Sundance Features

January 22, 2008

Tim Sternberg, Salim Baba

"It's one of those happy stories that hopefully happens more than once in your cinematic life."

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

THE REELER: Can you give me a rundown of Salim Baba's story in your own words?

TIM STERNBERG: It's really a very simple story: a portrait of Salim Mohammed, a 55-year old man who lives in a very poor area of North Calcutta. He inherited a Lumiere projector from his father in the '60s -- a hand-cranked movie projector -- and he's taken it out in the neighborhood and shown film scraps he's spliced together with tape and scissors and trailers and all of these discarded scraps of film that bigger movie houses throw away. It's just about him and his relationship with his sons and just talking about his life. It's about 14 minutes long. It was shot in a little over a week in 2006.

R: Is it true you called up the BBC to track this guy down after seeing a news story?

TS: I turned on my Internet one morning in 2004, and the BBC News home page came up. I read the article, and I thought it was very charming. I've worked as an editor and in various aspects of post-production for many years but never made my own film. I always wanted to, and I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to go make a portrait of this guy, but I obviously wasn't going to fly to India for it. My wife works in India as a textile designer for a couple of months in the winter of every year. We had a kid, so basically I said, "I'm coming with you for month, but I really need a project to keep us getting along so I'm not hanging out while you're working." She was in Jaipur, about 1,500 miles west of Calcutta; I was going to fly to Calcutta. I was going to shoot it myself, but when I told Francisco Bello, the cameraman, about it, he said he'd fly himself over and shoot it for me.

R: Did you have a preconceived idea of what you'd find once you got there? How did that differ from the reality?

TS: The preconceived idea was very graduate student-y: We had all of these ideas of the death of cinema, and he's going to have some great Buster Keaton or John Ford one-reel film that's been waiting since the teens. We had these fantasies that he was the living link to the age of Lumiere and the origins of cinema -- how cinematic technology was distributed through the colonial paths. When we got there and we tried to talk to him about Satyajit Ray and the history of cinema, he was very practical. He was like. "I remember those movies vaguely from years ago; they were in black and white. I think I have one black-and-white film left; the rest I just threw away." What he had was from 1989. He was like, "The kids don’t want to see that!" He has to make living. So we all had to recalibrate. He kind of humbled us.

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R: Of course this film has been all over the festival circuit in the last year. Once you started shooting and eventually editing, did you know what you had on your hands? And what kinds of expectations did you have for it?

TS: I don't mean to sound cheeky, but I had no ambitions for it. I'd always wanted to make my own films, but I was so overwhelmed and intrigued by the whole experience -- it was really intense and really wonderful. But I had a child and a house and lot of things on my plate. It took us a lot longer to get the film done. I'm sure all the filmmakers you talk to -- especially with documentary -- are telling you how these things get dragged out. Then we cut together this two-minute teaser and started showing it to people. We got wonderful response. I sent my friend [producer] Scott Mosier a 30-second clip of the film, and he was extremely excited by it. He eventually came on as a producer. Private investors donated a lot of money after a fundraiser where we showed images and a four-minute teaser. We didn't really know what we had until we got back and started cutting it. It's one of those happy stories that hopefully happens more than once in your cinematic life.

R: So with that in mind, how do you plan to take advantage of Sundance to continue this roll?

TS: I'm using it as a way to get the film out there and meet more producers and investors -- to really circulate in that world. It's funny, because we're almost a year into our run and we've been accepted into 10 or 15 more festivals. So we'll be playing through the end of the year, which is a good year longer than most festival runs. And I'm being earnest when I say it's so great that the word on the street is very good about a short ethnographic film. That seems unheard of, doesn't it?

Comments (2)

In the dark on Oscar
- Salim Baba protagonist says he was misled

Does anyone know how Salim Baba qualified for the Oscar in the first place?

They had clearly broken the Academy rules by having a trailer/teaser more than 10% of the length of their documentary. They took it down around the time they were shortlisted, but it was up at least for 8 months on Utube.

It just angers me when filmmakers just do anything to touch the Oscar.

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