Documentaries in search of truth

Director and producer Ram Devineni talks about the immersive experience of making a true crime documentary

“We were relentless. We kept coming back and back and asking and asking – until people started trusting us.”

Following a serial killer in the streets of Delhi. Unfolding a decades-long conspiracy theory in Chernobyl. Investigating the Cold War secrets of a sophisticated multi-country European drug network. Ram Devineni’s films invite us to read between the lines of

stories that have been dormant for some time, and are now revived as relevant pieces of history.

He has produced The Russian Woodpecker, set near Chernobyl, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

He directed and produced the true-crime documentary The Karma Killings (2016), about the Nithari serial murders in India. An investigation that took him three years to complete. The film was exclusively released worldwide on Netflix on a two year deal, and now is available on Amazon Prime. BBC News called it “ an explosive new documentary.”

Director and producer Ram Devineni

His most recent film, The Hydra, about drug trafficking after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is being released worldwide this June on dozens of platforms, including Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play. It’s also available on Blu Ray.

Ram Devineni is also the creator of the augmented reality comic book, Priya’s Shakti and Priya’s Mirror, which received the Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund from the Ford Foundation and was supported by the World Bank, and showcased at 2016

New York Film Festival. For creating India’s first female superhero that is a rape survivor, he was named a “gender equality champion” by UN Women. He was also named by Fast Company magazine as one of the most creative people in business in 2017 for his innovative use of augmented reality to address social issues.

In this interview Ram talks about his thrilling experiences as a director and the strategies behind the construction of true crime documentaries. He also gives us some insights on the True Crime Documentary course he is teaching at IAFA.

IAFA: The Russian Woodpecker, which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015, tells a compelling story from the point of view of a very compelling character. As a producer, what was your role on this film? Can you talk about this experience?

Ram Devineni: Chad Gracia, the director, and I developed this project together and it started off as a documentary about a secret massive radio antenna called the Woodpecker near Chernobyl. We were following an eccentric artist, Fedor, who felt the Soviets purposely blew up the Chernobyl reactor in order to cover up the Woodpecker. It was a crazy theory and he was a bit unusual, but an interesting character. After we did our initial shooting, we thought it was a wrap and not much had happened beyond what we planned. Suddenly, the Maidan revolution breaks out in Ukraine, and our main character becomes involved in the protests, as well as our cameraperson. The movie quickly changed and the political turmoil infused with the character’s internal turmoil, which is what made the film interesting. Like all independent productions, we all did everything from shooting, sound, to producing.

You have spent a year in the Ukraine working on The Hydra, a film about secret events that happened during the Cold War. What challenges did you face?

I returned to Ukraine after making The Russian Woodpeckerto make The Hydra, which was proposed by an Ukrainian producer. I was a historian of American history and studied extensively the Cold War, so this story really interested me. Especially the post-Soviet turmoil, which is often forgotten, but I felt was critical in defining Europe. The film is about a former KGB officer who was made head of the anti-drug criminal authority in Ukraine after the Soviet collapsed in the early 1990s. He tracks down a new network of drug traffickers using

Ukraine’s unregulated market to flood Europe with cheap amphetamines and ecstasy. The film is a crime thriller documentary with a modern twist. The biggest challenge is making an ambitious historical documentary with no budget and little resources, but I was able to pull it off because everything is affordable in Ukraine. Also, language was a problem, but all my films have been in countries where I do not speak or understand their language – still I am able to pull it off.

How extensive was the process of making Karma Killings? What compelled you to tell this story? Can you talk about how you developed your relationship with the central character?

I was in India when the case broke more than a decade ago. Like everyone in India, I was captivated by what was being reported, which was sensational and over the top about a house where two serial killers lived and used as their butchering ground. But, I knew that nothing is so clear, and especially in India. Later, I became obsessed with Truman Capote’s“In Cold Blood” and how he meticulous spent years investigating a case and covering it from every angle, and even befriending the two killers, who savagely murdered an entirely family.

Everything worked in steps. One thing led to another. Once we earned the trust of the lawyers, and proved to them we would do an honest representation, that led them introducing us to Pandher and Koli – the two who were convicted of the serial killings. Eventually, it took months until we earned their trust, and they then introduced us to their family. This was a grueling and meticulous process.The main challenge was getting the trust of Koli, Pandher and even the families of the victims. All of them have been demonized and abused by the press and others. And here was another? I wanted to prove to them that I was serious and in it for the long haul, so I ended up renting an apartment a few blocks from the D5 house where all the murders happened, and moved in with my collaborator--- Tushar Prakash. We were relentless. We kept coming back and back and asking and asking – until people started trusting us.

Your True Crime Documentary course at IAFA addresses very real situations for filmmakers who intend to focus on criminal subjects. How close will you work with students on the development process of their projects?

The main purpose of the course is to immerse the students in the genre of true crime documentaries and show how other filmmakers made their films with limited budgets and resources. It is an extensive process, and takes time and commitment. Students will leave the course with a good understanding of how to make a true crime documentary and will have a detailed treatment of their own true crime film.

What are the highlights from the course and what kind of students do you think will benefit from the program?

I think the main highlight is that students will understand how other filmmakers made their true crime documentaries. I will deconstruct how it was done using my own true

crime film, The Karma Killings. This course is not an academic course, but a real-life course. Students should not feel intimidated by the documentary filmmaking process, and I will show how it is done.

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*Banner above: Frame from The Hydra, directed by Ram Devineni.