Throughout our school life, we had always been academically inclined and high-achievers. So, it came as real surprise to our teachers when filling out our UCAS forms (application to Universities in UK), that we expressed our interest to study creative degrees such as Digital Media and Photography at University. We're gutted to say that we were dissuaded (by our teachers and some family members) from listening to our hearts, and ended up studying History and Politics respectively, instead. But that's a whole different story in itself!
That's why we absolutely love meeting individuals who studied the arts and other creative degrees in Higher Education, because we wished we could have stood our own ground and pursued our studies in the arts too.
Cue our featured artist of the month, Rehmat Rayatt - a photographer and filmmaker from London who has had her work exhibited at The Southbank Centre London, BFI Southbank, and The Old Truman Brewery Brick Lane to name a few!
Tell us about Rehmat
I'm a photographer and filmmaker. I grew up in rural Essex, studied my BA in photography at the Arts University Bournemouth and I'm now based in London. The work I make falls into the category of social documentary, and my job is varied; I work with a lot of charities and NGOs to make films and photographs about social stories and issues. I also act as producer or director of photography on large scale shoots for broadcast and deliver participatory photography workshops to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.
I have had exhibitions at The Southbank Centre, Candid Arts and New Art Exchange, had my films screened at the BFI and on Sky Arts, photos printed in The Telegraph and Evening Standard, spoken on Reuters and BBC Asian Network and taught photography at the V&A, among others. All of the credit for the work that I make goes to the characters who share their stories with me, and the divine that weaves everything together. Without them, there would be no photos or films.
On a personal level, I'm female and a Sikh. I love to travel and spend a lot of time out of the country on assignments or leisure (I'm currently working poolside in Italy after a two-week assignment in India). I love to read, write, do yoga, swim in the sea and muse at the beauty of life.
What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
My grandfather, Bhai Gurmit Singh Virdee, was an extremely inspirational man. His passion for photography shone through so strongly that all you wanted to do was immerse yourself in the light that he naturally imparted. I used to look forward to goodbyes because he would always pull out packet after packet of exposed Ilford paper and show us black and white darkroom prints from his life in Kenya and his trips to India, Greece, Egypt. He would let my brother and I keep one or two and we'd grin like Cheshire cats the whole way home, cradling the print in our hands, careful not to touch the emulsion. Once, I hit the jackpot and was given a whole packet bulging with Kenyan wildlife photos. I kept it in the top drawer of my desk and I'd get it out to surreptitiously look at the photos so often that the packet split.
I decided around age 14 that I wanted to be a photographer, and once I make a decision I can be very stubborn; the arts courses at my sixth form were oversubscribed so I pleaded with the teachers and to my joy they taught my A level in photography over lunchtimes and after school four days a week. I managed by some stroke of luck to get a place at one of the best arts universities in the country straight out of college, and my degree was pure freedom. We were encouraged to experiment, not just with photography but with film, painting, writing and sound, so I made friends with the film production students and watched the way they worked. I loved the way films involved so many people with different specialties, and being on set inspired me to make films. My first film was a video art piece and my lecturers loved it; it exhibited as part of our graduation show at the Old Truman Brewery, with great reviews. Seeing my work on the big screen was so inspiring, and from that moment I was unstoppable.
How did the idea for Toxification come about and what was your understanding of the plight of Punjabi farmers before, during, and after filming?
Toxification was my first self-funded film. It's a feature documentary about Punjabi farmer suicide, looking at the connection between loans, drug abuse, and agricultural chemical overuse. It's a moving story of addiction, loss and the Punjabi attitude that never gives up.
I had heard about the growing number of farmer suicides and felt that as a Punjabi filmmaker, it was my duty to bring the story to light. So when Leva Kwestany, a good friend and filmmaker, suggested we collaborate on a film in India, I jumped at the chance. Before we arrived in India our understanding of the issue was based mainly on the research that Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab Agricultural University and Punjabi University Patiala had published; 6926 suicides in a decade; almost two per day. This number haunted us day and night. My family don't have connections in Punjab, having lived in Kenya for a few generations before emigrating to the UK, so it was difficult to get a grassroots view; we relied heavily on news articles and the internet.
As with any good documentary, we learnt a lot once we were there, and many questions were answered:
Is the drug issue as widespread as it seems? Even more so than one can imagine.
Have agricultural chemicals done much damage? The water is polluted and forecasters estimate that within thirty years Punjab's soil won't be able to grow anything.
Is the suicide figure accurate? The actual figure is probably a lot higher.
We interviewed drug addicts, reformed addicts, addiction councillors and families left behind after suicide, but my Punjabi is not great and village Punjabi is very different to the Punjabi we speak in the UK, so I didn't fully grasp the weight of the stories we captured until I sat with my translator back in the UK and transcribed every interview. Many times he broke down in tears trying to find the words to describe what he was hearing. The stories were raw and haunting; the initial editing process was one of the darkest two months of my life. Only then did we truly understand the importance of what we had captured.
What challenges did you face in the making of Toxification?
We actually flew out to India to make a ten-minute short film about farmer suicide from the perspective of the farmer. As a filmmaker, you generally make a lot of short films before even attempting a feature-length film, so our plan was to make a great short that we could take to film festivals. It was also our first time working together as a duo so it was partly meant to be a pilot run to see how it worked out. The filming process went shockingly smoothly; the characters, settings, whole crew and stories literally fell into our laps. I have never felt 'flow' like that before- a feeling of knowing that you are completely on track, feeling and responding, knowing exactly what question to ask next or what story to pursue. The whole process felt innately divine. It was when we got back and began the edit that things got tricky.
I transcribed with our translator and then Leva got to work on the paper edit- structuring the film on paper before going into the edit suite. One page is roughly one minute, and I remember vividly the shock on Leva's face as she stammered incredulously 'It's 110 pages'. We still didn't quite believe that we had a feature on our hands until we begun structuring the film in our editing software. This project was about ten times bigger than we had intended. Taking one month off work wouldn't suffice. We poured our all into the edit for two months and spent long dark winter days refining our edit, watching and refining again. When we went back to work we'd spend nights working in the edit suite. It was exhausting and heartbreaking. Because the subject matter is so emotionally heavy, those were tough months. We managed to finish the edit and run a crowdfunding campaign which helped us to pay for the sound engineering, and we lucked in with the most perfect soundscape produced and arranged for us by the incredible Debasmita Bhattacharya.
The main challenge for me now is juggling my work which is extremely challenging, and fitting in time to work on the film. We have one final stage left, the colour grade- a time-consuming process- and then we will need to arrange a premiere and screenings. Our crowdfunding campaign did phenomenally, raising most of the funds we needed in under two days, so I feel a huge responsibility to deliver for our funders as well as for the farmers who gave us their honesty so that we could share their stories, and the hundreds of people who supported us. We are always looking for volunteers to share the load; we will get this film finished no matter what it takes, and we want that to happen as soon as possible.
How have your family and friends encouraged you to pursue what you are doing?
I come from a creative family; I think my parents would have been a little disappointed if my brother or I hadn't chosen creative professions- my mum is my biggest fan and I can always count on my family and friends to come to my exhibitions and make a scene in their excitement! I'm incredibly blessed, I know that this isn't common for Indians. It's important to surround yourself with your own personal fan club, though; there will be times when you don't believe in yourself or your work, and at those times your fan club will catch you and buoy you back up.
What's been your greatest struggle and how do you overcome negative emotions?
Being creative is never very easy, because it's essentially a constant identity crisis, a never-ending yearning for truth and a striving to always do better. The process of making work is, for me, more often than not painful, because I deal with the human condition, and our reaction to pain is one of the most enigmatic sadnesses of life. My greatest struggle has always been the struggle of self; who am I, and why am I making the work I'm making? How can I make a positive impact on people's lives? How can I amplify the voices of those who have no platform to tell their story?
Overcoming negative emotions is tough, because creativity is something that flows organically through a person, and negative emotions create a block that makes the creative process impossible. It's important for me to stay cleansed and grounded through prayer, meditation, and positive thinking so that I can receive the divine energy of creation. Creativity is not something you can own. It's a way of being, it's a commitment to truth and openness and it's a trust that the journey will be worth it. When I struggle, a calm, quiet evening reconnecting with myself is often all I need. Failing that, a mini holiday to clear my head never goes amiss..!
Overcoming negative emotions also requires a thick skin; something that doesn't come naturally to us open, vulnerable creatives. My degree was all about self-study, and every week we'd have a critique; we'd pin our work on the wall and sit in a circle dreading our turn for our work to be conceptually and aesthetically ripped apart by the lecturer and our fellow students (if we were unlucky, a Masters student, too). Most weeks someone would dissolve into tears because it was ruthless, but I understand now why our lecturers did it; it's so important to be able to take critique of your work. Being able to really listen to critique and act upon it often transformed my work for the better, and pushed me out of my comfort zone.
You're having a dinner party - which three people would you invite, and why?
The poet Edgar Allan Poe because he'd be sure to provide entertainment.
Feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and Leni Riefenstahl, because I'd love to see what they make of each other, and to pick their brains.
What makes you feel good?
Being true to myself. Whether I'm in a bar with friends, doing yoga on a mountain, swimming in the sea, photographing inmates in a Filipino prison, or just at home playing with my niece and nephew, if I'm 100% authentically myself, it'll be ecstatic.
More from Rehmat Rayatt