March 2, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Shaina Ghuraya '20

By Jason Ng

With a pair of projects selected into this year’s Slamdance Unstoppable category, Shaina Ghuraya '20 is showing why nothing can stop her from creating bold films that inform the audience of relevant and immediate problems that exist in our world today. With a love for comedy, Shaina often infuses her craft with a vein of humor that makes her characters and story pop on the screen. A wheelchair-user, Punjabi, and a woman - Shaina is truly a triple threat presence who is fighting for greater inclusivity within an industry that is still only slowly working towards this goal. She joins us to talk about her passion for filmmaking, her participation in the Easterseals Challenge, as well as embracing the quirky.

What does filmmaking mean to you and what made you want to pursue it?

It’s not the most glamorous of reasons, but I pursue filmmaking because I have a lot of rage as a disabled, Indian woman. My way of processing that rage is to turn it into films that not only entertain but also expose people to a different lived experience.

Yourself and fellow USC alum Anthony Golden Jr. founded Rebuilt Minds. As a production company, what are the stories that you are seeking to tell?

As a production company, Anthony and I seek to tell stories that embrace diversity and explore intersectionality. Anthony likes to say that he is a servant to the people, and the reason we got along so well initially is because we put the mission of making the world a more empathetic place first. That doesn’t mean that we only make heartwarming content, it just means that we expose people to an underrepresented lived experience with every film we make.

How important is it for you to use your platform as a filmmaker to raise and promote social awareness in your audience? 

Using my platform to raise and promote social awareness is literally the most important thing for me as a filmmaker with a disability. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I always make films explicitly stating a social issue. My latest film that I’m in development on is a feature called Agg which my producers and I won the SF Film Rainin Grant for. It’s about an Indian woman with a disability who’s family is tricking a guy into marrying her by hiding said disability. It’s a dark comedy where the woman is actually planning on taking revenge against her abusive family while they’re planning a wedding. The whole film is inspired by larger social issues surrounding disability and forced marriages in the Indian community, but it never directly talks about the social issue. We’re just living in the issue as the character is. And that’s so authentic to anyone dealing with a social issue - it’s just life for us.

Human Helper and I Wish I Never were both selected into Slamdance’s Unstoppable slate. What does it mean for you to see your works featured at a film festival which highlights bold and emerging filmmakers?

Unstoppable is an incredible program that’s new and I am so happy to have been included in what will undoubtedly be a game changer for filmmakers with disabilities as well as the industry. My films have been considered bold because I refuse to filter my experiences for a non-disabled audience. So I’m really proud to have two of my films in this festival because they unapologetically showcase authentic and underrepresented viewpoints, which is exactly what I want to continue to do in my work.

Human Helper was an entry in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. Can you tell us a bit about the experience and how you and your crew were able to complete the film in three days? 

My crew, my producer Kittsie Klaes '20, and my actors deserve all the credit. Anthony and I started Rebuilt Minds with our good friends Rohil Khatke '20 and Ariel Cantrell '20 (also USC alumni) because the four of us got along and enjoyed making movies together. But Human Helper was our first test as an official company and we of course wanted it to be amazing. So with the help of other USC alumni (we were a whole USC crew), I basically told everyone what my vision was and they made it happen. The genre was Sci-Fi, and I still remember having no idea how we were going to make an apartment look like a laboratory with no budget. But on the day of the shoot, Rohil in his usual quiet manner told me to give him an hour. So we shot out the outdoor scenes, came back inside, and it looked like a laboratory. And that’s how the whole crew performed that day. Everyone went above and beyond, and because we had worked with each other before on school shoots, we were like a well-oiled machine. We even wrapped an hour early. I also have to brag about the actors because they were memorizing lines on the spot since they did not get the script until that morning when I had finished writing it. Everyone was on their game.

Why do you love comedy, and why do you think dark comedy is so effective at bringing attention to important topics and issues? 

Comedy, dark comedy in particular, allows me to make sense of so many of the absurd situations I face on a daily basis. It allows me to visualize both how ridiculous our ableist society is, and how funny it would be if I acted on certain impulses instead of being kind. I was giving an example the other day about how often I speed into a closing elevator and the person inside will make a joke about how they’re going to give me a ticket for reckless driving. What would make that situation funny, is if after the person got out of the elevator, I recklessly drove into them on purpose. And maybe that’s dark comedy, but first and foremost, it’s my truth. It also defies expectations - which is probably why I love comedy so much. There are so many stereotypes attached to people with disabilities - we need to be kind, passive, asexual, inspirational. Comedy gives me a look into what the world would be like if I didn’t feel like I had to conform in certain situations. Because comedy is so rooted in truth, it’s effective at bringing attention to important issues.

How did your student experience at the School of Cinematic Arts help to prepare you for the transition into the professional world of filmmaking? 

SCA was everything in terms of helping get into the professional world of filmmaking. I had amazing professors early on, with both my 507 and 508 faculty always being supportive - even when I wanted to make my 508 with dolls. SCA allowed me to find my voice as a director - bold, quirky, unapologetic - early on, so that I could perfect my craft in my third year. My third year professors were instrumental in helping me transition, showing me how I could take the scripts and treatments I was writing and get them out into the industry. It was the bridge I needed, and I also had the opportunity of going straight into the Academy Gold program after graduation which helped cement my path in the industry as a writer/director.

You’re a writer, director, as well as an editor. How might each of these roles complement each other as you work on your projects? 

I don’t think I would’ve become a writer/director had I not gone down the editing route. Editing was my first love and it really allowed me to see how all of the elements come together on set, and also how things can go really wrong. I was lucky enough to have Norman Hollyn, may he rest in peace, as my editing instructor. What I learned in his class about editing directly correlated to my confidence in being a writer/director. I find writing to be a different version of editing, and as a director I can visually see how I want the film to play out when it’s eventually cut, which makes me more prepared for every shoot. Comedy editing is also so different as I learned from Nancy Forner, and I feel like that’s why I’m able to direct comedy well, because I know how it’s going to need to be cut in post for the joke to land.

What changes in the film industry do you hope to see happen in the near future as it continues to strive for greater diversity and inclusivity, and how might you contribute towards it? 

It’s no secret that the statistics for the inclusion of people within the industry are pretty dismal, and what’s even worse is that the industry is still making and promoting films with inauthentic representation. Things are getting better, but that’s largely due to the work of the disability community advocating for ourselves and creating our own agencies and companies. And honestly just by being myself and refusing to not be a player in the industry, I’m already contributing to the goal of more inclusivity and diversity. But that’s not enough, which is why I will continue to make content that amplifies the disability community, because we’ve been oppressed for too long.

What are your words of advice for emerging filmmakers and artists who embrace the quirky?

Quirky isn’t something that I set out to be, and I didn’t think of myself as that until someone told me I was. I think it’s hard to not be quirky when you’re a triple minority because you really don’t really “fit in” anywhere. So my advice is, if someone calls you or your style quirky, don’t try to assimilate, but also don’t try harder to be “more” quirky. Just keep doing what feels authentic to your lived experiences, and be unapologetically yourself.