Documentary Prodcuer Kavitha Chekuru Makes films for Al Jazeera
Kavitha Chekuru fell in love with documentary film after seeing Control Room and The Corporation during college. After graduation she landed an internship with Al Jazeera, the international news network that was the subject of Control Room. That turned into a reporting job, and for the past three and a half years, Kavitha has been a producer on the Al Jazeera English show Fault Lines, which focuses on the United States and its global role for an international audience.
FAST FACTS ABOUT Kavitha
Where she’s from: Lubbock, Texas
Grew up with: mother, father, two older sisters
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from Northwestern University
Where she lives now: Washington, D.C.
Growing up she wanted to be: writing
Now she’s: a producer for the show Fault Lines at Al Jazeera English
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I was born and raised in Lubbock, Texas, and I’m the youngest of three girls. If you asked my parents they would probably say I was cute and sweet. I would say I was pretty weird but in a good way, and at least one of my sisters would probably say I scared her, because I was very rowdy. I liked to run around a lot and scream.
Lubbock is an interesting place. It is very, very conservative, which is interesting for an immigrant family. My family is Hindu but Lubbock is also a very Christian town and I went to a Christian private school growing up before going to public school later on. I don’t think I really understood what religion was or how important it was probably until a little bit later on. I couldn’t figure out why people were always arguing about it.
Aside from playing with friends, I grew up taking violin and piano lessons, so music was a big part of outside of school, playing in a youth orchestra and things like that.
Did you know about what you wanted to do for work when you chose to go to Northwestern for college?
I was looking for a place with a good English Department and good writing program and Northwestern definitely has that. Then I switched my major to history by midway through.
When I started school I definitely was not thinking about what was going to happen after but I knew that I wanted writing. Writing was always the most important part to me for sure. While I was in college one of the things that started to draw me in more outside of school was working on journalism projects on the side.
Medill [Northwestern's Journalism School] is an amazing journalism school but I really loved history and I loved literature and I didn’t want to give those up. I found that I could do journalism on the side. I did an internship with a Chicago magazine while I was in school one summer. Then while I did study abroad I started trying to learn more about documentary.
At the end of a good documentary whoever’s watched it will not only learn a lot from it because that’s important too but will want to do something with what they’ve learned.
What sparked your interest in documentary films?
While we were in college the war [in Iraq and Afghanistan] had just started. There was a new wave of political documentaries that were coming out. College is a time when a lot of young people start to become more politically aware and mine came through documentaries. I remember watching certain documentaries and just thinking, “Oh, my god.” At the end of a good documentary whoever’s watched it will not only learn a lot from it because that’s important too but will want to do something with what they’ve learned.
One that definitely influenced where I am now is a documentary called Control Room. It’s about Al Jazeera, about. It’s about Al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel. It’s told through the eyes of the Marine who is the public affairs officer who is assigned to work with Al Jazeera, and then funny enough actually I now work with him. Since the documentary profiles him, it showed the way that he was starting to learn more about how he felt about the war as well. That’s actually how I found out Al Jazeera.
A documentary called The Corporation opened my mind a lot around that time. It’s about the power of corporations to influence policy. They profile a number of things but one of the things that they looked at in particular that was relevant to me was the water wars in Bolivia because I studied abroad in Bolivia.
Why did you choose to study in Bolivia?
I wanted to learn Spanish. Because Bolivia has been going through so much political change, I thought it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to learn while a country is going through so much change. I did a nontraditional program where you also when you live with a family, which is one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve now visited my host family like four or five times since then.
It was really a great place to learn Spanish but aside from that it was an interesting program because the focus of the program was culture and development. So we met different film makers. We met different activists. We even met the head of the socialist party who now is the president. It was a pretty amazing opportunity.
To me the point of journalism is to raise awareness and change
Did you think you wanted to pursue journalism after college or were you considering other paths?
Well, journalism or nonprofit work. To me the point of journalism is to raise awareness and change which is in many ways what a nonprofit is also trying to do. When I graduated I was first like, “Oh, what am I supposed to do now? Nobody prepared me for this.” I started applying for different jobs and it was tough but eventually I got an internship at Al Jazeera. They had just launched their new international English language channel. That eventually turned into a job and that was it. This summer will be 10 years since I started my internship. About three and a half years ago I switched to our documentary division.
How does Al Jazeera English fit into the larger Al Jazeera organization?
Al Jazeera English is like BBC World or CNN International. The headquarters are out of Doha, Qatar and then there’s regional hubs in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, London and DC, and then outside of that there’s smaller bureaus. In the US there’s a bureau in LA, Chicago, New York and Miami. In the Americas, coverage is coordinated for news through Washington. All of what’s happening in Europe, the coverage there is coordinated through London. Everybody reports back to Doha to senior editors there.
My job as a producer is to find a story, figure out what the narrative of that story is. I’ll research it. I need to figure out who I need to interview, and where we need to go. We go in the field with a correspondent and a director of photography. I’ll look through the material, write a script and edit that, and then we’re done.
What does your role as producer on Fault Lines involve?
I’m in charge of the beginning stages. My job as a producer is to either find a story or my boss will find me one, figure out what the narrative of that story is. I’ll research it. Right now I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to work on next and once I do I need to figure out who are the voices I need to interview for the story, and then I’ll figure out where we need to go to do it, how many days we’ll need in that location, and then I put a budget together. I have to get that budget approved and I have to make sure I stick to that budget the entire time.
We go in the field with a correspondent and a director of photography. It’s a really small team by normal documentary production standards. Our cameramen, our DPs, do a lot of work. They run the sound and the video. We’ll go out in the field and do all of our interviews and any filming we need. I’ll look through the material, log the interviews, write a script and edit that with an editor, and then we’re done.
A typical day would be: The team will have a call time for when we meet and then we’ll put together a schedule or shoot sheet or a call sheet as it’s called, with what we’re doing that day, interviews. Because it’s a documentary you have to make sure that you have enough time to film everything you need. Sometimes you’ll spend one day with one interviewee depending on what kind of story you're doing. I usually try to do two people in a day if I can, depending again on the story. Sometimes there’s a lot of moving parts.
Can you tell us about any recent projects?
The last thing I worked on was an episode on Standing Rock over the protest over the Dakota access pipeline. This was a more logistically intensive shoot and more expensive because we were looking at the Dakota access pipeline, but we were also looking at two other Native American struggles revolving around land and resources, and most importantly, consultation. It meant traveling to three different locations. There’s a whole lot of driving.
All of a sudden, we thought there was going to be a new development. And so we decided to go back, which was not something I had planned for which ate a week of when I’d hoped to be writing. And then we found out that we actually needed to air it about two weeks earlier than we thought. I’d lost essentially three weeks of time to log material and write and edit. We ended up editing our film in 10 days which was very, very quick, but it was good because it was a story that was happening. We wanted to make sure that it was still going to be relevant once it went out.
Standing Rock actually reached a really broad audience globally. Looking at what was happening there and is still happening, there are a lot of different battles happening around the world that are quite similar which is why I think it struck a chord.
How long do you typically spend on a documentary?
It depends on the story. If it’s a breaking news story, we’ll try to get them out very quickly. Typically I would say from the day that we start researching it to the day that we have finished, it is maybe three months. It’s pretty quick. I haven’t worked at other shows but a lot of the people on our team have, and the editor says that no one else goes this fast and it’s just because we have to.
Do you have a subject area you focus on or a geographic area you focus on?
The way the show started out was looking at the U.S.’s role around the world and the political fault lines of US power around the world, which is why the show is called Fault Lines. We focus on the Americas now, U.S. and Latin America, and if we are looking outside the Americas it has to have some kind of connection to the US because there’s other documentary shows at Al Jazeera that focus on the rest of the world. Most of the films I’ve done for our show have been on Latin America, but I have done other episodes in the US. I have focused more on Latin America than anything and human rights issues in Latin America.
Why do you focus more on Latin America?
When I was studying history in college, I spent like a lot of my classes studying the laws and complicated history of US interference in Latin America. It’s easy to see the impacts of that history when you look at things happening in Latin America now.
I never really understood why but there’s not a ton of reporting from major outlets on Latin America which really shocks me because there’s so much happening there especially in Central America. Oversight of U.S. aid and involvement in Latin America currently is really important and underreported on in places like Mexico and Honduras. So that’s one of the reasons I like to focus on it.
What do you like about working for a media network that’s based outside the US?
I think because it’s an international outlet, our audience is international. We’re not here just for a U.S. audience. I always have to remind myself to not think just for a U.S. audience. I always have to make sure that I’m not going to say something that’s very specific to the U.S. and assume the U.S.-based knowledge.
Our show is human rights focused which keeps me motivated. There are stories that need to be told that aren’t being told and there are people whose voices need to be heard so people understand that policy has an impact.
What keeps you excited about your work?
There are probably two things. One is that especially our show is human rights focused which keeps me motivated. It can be easy to become unmotivated or a little bit depressed by the political climate and the climate for journalists. There are stories that need to be told that aren’t being told and there are people whose voices need to be heard so people understand that policy has an impact. And more than anything holding people in power accountable. It’s a little bit harder in documentary because we’re a bit slower than daily news but we’ll see.
I work with the most amazing, talented people and I’m always learning from them.
How do you continue to develop your skillset as a producer?
One of the things I’m trying to get a lot better at is just trying to be aware of new trends. Right now I’m trying to make sure that I have a better handle on what we’re doing with our social media and how we’re marketing ourselves. We don’t have a team just for that. It’s really up to us as the producers to make sure our films are being seen by as many people as we can reach. A lot of that is trying to find ways to understand social media and the way that we use it. It’s things like Facebook algorithms, that I never realized I was going to have to try and understand.
The other part is the way we tell our stories. We’re all really close as a team so we help each other think and push ourselves to different ways of telling stories. I work with the most amazing, talented people and I’m always learning from them. It’s really simple things like when we talk to each other about how we’re going to write an interview, how we’re going to frame it. How is that going to lend itself to the overall narrative work?
What fills your time outside of work?
Lately, reading news or trying not to read news because I feel like my brain is like about to explode because there’s just so much news. What fills my time outside of work is reading, my family and violin. I enjoy it and I spent so much time on it in my youth that I would hate for it to just be lost.
And so what advice would you give someone who wants to get into the documentary world?
Be patient. On a practical level right now whether it’s documentary or online video, knowing that you can shoot and edit. Most places are looking to hire people who can shoot and sometimes edit as well. If you're looking to go in even just as a producer they’re probably going to expect you to be able to shoot.
How does your life now compare to what you imagined adult life might be as a kid or teenager?
As a teenager I was going through my existential crisis. I had just started reading Camus and my mind was blown. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Existence is absurd. How did I not know this until now?’ I was just trying to like understand the current moment. But I guess I always hoped that I was going to be in writing and probably in journalism so it’s turned out along the lines.
This interview has been edited and condensed.