Filmmaker Aneri Shah discusses her experiences making a documentary on the impact of the coronavirus on women of color
Aneri Shah, an entrepreneur in video advertising software, had no reason to make a foray into serious filmmaking. But she did, putting together a docu-series called Beyond the Frontlines, interviewing women of color, female physicians, all the while taking a dive into their deeper personal stories.
In an interview with SEEMA, the filmmaker discusses what drove her to work with people who worked in dangerous proximity to the coronavirus, and what she gets out of it.
You were already an entrepreneur. What made you want to be a filmmaker?
I have always been a storyteller. When I was a child, I spent most of my time reading books to imaginary audiences and mimicking the facial expressions and voices of the characters. Storytelling taught me empathy, it taught me how to be captivating when I speak, and perhaps most importantly, it taught me how to reach and connect with people on an emotional level beyond the surface.
There are a surprising amount of similarities between being an entrepreneur and filmmaker. Being a successful entrepreneur requires the ability to tell a compelling story over and over again and evolve it over time as your business and market conditions inevitably change. People invest in you and your business not just because of your spreadsheet, but also because they believe in your ability to create and spread a compelling story.
I wanted to try filmmaking for two reasons. One, because I wanted to create a story purely for the sake of telling a story and having impact, not to support a fundraising round or a business initiative, to see how it opened up and expanded my artistic sensibilities. Two, because I welcomed (and feared) the challenge of creating a story that had to stand on its own without me being there to prop it up.
Why this film? Why this subject?
It all started with my cousin, Shivani Mody, who is an ER physician in New York City. When the pandemic hit, I became her support system, available on demand for whenever she needed to talk, panic or vent. As a new mom, Indian woman and an emergency medical physician during the worst pandemic we’ve ever seen, I knew her stories would be important to capture so we could remember and learn from this time.
It started out as simply recording her stories over Zoom. But then one of our educational videos we made about COVID went viral through WhatsApp, and it motivated me to make this something bigger. When I put up a GoFundMe, I was quickly able to raise over $5,000, which gave me just enough money to shoot and interview other female healthcare workers in NYC for a few days.
As I began to interview more women, one of the common themes that kept emerging was how many South Asian women felt that this was their calling. Many felt more respected at their hospitals because so many healthcare workers and patients – especially patients of color – were looking to them for answers and quick decisions. They were especially adept at operating with little data and lots of uncertainty.
That’s when I decided to focus this documentary on women of color frontliners. There’s something to be said of women of color as leaders. Constantly underestimated, many have been operating with little to no resources even under dire circumstances, making them especially adept during a pandemic.
It struck me that during times of crisis, it is no longer enough to “seem” like a leader, you have to actually be one. Women of color, many of whom are seamlessly and almost effortlessly managing homes, family expectations and professionally demanding careers, are the embodiment of that.
So I decided to make a documentary focused on the personal lives & outstanding leadership abilities of brown and black healthcare frontliners to evolve society’s image of leadership to include us. Helping women of color see themselves as leaders is one of the most important initiatives to help us move forward as a society and operate with more empathy.
What was the hardest part of making this film?
Filming a documentary during a pandemic is no joke. It requires ingenuity, persistence and tight time management skills. It wasn’t safe, nor practical, to film frontline healthcare workers during the peak when they were at their busiest and most exhausted. Through a combination of socially distanced filming, which involved having videographers wear masks and wipe down all of their equipment, and recording interviews over Zoom, we managed to get through the peak and capture a lot of interesting stories and emotions.
Additionally, if we wanted the personal touch, which is a challenging thing to get if you can’t send filmmakers into people’s homes on a regular basis, we would need to teach these women how to film from home using their mobile phones. So we partnered with Witness.org, a fantastic organization that helps people document egregious ICE activity using their phones, who created a series of videos teaching these women how to shoot from home. Additionally, we sent them ring lights so they could easily produce high quality content. Teaching women how to film on their own and motivating them to actually do it consistently was challenging but necessary.
Lastly, one of the more challenging things for me was raising money for this. I felt nervous to ask people in my community for money for a creative project, even though the goal was altruistic – to relate to and motivate young women of color. This pushed me outside of that comfort zone because I HAD to celebrate and believe in our mission to raise money, and as South Asian women we are taught to downplay our accomplishments and stories. In many ways, I myself was learning the same lesson I was trying to impart to the women I was filming – telling our stories is not only important, it’s necessary.
What were some of the skillsets that you could borrow from your entrepreneurial role for this?
There are so many skills I’ve learned from this that I will apply to being an entrepreneur. One is consistent storytelling. As an entrepreneur, especially of a technology company, I sometimes fell into the trap of being too tactical when telling my story. I would focus on features or numbers and forget to reiterate my mission of increasing brown and black representation in media. This project really brought me back to that.
The other thing making this film really helped me do is remember to enjoy the process, because that in itself is just as important if not more so than the outcome. I didn’t start making this film to become famous, I started it to record important stories and elevate women’s voices, which has been my mission since birth. This really brought me back to that in a big way. So no matter how my path as an entrepreneur evolves, I will continue coming back to that.
So, are you a filmmaker now? Please describe some of the moments that were memorable, and those that were really hard.
I have never been a big fan of labels. I wasn’t a founder, and then I created a company and all of a sudden I was one. I was never a runner, but when I started my first company I started training for half marathons and all of a sudden I was a “runner.” I wasn’t a filmmaker, but now that I have been creating this film I am one. I think of myself as a storyteller, writer and leader. Those skills can be applied in many ways, and filmmaking is one of them. I am thinking of taking a screenwriting course or doing a writing fellowship when I move to Los Angeles next month…so ask me again in a year.
In some ways, filming about the frontlines made you one of the frontline workers, right? Give us a glimpse into what it was like to be on the frontlines.
This is true. I never thought about myself as a frontline worker, but I did definitely attach myself to the frontlines by being part of the subjects’ support team.
It was jarring to hear some of the stories. Without giving away too much, I heard stories about women being pressured to quit their jobs, becoming single moms all of a sudden when they found out their husbands were cheating, being respected for the first time at their hospitals and how emotional that was, and so much more. These women really opened up in a big way because no one had ever asked them these questions before, and I didn’t take that lightly. I could feel their pain, their angst, their joy, their every up and down as they went through something that no one else in the world could relate to.
I remember one subject calling me one March morning at 5 AM on the way to the hospital. In those days, I learned to sleep with my phone near me, just in case. She was anxious about walking into an emergency room filled with COVID patients while she was still breast-feeding her newborn. She said, “If something happens, will you help me?” In that moment, I understood what it meant to walk into the ER everyday. You knew you might be putting your family in danger, but at the end of the day your responsibility was to the larger community and the world. I remember another woman who came from India to NYC to help out during the peak calling me from her hotel room in the Bronx telling me how lonely and scared she felt. People shared happy moments with me too. One woman fell in love during the pandemic and scheduled a Zoom call to talk with me about it.
Being on the frontlines was scary, anxiety inducing and intensely fulfilling, all at once.
So now what?
We have raised just over $10K from individual donors, and have a sponsorship grant out to a few organizations to raise up to $22K. This will help us finish filming by end of September and editing by mid-October so we can secure a distribution deal for late fall or early next year. I have been approached by a few networks as well as female-focused global non-profits who are interested in streaming this short documentary to their audiences. Our goal is to motivate and inspire the next generation of brown and black female leaders while highlighting our resiliency and the unique challenges we face in the workplace and society. If you want to support us, feel free to donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/supportfrontlinersdirectly