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The Birth of a Documentary: Dinesh Sabu Tells His Story

August 26, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

This article is the first in what will become a regularly published column by local writer Megan E. Doherty, in which she reports from “sets” she’s working on.  You can receive updates on additions to the series by following her tumblr feed.

Megan E. Doherty

“I would often lie about my parents.”

Local filmmaker Dinesh Sabu has honesty going for him – and that honesty is crucial for his project to work.  Unbroken Glass, a cinema vérité documentary exploring “the experience of loving and being loved by a parent with mental illness,” will be his first feature-length film.

Unbroken Glass Demo from Dinesh Sabu on Vimeo.

Some might balk at the prospect of taking on such a large, deeply personal and emotionally complex project at the start of one’s career, and Sabu candidly admits why he’s begun with the story of his parents:

“The joke answer is I was dumb enough.  If I knew what went into making a film of this length and ambition and caliber, there’s no way in hell I would have decided to [do this first].  The [filmmaking] process is a kind of madness in itself, and living with yourself is another kind of madness, and making a film about the madness in your family…there’s just a lot of madness involved.”

Nevertheless, having spent nearly his entire life living in the shadow of his parents’ deaths when he was six years old, and his mother’s schizophrenia, Sabu also began the process with a sense of urgency.   Now 26, he wasn’t ready to start confronting large swathes of his past and blotted out memories until he was 23 or 24.  When he finally reached that point, he felt a pressing need to find a way to “explain myself to myself” – to know where he came from and who his parents were, and so to know who he is as an adult.

For him, the answer was documentary.

Having gone to a “really bad public high school in Albuquerque,” Sabu compensated for gaps in his education by turning to films.  “The way I stimulated myself intellectually was through movies, because they were really accessible…the best of these contained these incredible ideas that were at work, and that was a real source of intellectual sustenance.”

At the time, he wasn’t particularly interested in documentaries, but a chance event at the local independent movie theater foreshadowed his future calling.  He worked at this theater the summer before he went to college, when a documentary called Stevie came there.  It made an impression, to say the least.

“It just really knocked my socks off…I didn’t know what [production company] Kartemquin was, I didn’t know who [director] Steve James was.”

But he would soon find out.  Shortly thereafter, Sabu moved to Chicago for college, which happens to be Kartemquin’s hometown.  Eventually, he made the connection.

The coincidence recently became more striking.  “I found out maybe last year, Stevie played in just a handful of theaters around the country – it had a really limited theatrical release.  It was just by dumb luck that I came across this film.”

And lucky it was, because it sparked what would turn into an abiding interest, passion, and source of healing.  For Sabu, documentary is not only “a way of exploring the world through the lens of a camera,” it’s also a “safe, mediated way” to process trauma and to “develop a language to understand [it].”

The nature of traumatic events is that “the brain does not have words for it.  We don’t have a language to express it.  So the temptation is to not express it – to not deal with it.”  And Sabu knew that if he hid from his past for so many years, other survivors of trauma probably do the same.

It is this possibility of touching audiences suffering from similar painful experiences that is partly responsible for giving him the courage to begin his documentary – and, to see it through to completion.

Although he “had a lot of questions that [he] wanted answered,” he hesitated jumping right into a project that hit so close to home.  Would he be exploiting himself – and, not to mention, the “suffering and the hardship of my siblings and my extended family for the sake of making a film”?

He may have spent 20 years dealing with trauma alone, but others don’t have to.

“What makes me passionate about finishing this movie, is that there are people out there with similar stories, and they don’t need to go through that struggle by themselves.  It doesn’t have to be this lonely process.”

Sabu hopes that his film, a “journey composed of people, artifacts, and memories” – across India, the American South and Southwest – will do more than satisfy his own curiosity.

He wants it to heal.

To learn more about Unbroken Glass, check out the following links:!/unbrokenglass

A Chicago-based independent writer, Megan E. Doherty wrote a dissertation on some crazy stuff, and is happy to have re-joined society – complete with a bunny, a banjo, and a lotta books.  You can catch a few laughs at her off-beat humor blog,, and you can stay abreast of whatever it is she’s working on, on that tumblr thing:


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