Anu Valia is an Indiana-born, New York-schooled filmmaker whose award-winning short films have screened across the country and abroad. Her short film, LUCIA, BEFORE AND AFTER, won the Jury Prize for US Fiction at Sundance Film Festival and has screened at over 30 festivals around the world.
Anu is developing her debut feature, WE STRANGERS, which is supported by Cinereach, Sundance Institute, Women in Film, Tribeca Institute, IFP, and the Hamptons Screenwriters Lab. She's currently finishing up a series of short films tentatively titled MATTERS OF CHANCE, produced by BRIC TV, Warner Media's ONEFIFTY program, and Irony Point.
Anu has directed episodes for Comedy Central's THE OTHER TWO, created by former SNL head writers Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly and BET's FIRST WIVES CLUB, created by GIRLS TRIP writer, Tracy Oliver. She is the Director and Executive Producer of Adult Swim's, SOFT FOCUS WITH JENA FRIEDMAN.
Anu is a Big Vision Empty Wallet 2018 fellow, a New York Film Festival 2017 Artist Academy Fellow, and an artist resident of SPACE at Ryder Farm in New York. She is also an ambassador for the American Film Showcase, a U.S film diplomacy program promoting arts involvement and education abroad.
Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave.
Anu Valia: I actually find that when I interview for jobs that I’m not sure I’ll get, and can speak truthfully that I’m the best person for it, that takes a lot of confidence, which doesn’t come naturally to me and so those are moments where I feel brave. People don’t talk a lot about trying to get a job, trying to convince someone to hire you. When it’s tied to your art, you just want to be liked and accepted. When you’re genuinely passionate about something, not going through your resume, and the person you’re talking to can see your vision, connect with it, that’s powerful.
What is something you’d tell your 18 year old self when you were starting out?
AV: Write in a journal, write down something that’s happened every single day. I still don’t do it, and I think I’ll remember everything, but no. I recently ran into a friend from high school, and he reminded me that his sister, the star basketball player who I idolized when we were kids, still had the painting of Michael Jordan I made her. I didn’t recall that until he brought it up!
In one’s artistic life, there are some very long seconds or moments, that make us stop. There may be an epiphany or a shift. Can you tell us about a recent one?
AV: Honestly, I think that changes to the path you’re on can be quite painful. Usually that happens for me when I’m confronted or challenged; whether it’s against an idea or story I have, a thing I’ve done... when I’ve been questioned, and any ignorance or blind spots are brought up. Those are the moments that have required me to shift. That being said, I’ve learned that if something doesn’t feel good, don’t shy away from it, sit with it. You can be boar-headed and keep going the same way, or take a moment and learn.
You’ve been moving more towards more comedy in your work recently –– can you talk a little about changing genres?
AV: I was in one genre, now I’m in another. It’s more like, if this is a comedy, where are the jokes in this scene and how can I elevate them? If it’s a drama, where’s the truth in this emotion? Is it too dramatic here? Is it false? But you do get hired based on your past work. So if you’ve done a half-hour comedy, then you’ll get hired for another half-hour comedy. It’s a little harder to convince other people you can do things if they haven’t seen it. But I think I’m fortunate because my friends in the industry have come up with me and we’ve been hiring each other. All of my jobs have been because someone else has believed in me and taken a chance on me.
When you’re working on something, you’re just in it. Life is long, and you’re gonna do a lot different things in your life, so who knows what I’ll do next? Maybe I’ll write a book, I don’t know.
How do you decide what to take on next?
AV: I can reflect on a commencement speech Neil Gaiman gave where he said that you should choose what you want –– in your career or in life. Knowing what that thing is is a gift and a privilege –– it’s that mountain in the distance. Every step you take should be towards that mountain.
And I’ve really tried to focus myself that way. Every step I take is towards that. Right now, I want to get my feature made, and it’s the only thing I want. I really just want to make films that are connected to people and based on true human experiences. That being said, the reward for work is more work. If you just want to be famous, or hit a certain status, you’re never going to be happy. You’re never going to feel satisfied. I just did these short films for BRIC TV and it was the most fun I’ve had recently.
Now, on reflection. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
AV: I didn’t have one movie per se, but more of an experience. I grew up in the US, with Indian immigrant parents, and as a way to assimilate, my dad watched just about everything. He’s a scientist, with a love of cinema - and so I grew up just watching an eclectic array of movies, alongside him, recognizing that cinema is art. From foreign films like Wild Strawberries, The Match Factory Girl, and The Seventh Seal to Ghostbusters and Home Alone. Then I got really serious about it and took a film class in High School, writing a thesis paper on Lars von Trier’s films. I remember watching those films, thinking, wow, this is heaven. And that’s when I realized that I could make movies too.
What was a recent film, video or series that you had a visceral response to ?
AV: I just watched Kore-eda’s film Shoplifters, and it’s unbelievable. It boggles my mind that you can make a movie so perfect. To me this film about a Japanese family represents what movies can do at their very best, which is connect you to the most beautiful part of being a human being, and make you feel alive. I feel like that’s what I aspire to do.
On to the future: What’s next for you?
AV: So I’m directing a couple of TV shows for a big network, while trying to get my feature, We Strangers, made. I’ve been working on my film for over four years now and I do think this is the year... but who knows. Honestly, I feel pretty content at the moment. Oh, and I want to put on an art show.
What keeps you going?
AV: I have a tendency to go into a work hole. But since our Earth is dying, and the political situation feels hopeless, I feel guilty focusing on the art I want to make. It feels very contradictory and very self-aggrandizing, where I can practice a daily amount of avoidance. Lately, I have tried to reach out to friends and talk about such things, because I think it’s very important to be more open about discussing difficult situations.
Also, let’s talk about libraries - there are free books there! The other day, I had time to kill, so I just went in the library, sat there and read. You can even sneak a sandwich in –– you’re not allowed to, but still...
What does the world need now?
AV: I wish that we practiced more empathy for others - A daily ritual of being kind and thoughtful. When I walk around and see someone in need, whether on the street, subway, wherever, I try to put myself in their shoes. I don’t know if it that empathy makes me a better creator or artist, but I think that people are inherently curious, and good art comes from curiosity. I loved Agnes Varda, and she was simply the queen of curiosity.
8 film scenes or filmmaker quotes that have stuck with you.
Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay) - Every scene in this film astounded me. I was also so tickled by watching the lead character make a possibly poor decision and take it as far as she could.
The last scene in Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness - Without giving anything away, this scene is a very tight close up of Isabelle Huppert. But the colors, the frame, it’s magnificent, exactly what it should be. I read that Catherine Breillat chose the character's wardrobe, as per the color, very carefully. It's breathtaking the way a film's coloring can affect you subconsciously.
Code Unknown (Michael Haneke) - I'm a sucker for films made up of vignettes, and these vignettes are some of the best. The film is a bunch of beautifully crafted shorts that make up a stunning story.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax) - Another great film in the vignetting style. This movie knocked my socks off when I first saw it, and it just gets better with more viewings. It even comes with a musical intermission!
Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence - a living, breathing person captured on camera. Unbelievable.
"Filmmaking to me is an investigation of what is in someone's mind. I believe in the validity of a person's inner desires. And I think those inner desires, whether they're ugly or beautiful, are pertinent to each of us and are probably the only things worth a damn. I want to put those inner desires on the screen so we can all look and think and feel and marvel at them." - John Cassavetes
Film is a pretty new medium, so it seems only fitting to turn to its predecessor, photography. I love Nan Goldin's images--they're completely alive. She captures little windows into whole worlds.
Agnes Varda for Interview magazine, interviewed by Hans-Ulrich Obrist:
OBRIST: How did you celebrate your 90th birthday? VARDA: I swam in the ocean.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Photography by Rachel Kessler
Edited by Shruti Ganguly