It’s Time to Shift How We Think About Creating Impact: Advice from Filmmaker Malik Vitthal
Malik Vitthal is a filmmaker and Sundance Ignite mentor who creates purposeful storytelling. He spoke with us about unexpected obstacles, the importance of character development, and his advice for emerging filmmakers on how to be successful without selling out.
Malik, film is such a powerful tool in sharing perspectives and building empathy. Why do you think creating impactful films is so important?
Creating impactful films is important, but the simple act of sharing stories is something that has value in itself. I think it’s nice when artists can identify their own intentions and motivations, and let people pick up the impact as a result of storytelling. Just because you don’t have a mission when you start and say, “I’m going to change people’s minds about…[issue],” it doesn’t mean your film can’t be impactful.
For me, personally, that was something I leaned into with my film Imperial Dreams: exploring the different realities that we all live, especially in a city like Watts where the film takes place, which is only 30 minutes outside of Hollywood ━ and yet, people in Hollywood have no idea what’s going on. It’s a totally different sociological and economic scale, and people are living in such a different way.
“Every story is valid. They all pull their weight. You don’t have to say, ‘I’m going to speak about this issue.’ It can just be, ‘I’m going to share this story.’”
Sharing that story is something that has value in itself. The impact comes naturally. When I was first in Watts, I was thinking a lot about the things that I consider to be obstacles from my own perspective. People who know nothing about Watts would be like, “Why doesn’t this person just get a license? Why don’t they just get a job?” And a lot of those things were just coming from perspectives of different cultural backgrounds. Often, when you share with them the actual perspective from the community, people are like, “Ohhhhh,” and it clicks. Sharing that through a story is really powerful.
That’s one of the hardest things to do in life: showing people someone else’s perspective. If we had the time and ability to look into and investigate other people’s perspectives, there would be a lot more empathy in the world. The reason so many people can’t empathise with other people is because they haven’t taken the time to or because no one has shared important information with them. Storytellers’ jobs are to go out and say, “This information is not out in the world, and I’m going to change that.”
Every story is valid. They all pull their weight. You don’t have to say, “I’m going to speak about this issue.” It can just be, “I’m going to share this story.”
I was fortunate enough to be raised in different places and communities and travel a lot, and that shifted my perspective of how we connect with each other. I don’t make films for certain audiences. I want everything to be approachable. I create films for humans. Everyone will take away something different, but we all stand to benefit from listening to each other.
Your Sundance Ignite Mentee, Charlotte Regan, spoke of how much you taught her about the realities of filmmaking. What advice would you give to other filmmakers about overcoming unexpected obstacles?
I think one of the things I share with a lot of the mentees that go through Sundance Ignite is that they are the visionary. There are going to be a lot of people who go through Sundance who have different voices and backgrounds. I don’t think that any one artist can give a blanket piece of advice to another.
“Everything is an autobiography, wanted or not.”
But what I can do is encourage artists to find their innovative side and make decisions based off of their original intentions for telling a story. Identify your voice and think critically about how that’s applied in your work. How is your opinion being projected onto your work? Some artists say, “Well, I don’t want to express an opinion.” But, they have to realize this is the opinion that’s coming across ━ everything is an autobiography, wanted or not. You have to have clarity with your intentions so that you can share with everyone who’s viewing your film, then they can tell you how close you were to getting your intentions across.
Listen to the film. Listen to the audience. Understand and identify your voice and intentions and share them with everyone. Let your intentions be a guiding light.
You premiered your first film, “Imperial Dreams,” at Sundance in 2014. How has that experience shaped your creative journey?
I was fortunate to go through a number of creative development programs at Sundance before my film premiered there. I started with a screenwriting class and then a creative summit. Then I went back to the festival to look for partners. I went there for the first time in 2008 with some friends just to watch films, and then I just kind of kept going and applied for the screenwriters lab. I was at the festival for three years leading up to my screening. In that time, I got to see friends make films and screen films, and I got to watch films.
By the time my film screened, it wasn’t some mythological thing and it wasn’t intimidating. It was a valuable place to see how an audience digested my work. That’s just as important as learning how to make the film.
Both the experience I had with my friends and the team I worked with were so great and collaborative, that by the time I got there, I was able to experience the film in a healthy way that wasn’t about what it would mean for myself later in my career. It was just about speaking to the viewers about what they took away from my film.
Filmmakers often speak about the most important part of the filmmaking process, but what can artists do to ensure they focus on the right things after their film is made?
I don’t have kids yet, but I often hear parents say the hardest part of parenting is seeing your child for who they are and letting them be that person, instead of trying to dictate what should happen to them and who they should become. The same goes for artwork.
“If you can find a way to define success for yourself instead of what you think you’re supposed to do, then our community of artists is going to be so special.”
Some films will go to Sundance, and that’s exciting and huge, but that’s not a universal mark of success. How the artist feels about what they made and how the audience reacts are what matter. Sundance is just the catalyst for that. It all goes back to the artist; Each artist is a visionary.
Some people will look at something and be like, “I want to do this and that, and I have this script ready and I have that script ready,” and that’s incredible. But, there are some people that are just trying to figure it out along the way. It’s all about realizing your own tempo. If you’re comfortable with it, you can speed up, and Sundance is a place to push yourself. But, if you’re not there yet, you’re not. You ultimately are the visionary. You get to decide what success looks like.
I tell artists to look at the past few years of Sundance and study. Look at all the artists and where they were then and where they are now. You don’t have to ━ and shouldn’t ━ mirror their path, but it will give you a good sense of what’s out there. It gives you a better understanding of where you want to go, not where you think you should go. Don’t overcomplicate it. The main thing is just to continue to create.
If you can find a way to define success for yourself instead of what you think you’re supposed to do, then our community of artists is going to be so special. Your development as an artist is the most important thing. Your film is not the record of what you’re capable of. You are the record.
As a Sundance Alum, Malik is a mentor for winners of the Sundance Ignite Challenge. Watch the winning films.