About Alexandra Shiva

Alexandra Shiva is a documentarian known for critically acclaimed films like Bombay EunuchStagedoor, and the Peabody Award winning How To Dance In Ohio. Her most recent film, This Is Home: A Refugee Story, won the audience award for World Documentary when it premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Be sure and check it out today on EPIX.

Recently she sat down with Lunacy to share some insights on documentary filmmaking. (Read Part I of our interview here.)

Lunacy:  How did you get involved in your first film, Bombay Eunuch?

Alexandra Shiva:  I got involved with Bombay Eunuch because I was very interested in gender issues and I was also a photographer. I had not worked in film, but I studied it at college, along with Psychology, and Gender Studies. I was visiting a friend in Bombay for her wedding and ended up spending a lot of time there. I was fascinated by the eunuchs, so later I went back to India to do a photo essay and realized that photography was really the wrong medium to capture that story. So my film school was Bombay.

LU:  And you’ve exclusively done documentaries?

AS:  I have. I love documentaries. I’ve always loved documentaries. I don’t know about doing scripted. I’m not against it, but one of the things I love so much about documentaries is going into people’s lives and connecting with them and telling a story that is going to impact them. Hopefully using it as a medium that will give them a voice; which I know you can do in scripted, it’s just a different kind of voice. There’s a separation. I love working with real people and subjects.

LU:  You’ve made three films that focus on the challenges outsiders face assimilating. What draws you to those stories?

AS:  It took me a while to realize that I was actually interested in those types of stories. I think that How to Dance in Ohio was the first time I could really put a name to what it was that interested me. I find that I’m interested in stories of people trying to find belonging, trying to create communities for themselves. There’s often more interesting material there in the margins, or in the struggle, than there is living in the mainstream. When someone is struggling, I think you learn more about humanity through that struggle.

LU:  This is kind of a “process” question, but it has always fascinated me about unscripted stuff: How do you go from that initial inspiration — “This could be a film” — to actually getting a production off the ground?

AS:  The first thing I do is usually talk to an editor. Either Toby (Toby Shimin), who edited How to Dance in Ohio and This is Home, or Penny (Penelope Falk) who was the editor on Stagedoor and Bombay Eunuch. I’ll run the story by them and talk to them about the film. That’s definitely one way that I, in terms of the creative process, get the project off the ground. And this is my third collaboration with (Blumhouse producer) Jason Blum. I love collaborating with him. He’s definitely my go to if I want to get something produced.

LU:  Jason’s obviously an incredibly prolific producer/filmmaker/force of nature. What is it like collaborating with him?

AS:  It’s definitely changed over time. He is also a close friend. The professional relationship has changed over time. For Stagedoor, he came in when it was a rough cut and watched it, gave notes. He got it. He could really see what I was trying to create. For How to Dance in Ohio, I sort of hit a stumbling block in my research trying to make this movie and he was the one who said, “You’ve got to make this movie. You know what you want, just go make it. I’ll help you.”

I love his vision. I love his creativity. He doesn’t think inside the box. The company’s grown tremendously and hired many, many terrific people. He’s creating that culture from the top down. I’ve really enjoyed working with different people that he’s brought in.

LU:  You’re doing something new with Blumhouse now, aren’t you? Can you talk about that at all?

AS:  Jason said, “I’m going to drag you kicking and screaming into something commercial. You’re going to executive produce No One Saw a Thing.” So I’m working with Marci Wiseman and Jeremy Gold on that. It’s terrific. It’s a really interesting project. It’s a very, very different role because I’m really helping to support the filmmaker and helping to figure out how to get this unscripted series on the air. It’s totally different for me, but I have a great relationship with the filmmaker, Avi Belkin. He’s terrific.

LU:  You have a knack for getting people to open up and trust you. Do you have any tips for other documentary film makers on how to gain the trust of your subjects and get that access you need?

AS:  I try to really engage with them and to have the subjects feel like they are partners in the process. In How to Dance in Ohio we did a lot of pre-interviews, spending time with subjects, answering a lot of questions. There were about four days where clients would just come into a room, they were all on the autism spectrum and I would explain what I do and our producer would explain what she did. The cameraman would let them touch the camera, play with it, and look at it, and really get a tactile sense of it. We would explain where the camera was going to be in the room. There was a lot of discussion to get people comfortable.

LU:  We love supporting female filmmakers at Lunacy. Are there any female filmmakers of the past that have particularly inspired you? Any advice to the next generation of women in film?

AS:  All of them. I don’t even know who to choose. I definitely love to surround myself with female filmmakers and learn more about the craft and how they do it. I saw a film at Sundance this year, On Her Shoulders, and when the credits rolled I realized the filmmaker, Alexandria Bombach, had shot, edited, and directed it. I just bowed to her when I saw her next. I was amazed. Amazed. So she’s the current person I’m very inspired by.

I think my advice for future female filmmakers is don’t take “no” for an answer! Follow the stories that are important to you and find people who are going to help you realize those visions.