Sanjay Rawal: Stay True to Yourself

Media tells you what happens in the world. Documentary films tell you the context behind it. It is the art of selecting stories. What is your story to tell?


Sanjay Rawal: Film Director

Sanjay Rawal is an award-winning documentary film director well known for Ocean Monk (2010), Challenging Impossibility(2011), and Food Chains (2014). He was a winner of the 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for Special/Documentary for Food Chains. Today, he shares his way of thinking about creation and life. Today, he shares his passion and wisdom with us. Let's learn how he has created his life.

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Food Chains
Food Chains
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Ocean Monk
Ocean Monk
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Challenging Impossibility
Challenging Impossibility
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----First of all, please tell us more about you. Why did you decide to become a film director?


I never went to film school, but I was always encouraged by my spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy, to live creatively. He was a meditation teacher but he was also a musician and artist. In fact, he was extremely fond of Japan – in particular, the Daibutsu at Kamakura. Anyhow, I spent 15 years studying with him and he pushed me into humanitarian service. I worked on projects in dozens of countries and really learned how to communicate with people of all backgrounds. In 2009, I helped a friend on a film she was doing on the Liberian women’s peace movement. I saw her tell an amazing story that no one knew about. And I connected the possibility of using film to advance people’s rights.



----Why do you focus on social topics and what do you try to achieve through it? 


My teacher believed in the possibility of world peace. But he also felt that world peace could only be achieved by focusing on individual transformation. In my humanitarian service career, I learned the importance in allowing people to tell their own stories. Often, the people the world considers “voiceless,” actually have the strongest voices. The west seems to look at the developing world with superiority, but I found, through film, that everyone’s has world-changing potential. In film, I focus on letting those voices tell their own stories.



----What is the most difficult aspect of creating a film?


Personally, I’m not the best listener in the world, but making a film is not an individual effort. Each film depends on so many people coming together to share their creative spirit. I think films can only be good if the crews have a spirit of oneness and a true cooperation.

----When you think about creating a new movie, what happens in your mind? Do you visualise it, verbalise it, or something else?


Everyone is different in their approach, but I try to feel, in my heart, if an idea will keep me inspired for 4 or 5 years, which is generally the time from developing an idea to finishing a large tour of the film. I try not to use words or to judge the importance of the story or issue. I just try to see if I can be a good instrument. And, if the idea strikes something deep inside me, I trust that – and I trust that very deep part of me to guide the creation of the project.



----Tell us more about the creation process. What do you determine first? Story, message, topic, etc… 


I try to approach film meditatively. I’m not a creative genius nor am I one of the world’s best filmmakers. I need to approach ideas with humility. Through humility, I can separate my ego and my fears and try to feel if I will be a good person to tell a story. If I feel like I can do a good job, I try to then think a bit selfishly. It’s really hard to be creative if one isn’t really really happy. So, I ask, does that idea make me happy? Does it make me want to get out of bed, so to speak? If an idea gives me power and strength, then I know I can do the work necessary.



----Obviously, you cannot put everything you film into one movie. Also, editing has a significant influence on the message of the film to the audience. How do you decide what to show especially when it’s about some social issue?


That’s a great question. With my last film, Food Chains, we actually used a number of stories that we didn’t put into the film and created a series of short films. At the same time, we gave extra footage to a number of other filmmakers working on this subject. We even gave footage to American Presidential Election runner, Bernie Sanders!



----For you, what is creation?


I love this poem by Sri Chinmoy. It gives a better answer than I can!


Our inner vision sees
That silence
Not only has creativity inside it,
But is creativity itself.


-Sri Chinmoy

----What is the greatest enemy of life?


I think our own minds are the greatest enemies. We would have peace in this world if everyone had inner peace. The mind and its negativity and doubt can really ruin our lives. I think that we need to focus heavily on the heart just to lessen the power that the mind has in modern life.



----If you could make a call to 20-year-old Sanjay Rawal, what kind of advice would you give to him?


This is funny! I would tell him not to miss a single opportunity. But I would also tell him to stay true to himself at all costs. At the end of life, I think all we have is our integrity. If we feel like we gave life everything we had, we can die happy.



----If you could leave one message to make the world a better place, what would be your message?


I am not worthy of answering such a lofty question. So again, I would like to leave everyone with a poem of Sri Chinmoy:

“When the power of love replaces the love of power, man will have a new name: God.”