Soni Director Ivan Ayr On Returning To The Venice Film Festival With His Second Feature

Ayr talks about interviewing truckers for his second feature Milestone, editing the film during a pandemic and the texts he gets from people who've loved Soni
Soni Director Ivan Ayr On Returning To The Venice Film Festival With His Second Feature

Ivan Ayr is two films old and, as of next month, both of them will have premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Milestone, about a veteran truck driver who is forced to look back at his past and grapple with an uncertain future after his wife dies young, is part of the festival's Orizzonti (Horizons) section, where it will screen between September 2 and 12 alongside Gia Coppola's Mainstream and Lav Diaz's Lahi, Hayop. Ayr's debut, Soni, was part of the same section in 2018.

The director had just wrapped Milestone when the country went into lockdown in March. As theatres began to shut worldwide and new releases were delayed, the prospect of a year without film festivals might've worried other indie filmmakers, but Ayr wasn't fazed. "Nobody knew that I had made a film. I hadn't announced anything. So if Venice wasn't happening, I would've completed post-production by November or December and then just applied to festivals next year," he says.

Ayr submitted a rough, soundless cut of the film to Venice and its selection means that he has to squeeze two to three month's worth of sound editing into the next three weeks. It's an accelerated timeline for a film that's been brewing inside his mind for years. As a software developer in San Francisco, where he lived for a decade, Ayr saw firsthand the large community of Indian truck drivers in the US. He initially planned to set Milestone against that backdrop and film it there, but certain logistical roadblocks, like the high cost of production, made him change his mind.

"One of the first things that the producer of an arthouse film will tell you is that you would be lucky to make your money back," he says. Transposing the film to an Indian setting felt like a natural next step. "It wasn't too much of a stretch because even though the truck drivers aren't in another country, they're still away from home for long periods of this time and that affects them. They get almost addicted to what they do. Those truths hold anywhere."

Ayr moved back to Indian in January 2019, bringing with him a 10-page treatment of the film, which he developed into a script over the next six months, spending a month just interviewing truck drivers in the Delhi NCR region and in Punjab. He soon found that specific questions about their lifestyle, temperament, health, background and aspirations evolved into larger ideas about the nature of the trucking business.

"From a filmmaking and philosophical standpoint, it's unique because these trucks are going places physically, but their drivers are stuck in one place. These trucks are basically their second home and they remain there for a large part of their life," he says. Many stories came from Ayr's own extended family in the transport sector.

The film was shot in 27 days at Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar, Asia's biggest transportation zone, on the outskirts of Delhi, which he describes as "a fascinating place, with its own economy, own set of people and own flavor." He then spent most of the lockdown working on the edit. Choosing to write, direct and edit Soni helped — this time around, he knew that instead of spending time at the edit table snipping extra footage, he could pare down his work at the script stage itself. At 75 pages, Milestone's script is 25 pages shorter than Soni's. The finished film, he estimates, will be around 97 minutes long.

Saloni Batra and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan in Soni.
Saloni Batra and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan in Soni.

Ayr's quietly moving Soni, streaming on Netflix, tails two Delhi policewomen as they navigate thorny situations at the workplace and at home. Its nuance has felt particularly resonant over the past few months as conversations around police brutality and its depiction in mainstream film gather steam. Others seem to agree; the director says he got a lot of, "Look, life imitating art!" texts after a policewoman in Surat submitted her resignation following threats by a minister's son she reprimanded for violating curfew earlier this month. Ayr says the film sprung from a personal place and wasn't intended to be ahead of the curve.

"These things have been happening forever. It's just that with the prevalence of social media, people are noticing more. As artists, we have to be keen observers and that's part of what makes filmmaking effective," he says.

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