Sonejuhi Sinha

Sonejuhi photographed for  Constellation  by Alida Rose Delaney.

Sonejuhi photographed for Constellation by Alida Rose Delaney.

Sonejuhi Sinha is a director, producer, and editor working in both narrative and documentary storytelling. Her narrative short film, Love Comes Later, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and screened at over 50 film festivals internationally, garnering multiple awards at festivals. She was selected for Shoot's New Directors Showcase at the Directors Guild of America and is the recipient of a Tribeca All Access Grant. In addition, she recently participated in Semaine de la Critique's development lab in Paris, NEXT STEP, with her feature script, Love Comes Later. She is originally from India, and grew up in Delhi and Dehradun until the age of 13, at which point she moved with her parents to New York City. She has been a New Yorker ever since. 

On finding her way into the arts: 
I always knew I wanted to be in the arts. I grew up doing fine arts, dance, and photography and went to college with the ambition of becoming a writer. I was an English and Film Studies major at William and Mary when I fell in love with films. I ravaged through all the great auteurs: Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Andrea Arnold, Jane Campion. Instead of a study abroad program, I chose a semester at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, so I could make short films on 16mm. That was the turning point. I knew I belonged in film. Now looking back at my childhood, I remember from the age of eight to twelve, I use to boss around all my cousins and direct them to put on one big performance a year in front of my entire extended family. I would direct and act in it. It all makes sense now.

I fell into editing because I didn’t see a clear path toward directing after college, especially as a woman. I didn’t have any role models. Editing was my second favorite [role], and it became my entrance into the world of film. At Final Cut, I grew from an assistant editor to editor and grew to love collaborating with directors to help them actualize their vision.

On what drew her to documentary filmmaking:
I started with editing commercials, music videos, and narrative short films. I fell into documentary editing because I knew the directors, and they asked me to work on stories I simply couldn’t refuse. Homegoings and These Birds Walk are very special stories that spoke to me. Both stories, even in their raw form, with hours and hours of footage, moved me profoundly. I knew I could bring something unique to them. And I deeply wanted to mould them and shape them so they could live and breathe in the world. 

On the challenges of making These Birds Walk and Homegoings: 
Documentary editing has to be the hardest form of editing. You have to be a skilled and fast editor, but you must also be able to step back and look at the full story, like a giant tapestry with millions of dots holding it together. I still look back at those years as some of the most challenging in my career. Both films demanded so much endurance. They both took three to four years in the edit, and I was juggling commercial editing in between. It was a time where I learned the most about storytelling—how to build a narrative and a character arc, [how to establish] pacing that moves the audience emotionally. And because it was just me and the directors locked in a room for hours and hours, it was a very immersive experience. We built the film in the edit, shot by shot, scene by scene.

Still from  Love Comes Later  courtesy of Sonejuhi Sinha.

Still from Love Comes Later courtesy of Sonejuhi Sinha.

On how her work as an editor informed her directing style:
For better or for worse, I do think like an editor while I am directing: How will the scene be edited? What are the critical beats needed to pull off this scene? These are constantly circling in my brain. For years, I sat in the edit room watching dailies and I tried to imagine myself in that chair while on set, asking myself, “Would I be selecting this if I were editing it?” I also tend to be very efficient while shooting. When I know I can edit the scene a few different ways, I move on.

On the challenges of being a woman in film—and how to improve the industry:
I think we have a long way to go but, it is changing slowly. There has been a lot of press about the gender bias and most people in Hollywood are aware that there is a problem. Now we just need pioneers who are willing to put their words into action. [Screenwriters and directors like] Ava DuVernay and Ryan Murphy are proving that you can make a difference single-handedly. If more people do that, then change can come much faster. 

Countless times, I have been the only woman in the room, in a presentation, on set, and in pitch meetings. When I was younger, there were a couple of times where I felt it was hard to get a word in or that I was being ignored, but now, I don’t let that stop me from being who I am. It helps to go in with a goal and then to remain laser-focused on it. 

On the making of her short film, Love Comes Later: 
A couple of years ago, I became a volunteer at a shelter that houses survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking. I came across many stories of trafficked women, but while trying to find a narrative thread, I realized I didn’t want to perpetuate the perception that our media often creates—that such people are defined by their victimhood or by their struggle. I wanted to tell a story about complex people who take matters into their own hands. They just happen to be immigrants and happen to be women. Motels are typically places where crimes like these thrive, and I began looking for a character and a story in this setting. I want my characters to reflect the complex web of desires, emotions, and needs that define all people from all backgrounds; I want to challenge my audience to see my characters, Riz and Dia, who are undocumented, in a multi-dimensional way. As in real life, Riz, Dia and all the characters in Love Comes Later are flawed and grey. They are neither good nor bad; instead, they are simply making the best decisions they can, given their circumstances. At the core of it, Love Comes Later is a story about the interconnectedness of desperate people and the universal human desire for love. 

On her project in development with Through Her Lens: The Tribeca Chanel Women's Filmmaker Program:
I was selected to develop a short narrative film called The Quarry for THL. It is a psychological drama about a gynecologist and abortion provider, Reese, who practices in a remote town in America. When a threat emerges in town and Reese finds herself drawn into a rabbit hole of paranoia, she takes matters into her own hands. I have a feature script by the same name and the lab was essential in helping me to develop both. 

On what’s ahead for her:
I’m directing the feature Love Comes Later, which we are just starting pre-production on with Park Pictures. We are planning to shoot it in spring 2017. I am also writing and developing two television show ideas with my management company, Circle of Confusion. The next steps are features and television—I am excited for 2017.

On how she interprets the phrase, “Write What You Know”:
I think there is truth to this statement, but I interpret it very broadly. For example, I know about isolation and feeling like an outsider and I can transfer this feeling very specifically to my characters, whether they’re male or female, LGBTQ, or people of different ethnicities. I don’t think this statement should be taken literally. The whole point of cinema is to move someone emotionally. They don’t have to be exactly the same as you.

On the best piece of advice she’s ever received: 
The more specific and personal you are with your storytelling, the more universal it becomes.