MFA in Film Visiting Artist Pratibha Parmar: Beauty in Diversity

(l-r) Pratibha Parmar, Alice Walker, and Geena Davis [photo: Jim Norrena]

Don't miss the PBS (KQED) broadcast of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth Friday, February 7, at 9 p.m. PST.

Pratibha Parmar is a British filmmaker, director, producer, and writer who is known internationally for her political and often controversial documentary film work. She’s also a stalwart activist within the global feminism and lesbian rights movements.

In short, her accomplishments and commitment to making art that matters make her an ideal visiting artist (MFA in Film) here at California College of the Arts.

Learn more about CCA's MFA in Film »

Before she was born, Parmar’s family emigrated from India to East Africa, and then later immigrated to London, where she was raised and went on to study at Bradford and Birmingham Universities where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively.

Alice Walker & Pratibha Parmar

Parmar’s latest documentary is Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which chronicles the life of the renowned author and activist. Walker is the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Color Purple in 1982), for which she also won the National Book Award.

Watch the trailer for Beauty in Truth »

Walker overcame adversity to achieve international recognition as one of the most influential -- and controversial -- writers of the 20th century.

Parmar has worked extensively with Walker, first in collaboration for the film Warrior Marks (1993), and then in a co-publishing endeavor based on the documentary: Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women.

The documentary is one of 50 films that form part of Women and Girls Lead, a public media campaign spearheaded by the Independent Television Service, that "harnesses the power of documentary film to showcase extraordinary women and girls who are changing the world."

Challenges Notwithstanding

Making the documentary wasn't easy, explained Parmar in a recent Daily Beast interview: “It was challenging to get the film financed. It was astonishing to us that even some of the women-centered funds whose remit was to fund stories about women by women didn’t consider the project.

"Stories about women of color told by women of color are sidelined and neglected in favor of our stories being told by white women and men.”

It took six years of filming and raising capital to complete the feature-length documentary, but she and producer Shaheen Haq (Kali8 Productions LLC) have achieved their goal.

Watch video clip of Parmar discussing the making of Beauty in Truth »

PBS's American Masters to Include Beauty in Truth

Don't miss the PBS (KQED) broadcast of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth:

  • Friday, February 7, at 9 p.m. PST
  • Saturday, February 8, 3 a.m. PST
  • Sunday, February 9, 8 p.m. PST

The documentary was selected as part of PBS's American Masters, an ongoing series of award-winning primetime specials that examine the lives, works, and creative processes of our most outstanding cultural artists.

The PBS broadcast also celebrates Walker’s 70th birthday and Black History Month.

Awards for Beauty in Truth

Last month Beauty in Truth was screened at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater as part of a fundraising benefit. Alice Walker attended, as did actress Geena Davis, who spoke on behalf of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which promotes ways to increase the representation of women across media channels.

The following are just some of the recent awards Beauty in Truth has garnered:

Parmar's Awards & Accolades

Based on her collective body of work, Parmar was awarded the Visionary Award by the One in Ten Film Festival in 2007, and she also has received the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award (issued by Frameline).

A Place of Rage (1991), a documentary about African-American women's role in the Civil Rights movement, was named Best Historical Documentary by the National Black Programming Consortium in the United States.

Nina's Heavenly Delights (2006), Parmar’s debut feature film, won the Wolfe Award for Best Feature film at the Fresno Film Festival along with Best Feature film at Cineffable (France) and Best International Feature film at the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

Meet Pratibha Parmar

How does your background shape your work?

The transition from my previous work, which included the fictional film Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006), a lesbian romantic comedy about a woman returning to Glasgow to run her family’s Indian restaurant, to making Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2013), is natural for me.

It’s all part of the same trajectory -- stories that explore questions of agency, self-determination, and empowerment.

I came to filmmaking from an activist and academic background, so inevitably my work is informed by my concerns about the lack of authentic and nuanced visibility of women of color as well as queer and feminist representations.

Had you known of CCA prior to being invited to teach as a visiting artist?

I had known of [CCA Film chair] Rob Epstein’s work, of course, but hadn’t realized that he chaired together with Brook Hinton such an interesting and dynamic department.

The Production Stage and the Film Cage are awesome, including Film studio manager Yvie Raij, who runs it all so superbly.

I am very much enjoying teaching here and enabling some future filmmakers to discover their own unique voices.

Describe working with CCA's Film faculty?

I admire both Rob’s and Brook’s commitment to the students’ learning. Their pedagogical approach and the environment they have created is exciting to be a part of. It's also good to have this opportunity to co-teach a class for the MFA in Film students with Cheryl Dunye.

We are enabling students to make short films over the course of the spring semester, bringing a wealth of combined experience as educators and active filmmakers. It's refreshing to work with students who are excellent and committed.

Are you taking advantage of the Bay Area's (including CCA's) robust LBGT opportunities?

I am honored to be on the board of the Queer Cultural Center, and they together with CCA have an exciting spring calendar of events including a conversation about my work that I will be doing at Brava Theater Center, called Reel Warrior: Pratibha Parmar in Conversation with Allan deSouza, on March 13, to kick off the Visual Cultures Conference.

This event is part of SFMOMA's Live Projects 4 lineup of events.

What’s next?

A few potential projects including an L.A.-based romantic comedy, an adaptation of a lesbian cult novel, and also another feature documentary, but my priority goal is to focus on teaching right now . . . and fit in a much-needed vacation.

Related Media

Beauty in Truth: Alice Walker, Citizen of the World (Huffington Post)
A rigorous look at writer Alice Walker’s life (SFGate)
Pratibha Parmar's Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth Is an Admiring Overview of Her Life (Village Voice)
Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth: Film Review (Hollywood Reporter)