When he was just 6 years old, Dinesh Sabu lost both of his parents – his father to cancer, his mother to suicide.
In his documentary "Unbroken Glass" Sabu delves into his own family history to gain a more complete picture of who his parents were and how the trauma of loss had shaped his own life and that of his siblings.
He joins host Phil Ponce to discuss his film.
Watch a trailer, below.
Below, a Q&A with Sabu.
Why did you want to make this film that deals with such deeply personal and sensitive issues for your family?
In the beginning it started out almost as an excuse. I didn’t know what I was going to uncover going on this journey. I had made it to adulthood with all of these questions, this giant hole where my parents and their story needed to be. I was studying documentary and was getting into doing documentary film as a profession and I thought if I pick up my camera it will be a great excuse to have these conversations.
I started interviewing my siblings and my extended family and then along the way I was looking at the material with collaborators, with friends and we realized that this story was bigger than just my family. So while the film is very much the organic journey of me and understanding my family, it touches on all these sorts of universal themes. That’s when we realized, “Hey, this may actually be of real value as a documentary.”
How much had you and your siblings talked about your mother and father growing up?
I had like a thumbnail sketch of their lives. And we did acknowledge every now and then on the anniversaries of their deaths, or when something would happen or we’d come across a photo, we did acknowledge them and share a story here or there. But we never sat down and really grieved as a family.
I think it was all just too raw and we were living in the immediate aftermath just trying to survive as this band of boxcar children growing up in Louisiana in the 1990s. So, we had this thumbnail sketch but it was definitely not complete enough for my taste.
What do you see as the strongest themes within your story?
One thing that always strikes me is how much the film is just an exploration of family. There’s the family that my parents came to the U.S. to start. There’s the family that my siblings and I created together, this sort of band of boxcar children. And then – not to give away the ending – then there’s the family that my siblings and I go on to create.
It’s not like you need to have lost your parents to understand just how profound families are and how those kinds of relationships, how complex and difficult they can be. And just dealing with siblings and seeing those kinds of tensions and complexities arise. I think that’s one really big theme and then I think the other big theme is grief.
We talk a lot about mental illness in the film – schizophrenia, suicide and loss – which are really important issues to advocate on and I really love having those conversations in communities. But again, your family doesn’t have to have been touched by schizophrenia or even suicide to really think about grief and loss. This is something that is just part of the human experience. At some point we will all lose somebody we love and I think you see me really grappling with that in the film.
What has been the reaction of audiences, what are the things that have really touched them in the film?
When we were making it, the temptation was do we single out just one or two of these issues, these themes and really focus on them. But in order to make it true to my experience and the experience of my family we realized that we needed to make this sort of intersectional film. This really organic film and acknowledge all of these things and how they interplay together: arranged marriage, mental illness, how all of these issues contribute to a family.
As far as audience reaction, it’s been pretty profound. We’ve done about 50 community screenings at this point. I’ve appeared at most of them in person, virtually in a few, and there hasn’t been a screening where somebody hasn’t gotten up and shared their own story about how their lives have been touched by mental illness, by suicide. Even young south Asians, they’ll come up to me and they are thrilled to see a complete portrait of a south Asian in the media as a fully complex human being. And so I think there are all of these points of identification and audiences are really seeing that and understanding it.
Was making the film a cathartic experience for you?
Yes it was. I often tell people who are interested in making films about their own traumas – you know filmmaking itself can be a very, very stressful thing – in my own experience there was just a kind of catharsis of revelation that just kind of happened as we were filming. Just really uncovering this stuff and getting the complete picture. That was the very basic kind of healing that I was hoping to get.
But then, as we started editing the film something really miraculous started happening, where once we had control over the story and could change the way the story was told, that became a really mind-opening thing. It’s not like we changed the facts themselves – the facts remain that, the events themselves remain that – but there’s something about the tone, the point of view. What we chose to leave in and what we chose to leave out. Those kind of storytelling devices that really was cathartic at its own level. Maybe it was having just having that control over the events as opposed to the decades prior these events had had so much control over me. There’s a line in their about living in the shadow of suicide – I was very much living in that shadow.
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