“Every murder story is peculiar, and this one is a great example.”
So begins the narrative voiceover of an untitled short film about Miss Johnson, an old woman who delivers baskets of homemade goodies to neighbors in her small town. The story quickly unfolds through close-up shots of a watering can, an herb garden and Miss Johnson tending to her plants. The plot starts twisting right away, revealing poison-laced products that fill some of the baskets – and pre-teen actresses who play the roles of Miss Johnson and the sheriff’s deputy who arrives at her doorstep. Yet, the biggest surprise of the film could be its up-and-coming director: Huntsville High School ninth-grader, Saakshi Mathew.
“I’ve always liked making movies and playing around with cameras or acting,” Saakshi Mathew said.
At 14, Saakshi has already formed a family production company, Sisterlove Productions, and has made several short films. Her most recent short, a murder tale based on an Alfred Hitchcock story, was screened at the Sam Houston State University’s “Student Showcase” at Huntsville’s Old Town Theatre on Sept. 18.
At the event, SHSU Department of Mass Communication Associate Professor Tom Garrett, presented Saakshi with the Young Filmmaker Inspiration Award.
“Young filmmakers — especially young women — are critical to the film industry,” Garrett said. “They are the future.”
The representation of female directors in the Hollywood film industry has been “stubbornly low,” according to a February 2015 Los Angeles Times article, which reported that the number of major studio movies directed by women fell to 4.6 percent in 2014. The “number of female minority directors can barely be measured,” said a January 2015 Fortune magazine profile story on “Selma” director Ava DuVernay.
Saakshi, whose maternal grandfather is a scriptwriter in India, said she especially loves Disney movies but is not interested in animation. Instead she looks up to Hitchcock and Gore Verbinski, director of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” blockbuster trilogy.
Annie Mathew, Ph.D., said her oldest daughter has loved telling stories since she was a toddler.
“Even when [Saakshi] was two or three, we would put her in timeout, and she would start narrating her own story, so the timeout never worked,” said Annie Mathew, a staff psychologist at Sam Houston State University’s Counseling Center.
Initially, Saakshi, who developed a passion for theater at a music and arts school in California, wanted to be an actor.
“Every Thanksgiving my cousins come to our house, and we put on a play that we’ve written,” she said. “We’re always putting on productions.”
The progression from storytelling to filmmaking seemed natural for Saakshi, her mother said.
“She was always an imaginative child,” Annie Mathew said. “Whatever [Saakshi and her sisters] watched on TV, they wanted to recreate in their own lives.”
Although Saakshi has been actively making films since she was in the seventh grade, most of what she knows about the craft is self-taught.
“I like to learn about filming by watching,” Saakshi said. “When I watch a movie, I will always go back and watch videos on how the movie was made and how the directors work.”
As her daughter’s love of filmmaking grew, Annie Mathew reached out to Garrett, who heads the film production track at SHSU. Garrett encouraged Saakshi, then 13, to not let a lack of professional equipment or formal training hinder her artistic vision.
“[Technology] is readily available and in young people’s hands,” Garrett said. “What is not is inspiration and passion. That is found, nurtured and cherished.”
Saakshi’s creative process begins with developing ideas and discussing them with her sister Namrata Mathew, who described herself as “the comedic relief during the filmmaking process.”
“I write out all my shots and plan for shoots,” Saakshi said. “I’m actually bossy and I’m a perfectionist.”
Managing a youthful production crew of family members can present challenges for Saakshi.
“In all my movies, there will be a part where my sister refuses to do something anymore,” she said. “But then she will come back and help.”
However, the teenage director may have gained a newfound respect from her siblings after the showcase. Namrata, who played Miss Johnson, and Rachel and Ruth Mathew who also co-starred in the short film screened at Old Town Theater, were present when Saakshi received her award.
“Since the screening, they just listen to what I have to say when I direct,” Saakshi said.
While she was “really happy and proud” to receive the “Young Filmmaker Inspiration Award,” Saakshi admitted that it can be “kind of embarrassing” to watch her own movies on the big screen with a public audience.
“I would think ‘Oh, my gosh, why did I put that in there?’” she said. “You think, ‘Oh, my goodness, I could have fixed that!’”
Saakshi said she wants to take film classes in college and study abroad. Garrett said he hopes she will explore her cultural heritage and incorporate her international roots in her perspective as a filmmaker in the global marketplace.
“The Indian culture is amazing and so colorful and, beyond that, the biggest film industry in the world,” Garrett said. “Imagine that: to be able to live your dream in both your parents’ native country and your country, both epicenters of media and film.”
Although she has three more years of high school to finish, Saakshi is already working on new projects that she aspires to debut at the Cannes Film Festival in France before graduation.
“I don’t know how far Sisterlove Productions will go,” she said. “I want it to go far. I’m just not sure how far.”