After graduating from New York Film Academy Filmmaking conservatory in New York City at the age of 19, Ravjot Mehek Singh hit the ground running. First, she started with large-scale roles directing Bollywood music videos. Soon after, she was assistant director on The Voice India, an opportunity that opened the door for her to write and direct three of her own TV shows for Dish Network by age 21.
Singh’s first documentary is I Stand With Jessy, a powerful and intimate portrait of an South Asian immigrant woman in the U.S. fighting breast cancer, in poverty. The film premiered on Dish Network last year in March before going on to win at Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival in New Delhi, India, as well as winning the Impact Doc Awards Film Festival in 2017.
Here, Singh shares her best advice about telling a story that matters, through filmmaking.
NYFA: First can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to New York Film Academy?
RMS: I am an Indian American film and TV director, with strong roots in both Bollywood and Hollywood. I have directed a handful of films and TV talk shows for channels on Dish Network, such as Jus Punjabi and Jus 24×7, and have directed many Bollywood music videos.
I came to study at NYFA directly after high school, after learning how hands-on the approach was and how students would be learning practical skills from day one.
NYFA: Why filmmaking? What inspires you about this medium?
RMS: In high school, I was always interested in pursuing work that would impact society on a large scale. As a teenager, I would spend many days out of the week vlogging on Youtube, self-teaching editing tricks, and creating improv characters for my comedy sketches. My love for video came together with my goals of positively influencing people on a mass scale, and led me to NYFA.
What inspires me most about filmmaking is how you can truly allow the audience to see, hear, and feel the struggle of others. The best way to create love and understanding in our world is by walking in each other’s shoes. Many people choose not to step into each other’s [points of view] on a day-to-day basis, which is where film and television come in to assist people in seeing someone else’s perspective.
NYFA: Do you have any favorite NYFA moments from your time studying with us?
RMS: I have so many wonderful memories with my teachers, such as Professor William Tyler Smith, Professor Nicola Raggi, and Professor Tasos Panagiotopoulos. Each of them taught me incredibly valuable lessons that come into use every day in the industry.
Some of my favorite moments are from the summertime, when all the students were new and figuring out how to use traditional film cameras. It was a unique bonding experience between students from all over the world, and an important lesson on rehearsing until you get the shot right on the first few tries.
NYFA: Can you tell us about your journey in working with Jus TV? What drew you to the mission of Punjabi programming?
RMS: After graduating from NYFA, I immediately began working overseas in the Indian film industry. I worked on TV shows such as The Voice India, which helped transition me to the more stable, routine lifestyle of television. Jus TV is a major Asian TV channel that is based in New York City, so coming back to the U.S. to work in a channel that crossed Hollywood and Bollywood concepts was the perfect fit! I wanted to use my skills and dual cultural upbringing to create progressive television programming for Asian children and young adults who grew up in America. We are constantly getting two separate streams of content, one side being totally American and the other side being totally Asian. My goal was to create a blend of both types of media to better appeal to our cross-cultural upbringing.
NYFA: How did your project I Stand With Jessy come about?
RMS: Jessy is actually my aunt. I did not expect to create a feature documentary on the topic, I had originally planned the project to be 10 minutes long and only focusing on Jessy herself. However, as the project continued to build up, Jus TV gave me the opportunity to merge my personal project with their company and create a full-length feature (the first feature film to come from their channel).
The more investigation I did to fully understand laws for breast cancer detection and treatment for low-income women, the more flaws I found in our healthcare system in the U.S. I discovered that a huge number of women are left without proper care or any consideration of how time-sensitive treatment options are for breast cancer.
I started developing the film to focus more on how we can take a stand to change these deadly rules and regulations in the healthcare industry.
NYFA: What were some of the challenges you faced in creating this feature documentary, and how did you overcome them?
RMS: One of the biggest challenges for this documentary was allowing Jessy to feel comfortable enough to speak out about a topic that most Asians choose not to openly discuss. There is a huge stigma in nearly all Asian countries about women’s bodies and how illness is perceived. Jessy, like most Asian women, was anxious about how the community would react to her being so open about her breast cancer and the issues that come with chemotherapy.
Ultimately Jessy and I worked together to create a list of questions that would ease her into speaking about certain harsh topics. In the end, Jessy had become so comfortable while filming that she even allowed me to follow her around throughout her day and film all of it!
Another unique challenge was reaching members of the government to comment on the issues of our healthcare system. Though many attempts were made to contact government officials, none of them responded to give their input on issues regarding women’s health.
There is still fear and negativity attached to openly assigning opinions on women’s health and the poor setup of the healthcare system in the United States.
NYFA: What is your advice to NYFA students interested in producing a feature documentary?
RMS: My best advice would be to think of a topic that has the depth to be turned into a film of one hour or longer. The topic should be something unique or quirky enough that the audience would be willing to sit and watch a nonfiction piece over the many fictional TV shows and films out there.
Ultimately, you don’t need much to create a beautiful documentar, besides yourself, a camera, and a subject you’re passionate about. That is part of what makes the documentary genre so accessible for new filmmakers.
NYFA: Congratulations on all your film festival success! What is next for I Stand With Jessy?
RMS: I Stand With Jessy has an adjacent petition for the government to lower the age of breast cancer screenings and include screening options that go beyond the basic mammogram. It can be found and supported at change.org/p/i-stand-with-jessy. As of now, 1,702 people have signed it.
I hope to continue the petition and reach out to members of congress to discuss a reasonable goal for healthcare in the United States.
Luckily the film has gained major publicity for winning India’s biggest film festival, the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival, and last year it gained American publicity thanks to winning the Impact Doc Awards Film Festival. These two festivals have helped spark public interest in bettering the healthcare system in the U.S. for immigrants.
NYFA: Would you say your time at NYFA was at all useful in preparing for the work you are doing now?
RMS: The wonderful hands-on approach at NYFA helped eliminate the wasted time of theories and repetitive classwork with no relevance to film. Thanks to NYFA’s one-year program in filmmaking, I was able to find work immediately, with the right connections in the film industry. I have not yet been on any set where my skills have not been at par with serious film professionals and former students with degrees in film.
I am thankful to NYFA for creating this brilliant, expedited opportunity to learn the true essence of film. After that, it is up to each individual student to continue learning and filling in any blanks for themselves.
NYFA: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
RMS: This year, I am directing my first horror film in Boston with Mtown Films. Along with that, I am working on directing multiple Bollywood music videos, which has become a fun niche of mine in the past few years. The music videos will be shot all across the United States and India, and will be releasing later this year. I am also looking forward to developing more medical documentaries that expose the truth about the negative impacts of our healthcare system.