By Nathan Phan
We’re honored to have Zoe Malhotra kick off our new interview series called Pass the Mic, where we recognize the talent behind the camera and hear from inspiring filmmakers in our community. Zoe is a Los Angeles-based Indian-American documentary director. She focuses on projects of cultural exploration in both her commercial and professional works, primarily through the lens of women of color and families. She recently wrapped a 10 episode docu-series on Armenian dating culture, releasing in November with MIASEEN, and her short documentary, God Bless the Cook, has screened in almost 20 film festivals worldwide.
We asked Zoe what she got started in filmmaking, where she finds inspiration and what advice she has for future filmmakers.
What got you interested in filmmaking, and how did you get your start?
Growing up I realized how often films and documentaries moved me, to the point of changing my lifestyle, seeing the world differently, or advocating for various areas of social impact. After experiencing the potential of storytelling to create positive change, I decided I wanted to be a part of that process. I got my start making short films for nonprofits and museums in Washington D.C., because I felt like I was affecting the most change in those spaces through filmmaking.
How would you describe your filmmaking style?
Extremely personal, focused documentary stories where you feel close to the real individual, family, or culture by the end of the film. Visually, I love soft, warm and silky looks, to make the story as inviting and familial as possible.
What motivates you?
The real people and stories that I work with every day – I’m eternally grateful that I work in a space where I can build meaningful relationships, learn new things, and creatively relay that for others.
Where do you look for inspiration? Any filmmakers you look up to?
I find inspiration in everything! I try to switch up what I watch and to stay mindful when I’m seeing something new. I recently was inspired by a font choice from a drama series I watched on a plane, for example. I have so many filmmakers I look up to, especially in the documentary space – anyone in @browngirlsdocmafia.
Tell me about your favorite project that you’ve been a part of.
I loved getting to tell Ayara Thai’s story for the Mofilm/Doordash project – there were so many themes that I resonated with, family, immigration, sharing of cultures through food. It taught me to be more aware that every restaurant I go to will have a myriad of stories behind it, and my dream is to continue making projects like that, cultural windows into the world we live in day to day.
What are some of the challenges you face as a filmmaker?
Anyone who has a “creative” profession often experiences a drain of creative energy and inspiration because it’s their day to day work. I can get lost when I don’t feel that same rush of passion towards my work every day, or every project. To counter that, I try to be creative in other ways – cooking, doodling, making a new music playlist, because that creative energy is always there, it just might take a new way to access it.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring filmmakers?
Learn what moves you about filmmaking early on, and go back to that as a source of inspiration for every project you take on. For me, it’s meeting people from all walks of life through documentary filmmaking, and the blessing of hearing their stories on an intimate level. No matter how big, small or tough a project can be, I always reflect on those stories, and that keeps me going even in the most challenging moments.