Listening to the Texture of Life: An Interview About the Art of the Interview with Hannah Jayanti

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by Rachel Baron | January 30th, 2019

Filmmaker and DCTV Workshops Instructor Hannah Jayanti has a unique attitude towards one of the most classic acts of documentary filmmaking: the interview. Her work often deploys the one-on-one session not so much as a means for information, but a vehicle for capturing the human experience. A 2018 NYFA Artist Fellow in Film, Jayanti’s projects though far-ranging— the art of neon sign-making, a hotel in Death Valley, and the NYC subway are just a few of the topics covered—all channel this desire to preserve experience, to unlock meaning through immersion with the everyday.

Jayanti’s credits include The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, Gasper & Son, and Blackout, as well as several films in post-production, such as the speculative documentary Truth or Consequences. Prior to her leading our upcoming Art of the Interview (Feb 2019) workshop, we spoke with Jayanti about her path into documentary art and the philosophy behind her unconventional interviewing tactics.

Rachel Baron: Can you start with some background about your path into filmmaking?
Hannah Jayanti: My father is a documentary filmmaker so I grew up in the cutting room. I was subconsciously determined not to follow in those footsteps. I went to St. John’s college, which was the most sheer liberal arts background you can have. The joke is that graduates take much longer to find their career because they’re trained in thinking. After graduating and travelling, I found myself taking photographs all the time. I ended up studying photography at SVA for graduate school. I was also doing video work and my first film project was a perfect grad school piece—an adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel. Editing that was when I started becoming invested in film. It wasn’t like a moment of inspiration, it was really challenging. But I dropped out and went to work on my first film.

RB: What do you find are the challenges and rewards of the interview process?
HJ: Through making films I have learned what it is to really listen. I think interviewing is practicing a type of listening that we don’t do much in our lives. It’s a privilege, you get to be in this space with people. Interviewing is a creative act. When you listen to the texture of life and you’re not just listening for facts, you’re listening to who that person is and what they care about. You and the person are discovering something together.

RB: What was your experience collecting interviews for your VR documentary, Blackout?
HJ: We interviewed over 50 New Yorkers from all walks of life. Each person had an interview with me—just me and them in a little recording studio. I had some rules. I didn’t know about the people, it was important that I didn’t have preconceived ideas. We used the practice of radical listening. The interviews had no set questions. Some would say is the opposite of what you should do. But for me, it was all about following what people wanted to share and going deep. The interviews were really intense, each about 3 hours long. It was the most emotional work I’ve ever done in such a compressed amount of time. You have to open your heart when you’re interviewing someone like that.

RB: Any insider tips you would give about conducting an interview?
HJ: First of all: be conversational. Treat the person like a friend. Being over prepared can get in the way of human connection. Secondly: not knowing can sometimes be a wonderful thing. Very often that person is your collaborator, not your subject. Leave spaces for them to fill in their own ways.

RB: What works or artists have you been influenced by?
HJ: I’ve been very influenced by podcasts in general. I adore Scott Carrier’s work in Home of the Brave. I think of him as a radical listener. I really appreciate Les Blank's films because of their openness. They’re structured, but it’s not your typical 3-act structure. Studs Turkel does beautiful work as well. They recently released tapes of him just having these amazing conversations. The unifying thing for me is people that find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

RB: What are you currently working on?
HJ: I’m working on a few films. The main one is Truth or Consequences. It’s about a small town in Southern New Mexico. It’s also about a spaceport and the kind of dreams of human striving and progress that often happen in the desert. It’s mainly about these people finding a sense of belonging. I also have a residency at Jacob Burns film Center, with a short film and a medium-length film in editing. I do documentary in the tradition of vérité and listening. But I play with new medium-making like VR. I love the idea of humanizing technology.

RB: Anything else you’d like to add?
HJ: Everyone interviews differently and that’s beautiful. There is a part of interviewing that seems really rigid. Interviewing, when it’s most successful, involves following intuition and connecting with humanity.

Don’t miss more insights from Jayanti in our upcoming Art of the Interview workshop starting Tue 2/19/19. A few spots still available!