26 Sep Meet the Director: Veena Rao, The Honeys and Bears

The following interview is the second in a series from writer and former Olympic alpine skier, Carrie Sheinberg who is profiling the filmmakers behind our 2017 films.  

Filmmaker Veena Rao is fascinated by people and their everyday superpowers. Since graduating from NYU’s Tisch school of arts, Rao has documented an incredible variety of subjects: a gold polisher/ultra-marathon runner in Mumbai, an art-gallery-owner-by-day and aikido-master-by-night in New York City, an Iraqi refugee who recreates elaborate scenes in miniature replicas and a group of senior citizen synchronized swimmers in Harlem, New York, among others. What Rao loves is finding the extraordinary in the seemingly mundane. “There is something special inside everyone,” she says and Rao’s own superpower (if you will) is bringing translating that uniqueness to film for the rest of us to enjoy.

WSFF: Is there something particularly intriguing about telling a sports story?

VR: I think sports are something people are passionate about and that’s what interests me in a lot of the stories I go after. I really like to look into what interests people, what makes them go after something and why.

WSFF: Case in point: why would these senior citizens in your film want to spend their days in a cold pool, working so hard and committing so much of their time to this synchronized swimming team?

VR: I wondered the same thing! But it became clear very quickly that the Honeys and Bears get a lot of joy from the water and the community that the team provides. Just the act of being in the water, practicing and performing and working was cathartic for them.

WSFF: Did it matter that you were a woman telling this story?

VR: What mattered to me about their story was that they do find joy in the water but also that I felt talking to them made me feel more relaxed too. Age is experience and as a young woman I really enjoyed hearing these women’s perspective. One of them told me she doesn’t worry about things the way she used to. They are older and wiser and there are not a lot of things that necessitate that kind of anxiety and worry as you get on in life. It’s nice to be able to talk about things that bring people joy and to visit them in their own headspace for a while.

WSFF: That seems to be a theme of your work: meeting your subject where they are and trying to bring yourself and your audience into their inner world. I was mesmerized by your New York Times Op-Doc “Rebuilding in Miniature” about an Iraqi refugee who painstakingly recreates miniature models of scenes from around the world.

VR: Well yes, I guess that is what I like to try to do in this world of documentary films. Ali Alamedy’s story is about finding peace and solace and sanctuary in something he loves to do. I watched him spend an entire week making a tiny cash register. It was something that would have driven me crazy but it did exactly the opposite for him.

With the swimmers in the Honeys and Bears, I was so impressed with their stamina, their work ethic, these people were coming to practice almost every day. I talked to a 92-year-old woman who is still in it! Still going to practices and still trying to improve.I really enjoy when people tell me what they love to do and I feel very impressed by it. I love finding the extraordinary in our daily lives. It’s very relatable and it speaks to our humanity.

WSFF: Are female-centered stories more interesting for you to tell?

VR: I don’t know if they necessarily interest me more but I enjoy focusing on and talking about women. And it’s great seeing them on screen. We all want to see ourselves on the screen so being able to see more women, more different colors and different life experiences, if we can just continue that, I think we will all benefit from that. It doesn’t always have to look like you up on the screen but it helps if someone is maybe the same age, or the same gender, it’s just easier to think ‘I could be that person.’

WSFF: Have you ever made a feature length documentary?

VR: I haven’t yet. I would really like to. The thing with feature length documentaries is its really years that it will take you to get it done. And I haven’t quite found a story that I want to be dedicated to for that long. I’m sure when I find something that warrants being a feature that’s when I will commit to it. Not every story is meant to be a feature though, that’s for sure.

WSFF: Where do you find your stories and how do you know which ones you need to tell?

VR:From reading articles and talking to people. This recent piece [Rebuilding in Miniature] that was published in June, I’d actually always been interested in miniatures. I started thinking about people who make miniatures and then I saw [Almedy’s] work in a museum and he had a whole other layer to his story. For him, creation and dreaming and creating these impossibly tiny, perfect places, I think his reasoning behind it was to seek beauty and solace in his life – a life that had been full of so much turmoil and insecurity.

With the Honeys and Bears, too: it’s a way of getting to know people. And the camera is an excuse. That’s my reasoning behind making films. I like the craft of it but the underlying thing to me is I have this excuse to get to know people that I otherwise never would have known on such an intimate level.

WSFF: Is a moving image the only way you are interested in telling a story?

VR: I enjoy writing, too. I went to school for photography. I also loved the power of even just one image. The feeling of being with that person and displaying that feeling somehow on paper. It’s all definitely about something bigger than myself. I feel like I can connect to someone with just one image.  But with moving images it feels like I’m getting to know someone’s experience.

WSFF: So how do you decide which medium to use?

A subject is what should command the medium that you use to tell that story. You need to observe them and ask yourself: Is this meant to be a film? A radio project? Might it be a stronger essay…

The Honeys and Bears screens with the feature film, Perfect on Saturday, September 30 at 11:45am.  US Synchro Olympian (2012, 2016) Mariya Koroleva will be in attendance for post-screening Q & A.  Tickets available here.

Images: Veena Rao, Director, The Honeys and Bears