I became a filmmaker in a city with three names: Banaras, Varanasi, Kashi. I was a foreigner, I didn't speak the language, and in this holiest of cities, my understanding of the local religion was rudimentary.
So I had to learn to shoot and respond without language, from the small clues people give. And I had to learn to be modest about how much I understood. It taught me how to collaborate with insiders, and how not to forget the limitations as well as the benefits of being an outsider. It came naturally, I suppose. I grew up as an immigrant, first in Rio, then in Madison Wisconsin.
I went on to make almost a dozen documentary films in India, teaching myself the technology of filmmaking, but really trying to create a style. I found it finally with Dadi's Family, produced with a half-American, half-Indian crew that, within itself, represented perhaps a dozen different ways to be insider and outsider. On Dadi my co-director was a great Indian documentarian, Rina Gill, and my friend Pramod Mathur was co-cinematographer.
The great revelation for me then came in making my first real documentary in the US, Born Again.
It turned out that all the skills that made for good filming in a village in Haryana also applied in Worcester, Mass. It's always easier to be generous and affectionate toward film subjects who are very different from oneself, much harder with those who seem opposed to us within our own culture or political sphere. Looked at that way, moving very slowly from India to Washington helped me keep some qualities I value.
And when Shari and I decided to do this series, and arrived in Washington, Banaras came back to me: I was a foreigner, I didn't speak the language, and my understanding of the local religion was rudimentary.