When Shilpi Gupta didn’t receive an honorable mention at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival awards ceremony, she was disappointed. But moments later, the first-time filmmaker found herself on stage, behind the podium. Never mind an honorable mention — she’d won the Jury Prize. Gupta’s 24-minute documentary, “When the Storm Came,” tied for top honors in the short filmmaking category, besting 82 films.

“I was so adamant that a documentary wouldn’t win,” the 26-year-old said a few days later at a cafe near her Berkeley home. “I never expected even to be at Sundance, much less to win.”

Gupta’s passion for filmmaking is relatively new. The Brown University graduate didn’t spend countless hours playing with her parent’s video camera as a kid; she didn’t even pick it up. It wasn’t until she enrolled in a photography class at age 15 that she thought at all about the kind of stories she could tell through a lens. Eight years later, Gupta began classes in the documentary program at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, having nixed law school at the last minute.

Filmmaker Shilpi Gupta. Contra Costa Times/ Dan Raosenstrauch photo.

Gupta’s parents emigrated from India before she was born, but the Long Island, N.Y., native spent six weeks there every summer as a child. Still, she doesn’t speak Hindi, and she never set out to do her masters’ project in India. In fact, she was so wary about being typecast as an Indian American filmmaker that she hesitated when she tripped across the idea for “When the Storm Came” during a trip to India in 2002. She’d won a Berkeley Human Rights Center fellowship to document the ways in which women and children suffer in regions of conflict. Tensions between India and Pakistan over control of Kashmir had been mounting for decades and paramilitary groups were growing increasingly visible along the border. Within a few days of her arrival in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu-Kashmir, she caught wind of a mass rape that had occurred more than a decade earlier in Kunnan Pushpora, a tiny village at the foothill of the Himalayas.

“They were known as the rape village,” she recalls. “It was the most talked-about story in the valley.” And although numerous local social service agencies had promised, at the time, to help the village heal, none had. An estimated 36 women had been raped in one night, purportedly by Indian Security Force officers in search of militants. Finding none, villagers say, the officers dragged the men out of the houses and raped the women. Gupta spent a day in Kunnan Pushpora and promised to return.

Four months later, she arrived with her three-person crew — classmate Turaya Bryant, a translator, and a driver — and stayed in a hut with a family of nine. For two weeks they slept on thin mattresses on the mud floor and didn’t bathe for a week. The single lightbulb in the small room where some interviews took place was so weak that a gas lantern and flashlight were needed to film the shots. The experience, she says, was amazing. The women performed the hard work in the village, trekking through the surrounding hills to the jungle, climbing trees and cutting wood. Gupta and Bryant went with them, struggling to keep up. Gupta says she was amazed by both their mental and physical strength.

“These were mostly women who were 30 years older than us, but we were dying. I was trying to run in front of them and shoot, but it was hard,” Gupta says. Her relationship with her host family proved the most fascinating part of her journey, even in moments of trepidation — like the time when an aunt from a more militant region of Kashmir paid a visit. When Gupta asked her translator what the family was talking about, he turned to her and said: “The aunt asked if you are from the same America as Osama bin Laden did his great act in.” Gupta often told people outside the village she was Canadian.

Shilpi Gupta filming in India. Photo courtesy of Women of Color Film Festival.
Shilpi Gupta filming in India. Photo courtesy of Women of Color Film Festival.

Gupta felt the stigma of being an American — ironic because the film itself is largely about the stigma of that one brutal night. “The whole world heard that scream,” says a man whose wife and daughters were raped. In a culture where arranged marriage is the norm, finding a husband for a rape victim is nearly impossible. Many women who married outside the village return, unable to tolerate their taunting in-laws. Even young boys, not yet born in 1991, struggle to maintain their dignity beyond Kunnan Pushpora.

Sundance’s Mike Plante, one of three short-film programmers who watched 3,500 entries in order to whittle the number to 83, described Gupta’s film as “one of those things you are looking for, and it is finally there.”

“For somebody in film school in America to be doing something like this is pretty amazing,” he says. “Her documentary was about one of the forgotten subjects, and she knew how to present it. You could see she had a deep respect for the people.”

Jon Else, head of the documentary program at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, calls “When the Storm Came” an astonishingly important film.

“It’s important because those villages in Kashmir and those women have long ago fallen off the international radar, and certainly the radar in America,” says Else, who works with about 10 students a year on their documentary masters’ projects. “Shilpi’s great accomplishment is that when no one else would, she got herself to that village and told their story.”

Gupta’s film has also been awarded the silver prize in the student Academy Awards and the second prize in the student Emmy Awards. But she isn’t finished yet. Gupta admits that at Sundance, with thousands of strangers bearing witness to the intimate details of the Kashmiri subjects’ lives, she felt a bit like she was exploiting them. Although she completed the film over two years ago, no one in Kunnan Pushpora has seen it.

There are no televisions in the village. Gupta is applying for grants so she can go back and share the film with the residents, perhaps even document her subjects’ reactions to it and expand it into a feature-length film. Funding is hard to come by — Gupta estimates she’s spent about $10,000 out of pocket to produce the film. If she’s lucky, it will be picked up for national broadcast and pad her pockets for her next venture. If she returns to Sundance, Gupta will no doubt get slightly different treatment.

During her 10-day stint at Sundance she got a lesson in humility whenever she entered the filmmakers’ lodge. “Nobody believed I was a director,” she says with a laugh. “People kept asking, ‘Are you a volunteer or an actress? What film are you in?’”

“Getting into Sundance has been my dream since I made this film,” says Gupta. “And now my goal is to get back there again before I’m 30.”

By Lauren Gard

Lauren Gard received her MJ from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in May 2004. Her article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.