkable!

Secondly, she is a perfect case to illustrate one’s power to rise above one’s circumstances and change! Without wanting to sound religious, her transformations in life were almost biblical! In the society where she lived she was the lowest of the low. But she didn’t accept that as her fate. When she couldn’t fight the system legally, she transformed herself into a bandit leader (the only female bandit leader in the modern history of India). Once in jail she transformed herself again from a violent bandit, dispensing rough justice on ‘bad guys’, to a non-violent Buddhist fighting peacefully for what she believed in. And then again when she was released she transformed herself into a law-maker, despite the fact that she could not read and write! These are huge accomplishments, and they are hugely inspirational for anyone who needs change, real change, in their lives!

So, to summarize, the significance of her story is two fold; on one hand it’s a story about social justice and the need to fight for it. And on the other, it’s a story of personal transformation and the power of will!

And let’s not forget that her legacy still continues to this day! There are hundreds of women’s rights groups and organizations in India today fighting for gender equality whose model is Phoolan Devi and whose motto is Phoolan’s unbending belief in justice for all! Two years ago in India I met the leader of a well-known women’s rights group called the Red Brigade who told me that it was Phoolan’s story that inspired her to establish her organization. Phoolan single-handedly started a revolution and the revolution still continues! Today Indian parliament has thirty something low-caste members (something unimaginable just 20 years ago!), thanks to the courage and ambitions of Phoolan Devi!

Why do you think we know so little about Phoolan in the West?

That’s a great question! I’m not sure if  I have an answer to that. Almost every caring/thinking person I know has somehow put that question to me! They say, without trying to hide their surprise, “How come we don’t know her story?”  After having worked on the film for 4 years now, and after having been rejected by so many mainstream outlets whom we approached for support, I have developed a theory that might shed light on puzzle: I think the reason why so few people know about Phoolan in the West is that mainstream Western media organizations find her story to be too controversial to touch. And the reason fort that is that she used violence to defend herself. The mainstream Western narrative on the concept of femininity is built on the notion of ‘nurture’. Women are supposed to be ‘nurturing’, ‘understanding’ and ‘non-violent’. These are all great. I’m a non-violent activist myself and I sure wished there was more understanding and nurturing in this world of ours! But to condemn a gender to a fixed quality and to refuse to look at all the various contexts in which different women of different backgrounds, colours, ethnicities and walks of life live, is, at best, wishful blindness! Phoolan had no choice but to reach out to the gun! When at the age of 15 she went to the police to complain about the theft of her family’s plot of land by a rich family member, the police arrested and raped her for three days! It’s as infuriating as it is unbelievable. The law of the land let her down, she had no system of support, financial or otherwise, and she was being pushed around and pushed aside at every corner by every man who crossed her path! What would you do if you were in her situation? That’s the inconvenient question that each one of us should ask ourselves. Her brother, Shiv Narayan, told me that until she reached out to the gun nobody respected her! But that’s not why her story is amazing! Violence is never amazing, even when you use it for self-defense! What is important in her story is not so much the fact that she had the guts to use the barrel of the gun to talk to those who felt no mercy for a little girl like her, but that the moment she could put the gun down, she did put it down! As I said before, once in jail she renounced violence and became a non-violent activist. It was a conscious choice on her part and I applaud that. That transformation is, in fact, the most important transformation of the story.

Anyway, going back to your question, I think there is so much stigma attached to the notion of female violence in the West, that her story may be too ‘hot’ to touch for those who control the information channels! 

What led you to make this film?

My own past! I was born in Iran and came to Canada as a refugee at the end of the 80s. In the post-revolution Iran, I experienced injustice first hand. I lost members of my family to firing squads for political ‘crimes’ as petty as distributing band opposition papers or joining human rights groups. I know what it means to be denied dignity because of having a different opinion, ideology or belief. Phoolan Devi was denied dignity because she belonged to a ‘different’ caste, a ‘different’ class and a ‘different’ sex. The underlying mechanisms of oppression in my past experience and in Phoolan’s life are the same. In the end it doesn’t matter why you are denied humanity. The act itself is unjustifiable. And so for me, making this film is a personal journey through which I would be visiting the dark corners of my past to shed light on, and hopefully defend, what I believe to be the unalienable right every human being is born with: the right to be treated with respect and dignity.

What were some of the challenges/disappointments you faced in making this documentary?

This project has been an uphill battle! Yes, there have been many challenges along the way. I mean, the film was supposed to finish in 2014! And here we are in 2017 and we’re not done yet! You know, I’m working with a team that has collectively won 100 international awards for their films! These guys know what they’re doing. We’re supposed to get things done fast! Yet, our progress has been, at times, pretty sluggish! I think the main reason for this is the story itself, and the woman behind it!  Phoolan is a polarizing figure in India. To the hundreds of millions of low-caste Indians, she is a Goddess. But there are also a lot of people out there who hate her guts! Perhaps that’s why the process of getting a filming permit to shoot in India, a process that usually takes 2 to 3 months, took 18 damn months in our case, and pushed us to change and modify a lot of our original plans!!

Making a film like this required us to go to the places that even local journalists avoided- places like the Behmai village where Phoolan was gang-raped for 10 days and returned a year later for revenge. In Behmai there is clear and present hostility towards all members of the media and, as a matter of fact, any foreigner with a camera! The reason is because every filmmaker or journalist who has gone there to cover Phoolan’s story has demonized the entire population of the village. We didn’t want to do that. We really wanted to listen to their side of the story. Still there was a lot of suspicion and preconceived animosity among some villagers about our visit. And so at some point, when I went to Behmai to do some research, we were confronted by a bunch of furious men, drunk men, one of whom almost broke my jaw and our camera! We got ourselves out of the situation and left quickly. But we had to go back for the actual filming. And that was not an easy trip either (this time we had to cut filming short and virtually run away! A story in itself!)…

And, of course, finances! We started this film without having the full budget in the bank (a mistake I would never make again!). I was counting on the enthusiasm of grant-giving foundations once they learned about the story and our progress with the story. But things didn’t happen the way I had imagined them!! As I said, a lot of places we went to thought the subject-matter was too controversial. And then one of the few places that supported us- a TV network in Canada- filed for bankruptcy two years into the production, causing us to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars (a big chunk of our budget!). And were it not for the generosity and understanding of our main funder, the London-based Toos Foundation and its founder, Jamileh Kharrazi, who helped us keep going in our ‘darkest hour’, we would have probably been left with no choice but to shelve the project!

What were some areas where you feel you succeeded?

I think we got the story right! That’s the area with which I feel most satisfied. And the reason for this is because we talked to the right people. We interviewed people who knew Phoolan personally, and were present in important moments in her life, including her mother, her sisters, her brother, her bandit comrades, the people who negotiated her surrender with her, the people who ran the jail where she was serving time, her secretary when she was a parliamentarian as well as journalists, thinkers and feminists who provided context for the story. Moreover, we talked to people who disapprove of what she did or thought of her as a criminal who got away with murder! So, we covered a whole range of opinions and experiences and that’s key in making an honest and exciting film!

How can we all help support this project?

We are 75% complete now and have just started the editing process. But the challenges aren’t over yet. Our most important challenge right now is to raise an additional 65k to cover the costs of post-production of the film. And that’s why we have started a Kickstarter campaign.

This is where you and your readers can help! I urge anybody who is reading this and cares about Phoolan’s story and what it can achieve in terms of encouraging people to take action to end violence against women to support the campaign! No amount is too small (and you’ll receive rewards for every donation you make!). And if you can’t make a donation, help us spread the word about the film by sharing the campaign on your social networks! That would be much appreciated!!

What are some future projects that interest you, and why?(What stories are not being told that should be told?)

Oh, there are a lot of stories that interest me. The story of Abdul-Hossein Sardari, for example, who, as an Iranian diplomat in Paris during WWII, endangered his life to save up to two thousand Iranian and European Jews from the Nazis. He has been called Iran’s Schindler (Schindler saved about 1000 Jews; Sardai saved over 2000!).  Nobody really knows his story, not even in his native Iran. Given the current political climate in the Middle East  and the open hostility between Iran and Israel, I think that’s a very interesting story to tell. My drawer is full of stories like this, in various stages of development!

What do you think of the sexual harassment accusations and allegations that are surfacing now against Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood celebrities?

I think it’s great that women are speaking out! This conduct by those powerful men is totally unacceptable. My problem with the way this whole thing is being reported and talked about, though, is the focus of the conversation. Weinstein and others are being portrayed as bad apples. Well, when a tree is producing so many bad apples then perhaps there’s something wrong with the tree! These cases are not so much about the lone conduct of this or that individual as they are about the culture of the environment these guys are in charge of! In its core, sexual assault is a power issue; it’s a punishment issue. It’s not a sex issue. When you live in an environment where bullying, back-stabbing and credit-stealing is the norm, then sexual harassment happens! It’s just an extension of all the ills which characterize that environment. When you’re proud of being a bully, then you’ll probably end up ‘grabbing pussy’.  It’s as simple as that!

The Hidden Tears Project is a media company that looks to promote social justice through raising awareness about gender inequality, sexual assault and human trafficking.  Do you think media is making headway in this regard, and what can we all do better?

I think you guys are doing a great job! This really is a selfless job. You’re not only raising awareness on these important issues but telling the world that there are people out there who care! That’s very important. If I wanted to comment on anything in general, it would be on the nature of stories we tell. People are bombarded with bad news 24/7. 90% of TV news is bad news! And a lot of people are exposed to that. What that creates is a feeling of powerlessness in people. It takes the agency away. You become apathetic! The issues are huge and you’ feel too small to do anything about them!! When that feeling sets in then it’s basically the end of the story! That feeling is what we need to counter. And the best way to counter that is to tell inspiring and empowering stories. I’m not saying we should stay away from horrifying stories of injustice and abuse. Not at all! It’s extremely important to expose those stories and to talk about them. We must! But we should balance darkness with light. And there is a lot of light in the stories of the people who fight against injustice and win!

To watch the TRAILER for PHOOLAN, click here

To LEARN MORE about PHOOLAN, click here

To support PHOOLAN‘s campaign on KICKSTARTER, click here