Meet Leslee Udwin, filmmaker, actress and producer
Recently, we had the honour and privilege to meet Leslee Udwin, an amazing woman whose film ‘India’s Daughter’ documents the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young girl, Jyoti, in Delhi four years ago. The film serves not only to highlight the tragic events that occurred in Delhi, but also to change mindsets and assist in eliminating gender inequality and violence against women. Leslee hopes to use her documentary as a tool for empowering women and enabling human rights – and we stand right by her. Read about her passions, her mission, her actions and how you can support her cause below.
Read more about India’s Daughter on Sassy here.
You started your careers as an actress – what sorts of characters did you play and where?
I started out at the Space Theatre in Cape Town, Johannesburg, playing the Duchess of Malfi (Webster’s Jacobean tragedy) and in Stephen Poliakoff’s “Hitting Town”. This was one of the only two ‘multi-cultural’ theatres in South Africa where audiences across the colour bar were integrated. I would not work in any ‘whites-only’ theatres, so my work possibilities in South Africa were limited and constrained. This was one of the main reasons I moved to London, to be able to work freely.
I was lucky and started right out with leading roles in the theatre: Lady Macbeth in a celebrated production of Macbeth by Cheek By Jowl at a small West End theatre, Isobel in “The Mayor of Zalamea” at the National theatre (a young woman who was raped), Masha in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” for Shared Experience, Jessica to Sir Alec Guinness’s Shylock at the Chichester Festival and also for the BBC Shakespeare Series, two leading roles at the Royal Court Theatre and a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was an exciting career, but working as an actress was not enough for me – I began to want to choose and not just interpret the stories being told. So I became a producer.
You have produced well-known and very amusing films such as East is East (1999), Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution (2007) and West is West (2010); what made you move from comedy into documentary for India’s Daughter (2015)?
Well, even though the 2/3 of the films you mention were comedies, they were still about very substantial issues. East is East and West is West were about tolerance, cultural identity, racism, and oppressive vs nurturing parenting. Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution was about a woman becoming empowered and breaking free of the reductive supporting role her selfish husband had incarcerated her in, and the disconnect between the personal and the political. I wanted all those films to be comedies because they were feature films, destined for cinemas and, apart from comedy making them more accessible to bigger audiences, I actually like the counterbalance between comedy and drama. I like the way an audience is made to spin on a penny, laughing one moment and being moved or shocked the next. As funny as East is East was, there were some very brutal scenes in it, like the one in which George Khan beats his wife in the chip shop and goes on a violent rampage against his children.
India’s Daughter could not be anything BUT a documentary. It would have been disrespectful to play with the truth of it and fictionalise or embellish the facts. Dramatising any aspect of it would have been sentimental and reductive. It could only be a documentary, and since this was a story I HAD to investigate, and an issue I was compelled to amplify and campaign about, making it as a documentary seemed to me to be the only option. The form was less important to me than the issue.
The documentary is based on the Delhi gang rape, an incident that occurred on 16 December 2012 in South Delhi. The victim, Jyoti Singh later died in hospital from her injuries and the accused men were finally given the death penalty.
The case brought world wide attention to India yet this seems to be still happening with the last media attention being given to the Uber car rapes and that there are approximately 75 rape cases being reported daily. What are you thoughts on this and how your documentary can help?
The only really hopeful aspect of the reaction to the Jyoti Singh gang-rape and murder was that it led to the most momentous protests ever seen in the world about the issue of violence against women, and to a conversation in civil society which was compelling and led to awareness. The protests were long-lived and tenacious (over a month) but they can’t be sustained, and they can’t really lead to the kind of change we need, so it’s not surprising that rapes continue relentlessly and unabated in India, as indeed throughout the world. What is really needed in order to change this desperate and brutal truth is a change of mind set. My film can, and does, create activists, spread shock, anger and motor awareness. It does even transform individuals, and I have seen evidence of this in men and women who have reached out to me, or whom I have had interactions with at screenings. But it’s like emptying the sea with a teaspoon. What is needed is a systemic change in education – the only way to effect mind-set change and true progress. And this is what I have now committed myself to with the THINK EQUAL initiative which aims to bring social and emotional learning as a new subject onto the compulsory curricula of world schools from the earliest years. We need to educate children’s hearts and not just their heads.
We love the fact that in 2015 you planned to launch the movie globally on International Women’s Day providing a stance of female empowerment. How did that come about and what response did the movie receive?
I persuaded seven countries to simultaneously transmit on 8 March as a symbolic gesture of holding hands across parts of the world and to own the problem as global. The issue is not India-centric, even though the case examined in the film took place in India. Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic, as the statistics which roll at the end of the film show. So this gesture by seven countries was to mark this fact. The BBC were particularly generous about this because they had – as the only country that had actually contributed to the budget of making the film – the right to the world premier. And they gave that right generously for the sake of the campaigning point I wanted to make. The tragedy is that India had to bow out of the simultaneous transmission and BBC was made to bring its transmission forward by four days because of the ban by the Indian government. India was (rather ridiculously) trying to stop other countries from showing the film, which it obviously failed to do, and so the BBC brought the transmission forward to stop this becoming an international ‘incident’. NDTV, the Indian broadcaster who was to show the film on 8 March, ran a black screen for one hour at the time the film was meant to be broadcast, as a mark of protest against the ban. The movie received an overwhelmingly positive response from those who saw it, with the sad exception of a minority of Indians who decried the film.
We’re sure that you have met so many strong, inspiring women while filming in India. Is there one woman or child that particularly made an impact on you?
Jyoti’s mother, of course, of all the women I met and interviewed, was strongly impactful. She is so dignified in her grief and so eloquent in her arguments. Anuradha Singh, my editor, was unforgettably inspiring in her selflessness and giving her all unstintingly to the film. She was tireless in her service and commitment to the work, for very little reward. Loyal and dedicated; determined to bring the issue to light. And, I must say, also, there was a man who was incredibly inspiring and impactful – Jyoti’s friend and tutor, Satendra, was the purest hearted, most loving (as far as Jyoti is concerned) man I’ve encountered.
India is number 135 out of 189 countries in the UN’s Gender Inequality Index. Do you think progress is being made towards changing this imbalance, and how can perceptions be reversed?
I don’t believe any significant progress is being made at all. In fact, in some respects, India is going backwards by shutting its eyes to this film and banning any criticism or what it perceives to be dissent. When you start focussing more on tourism and your image as a country than the state of your women and girls, it’s a slippery slope.
You were named the 2nd most impactful woman in 2015 by the NY Times after Hillary Clinton for all your work in the field of Human Rights. How did this make you feel and who’s the most impactful woman you’ve ever met?
To be absolutely honest with you, I didn’t take it hugely seriously. I thought: “that’ll be useful for the campaign”. The film may have been extremely impactful and I’m thrilled and proud of how it turned out and its power as a tool for change, but I am yet to prove truly impactful. And I intend to!
You’re very vocal about inequality and injustice (which is inspires us!), but how do you deal with all the backlash you receive from countries like India?
I’ve gotten used to it, sad to say. It used to upset me greatly – getting tweets like: “white bitch you deserve to be raped” and childish taunts like “Why don’t make UK’s Daughter?”. It used to irritate and anger me, but now I realise that internet ‘trolls’ are just a pathetic fixture of the internet world and they are, after all, in the minority. So I have found ways of thickening my blood and flying at 30,000 feet above such petty and idiotic comments.
How do you empower women you meet?
I try to inspire them to take a stand and certainly to speak out about abuse they have suffered. I was not in any way a good example after my rape. I told no one about it for 20 years and I’m now ashamed of that. I tell women who see the film and then tell me about their abuse that they must not make the same mistake. They MUST speak out and claim their autonomy, their control of the narrative, and their activism and ability to improve conditions for others. Generally, also, I try to encourage women and girls to think “who’s going to stop me?” rather than “who’s going to let me” when they want to do difficult things.
Can you explain in more detail about THINK EQUAL and how this will change the world in human rights education.
THINK EQUAL recognises that education is the primary engine of progress and that it is the only way to change a prevailing dominant mind set – the mind set that ascribes no value to the ‘other’ (be it on the basis of religion, race, or gender). The world has been talking about the need for quality holistic education for generations, but has done nothing concrete about it. If you think about the rapists I interviewed, who have been taught by socio-cultural thinking, programmed in fact, to devalue and be derisory of women from the day they’ve drawn breath, then think about where on earth they were meant to have been taught otherwise? Where are the interventions in the cycle of their discriminatory mind set meant to come from? Certainly not their parents or communities, who taught them to think this way. The only place it can come from, is education at school.
By ‘education’ we don’t mean access to education, we mean contents of education – what and how they are taught. They have to be taught empathy and they have to be made to practice it. They have to be taught that every human being is of value. They have to be taught emotional intelligence, perspective-taking, critical thinking and conflict resolution. And they have to be taught all this at the earliest stage when their brains are still neuroplastic and they can be cognitively modified – when their attitudes and behaviour brought from home can still be changed. Neuroscience tells us that is between the ages of three and five. So THINK EQUAL aims to bring a new subject onto the compulsory curricula of world schools from day one of the entry of a child into school; a new subject that will educate their hearts and not just their heads and give them a chance to live a life that is productive and positive, empowered, respectful and supportive of others.
You travel the world speaking to global ministers in hopes for changing the educating system and teaching countries that women should have a voice and equal rights. What kind of changes are your hoping for?
The ultimate change – change of mind sets; world change. I really believe it is quite a simple, tangible, straightforward matter. All we need to do is to commit to the need for social and emotional learning, to stop researching and writing reports about what we already know is required, and to commit to action. Within one generation, we will have enlightened global citizens who are participants in a free and equal world which they will advocate and carry forward to the next generation.
During your talk at your exclusive showing of India’s Daughter at The Capital Club, you talked about your conversation on the phone with your daughter and how she encouraged you to stay in India and finish the documentary when times got too much emotionally. Can you take us through the powerful conversation you had with her?
The profound anguish that overwhelmed me during the 31 hours of interviewing rapists, and the equal spiritual blackness that confronted me in the 12 or so hours I spent with the defence lawyers, was very hard to deal with emotionally. I broke down at one point. I woke up in my Delhi hotel room at 5am and was in the grips of a panic attack – sweating, frightened, my teeth chattering. I wanted more than anything to go home. It was 5.30am in Delhi and around midnight in Copenhagen where my family were. I called home. She immediately knew I was in trouble, though I tried to sound ‘normal’ and I soon cracked and broke down, saying I needed her dad to book me a flight because I had taken on too big a task and couldn’t finish it. She proceeded to talk me down from the panic. She talked me through breathing exercises and then ordered me to get a pen and paper (which I pretended to get) and told me to write down all my problems and then start solving the little ones first. And then she said words I shall never forget: “and Mummy, you are not coming home, because me and my generation of girls are relying on you”. I stayed.
How do you juggle day to day life with travelling the globe to promote equality and THINK EQUAL?
I am extremely lucky to have a hugely supportive family who cares greatly about the work I am doing and are ready to make the sacrifice of not having me around. We speak every few days, and are just overjoyed with the few days we get to spend together. It’s really tough to deal with. There are times when I feel enormous guilt and that I’m letting them down, but every time I speak to them again, or see them, it’s so absolutely clear that they want me to carry on and that the burden is eased. The start-up phase of any new endeavour, in this case an NGO, is always killing – the fund-raising is the worst part of it – it’s very time-consuming and draining. And without funding, you can’t get the personnel in place that you need so that you can focus only on what you should be doing, as opposed to doing everything all the time because you can’t afford the help or structure you need. I find it so hard to accept that new ideas, no matter how obvious a change they’ll bring, are resisted by most foundations who want to fund only after ‘proof of concept’ or after others have funded. So what funding exists keeps going round in circles to the same organisations who are repeating their research projects, or just dealing reactively with the fallout. I think funders should reappraise their priorities and make it easier for preventative and new programmes to be given a chance to make a difference.
I look forward to the time when we are funded and I can focus on doing the work, and then I will also be able to be home more. And get sleep. Oh, and I guess I should add: anyone who is generous enough to support THINK EQUAL can donate on www.indiasdaughter.com.
Thank you for working towards a kinder generation, Leslee Udwin!