Storytelling has long been about taking one’s personal voyage and relating it in a way that almost everyone can connect to it. While Hollywood has been accused of homogenizing the film industry, some artists who convey these stories are attempting to give the public a glimpse into the lives of others who differ from the majority. It’s ironic that people are often apprehensive to accept differences in their own lives but are attracted to films which display those who possess this trait. Editor Vishnu Perumal learned to be comfortable with differences early in his life. This fact combined with his fascination of film laid out his path from childhood. He has pursued his vocation with fervor for as long as he can remember; the fruits of this labor have been numerous award-winning films and the respect of the Hollywood community. This is perhaps so apparent because Perumal is an artist who seeks out projects which he connects to emotionally and believes in passionately. It’s easy to chase fame or a fat paycheck but pursuing projects which make a clear and resonant statement about society’s potential to aid or hinder is often more challenging and unsettling. For someone like Vishnu, it is also a requirement.
Vishnu relates to being different. He grew up in a situation where it was expected that both himself and others would not have the same exact background and experience. This allowed him to have a perspective different from many people. Regardless of their point of origin, most people are comfortable and content being insulated from those who are different. Contemplating the motivations and life experiences of people who have had it worse than you or who have faced greater adversity is unsettling. For Vishnu, it has been a call to action; one which he has used his most important resource to empower…the role of editor.
Differing perspectives and diversity is an inherent part of this editor’s makeup. The son of an Indian father and an Indonesian mother, Perumal experienced different cultures in his own home and in his surroundings from an early age. He explains, “I moved a lot when I was growing up due to my father’s work. I was born in a small beach town in Malaysia called Kuantan. Later, our family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia. Jakarta is a really vibrant energetic city with a lot of culture. It’s big, bold, noisy, and colorful with great food and very friendly people. Growing up there, I remember it being slightly chaotic, especially the traffic. It was a large developing city that was growing rapidly and changing every year. From there, I moved to Singapore where I spent much of my Primary to early secondary school years. Singapore was the total opposite of Jakarta because it was extremely orderly, clean, and organized. I was astounded by how clean Singapore was and I remember trying to wrap my mind around the fact that it doesn’t have traffic jams. Like Jakarta however, Singapore was a vibrant city with a whole lot of mixing of cultures. Both places were located close to the beach so I would spend most of my weekends there. It was natural to me to witness different types of people enjoying the same activities; I never questioned it.”
Watching his father edit his own family movies on a Sony editing deck interested Vishnu in the process, soon to be followed by his interest in the work of Walter Murch (the editor of such films like Apocalypse Now and The Godfather). Murch inspired an approach to the possibilities of editing for Vishnu who recalls, “I was lucky enough to sit in on a guest lecture of his where he talked about the philosophy of transitions and editing. What I really loved about his lecture was that he wasn’t focused on any technical aspect, formula, or technique but rather he talked about the philosophy behind editing concepts and how they relate to the world. It was a lecture that sometimes delved into the spiritual and metaphysical and it made me look at editing in a whole new light.”
Carrying the torch of this idea for his generation, Perumal’s many award-winning productions give evidence that this editor is focused on making a statement with film. As with many of the most respected filmmakers, Vishnu’s work often displays the more unpleasant sides of humanity in hopes that the public will contemplate the plight of those who suffer. “Violet Hour” is the story of Tom Freed, a young black man who is at odds with what he feels is natural in terms of his own sexuality and what society deems acceptable. The film is a powerful statement about the psychological effects of what others use to subjugate those who differ from their own beliefs, opinions, and actions. Freed goes so far as to undergo conversion therapy in an attempt to conform but in the end takes action with a dire resolution. At the heart of the film is the question “What freedoms does our society truly offer?”; a sobering query. Perumal worked with director Mark Allen to create the conflict that the main character feels in his heart and communicate this in the timing and actions onscreen. Allen declares, “Working alongside Vishnu throughout the duration of the project was a wonderful experience. It is rare to find an editor with as much thoughtfulness, support, and passion. What he demonstrated for the project was evident in the final product and success of the film. Vishnu’s emphasis on storytelling provided the film with a powerful tone and ending. It was really pleasant to discover how easy it is to work with him. Because the story and the style of the film according to my vision was so specific and different, I was afraid that it would have taken considerable effort and time just to explain and push for the vision I intended. Fortunately, Vishnu understood and supported my vision 100% and fought to preserve that vision. He not only was able to maintain my vision for the film, but he was also able to incorporate his own creative ideas into the product, helping to brand the film as a creation of his own.” “Violet Hour” received a nomination at The San Francisco Black Film Festival for Best Film as well as an award for Best Narrative Short at the Princeton Film Festival.
Exploring the unsettling and frightening crime of sex trafficking, Vishnu edited the film “Only Light.” An increasingly widespread occurrence across many parts of the world, including the US, sex trafficking is something that often goes unnoticed and unrecognized in many communities, which is exactly the message communicated in “Only Light.” The two lead characters in the film are young women of the same age. Zora is a rebellious teen living in California who has a crush on her older male neighbor. Zora’s parents are wary of this, as well they should be. This neighbor has a girl named Laeticia locked up as a sex slave in his basement. Laeticia was kidnapped from her village in the Congo and transported to California where she moves in and out of lucidity in the basement. When she is ultimately freed by Zora at the end we sadly realize that this event is only a wishful dream that Laeticia has created in her own mind as she is still a prisoner. The film is highly disturbing and unfortunately somewhat based in reality. Perumal was eager to work on this film as he felt it was a story that needed to be displayed to viewers. “Only Light” was recognized at the One Lens Film Festival, Blackstar Film Festival, and L.A. Indie Film Festival. Zachary Skipp (Producer of “Only Light”) remarks, “Only Light was a film with many technical aspects (shooting in different mediums, various effects, etc.) that an average editor would find daunting to work with. Fortunately, we had an editor who was able to integrate himself into the many creative aspects of the post-production process, making him adaptable in almost any project he undertakes. I hired Vishnu as an Editor for ‘Only Light’ after seeing what he had done on previous films. His ability to understand and work with abstract and experimental forms of storytelling and mold them into a cohesive story is one of the many reasons why I brought him onto the project. Vishnu was deeply involved and began working early on in the project, starting in pre-production. For example: there were some effects and stylistic transitions that we wanted to accomplish, and Vishnu was very helpful in helping us figure out how to achieve the desired result, before heading into production.”
It seems contradictory that followers and leaders of religions become upset when religious leaders who are highly flawed are depicted or revealed for their baleful nature. One would think that these “believers” would want those who are not true to their teaching to be “cast into the light.” This seems the most benevolent thing to do in the parameters of their faith. Vishnu used his editing talents on a fictionalized tale that used actual footage and inspiration from the Reverend Jim Jones entitled “Devil I Know.” The disturbing life and events of Jones are well documented but “Devil I Know” creates a storyline inspired by what we know of his behavior to give a firsthand feeling of what it may have been like to be around him. Known for the People’s Temple mass suicide (in Jonestown, Guyana), his infidelities, and other abuses of power, the film takes an almost documentary style approach to portraying this complex and tragic figure. A vital contribution of Vishnu’s on this film was to edit and present the story out of chronological order; a method used to confuse the audience as well as affirm the idea that things are not always as they seem.
The common thread of all these films is that they reveal to the audience that we should not be so assured that we understand the full truth. Well-known figures or private individuals may be dealing with many factors that we are unaware of. They may act in nefarious ways or society as a group may be overlooking the struggles they deal with. There is no way for anyone to truly know but artists and filmmakers like Vishnu Perumal keep us questioning the intent and the plight of others who are different from us. In doing this, they provide a service that few can…a conscience.