Creative Lives — Freelance director Souvid Datta on finding what makes you “enraged, joyous, and inspired”

Posted 14 July 2020 Introduction by Siham Ali

Award-winning photojournalist Souvid Datta’s work has taken him to over 60 countries to cover some life-changing stories. Having begun his journey as a freelance multimedia journalist, Souvid now specialises in film, writing and photography. His work has a mesmerising effect, so it’s not hard to understand Souvid’s success in recent years. In 2016, Souvid launched his own small production company SDFilms, focusing specifically on current affairs, contemporary culture and marginalised stories. Spanning documentaries, music videos and feature films, Souvid is also due to add an up-coming six episode comedy-drama series to his portfolio of work. We speak to Souvid to find out how his hustle landed him in the position he’s in today, learning from past mistakes, and why he was “probably too lucky too quickly in the very beginning.”

Souvid Datta

Job Title

Freelance Director, Writer, Photographer
Head of Creative Content at SDFilms (2016–present)

Based

London

Selected Clients

Channel 4, BBC, Google, Discovery Earth, Save the Children

Previous Employment

Freelance Multimedia Journalist, National Geographic, The Guardian, VICE, The New York Times

Education

BA International Relations, Law and Conflict, University College of London (2011–2014)

Website
Social Media

Souvid

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I direct for documentary productions, and work as a visual producer for brands, companies and publications looking to tell social stories. For the former, this means wearing the self-shooting producer and director hat. My documentary work has taken me to over 60 countries to cover some life-changing events and issues. I recently worked with the BBC, which allowed me to go back to India, my homeland, to investigate the diverse faces of music there and how they reflect the changing identity of the nation.

Beyond documentaries, the past couple of years have involved directing more commercial films i.e. branded shorts and music videos for upcoming artists, shooting stills editorials and features for magazines, and working on longer-term personal projects. My first six episode comedy-drama series is currently in development with an American startup streamer, too.

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
Honestly, my daily routine is a work in progress! I’m based out in North London with SDFilms, my small production company, and this means wearing several hats – from developing, to pitching, writing and production itself. A typical day might involve a few hours of emailing and calls, working on an edit or production plan, and building decks and treatments for new work. That said, it’s just as likely that a typical day will find me on set abroad somewhere. 2019 alone took us to Rwanda, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US. The variety and flexibility is what I live for, but I’m also beginning to place more importance on self-care and structuring in enough downtime. The lockdown has really given me a chance to carve out space within the hustle.

‘A Letter to Hope’, a short film inspired by real-life correspondence sent by key-workers, parents, artists and everyday people during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
There’s a really exciting experimental short-doc looking into the hopes, fears and struggles of Kigali’s youth in the wake of the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi’s. It’s a side-project I shot last year but have only had time to return to over lockdown. This should be out soon. My latest narrative short is currently touring film festival circuits and follows the story of three sisters fighting child marriage in rural West Bengal, my home state in East India. It’s an issue that’s really close to me – so I’m looking forward to releasing that publicly soon too.

More recently, the lockdown threw a spanner in the works for everyone. The implications of the pandemic hit me much later than others, for some reason. So, I started a series of IG Live chats, called ‘In Conversation’ – a small side-hustle project that proved to be really rewarding. I interviewed other creatives on the edge of my social circles, whose work had been inspiring me for some time, and then over the course of an hour, I opened it up for public Q&As. The common ground I found was so reassuring and motivating – from wanting to tell greener stories, and making our creative industries more equitable, to championing better representation and diversity.

“I think we’re overdue a debate about mental health in the arts.”

Off the back of this, a dream concept I’d been developing with my brother, Soumik – a musician and composer – finally took flight too. The project’s called Hope Notes, and I’m really excited to see it come to life! I think we’re overdue a debate about mental health in the arts.

We’d been researching the relationship between creativity and mental health for some time. It’s a tension that’s been central to my own life – as new works were born out of periods of struggle, and those difficult episodes were sometimes best therapised by creating art. We wanted to create a digital safe space where artists could share these types of experiences, and create new work in response to their mental health struggles. The idea seemed to resonate naturally during lockdown, and through Soumik’s charity, SDA, we received emergency support from Arts Council England to set this up. At the end of June we ran our first series of artist grants too and continue commissioning work across dance, music, film, written word and photography.

‘Jangal’ music video (2019)

What would you say are the best and worst things about your job?
There’s a lot to love about my job. I’m hugely privileged to see so many parts of the world, to work with incredible, diverse people, to get paid to tell stories. But the best part of this job is knowing that there’s a possibility that what you make might inspire someone somewhere to think again, to be better, to do some good.

On a personal level, I’ve struggled with isolation in my work. My background was in reporting abroad, photography and self-shooting low-budget documentaries, and this often meant working in relative solitude. It often meant returning home with buried memories that I couldn’t find a place for in my life, let alone a healthy way to process or share. Unfortunately, the documentary and news world still lionises the stereotype of some scarf-wrapped, lone-wolf crusader who parachutes into people’s lives, puts his job above all, and is seen as a credible arbitrator of the truth.

We should be questioning our privilege – who gets to tell certain stories, how and why. We should be collaborating with and enabling local storytellers, BIPOC storytellers, storytellers outside of elite circles.

“We should be enabling local storytellers, BIPOC storytellers, storytellers outside of elite circles.”

Experimental short documentary film ‘Within’ (2019)

Can you tell us a bit about how your projects come about?
My work is around 60:40 commissions to self-initiated projects. I might be brought in for a specific role in a production that’s already in development. I’ve always got to keep the ball rolling on new project pitches through SDFilms – there are around three to five doc ideas in development at any time, and even more regular pitches for music videos, shorts and commercials. I’ve used platforms like Creative Commission, The Smalls, Flare Studio and The Dots in the past with some decent success. But I try to make sure that personal work is now supported by grants or production partners with whom I’ve worked with in the past.

Can you give us a sense of how big the teams are for the majority of your projects and the timelines involved?
Team structures definitely change from project to project! The latest documentary series I worked on had five people on location, with an exec and two researchers back home. It was a 60 minute three-part show and went from development to broadcast on BBC within nine months. On the other end, a sci-fi proof-of-concept short I wrote and directed last year had a cast and crew of around 60, and is currently being reshaped as a feature.

Proof of concept trailer for ‘Dark Rising’ (2018)

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
For the longest time, I was quite set on going into politics. But funnily enough, it was around the time that I started working more closely with politicians, that I quickly realised it wasn’t quite for me! The motivation though, came from an interest in drama, in oratory and in story-telling. I knew I was interested in engaging with current affairs, with contemporary culture and with marginalised stories; and after a few years of working in journalism and photography during university, I turned to film as a natural confluence for creativity, public messaging and personal growth.

Do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I specialised in international relations, law and conflict at UCL. It gave me a strong foundation in terms of building arguments, analysing the structure of a narrative, and an awareness of global geopolitics and history that I’ve carried with me since. But it also confirmed that I didn’t want to live in a world of theory, and I ended up spending most of my student loan travelling to places we were studying, like Cairo during the Arab Spring, to Beijing off the back of a climate politics course, and Kabul for human rights stories.

I definitely don’t think you need a formal education, let alone in film, to become a filmmaker today. There are enough resources online to learn the technicalities. Probably the one thing you need to work on harder, is finding a group of peers and mentors whom you can grow with and trust on your own terms.

What were your initial jobs when you were starting out?
I was freelancing for newspapers, taking photos for weddings, making SME [small and medium-sized enterprises] corporate films. I remember a lot of emailing and cold calls, which, after a lot of rejections, led to an unofficial internship that afforded me a leg up. The adage ‘fake it till you make it’ helped me when I needed it most. Though I’m still finding my feet in some ways, I’ve probably amended that to ‘be honest, trust you’ll make it, and practice till you do.’

Experimental short documentary film ‘Gladiator on Wheels’ recently won Best Short Documentary at Cannes Short Film Festival (2019)

Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
My story’s a little strange in that I was probably too lucky too quickly in the very beginning. I was winning awards while still trying to pick up the craft of photojournalism alongside university. I was chasing projects that received interest and helped me gain experience – mainly covering human rights issues – post-conflict stories in and around Mosul (Iraq), investigating the human cost of pollution in China, and tracing organised crime and child trafficking in India. It was a steep learning curve but I was suddenly working with dream publications like National Geographic, The Guardian and The New York Times.

Then in spring 2017, a series of mistakes I’d made during my younger years resurfaced and called into question the veracity of my work as a journalist. In my early 20s, within my own first projects, I composited and reused a handful of images belonging to other photographers without acknowledgment. This crossed an ethical red line – especially in the photojournalism industry – and was an incredibly foolish set of mistakes to have kept quiet about. I owned up publicly, and for a long time was racked with regret for the knock-on toll it took on the stories I was working on, and an industry that already suffers from misinformation.

Yet, on a personal level, it took longer still to understand that mistakes can’t be taken back, and that guilt never really amounts to much good. Rather, I had to learn from the past and move on, seeing this turn as an opportunity to slow down, really dig deep into why and how I wanted to tell stories, and hopefully come back stronger to contribute some good. While I’d been motivated by big ambitions and the brash confidence that luck gives you, it was only in the following months that I rediscovered the collaborative respect and humility that’s become crucial to my work today. In some ways, this rockier episode really was my lucky break.

Behind the scenes in a Rajasthani village, during a shoot for Lost Musicians of India for Channel 4 (2016)

Outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan on assignment for The Guardian (2015)

Outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan on assignment for The Guardian (2015)

Still from ‘Vanishing Girls of West Bengal’ a multimedia investigation into India’s child trafficking epidemic (2019)

Still from ‘Vanishing Girls of West Bengal’ a multimedia investigation into India’ s child trafficking epidemic (2019)

Still from ‘Vanishing Girls of West Bengal’ a multimedia investigation into India’s child trafficking epidemic (2019)

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What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
I’ve definitely hustled – like most creatives in London trying to make ends meet! In the process, I’ve found myself on seemingly odd red herrings – picking up web-design and coding skills, trading crypto-currency, working on trailer voice-overs. It’s easy to feel like you’re getting lost sometimes just trying to stay afloat, but I try to keep an open mind, and redirect any energies and frustrations towards creativity. At least as a director, I’ve found that the more experiences I can draw inspiration from, the better.

With regard to rates, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to start with a quote that’s just above uncomfortably high, then letting the client negotiate down. It shows that you and others value your work, that you’re confident, and lets clients feel like you’re giving them a good deal. Even if it works four times out of five, it’s worth it. The obvious second lesson as a freelancer is to keep a healthy emergency fund that can cover at least six to eight months of expenses. This can be something that you contribute to over the first couple of years, but is necessary when working in an uncertain industry where one month can bring a commission large enough to support you for a year, or the following three months can prove dry as dirt.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Reach out to people in the industry for a coffee or call. Everyone’s busy but they also remember how hard it can be to get a break, and you’d be surprised how many times people say yes.

Investigate what you’re really passionate about – what makes you enraged, joyous, inspired. Put this at the heart of your work; its authenticity will shine through and you’ll need that emotional fuel on days when the going gets tough.

Scan your work receipts, learn about any film tax incentives you could be eligible for, and every couple of years get a professional to look into your accounts so that whenever the inevitable HMCR investigation rears its head, you’re all set to go.

Posted 14 July 2020 Introduction by Siham Ali
Introduction: Siham Ali
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Film
Mentions: Souvid Datta, The New York Times, BBC, National Geographic, The Guardian

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