Tuesday, May 12, 2009


It is nearly a year now since I returned from India. This is the film I made, shot there, submitted as my senior project. I graduate in a few days.


letters is an experimental documentary/travel log about my experiences during a semester abroad. It highlights language, gender and culture collisions I experienced over the five months I was there, as well as exploring ideas related to the exotic dream of a foreign land, vs. the reality of life in the land we fictionalize from home.

It was shot on a Sony HC1000, and edited originally in-country on a g4 laptop running Final Cut Pro 3.0. The sound was recorded using a mini-disc player and a stereo lavalier microphone. The picture to the right was my mobile studio.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Remembering India after my Birthday

Lingampally had gone to sleep, like most of the Hyderabad metro. We were all a little drunk; a little less drunk by then, but still a little drunk. It was India drunk mind you, which, with few moments of exception never approached the excess of American drunk, or more specifically, Wisconsin drunk.

Vikram was riding with me, talking to me from the behind me on the motorbike as we ride through the now empty, always dusty streets of Lingampally. We have just finished eating at a late night biryani house. The guys always seemed to come up with these places, and they never lasted long enough for us to visit the same one twice. After the 12 midnight standard closing time for everything and these places, hidden in some side street, filled with guys, eating rice and talking and bustling.

Vikram had been the drunkest earlier. He poured his chicken and curry over the steel plate of rice in one shot and mixed it thoroughly with his hand, talking and mixing while we did the same, only in more of a controlled way. It was good food though, as is most food at that hour, in that state. I still haven't found anything quite as appetizing though now that I am home. We soon were quiet as we focused on rice and chicken. It quickly became obvious though that Vikram wasn't doing as well as the rest of us.

"Daniel!" he nearly shouted, "Isn't this hot for you?"

He's visibly sweating already.

"No, Vikram. Are you ok?"

Vikram is drinking everyone's water as he continues to eat, red eyed, sweating, eating and eating, punctuated by refilling our water cups and downing them again.

"Christ Vikram, what kind of Indian are you, " I jibe, smiling.

"Isn't it hot?" He looks puzzled.

"I've been trying to tell you guys that all of this 'too hot for my American friends' is a fucking stereotype. I eat hotter food than this in my own kitchen. Of course, none of us poured our whole dish into the rice at once, except you...".

Vikram has some curd now and fills the water cups. Of course, we are laughing now at his distress. The food is delicious. We finish, and Vikram leads the way by lighting a cigarette beneath the stenciled "no smoking" sign right over his sweating forehead on the wall.

Riding close to me on the motorbike, Murly behind us on the same seat, Vikram throws his arms out wide.

"How are you liking India, Daniel?" he shouts.

"I'm having a great time!" I smile. I am. My motorbike screams beneath us, like a mad lawn mower with glass paks, I'm with my friends, who, by skin, caste, education and gender are nearly a free pass for me, the night is lovely and the road belongs to us and our motocycles.

"Don't you love the freedom here, Daniel?!"

"Of course I do, I wonder though about my classmates, and yours for that matter, the women-"

"Don't worry about the women, Daniel!" Shouts Vikram.

It may be that it was a selfish worry: one of feeling sad that I could never share with my young classmates this intense free roaming. These are just young men, having fun, so terribly innocently inexperienced in so many ways. None of them have worked, or fucked or fought. Surely their greatest crimes were loitering and drinking. Getting "very drunk," was two pints of rum for 5 guys. This evening's had been one pint and a beer for the four of us. It was just the joy of your twenties, and being free. There is not for them, even some abstract threat of the Devil roaming around in their collective psyches. In this moment, without helmets or fear, riding through the dusty streets, holding hands between bikes, we were free for certain, and through their respect and inclusion so was I. This was all something I wished I could share with my class mates, regardless of gender. So, as the haze of this moment's joy settled, that Devil that I brought with me of guilt, and the knowledge that this only further isolated me from my group, stole the moment, the now, back from me.

Isolating the truth of Vikram's joy, the truth of joy itself, during my stay in India is the positive notion that I found to keep with me. If I saw anything magical on my journey, it was this broad and deep capacity for spontaneous, pure joy that permeated everything. From the naked children begging in the train station, to the ecstatic festivals of countless deities, to the campus DJ nights, there never failed to be a sudden outburst of joy in the moment. At rare times, it was patriotic, or sarcastic, or alcoholic, but most times it had nothing to do with anything other than having an outburst of happiness. There was little complaining, few grudges. It was both more intense and more fleeting than the similar experience here. We learn to complain so much more in the States.

Vikram's joy, regardless of its accompanying traditional sexism, has a value to hold tight to. Especially considering the conditions it comes from. India, for all of its richness and development, is a chaotic, lawless and cruel place ruled by name, caste and gender; corrupt in its bureaucracy, and thuggish in its local politics. It exploited by the West even as its own people strive to exploit their fellow citizens, Western style. Its cities are so polluted during the day that one's own sweat mixes with the air and becomes corrosive. It is an environment that sent me home believing that any American businessman who believed that the understood suffering on the terms of eastern philosophy was a spoiled child.

I suppose, in the end, I wish for both to be true: that this spontaneous joyous life remain possible and that the lawlessness of caste-ism, nepotism and ecological destruction be impossible. That the joy of the "Wild West," of the "50's," of "the way things used to be and you know it was better," be recognized for what it is- a lie. The wild west wiped out whole species of creatures and most nearly an entire race of people; the 50's gave us the foundation for our current ecological crisis, and our continued lust for a glorified past only paves the way for more mistakes.

"Don't you love the freedom, Daniel?!"

Of course, I love the freedom that India has. India retains the freedom to change its course, to focus on the things it still has, while building a future that its people deserve. The freedom of 1.2 billion people who, through this access to knowledge can reject oil now, preserve their family structures now, reject corruption now, and preserve its love of life and country now.

In the meantime, returning to the U.S., I had the privilege of riding a borrowed scooter to lunch today, with a passenger. The scooter was small, and it was made for two riders as surely as any two wheeler in Hyderabad is made for four (as in not really). We fit just a little better than three men fit on my Yamaha in India. The scooter's motor screamed its hardest to push the two of us along the road, and I remembered that freedom. My passenger was a woman, but she rode like an Indian man, laughing and talking, like Vikram. In the now, joyous, in broad daylight, innocently, soberly - on the way to lunch anyway- and free.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Getting ready to move

The time to leave Hyderabad is approaching quickly. My movie is finished (by the standards of turning things in here). I will submit it tomorrow. It's pretty, but it needs a lot of work still. Work I just can't do very fast on a g4 iBook with final cut 3.0. Truth is, i am amazed I was able to cobble together something over 15 minutes long with the system I am using.

Watch the trailer. Some of it is very lovely...

I made it all in my studio (I "took" a room at the International Students Hostel). Working on it was really the only thing that made me homesick. What a nerd. Homesick for the level of technology I have access to at home. Thinking about it like that, I guess that solves the "will I go to grad school?" question. If I want to keep making my little movies, I guess I better do a little better so I get a free ride somewhere. Or I had better set up some kind of movie based business this summer that allows me to keep doing this. Something.

My stay here has been very wonderful, and all of us are in that retrospective frame of mind around the campus. My local friends are all about to graduate, and my fellow foreigners are all about to leave. We are all rehashing the last 4 months and mostly wishing that we weren't going to leave each other. I only know of one person who doesn't want to leave this city though. It isn't me. Hyderabad has some good points, but only if you're from here. That's my opinion. The harsh opinion is that this is one backwards fucked up city, addicted to bureaucracy in the strangest of ways, dirty, corrupt, and segregated. It makes Milwaukee seem like some kind of progressive paradise.

Yep. It's time to wrap up and go home. First though, I am going to Darjeeling, and then Nepal. I mean, I'm over here, I better go while I can.

Friday, April 4, 2008

I'm Hungry

It's late. I'm hungry. I have a lot of material to go through for my independent project. Most of it is very promising, but there is a lot of work to be done an I am completely out of the element I am used to. No one really gives the feedback like I am used to. It's lay-feedback mostly. So I hammer at it slowly, looking for some kind of structure that will reflect how I felt the first half of my semester here. Over privileged outsider.

This in itself is funny, because as easy as my life is, I know I am living far below the means of most of the people around me here. My impulse buys do not even approach the traveling, eating and shopping of so many of the people I am on this trip with.

I have long since gotten over any hope of defining the rights and wrongs of this place, or western vs. eastern, or all of the issues of gender here. Frankly, all of the "issues" orientation here is, as it is at home, divisive.

I'm hungry. I'm going to eat.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Get back on track

I've been hard at work. My recent culture shock/bad attitude is beginning to resolve itself. After several conversations with friends, both Indian and American, here and at home via thew internet, it seems that I am just generally worn out on being in Hyderabad.

Honestly, Hyderabad is not a bad place. My friends here are some of the most wonderful, faith-filled, non-judgemental people I have ever met. It has worn me down though to be in a constant state of "What the hell is going on?" It is a state I find myself in often, standing around, skimming scraps of conversation from my classmates. It is a dream state almost. It feels like I should know what is going on, but I just can't quite understand.

Yesterday, I went out into the open area surrounding the campus for a long bike ride. I followed a road, which turned into a pair of tracks, which turned to a winding cow trail. It was very quiet, and I actually managed to escape into a landscape that had no litter (that is very difficult here). I sat, looking at the small lake and wondered what to do about my deteriorating attitude. I don't really have the resources to be traveling all over India, seeing temples and what not. It has gotten to me a bit, and I was wishing I had joined a trip to Nepal which two friends went on.

With my attitude question still unresolved, I moved on, passing the brush and the rocks and finally coming to where the cow trails again turned into a pair of tracks, and then a road, and then a divided road under contruction. I found myself in a huge soon-to-be-suburb. All of the buildings were in the same state of bare construction-concrete pillars reaching up being lead by bare reinforcement-bar skeltons towards the sky. Here and there were late workers. I wondered who would be coming here to this very modern, squarely laid out village. Surrounding these skeletons were the many village huts of the workers who were building the empty structures.

I'm not really sure what I was hoping to find out on that ride. Pretty views maybe. A pepsi. Space. Piece of mind.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Waking up in India

I often wonder why exactly I and everyone else here from a "Developed" nation has to go through this process of giving up on that idea of "what's wrong with those poor people's society," and how it should be changed. I took two months, but I am quite clear now on the level of my understanding of life here (better than zero, but not much). Even the smallest of things have different meanings here. Take for example two tiny words, that sort of mean the same thing, but don't really. The english word "sir" and the Hindi word "ji."

"ji" sounds like "g," or as I most often like to think "G." It's a suffix really, and it gives a meaning of respectful address. You attach it to the end of a name or mother, or father, or to the end of a positive or negative answer. So it gets translated at "sir" mostly. Unfortunately, "sir" doesn't really mean much for me, as I throw "sir" about with complete abandon at home, and often sarcastically. I also do the same with "G" with friends. In fact I think "G" probably is more respectful when I use it than "sir" as it carries a bit more closeness.

Here though, my tendency to use "sir" to address people has actually given me a lot of help. It's a magic word. Here, "sir" is "ji" and immediately makes you a very polite gentleman (unless you use it on a friend who wants you to treat them as an equal or familiar). Teachers certainly bother me less, and officials leave me instantly out of the ugly American category the moment "ji" or "sir" escapes my lips.

In the end, while I recognize that this is a bit strange and ridiculous to me, on the other hand, a respectful society is certainly a nice idea. People are generally friendly here. I get a lot of privilege because of my age, skin color and gender combined. It's ridiculous, but I am not about to knock it.

The women on this trip have a tough time getting around, and saying it sucks is a bit of a callous understatement. It more than sucks. However, it doesn't suck because of something inherently wrong with this society. It sucks mostly because it makes it nearly impossible for young women to assimilate safely into this society at large. Where my skin color makes me a target of useful attention (to a point) theirs certainly does not. Add to that the general notion of Western women as immoral. All of the things you're supposed to be able to do in the States are gone. I say "supposed to be able" because it's not a sure thing at home either, and it's easy to forget that here. I haven't run into a foreign idea about women here. It's the same old crap at home that ignorance creates. This is the root of the problem here for visitors. For the most part, women and men are completely foreign to each other, because that is the way the culture works here. It's got its problems, but so does our culture (if you can call it that... I'll get to that another time), and we only have a third of the people to deal with.

For a while, it seems like a good idea to categorize and judge this or that about this culture. I think though that it is unwise. Especially if you are at a disadvantage here. Continuing to keep placing the people you meet into the category of "other" is going to keep them as enemies really. At least, these are the things I tell myself. Respect is key to survival.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Quietly getting into my surroundings.

My blogging has been a bit lax. I realize it's been over a week since my last entry but I have had a lot of new information to process here, and school has been warming up as well. So let's start there...


Education definitely operates differently here. Let's start with the basics. First, you have your primary education. Then you go to three years of Bachelors degree. Then 2 years of your Masters. Bascially, our fourth year is equivalent to the first year of a Masters here. That difference has been interesting.

Going to school here is far more interesting though. As a young person here in Hyderabad, and I am assured that this is the traditional norm elsewhere, you have two choices: Education or work. People who enter school do not go to work. In fact, working is considered a stigma amongst those who value the status that education provides. So here I am amongst a few thousand young people who have, for the most part, never worked.

It is quite lovely in so many ways. The lasting power of idealism, innocence, and culture are not diminished. Cynicism and the desire for unhappy endings is quite absent for the most part, and when present is sweetly theoretical. People get along here most often, and resist cruelty even in their media. Compared with the States and the general cruelty of television soap operas and reality shows, I find this resistance very refreshing.

Of course, this comes at a cost like all things. Certain things that remain traditional are not very good. There is an undercurrent of class and privilege that remains constant. People who stay in academia retain their prejudices connected to tradition regardless of intellectual discussions of freedom from discrimination. One only has to look at the attention and attitudes of our instructors and program directors and the way they behave towards the servants who surround them daily.

India is a place of knowing your place, and being that puts me in a strange situation. At once I am a figure that demands traditional respect because of my age. However, I am a student, and I have worked, so I carry a bit of that with me. Some people I interact with are very clear about their feelings when it comes to being a non-traditional student, regardless of what they say about their tolerance, and willingness to bridge the culture gap. It's easy to know where they are coming from now, as soon as I watch them treat the servers and servants quite traditionally, like they are lesser persons.

Law and Order

Which brings me along to my experiences of the differences between the Law, which is given a lot of lip service and actual practice here. At home, regardless of rebellious youth, or foolish old men, the law is the law. You will get a ticket for certain things on the road. You will get in trouble for defrauding a stranger. It is not ok to solve street disputes through mass assembly and beatings. Often times here though the law, at least for Hyderabadis, seems like a list of suggestions. The law of the land here is tradition. I can't really claim much more understanding than this here. On the face of it though, there are laws and laws, neither of which are extremely enforceable. Tradition is observed far more than the general laws of commerce, employment or travel. Tradition is enforced by association and economic success. The Law is subject to tradition and economic power. Recently it was said to me that while it was known that anything in Hyderabad can be done for the right price, it was best to understand the position of the person who was speaking to me and out of a traditional form of respect to them it was best for me to observe the rules. Because I have a healthy dose of that respect motivation, my motorcycle is for sale and I have stopped looking to obtain a driver's license.

Like I said before, these last two blogs are fairly weak. I don't really know much... Better blogs will come along.