An Interview with Pulkit Datta – By Cary Conley

I recently had the chance to interview filmmaker Pulkit Datta. We discussed Pulkit’s fondness for social commentary in his short films, and also the new documentary The Forgetting Game, about an incredible Cold War event that has managed to stay secret for nearly half a century.

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Cary Conley: Tell us how you became interested in making films.

Pulkit Datta: I’ve grown up watching both American and Indian films, and have appreciated both cinemas in their own right. Films have been a normal part of my life. But beyond just watching films, I also went through a very short-lived desire to become an actor when I was very young. That ended quickly, mostly when my curiosity for the behind-the-scenes took over. The moment — or rather several consecutive moments — hit me when I would be watching films and started wondering how certain scenes were shot, how they were edited, and I basically started taking apart films in my head, element by element. Then I started imagining how I would have told those same stories my way. There was really no turning back after that. There’s a madness to the world of filmmaking, and I guess I’m blissfully afflicted.

CC: Who are some of your major influences, both in front of and behind the camera?

PD: My influences are a completely random club of filmmakers, from the various cinemas I’ve grown up watching. To name just a few, there’s the incredible narrative range and scale of Steven Spielberg’s films, the wild imagination of Michel Gondry, the grippingly edgy melodrama of Mani Ratnam, the stark political consciousness of Jafar Panahi, the wicked pleasures of Quentin Tarantino, the tense lyricism of Vishal Bhardwaj, and the thrilling social commentary of Alejandro González Iñárritu. I could go on and on.

CC: You’ve produced, directed, written and scored various projects. Is there one job you like better than the other?

PD: It feels odd to hear all those titles listed out. I think all filmmakers in their early stages do everything on their films. It’s out of need as well as the thirst for experience. For me, producing happened first, when my college professor asked me to produce our senior capstone short film, Written Off. I went into it scared of completely ruining it for my classmates, but came out of it with a high.

I’ve always wanted to write and direct. I used to write short stories, some of which I am now revisiting to see if they can be translated into films. For me, directing goes hand-in-hand with writing, because when I write, I inevitably think of how I would direct it. I have so many stories I want to tell, so many ideas, that I think I’ll be writing many of the films I will direct.

As for scoring, I really wouldn’t say I’ve composed. That would be an insult to the world of music. I’ve only arranged loops on Garageband to create pieces for my 16mm short films. I actually don’t have much knowledge of the intricacies of music, beyond being able to recognize a good tune.

So, to answer your question, writing and directing would be top of my list here.

CC: How did you discover the story of Beate Kernke? How did you develop the story into a film project?

PD: I was at graduate school – NYU – with the director of The Forgetting Game, Russell Sheaffer. He told me about a story he had been hearing from his family growing up. It was the story of a little girl who was the first person to be peacefully and legally transferred across the Berlin Wall, from East to West Germany, in 1963. I’ve grown up in a diplomatic family and have always been surrounded by politics and world affairs. So stories with political angles get me excited.

Russell wanted to make a documentary on Beate’s transfer, and I came onboard as producer, along with another NYU classmate, Jim Bittl. At first we set out to make a short documentary, chronicling just the transfer. But then I was itching to actually find Beate, so we made that our mission. A lot of searching later, we finally found Beate and once we interviewed her and got her life story, the film really came into being and took its own shape.

CC: On the surface, the documentary explores the lives of Beate Kernke and the Clark children as they eventually reconnect with each other, but there is also a subtext being explored. Talk a little about that subtext and how you initially discovered and developed it as a part of the film?

PD: I think what intrigued Russell, Jim and I the most was the fact that Beate’s transfer was treated as if it never happened. What could have been a great example of conflicting sides reaching a small compromise, a little girl becoming a symbol of hope and understanding, was simply brushed under the carpet. So, we wanted to look at how easily such positive instances can be forgotten. There are so many such instances in human history that are intentionally forgotten. For one reason or another, we pretend they never happened.

With Beate’s story, while we were really interested in tracing her life since her transfer, and getting the perspective of the Clark children, we also kept coming across evidence of how the political context at the time informed the "forgetting" of this event. We had official documents from the time as proof of Beate’s transfer, but when we contacted the organizations and offices involved, they all claimed they had no record of it or that it never happened.

So ‘The Forgetting Game’ became a way to shed light on a personal story within a political context.

CC: There was quite a bit of research and travel involved in making The Forgetting Game. Can you explain the process you went through to raise funds to produce this film?

PD: The finances were perhaps the most difficult part of making this film, and I’m sure most independent filmmakers would empathize with that. We raised part of the budget through a Kickstarter campaign, and we’re eternally grateful to everyone who contributed. The rest of it ended up being self-financed.

We had to be creative in making this film happen logistically. We used airline miles to fund air travel for the shoots. We stayed with friends and family during our research and shoots, sometimes borrowed gear that we needed, and recruited friends for the price of a nice dinner to help us with post-production.

One of the beautiful things about independent filmmaking is that you tend to get creative with how you most efficiently make use of a limited budget. You might not appreciate it when you’re struggling to finish a film, but when it’s done it feels like a huge accomplishment.

CC: What has the process been like for you as you explore a distribution deal?

PD: Documentaries are very hard to sell, but we’re hopeful. We’ve submitted to a few distributors and are looking at various options to get our film out there. If anyone has tips or suggestions, please contact us:

CC: Along with the documentary film The Forgetting Game, you’ve also created several black-and-white film shorts, each of them addressing a different social topic. It seems clear to me that you are using film not so much as entertainment (although each film is entertaining) but as a venue to explore social change. Would that be an accurate statement?

PD: That’s exactly right. Film is such a powerful medium and can reach out to so many people at once. I think films should be entertaining for sure, but they also need to do something more than that. All of the films I’ve made have social or political commentary, and that I think stems from my upbringing. Having lived in several different countries and experienced such diverse cultures and issues, I inevitably work a social or political subtext into every story or idea I come up with. And I find that very important in my work, because if I can get people to at least think about the issue or topic I’ve raised in my films, then that is an achievement for me.

CC: One of your shorts is entitled "Jason" and addresses transgendered roles in society, particularly the familial relationship between a transgendered young adult and his parents. Why did you choose this particular topic?

PD: Of the films I’ve made so far, I think ‘Jason’ was the farthest from my personal frame of reference. It was loosely inspired by the personal story of a friend as well as my growing awareness of the LGBT rights movement. To make it a personal, relatable story, I used the perspective of the protagonist trying to explain to his parents something integral about his life. That, I felt, was something anyone could connect with.

CC: A second short is entitled "Free to be Free". It essentially depicts various signs telling people what to do and what not to do ("Talk to Chuck"; "No Parking"; "Enter Here"; etc.). It seems this short may have been an expression of your own personal frustration with society. Was there any underlying impetus for this film?

PD: I originally had this idea for a photography project. Living in New York City, I started noticing how we are bombarded with messages every single day, hundreds or thousands of times a day. If you take just a morning commute from home to work, we consciously or subconsciously absorb so many messages that are fed to us, whether it’s signs, billboards, ads, flyers, pieces of mail, in the morning newspaper, on our phones, on the bus, the subway and so on.

When the opportunity to make a 16mm short came along, I decided to try out that project idea on film instead. The title comes from a quote by Nelson Mandela, where he says "We are free to be free." I took that and turned it upside down using the images I found around New York. The idea is to complicate the notion of freedom, to make us think of what freedom really means, and people will react differently to it. I’ve already heard a few different interpretations of the film, which is great because it means it’s making them think about the topic.

CC: Two shots in "Free to be Free" really struck a chord in me. First, there are several shots of endless traffic going by. These shots were repeated enough that I felt like there was some underlying symbolism to them. I also liked the last shot as the camera traces several stories of fire escapes, moving diagonally up the ladder, then horizontally across the platform, and repeating this for several stories. The shot is then repeated, but much quicker, as the camera traces the fire escapes back down the building. The net effect is a shaky, almost cyclical motion. What were your thoughts as you created these particular scenes?

PD: The two shots you mention actually bring the film full circle since it starts and ends with shots of traffic and a fire escape. The various shots of endless traffic going by were intended to give the film some sort of narrative motion, even though it has no traditional narrative. The shots at the end were also filmed at a faster frame rate to illustrate that the pace at which our lives are moving these days.

With ‘Free to be Free,’ I played with structure and meaning. It’s not a wildly experimental film as such, but the point is to put a series of images out there, connect them to one another, and then let the viewer take away his/her own interpretations as to why the images were there and what purpose they serve.

CC: Perhaps my favorite shot in "Free to be Free" is the sign that read "Do bad things…" That had to be a setup, right?

PD: Haha, not at all. It was from a billboard for the TV show True Blood. I think the slogan fit really well in my montage. It says quite a lot on many different levels, especially within the context of the film.

CC: Your final short is entitled "The Vigilant Citizen" and seems to not only be a commentary on society, but also your most humorous film to date. I particularly enjoyed the character that carried the blow-up doll down the street in a 69 position as well as the "rogue pack of beer" comment. Why more humor with this film than the others?

PD: I wanted to make a blunt political statement about the state of paranoia we live in, the fear of the other, which gives rise to stereotyping and a breakdown of trust. So, instead of making it preachy and serious, I wanted to try out a satirical approach, which is a fun way to ease the blow of the main message the film is trying to get across. I’m glad the humor worked for you!

CC: Finally, can you talk about any future projects you have lined up?

PD: I have a bunch of ideas for shorts, documentaries and features that I’m trying to make sense of and get under control. I feel very creatively energized right now and am trying to make at least some of these ideas happen. So, I’m tackling my first feature film script, which has been quite a rollercoaster of an experience. I’m also fleshing out a couple of other ideas, so let’s see what happens first. How’s that for answering without saying much? 🙂