From her TEDxTalk discussing the epidemic of child sex trafficking in the United States, to speaking up when voices are systemically silenced, Dharmapalan's dedication to uplifting those around her speaks truth to her dedication to her community. Dharmapalan is Glamour’s College Woman of the Year 2017, Teen Vogue's 21 Under 21, and an OZY Genius Award winner 2018. She recently completed her MA of Human Rights Law at SOAS University of London, and her BA in Sociology at University of California Berkeley. Dharmapalan is currently producing her first feature length film on the Tamil Eelam diaspora that focuses on memory, trauma, & motherland.
Listen to her TEDxTeen - “In our own backyards”.
I had the pleasure of recently connecting with her to learn about her fascinating journey.
How did you become a filmmaker? Or would you consider yourself more of a storyteller in various mediums?
I would consider myself to be an activist at heart, a sociologist by training, and a filmmaker by medium. The stories that I tell are meant to capture the unwritten and untold narratives of communities that are forgotten by the mainstream media.
I know the creative arts can often be looked down on, particularly in the Tamil community. What do you think needs to happen for this to change?
In my family, I was blessed to have experienced the arts since childhood. I was taught to appreciate world art, including Tamil art, dating back thousands of years.
My father, who is a Kandy born electrical engineer, also played and studied music. He introduced me to his favorite artists: Steely Dan, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Harry Belafonte and Santana. Artists like Little Feet, Doobie Brothers, Kris Kristofferson as well. He opened my mind to music from a different time. My dad bought me my first rap album as well, Fugees: The Score. Because of my unique upbringing, and the encouragement by my family to pursue music, I was drawn to the creative arts. I began singing at a very young age… mostly gospel music. I played classical and contemporary piano from the age of 6-on. My parents sent me to an art’s high school. It wasn’t till I was 16 years old that I became interested in digital media and filmmaking. Now, filmmaking is my passion. Something about layering music, sonic energy, storytelling and visual imagery that seems... unequalable.
My two sisters are also artists. One is an amazing composer and filmmaker, she is 18 years old. The other, is 16 years old, and is a painter, dancer, and fashion designer.
I think that Tamil kids should be encouraged to pursue the arts. Just as science and engineering is a part of our cultural underpinnings, artistic expression is as well.
What prompted you to make “International Boulevard”?
International Boulevard, a documentary, is my first film. I made this film in 2013 to highlight the epidemic of child sex trafficking happening in North America, particularly in Oakland, California where I was born and raised. This film was preceded by the many conversations I had as a 16 year old with fellow classmates. We would talk about the young people that I knew who were forced into human trafficking. Back when I made the film, this issue was shoved under the rug. No one wanted to have this conversation. I am grateful to see conversations regarding trafficking taking place today. From high profile cases, to kids who are kidnapped from their parents at the US Mexico border, all are important and must be addressed.
Have you recently travelled back to Sri Lanka? If so - tell us about your experience in terms of what you've seen on the ground.
I have not been back to the island since 2008. It was a devastating time for our people, and while I was only 12 years old, I believe that trip inspired much of my work today.
Tell us more about your feature length film on the Tamil Eelam diaspora?
In the summer of 2018 I embarked on the production of my first feature length film: The Three Performances of Serendip. Since then, I have had the privilege of collaborating with dozens of creators around the world, a majority of whom are Tamil. Our lead production team is exclusively women of color, and our music production team is entirely Tamil. We have shot the film in Oakland, Toronto, London, Sweden, Norway, and Jaffna.
The film is an experimental art documentary divided into three acts. Each of these acts come together to form The Three Performances of Serendip - one of the first portrayals in feature length documentary form focusing on the lives of Tamil women who live in the genocide-surviving diaspora. Staying true to its namesake, each act in the film explores the varying ways that women have to perform their identities to the world.
Our approach to this film has relied on a mix of poetic, performance, animation, archive and interview formats to convey our story. While seemingly complicated and almost too nuanced, using a mixed format has allowed us to express a very painful and grief-stricken subject matter with love and compassion.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
I would invest that money in rebuilding infrastructure in the North-East, giving reparations to the victims of the Tamil Genocide. I would also invest in private investigators for the mothers of the disappeared to provide some level of dignity for their missing loved ones.
What do you think the 16-year-old Rebecca would tell the current you? How about what you would tell your 16-year-old self?
I think 16 year old Rebecca would be proud, and she would tell me not to give up on my dreams of a more equitable world. I also think that 16 year old Rebecca, while she was making pretty amazing films, was quite naive in her approach to filmmaking. The issues that she is focused on eradicating are far more complex than meet the eye. There are mega giants making sure that these systems never crumble. I would tell her not to take on the entire world and I would tell her to care for her mental health with the same vigour that she tries to care for the world around her.
What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?
"How to Cure a Ghost" by Fariha Róisín
"The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers" by Mike Masilamani
"All About Love: New Visions" by bell hooks
"The Wretched of the Earth" by Frantz Fanon
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
My Ammama’s idiyappam and my mom’s Murungakkai curry.
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
Tamil culture is the powerful non-linear expansion of a deep cultural tradition. Tamil culture is knowing that the ancestors are watching, and the room to lean back on that knowing.
***If you want to connect with Rebecca, please reach out via her TC profile - https://tamilculture.com/user/rebecca-dharmapalan***