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Q&A: Towson filmmaker’s next project to examine sexual violence in India

Filmmaker and Towson University professor Harjant Gill
Filmmaker and Towson University professor Harjant Gill - Filmmaker and Towson University professor Harjant Gill
Local documentary filmmaker Harjant Gill made a name for himself with his 2011 movie “Roots of Love.”

Shown at international film festivals, the BBC and Doordarshan (the Indian national TV channel), the movie follows six Sikh men in India to uncover the importance of hair and turbans to their faith.

When he is not making films, Gill can be found teaching anthropology at Towson University. He teaches a course on visual anthropology, which examines how film, photography and other visual mediums influence us as a culture.

Gill recently spoke with his former anthropology student and BmoreMedia intern Eric Shepperd to discuss the growing subfield of visual anthropology and his next project, which examines the sources of sexual violence in India.
Are you currently working on any new research?
I’m just about to go to India to make a documentary that explores masculinity and men’s experiences to understand why men engage in acts of sexual violence. We’ve been seeing a lot of news reports about women being raped and really sort of very brutal rapes happening in places like India, and I am trying to get a sense of, well, why is that? What would motivate one human being to enact such violence on another human being?

And again beyond just saying that these men are monsters or Indian men are horrible, or it’s a “cultural problem” in the way it’s framed in news media. The media tends to say that “oh in India men are just culturally more aggressive,” and that’s not true.
What will your film do?
So My film is going to explore critically and deeply the question of how is dominant masculinity constructed. How do men experience privilege and power? - Harjant Gill What are the different social and culturally institutions that come in to play to create the conditions where often heterosexual men experience power and privilege at the cost of marginalizing women and disempowering women and other sexual minorities.

How did you first find yourself interested in the field of visual anthropology?

I wanted kind of an artistic medium in which I could express what I felt and how I saw the world. I thought about changing [my major] to film and cinema but I didn’t really like the people I meet in film school. They seemed somewhat arrogant and snobby people who wanted to be the next Martin Scorsese or the next George Lucas and I have no desire of ever really making it big in Hollywood. 

So I found anthropologists who are much more interested in the content over the form and that’s what first drew me to visual anthropology. Visual anthropology uses the medium of film, but the core focus is the cultural phenomenon that you experience, the cultural questions that you are trying to answer. So in that sense, I found visual anthropology to be more helpful in what I wanted to do with film.
Does Baltimore have a lot to offer to the field?

Yes, absolutely. My colleagues Matthew Durington and Sam Collins, also anthropology professors within our department, work directly with disenfranchised and marginalized communities within Baltimore using visual media and film, helping communities tell their own stories. Often in mainstream media, there is an image that is constructed about a specific place or city, and in the case of Baltimore that image is dominated by the representations in the TV show “The Wire.”

What do these representations mean?

You and I both know these are very flawed representations. These are not very accurate, and they do not represent the lives of Baltimore’s residents. Durington and Collins’ project uses visual media and digital film to have people tell their own stories and create their own representations, as part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored project “Anthropology by the Wire” to precisely challenge our notions about how a place like Baltimore should be represented.

Eric Shepperd is a senior at Towson University studying film, electronic media and creative writing. 

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