Acclaimed Vancouver filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji virtually disappears into her subjects

Published: May 4, 2014


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Orpah Winfrey poses with filmmakers Philip Lyall and Nimisha Mukerji at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Their documentary aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network and proved to be a "game-changer" for them. HANDOUT PHOTO

LARISSA CAHUTE
VANCOUVER DESI

It’s not uncommon for friends and family to stop hearing from Vancouver filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji for months on end.

Whether she’s immersing herself in the daily struggles of someone suffering from a fatal disease, or literally falling off the map to set up a new life in India for the sake of filming, she pours years of her life into each documentary film project she takes on.

“I am fortunate I have a really great understanding with family and friends,” Mukerji told Vancouver Desi from Toronto, where she was attending the Canadian International Documentary Festival, Hot Docs. “They understand they may not hear from me for a month at a time.”

“My life is usually very much synchronized with the subjects that I’m filming.”

She has taken this approach since her first documentary 65_RedRoses, which followed New Westminster cystic fibrosis patient Eva Markvoort in her desperate wait for a double-lung transplant. Mukerji spent two years by Markvoort’s side filming her never-ending battle with the genetic disease.

“As a result, I couldn’t travel, I was basically waiting with her for her pager to go off,” Mukerji said.

And once 65_RedRoses wrapped and released in 2009, she immediately started her next film, Blood Relative, which moved her to India for more than a year as she documented activist Vinay Shetty’s fight to save children dying from a blood disease called Thalassemia.

“You’re going to be putting your life on hold, you’re going to be financially investing in the project yourself,” Mukerji said. “This is not a job for me — it’s my life.”

“My life is making films … there’s nothing else I would want to be doing.”

“I’m in it for the long haul and I think people can feel that.”

That determination is felt by both her audiences and critics, as 65_RedRoses went on to win top prizes at a number of international film festivals, as well as being the only Canadian film named in Oprah Winfrey’s Documentary Club. Blood Relative took home three Leo Awards as well as the Vancouver International Film Festival audience award. Most recently, Mukerji herself was honoured by her peers with an artistic achievement award from Women in Film and Television Vancouver at their 2014 Spotlight Awards held on Granville Island last week.

“I push hard and in the end, the films have found really large audiences,” said Mukerji.

She chalks up her success to the fact she never takes ‘no’ for an answer — a habit she developed even before film school.

While completing her English degree at UBC, Mukerji signed up for elective courses in film and quickly fell in love. She applied for the film production program but didn’t get in. So she bought her first camera, taught herself how to use it, reapplied and got accepted.

It’s that determination that lead to her success in a generally non-lucrative business.

“Every time (you make a film) you gamble on yourself,” she said. “You put the money in yourself, you cover all the costs, you start filming and the reason you do that is the only way to really get funding for a documentary right now, is you have to show them who the characters are. You have to put something on tape.”

“And that can be really expensive, but there really isn’t any other way around it.”

So it’s what she did with 65_RedRoses and Blood Relative — which was even harder as it required travelling from India to Canada to pitch the film.

“You cannot accept ‘no’ for an answer,” she said. “And a lot of people say ‘no.’”

Mukerji doesn’t define her success in dollar figures, though.

“You don’t get into documentary filmmaking for the money,” she said. “For me, the success is finishing the film and reaching and connecting with audiences and telling the stories.”

With Blood Relative, she knew no one else was going to cover a disease “most people have never heard of.” So she took on the responsibility of putting a face to Thalassemia, an incredibly common genetic disorder, which is easily treatable but unaffordable for most families in India.

With 65_RedRoses, she told the story of a girl struggling with the most common fatal genetic disease affecting Canadian children and young adults.

“One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever got is, ‘I became an organ donor after watching your movie,’ ” said Mukerji. “The priority is to tell a great story first, (but) I pick films that have social messages.”

Mukerji’s latest project in production is Tempest Storm: Burlesque Queen, which documents the life story of one of the biggest burlesque legends still living. Tempest Storm, known as a former girlfriend of Elvis, mistress to JFK and friend of Marilyn Monroe, is now 85-years-old and still living in Las Vegas — so naturally that’s where Mukerji has disappeared to, cutting off all contact with family and friends, for the time being at least.

“What I love about documentary filmmaking is you really get immersed in someone’s life — it’s a real life,” she said. “You only get one chance to make the film, so you have to go all in.”

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