From her TEDxTalk discussing the epidemic of child sex trafficking in the United States, to speaking up when voices are systemically silenced, Dharmapalan’s dedication to uplifting those around her speaks truth to her dedication to her community. Dharmapalan is Glamour’s College Woman of the Year 2017, Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21, and an OZY Genius Award winner 2018. She recently completed her MA of Human Rights Law at SOAS University of London, and her BA in Sociology at University of California Berkeley. Dharmapalan is currently producing her first feature length film on the Tamil Eelam diaspora that focuses on memory, trauma, & motherland.
I had the pleasure of recently connecting with her to learn about her fascinating journey.
How did you become a filmmaker? Or would you consider yourself more of a storyteller in various mediums?
I would consider myself to be an activist at heart, a sociologist by training, and a filmmaker by medium. The stories that I tell are meant to capture the unwritten and untold narratives of communities that are forgotten by the mainstream media.
I know the creative arts can often be looked down on, particularly in the Tamil community. What do you think needs to happen for this to change?
In my family, I was blessed to have experienced the arts since childhood. I was taught to appreciate world art, including Tamil art, dating back thousands of years.
My father, who is a Kandy born electrical engineer, also played and studied music. He introduced me to his favorite artists: Steely Dan, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Harry Belafonte and Santana. Artists like Little Feet, Doobie Brothers, Kris Kristofferson as well. He opened my mind to music from a different time. My dad bought me my first rap album as well, Fugees: The Score. Because of my unique upbringing, and the encouragement by my family to pursue music, I was drawn to the creative arts. I began singing at a very young age… mostly gospel music. I played classical and contemporary piano from the age of 6-on. My parents sent me to an art’s high school. It wasn’t till I was 16 years old that I became interested in digital media and filmmaking. Now, filmmaking is my passion. Something about layering music, sonic energy, storytelling and visual imagery that seems… unequalable.
My two sisters are also artists. One is an amazing composer and filmmaker, she is 18 years old. The other, is 16 years old, and is a painter, dancer, and fashion designer.
I think that Tamil kids should be encouraged to pursue the arts. Just as science and engineering is a part of our cultural underpinnings, artistic expression is as well.
What prompted you to make “International Boulevard”?
International Boulevard, a documentary, is my first film. I made this film in 2013 to highlight the epidemic of child sex trafficking happening in North America, particularly in Oakland, California where I was born and raised. This film was preceded by the many conversations I had as a 16 year old with fellow classmates. We would talk about the young people that I knew who were forced into human trafficking. Back when I made the film, this issue was shoved under the rug. No one wanted to have this conversation. I am grateful to see conversations regarding trafficking taking place today. From high profile cases, to kids who are kidnapped from their parents at the US Mexico border, all are important and must be addressed.