Tvrtko Vujity

Dream Project Adopts Transmedia Strategy

-MfC Staff Writer

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping through the United States and the world, Media for Change launched the Dream Project by asking people to submit short videos via the Gather Voices app. In the selfie style videos, people from near and far shared their dreams for a post-COVID 19 world.

Documenting post-COVID dreams

Based on the idea that it is necessary to visualize the world before seeking to make a difference, this work has continued and in 2021 Media for Change launched the podcast Where Dreams Come From. The podcast features deep conversations with people around the world who credit their dreams as drivers for personal success in life. Planned as a multilingual series, the podcast is now releasing episodes for season 1 in English. Episodes in German are expected for release soon, with other languages to follow.

Media for Change founder Sanjeev Chatterjee, inspired by a positive change one of his former students was making in life, traveled to meet up with him in Hawaii. Chatterjee first met Tvrtko Vujity (pronounced: taVartko Vooich) as a graduate student in the journalism program at the School of Communication, University of Miami in the mid 1990s where Chatterjee is a professor. Since then, Tvrtko has been chasing his childhood dream of becoming a journalist. He was studying journalism at the University of Miami on a Voice of America scholarship after winning the Pulitzer Memorial Medal (not to be confused with the American Pulitzer Prize) for his reporting of the Yugoslav War. Although Tvrtko never took a class with Chatterjee, they became close as Chatterjee was making a documentary film From the Shadow of History about peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia at that time.

After returning home to his native Hungary from Miami, Tvrtko went on to become a celebrated journalist not only in his country but also in neighboring Slavic language regions including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and other countries. His primetime TV show Napló (diaries) became widely recognized. He brought back the last Hungarian POW of WWII who was languishing in a mental asylum in remote Tartarstan, he snuck into North Korea as an aid worker, he reported on the genocide in Rwanda, he reported from the nuclear disaster site at Chernobyl – there are endless stories over a period spanning more than 2 decades.

“I was eager to meet Tvrtko after all these years because he was making a big change in his life’s trajectory. He told me he had been telling the stories of hell on earth, but now he wanted to discover paradise” said Chatterjee. Apart from his television show, Tvrtko has written 13 books titled Pokoli Történtek (Stories from Hell). His very successful public talk series Tvrtko Across Borders addresses his learnings from his work. However, after revisiting Chernobyl in 2019, Tvrtko experienced a reckoning. He no longer wanted to relate stories from hell. A combination of intent and circumstances led to Tvrtko moving to Hawaii with his family. He says he is living the aloha life. Still seeking to fulfill a dream in this life.

For Chatterjee, the turn in Tvrtko’s intentions is just a plot twist in the story. “This is potentially a story about reinvention, an evolution in the story of Tvrtko’s dream of becoming a journalist. This could be a great story” said Chatterjee. Media for Change is now in preproduction of a documentary project about Tvrtko’s journey thus far and into the future.

The term transmedia was coined by Henry Jenkins who currently serves as the Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Communication at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The term is used as an adjective to define a certain kind of journalism, filmmaking, game design, storytelling…that uses multiple platforms to reach diverse audiences through diverse stories to convey the same message. In this case, the message is about the importance of dreaming about and visualizing a world we want to live and thrive in.

One Water One World Talks

Media for Change Signs MOU With One Water Academy

  • MfC Staff Writer

On the occasion of Earth Day, March 24, 2021, Media for Change signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the One Water Academy. Furthering its mission to support non-profit organizations with their communication needs through education, mentoring and technical knowhow, Media for Change will work closely with One Water Academy to create the One Water One World (OWOW) talk series to highlight innovation, enterprise and education aimed at solving the world’s water crisis.

 The One Water Academy, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, “…aims to provide easily accessible, user-friendly, and continuous skill-based learning through collaboration, knowledge exchange, and networking. It was created to bridge the learning and innovation gap to fully prepare the OneWater workforce.”

 Media for Change’s goal to use storytelling to bridge global divides fits well with the purpose of this collaboration. Additionally, the project has a personal appeal for Media for Change founder Sanjeev Chatterjee. “It has been over a decade since we made the feature documentary One Water about our changing relationship to freshwater on the planet. This collaboration is a great opportunity to continue taking that work further,” said Chatterjee. 

 Hardeep Anand, a professional engineer, civil servant, and the founder and director of OneWater Academy, said, “Since starting OneWater Academy in 2018, we’ve been focusing on creating a stronger, more resilient future for the water sector. Through our partnership with Media for Change on OWOW Talks, we’re ready to highlight an essential dialog that, frankly, is already happening. But through this dynamic platform, we will shine a light on those conversations to let everyone know that they have a seat at the table when it comes to the future of water.” Anand added, “After all, solutions to the water sector’s needs can come from anywhere, so all ideas must have a chance to be shared and heard.”

Sustainable Development Goals
OWOW talks align with multiple categories within the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

With a career over three decades in the water sector steeped in research and implementation at organizations such as the Water Research Foundation (formerly Water Environment Research Foundation), Dr. Amit Pramanik, who is now the executive director of One Water Academy, is enthusiastic about prospects for the OWOW talks. “This is an excellent way for us to connect cutting-edge knowledge to the entrepreneurial spirit in the U.S. and beyond, while capturing and sharing knowledge for the water community” he said.

Planned as a hybrid, in-person and online series, preparing for the OWOW series has already begun. The event is slated for the last quarter of 2021. “Our expectation is for the COVID-related in-person event restrictions to have eased at least a little and will allow us to have a small live audience for the livestream event,” said Gonzalo Mejia, who serves as Media for Change’s director of administration. This inaugural series will draw from individuals from industry, government, education and community members in the South Florida region in 2021. The plan is to spread the reach globally in increments.

American Food Podcast

New Old Eats

After considerable background work, Media for Change is ready to launch New Old Eats – a podcast exploring the new avatars of old foods in the Americas and elsewhere in the world. The project, lead by Media for Change board member Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, aims to promote “kitchen diplomacy” by bringing to light the diverse influences that inform what we eat today. “Recognition of the special histories that help make up our  culinary and agricultural story is cause for celebration–as well as a satisfying way to acknowledge the inherent diversity around us,” Furstenau says. “New Old Eats reveals migration of flavors and people, and how our resulting palate sweeps the history of the world.” 

The project will launch in 2021 with a pair of podcasts titled New Old Eats. The English version will feature Nina’s research and conversations with culinary experts. The Spanish version, Nuevo Viejo Comer, will be hosted by Chilean journalist and a recent graduate in science journalism from the Columbia Journalism School, Muriel Alarcon Luco. While the two language versions will be topically parallel, they will be adapted by each host into their respective voices for their own audiences. 

“Since the pandemic has not allowed us to travel in-person to other places, a trip today is possible through food,” says Muriel Alarcon Luco, who received mentorship from the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting in 2020 to work on a story about how Latino organizations are promoting healthy eating habits across New York City’s Latino neighborhoods, to help build up immune systems amongst a population hit disproportionately by COVID-19. “Many scientific studies say that consuming processed foods can increase the risk of diseases that make us more vulnerable to the threat of the virus. An invitation to travel on a path to our ancestors to revisit what they ate is also way to learn from their wisdom to stay healthy in times of illness.”

“In a polarized world, conversations about what is shared among people, rather than their differences is sorely lacking. New Old Eats proposes to introduce just such a conversation to the public sphere,” says Media for Change founder Sanjeev Chatterjee, who plans to contribute short films to the project as it develops. 

The audio podcast format is ideal for the launch due to the convenience of producing polished content even during COVID 19 restrictions. With time, the plan is to create documentary films, publish articles and books and build a robust social media reach. At this point, follow @newoldeats on Instagram to support the project and updates. 

Field Visit

From Understanding to Action

Media for Change Affiliate Paridrishya Aims to Raise Public Engagement in Watershed Conservation in Himalayan Villages

By Sanjeev Chatterjee

Our readers may recall that in 2020 Media for Change’s incubation efforts resulted in the creation of the Indian non-profit organization Paridrishya. Paridrishya is led by Media for Change board member Mohit Gulati and the nascent organization attracted funding from one of India’s leading developmental organizations – the Tata Trusts.

Water conservation in the Himalayas.

Titled the Samajhdar Jal Sevak (knowledgable keeper of the waters), the project aims to bring about social and behavioral change through communication (SBCC) in villages in the Western Himalayas in India. Intial findings indicate that while villagers are aware of the fragility of their springsheds, they would benefit from the creation of conservation strategies and stakeholder action plans. In other words the challenge is to move villagers from understanding into action. Paridrishya will use media and storytelling strategies towards reaching this goal.

In a recent conversation, Mohit Gulati said “Perception of water as a resource or the lack thereof governs consumption habits of communities. The Samajhdar Jal Sevak project is allowing us to look at a very old problem from a different vantage point.”

Paridrishya team during their field research

Despite the challenges of COVID-19 related travel restrictions and differences of perception of the problem of springshed management from village-to-village, Paridrishya was able to adhere to the project timeline and the formational study was accepted and the project is well underway.

Based on the initial study, Paridrishya plans to expand the work to the hill and mountain communities of India’s Northeastern states in the near future. Media for Change continues to serve Paridrishya in an advisory capacity.

Shipra Chanchal

Dreaming Without Borders

How Media for Change is bringing together an alliance of changemakers to help people dream

By Isabella Vaccaro

What is the power of dreaming? And how can it be harnessed to change the world? In 2019, Media for Change began talking to other like-minded organizations across the globe to answer these questions. They wanted to empower people to visualize a dream and be able to chase it. But, how?

In 2020, Media for Change launched Dreaming without Borders: a space where people could express the way they hoped to see the world after the Covid-19 pandemic ended. A symbiotic partnership with two organizations that aid in digital storytelling, Gather Voices and Dotsub, made this initiative possible. But, the dreaming did not stop there.

Media for Change’s Post-Covid Dreams initiative (2020)

In the project’s latest iteration, Jeffrey Harlan, founder of Philadelphia-based organization Dreamline, launched a pilot workshop for a handful women in villages in Rajasthan, India to articulate their dreams. Harlan started Dreamline with an idea that school children should write or draw their dreams on cloth flags to be attached to a line, showing that in order to achieve our dreams, we must be connected. At this point, he is working to spread his work beyond school children.

Harlan partnered with Jaipur Rugs, a company that teaches economically disadvantaged women in small Indian villages to weave rugs, giving them an opportunity to make a living as well as change their perspective on the world. Before the pilot’s launch, Harlan wondered how they would be able to pull off the project in a rural space with no online connectivity and whose artisans were, for the most part, non-literate. It turned out that Harlan had nothing to worry about. The potential reach of the project is impressive is 40,000 women currently work for Jaipur Rugs.

Frame from Jaipur Rugs Foundation website.

“What we saw, during the pilot, was that it worked fantastically,” said Harlan. “Dreamline is about helping people believe in their dreams, because that changes everything. So, it’s a program about change from the inside out. And for us to work with Jaipur Rugs is such a privilege because they already care about creating change from the inside out.”

Yash Ranga, sustainability lead at Jaipur Rugs, left a job at a Silicon Valley tech company when he realized his calling was to work with people, not machines. Throughout his work with Jaipur Rugs, which includes acquiring partnerships to create a larger impact in these villages, Ranga had always wondered how he could help these women, now financially independent, start dreaming big.  

“This dream project is the first step in a large ecosystem of like-minded leaders around the world who believe, and have seen the potential of dreams,” said Ranga. “It all starts with a dream. But, few people are fortunate enough to have resources, mentors and everything to help them craft their dreams into reality.”

Among Media for Change’s dream maker’s alliance is Michael Smolens, the founder of Dotsub, a global video translation service, who has always dreamed of a world beyond language barriers. Had it not been for Smolens, who connected Harlan and Ranga after realizing their shared sentiments, the dream project may never have materialized.

Smolens credits himself as a ‘collector of puzzle pieces,’ and has dedicated his life to connecting ideas like these to create a bigger picture of social change in the world. “Because I’m a dreamer, and I have had so much satisfaction in learning, I wanted to create something to make it easy to encourage other people to dream, and to help them move in the directions of their dreams,” Smolens said.

He points out, too, that many of these women have dreams that align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and by helping them articulate these ideas – for instance, 12% dream about health and 20% about clean drinking water – real change can take form.

Poster of the UNs Sustainable Development Goals

In order for the dreams of these women to be articulated and shared, however, there has to be a unifying message – something people around the world can relate to. That is where Dr. Laura Jana, pediatrician, best-selling author of The Toddler Brain and self-proclaimed ‘connector of dots,’ comes in. With a rich background in early childhood development and communication, Jana understands human connection at its core and recognizes the importance of the way in which these women are encouraged to share their dreams.

“People need literacy, people need food, support, whatever it might be, but instead of coming in and telling people that, you say ‘share with me what your dreams are,’ and that’s where you start to see all of this stuff pop up,” said Jana. “It’s really stunning – gender equality, clean water, peace.”

Shipra Chanchal speaks about her experience with the Dreams project.

Shipra Chanchal, the Dreamline trained Jaipur Rugs employee responsible for helping the women express their dreams, handles this aspect of the project beautifully. Chanchai allowed herself to attach to the artisans, realizing that by acting as a model, being vulnerable and sharing her dreams, it was much easier for the women to follow suit and open their own hearts. Jana believes this sense of empathy can be universal and, since these flags are available digitally, she envisions a reality where school children in America, for example, can look at some of the dreams of people from across the world and realize that they share many of the same ideas, after all.

Harlan emphasizes the importance of unity and shared a heartwarming story from the pilot about two children who, through Dreamline, helped their non-literate mother create a flag with her aspirations to share with the world. “I am a person who has been an educator in English and writing for 30 years, and there can be no more powerful example to a child about the importance of literacy and the model of thinking about what really matters than to help your parent write down their dream,” Harlan said.

Daniella Zalcman

Bridging the gap between art and journalism

Daniella Zalcman uses the power of the lens to redefine storytelling around the world

BY Isabella Vaccaro

Daniella Zalcman Courtesy

Daniella Zalcman is a photographer. She’s also a journalist. And a champion for equal rights. Zalcman uses a technique called double exposure photography to tell stories. And she began a non-profit organization for women and non-binary photographers. And yet, some still believe Zalcman’s images aren’t journalism, but merely art. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Image from the website of the organization Women Photograph founded by Daniella Zalcman.

In college, Zalcman became interested in how western colonization affects other parts of the world, and, in 2013, found herself in Uganda documenting the rise of an anti-gay law, though she’d originally planned to cover the independence of South Sudan.

“I actually sort of accidentally ended up on that story,” said Zalcman. “I ended up in Uganda waiting for my visa to come through. And I was just sort of looking for a story to work on. And I happened to be [there] shortly after the first gay rights activist was murdered.”

Zalcman said she became close with the small activist community in Uganda and started reading up on what she described as an “insane anti-gay law,” which, according to her website, criminalized acts of homosexuality and threatened sentences as long as life for these ‘crimes.’ But for Zalcman, one thing stood out as even more shocking than the law itself.

Noise coming from western media accused Uganda and the bill as being ‘backwards,’ but in 2013, the United States had not yet even legalized gay marriage. Zalcman wondered what right western media outlets had to scorn other cultures when our own wasn’t as progressive as we thought? Perhaps western media was simply projecting a truth they knew to be a fault none other than their own.

A Daniella Zalcman image from the December 6, 2017 Huffington Post article “Double Lives”

“The origins of homophobia in East Africa are very clearly connected to British imperial rule and to American evangelicals,” said Zalcman. “And so, you know, hearing about that story without hearing that context seems like a huge disservice and sort of a grave misstep in journalism to me.”

Zalcman said this project opened her eyes not only to the effects of western colonization on other countries, but also to the possibility that journalism and how we tell stories needed a makeover.

“I think there are huge structural problems with journalism,” said Zalcman. “It has largely been an institution that is deeply colonial and that is predicated on this idea that we in the West are more equipped and more able to tell the stories of people around the world than they are themselves, which is categorically untrue.”

Zalcman began brainstorming new ways to tell stories and found a photographic technique called multiple exposure, which basically means overlaying multiple images at different opacities. Not only did she use this technique in Uganda, but also to portray both the faces and experiences of the subjects of her next project, called Signs of Your Identity.

SELINA BRITTAIN Marieval Indian Residential School 1954-1962 “I believe that they thought they were teaching us. I believe that they thought that assimilating us into their way of life would help us. But they changed us into something we weren’t — and there was nothing wrong with our way of life before. That’s what they still don’t understand.” As published in the Atlantic article Erasing Indigenous Heritage

Signs of Your Identity focused on survivors of a Canadian government initiative started in the 1870s, which forced indigenous children out of their homes and into boarding schools where they were beaten, sexually assaulted and stripped of their indigenous identities.

“I was fundamentally trying to tell a story that was rooted in memory and was dealing with these ideas of intergenerational trauma, the things that we pass from generation to generation and it was such a complicated story to tell, visually,” said Zalcman. “I ended up creating these double exposure portraits that overlaid the images of boarding school survivors, with the physical sights and memories of their boarding school experiences.”

Though visually chilling, Zalcman said, initially, her photos were brushed off by the editors she sent them to. “This is nice, but it’s not journalism,” is the response she’d get. But after a few years, and as the media landscape changed quickly into an increasingly visual place, the industry began to change their tune about Zalcman’s work.

“I am first and foremost a journalist,” said Zalcman. “But, I also believe that my work is art, and I believe that most powerful meaningful photojournalism is art. But for me, the question is really ‘am I working as a storyteller with transparency and honesty and integrity?’ And as long as that is the case, as long as I’m being upfront about my process and the story that I am trying to tell and I’m treating the people whose stories I’ve tried to tell with respect and dignity, then that’s all that matters.”

Zalcman hopes students of all ages can learn something from her work, especially in working with alternative storytelling formats, because storytelling, as she puts it, is “the fabric of human life.”

Peace Building for the Future

Media for Change’s Alice Ackermann brings a rich background in international relations and conflict mediation

by Isabella Vaccaro

Alice Ackermann
Dr. Alice Ackermann

Media for Change’s Director of Development Alice Ackermann might just have one of the most fulfilling careers known to man: researching and implementing peacebuilding in a world that is more divided than ever. Originally from Germany, Ackermann emigrated to the United States in her 20s and began teaching courses in international politics and conflict management at the University of Miami, where she met Media for Change founder Sanjeev Chatterjee.

At the time, Ackermann said she was working on a book about how to prevent violent conflict in the Republic of Macedonia and got to talking with Chatterjee about a possible collaboration. “Sanjeev and I had the idea that we wanted to know a bit more on the prevention of violent conflict,” said Ackermann. “And we thought it would be great to make a documentary on people preventing conflict , because, as you know, usually conflict sells rather than preventing it.

After its premiere in 1998, their documentary, “From the Shadow of History” went on to win numerous accolades and was aired on PBS and the History Channel. Ackermann’s book on the same topic was published in 1999. And though the project fostered a friendship between Ackermann and Chatterjee, after a few years at the U, Ackermann moved to England and then Austria, where she served for ten years at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), eventually working her way up to a role as Senior Operational Advisor for the prevention of conflict through mediation. In 2017, after her ten-year term limit was up, Ackermann went to the United Nations (UN) in Mogadishu, Somalia and served as the advisor to the Secretary General for two years, advising the Somalian government on national reconciliation strategies.

Alice Ackermann in Somalia
Alice Ackermann on UN mission in Somalia
UN tanks in Somalia

Now Ackermann is back in Berlin, but she says, by working with Chatterjee and the Media for Change team, it almost feels like she is back in Miami. Ackermann says she has always been interested in fundraising, and that is exactly what she will do as Director of Development.

“I’m there to research and write proposals to get funding for the various angles of research that we all have,” said Ackermann. “And we’re all coming together under the major heading of equity, diversity, and communication and the importance of communication in global affairs.”

For Ackermann,  one of the key issues Media for Change is engaged in is to combat the problem of disinformation and misinformation in today’s media. And while she is working to secure opportunities for the whole MfC team, Ackermann hopes to use her background in international politics to help further push this initiative, as well as related issues, like that of conflict sensitive journalism.

“Journalists can be preventive agents, but they can also be agents that cause conflict by the way they report, particularly with regard to communal conflicts and communal violence,” Ackermann said.

Ackermann says she is intrigued by some of the work other MfC board members are doing, including Nina Furstenau’s work on food history and Chatterjee’s efforts in solving global health issues. But, perhaps one of the most pertinent issues Ackermann wishes to look at is diversity and examining and respecting the various cultures that make up immigrant countries like the United States.

“I think that Media for Change is on the right track by looking at the pluralism of the American society and the diversity in that society, and what also different groups have brought in,” Ackermann said.

All of Ackerman’s work, not only with Media for Change, but throughout her career in international relations, has led her to an overarching goal of peace building. Whether it is bringing communities, political groups or even countries together through dialogue and reconciliation, Ackermann explains, peace building goes hand in hand with communication and responsible reporting in journalism.

“But most of all peacebuilding—if I want to go back to Media for Change and what we do—also involves that you have investigative journalism, conflict-sensitive journalism, you have trained journalists, and you make sure that you somehow prevent misinformation from happening,” Ackermann said.

Ackermann says  that her present interest is looking at peace building through the lens of pandemics, climate change and how these issues affect fragile countries, because at the end of the day, Ackermann notes, “we are all working towards having peaceful, non-divided societies and communities.”


Empath Warrior

The Evolution of Abhishek Verma as an Artist-Interventionist

by Sanjeev Chatterjee

This article is based on the writer’s association with the National Award-winning (India) animator Abhishek Verma since his time at the Young India Fellowship in 2017 and on a more recent interview conducted for the purposes of this article.

Abhishek Verma

Looking at Abishek Verma’s animation films, one must wonder about their genesis. These purpose driven films consist of many thousands for hand drawn frames where it is clear that Verma’s art has reached what I like to think of as a signature point. If you have seen one of his films, you will definitely know his next just by virtue of its style.


Verma grew up in small town Hazaribagh, now in the state of Jharkhand, in North-Central India. Although his parents – father a bank employee and mother a Hindi school teacher – were limited in resources to support every need of a growing son, they understood the importance of education in securing the ticket to a better life. He attended the Jesuit run St.  Xavier’s High School and right afterwards his father insisted he move to Ranchi, a slightly bigger town, where access to private tutors was better. In India, private tutors often specialize in tutoring students for national entrance exams for various higher education streams. They are not cheap, but as Verma explains, for kids who could not pay, some

teachers would allow them into classes for very little – say a marker or even a samosa and cup of tea. A token. Although a good student, looking back Verma recalls that his priorities were never focused on the engineering degreehis extended family expected him to complete. Even while he was in high school, the cinema bug had bitten him in a novel way. Having no cash to inculcate a movie going habit, Abhishek became an ardent radio addict. The Indian government’s national broadcast service Doordarshan would broadcast entire soundtracks of movies on weekends. Not only did this obsession introduce Abhishek to the stories of then faraway Bollywood and the stars, but he also got to know the names of people behind the scenes – directors, lyricists, composers… Occasionally, there would names like writer/director Raj Kumar Gupta from his very own Hazaribagh and actress/model Tanushree Dutta who were from nearby Jamshedpur and had made it to Bollywood. By the time Abhishek was in Ranchi he had reasons to believe he could make it too.

A milestone in Ranchi, for Abhishek, was his introduction to the movie theater. As be remembers it, it was easy to divert what little funds he had for tuition towards the 7 rupee (approximately a US dime by today’s conversion) ticket. He clearly recalls the thrill of watching the Ashutosh Gowariker directed Swades (2004) starring Shah Rukh Khan. At that point he admits he stopped going to tuitions.

A still from Abhishek Verma’s film Maacher Jhol (2017)

Broadening Horizons

Although his Hindi teacher mother had introduced him well to the doyens of Hindi literature such as Premchand, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and others who wrote about oppression and exploitation of the powerless, those stories and poems remained bookish to him. They were not lived experiences. Later, a senior in college suggested he watch Vishal Bharadwaj’s  adaption of Othello – Omkara (2003). This film became a curiosity. Never having read any Shakespeare, he attempted to read Othello to little avail. Realizing his English proficiency was nowhere close to competent, he began a routine to address the deficiency. He picked up the English newspaper from the hostel warden’s office every morning and began reading. He would mark all the words he did not understand and then consult a dictionary. This is how, step by methodical step, he learned to be proficient in English.

Honoring family expectations remained important however and he cleared the engineering entrance exams and in 2012 moved away to Tumkur, an industrial town outside Bangalore in South India. It was as if a whole new horizon opened up. Abhishek credits the introduction to Korean directors Wong Kar-wai and Kim Ki-duk at this time as transformative for his imagination. An introduction to “what is possible.” And if there is a particular point of transitioning from perceiving cinema as pure entertainment to purposeful filmmaking, it was probably after watching Mariana Rondon’s 2013 classic Pelo Malo (Bad Hair) – a film that confronts racism and sexism in Venezuela head on.

Diary Page
Pages from Abhishek Verma’s sketch book

Fear and Fearlessness

The educational loan his father had taken out to pay for Abhishek’s engineering education was weighing very heavily on the family. The anxiety and fear around the inability to pay back the loan was crippling in many ways, he recalls. More than the money, the anxiety and fear severely stifled his creativity. This was the reason he did not apply to the relatively expensive National Institute of Design and instead got a full ride to attend the acclaimed Industrial Design Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

Apart from leaving the burden of financial debt behind, two milestone events helped Verma climb out of fear into creative freedom. His cohort was made up of peers who came from top art institutes in India. Compared to them his drawing skills were, according to him, minimal. However, their teacher Shilpa Ranade  was insistent that others pay attention to Abhishek’s work. She told him that drawings are like an individual’s handwriting and trying to copy others would destroy creativity. This helped greatly in finding confidence in himself and the work he was doing. In the other incident, he was waiting to speak to the legendary Shyam Benegal who was visiting. Benegal was talking to some people and eating ice cream. The ice cream just would not finish – it seemed an interminable length of time before Benegal’s secretary pointed out the young man waiting to speak to him. Verma was given 15 minutes to talk about whatever he wanted. He asked the filmmaker about making Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008). The story of a man who is forced to write letters for illiterate villagers to make a living. Benegal told Abhishek that the main character was not a figment of his imagination. There was actually a young man who worked in Benegal’s office who wrote letters people in his own village. When Verma asked for advice about what he should be doing Benegal advised him include what was happening around him in whatever he chose to do. If he did not do that his work would lose all purpose. This really spoke to Verma. As he puts it “…yes, I can make a Tarantino type thriller and include things happening around me,”

Watch Abhishek Verma’s forst film Chasni (2013)


The first film that Abhishek released was Chasni (2014) a hand-drawn 2-D animation film with spoken word poetry, based on the story of an acid attack victim Lakshmi who filed a petition with India’s supreme court to ban sale of acid to people without identification. Laxmi’s story is retold in the 2020 Meghna Gulzar directed Chhapak starring Deepika Padukone and Vikrant Massey. Verma’s  film came at a time where India faced with the 2012 brutal rape and murder of Nirbhaya in Delhi (a story memorialized in 2019  by Delhi Crime on Netflix) and the publication of the end of life hand written notes by Preeti Rathi in Bombay who succumbed to the burns from an acid attack by a former neighbor in 2013.

Abhishek’s next film was occasioned by a close friend coming out to him as being gay. The incident hit Verma hard because none of the stereotypes associated to the depiction of gay people in the media applied to this 6-foot male who had been in the closer for over 20 years. This was the genesis of Maacher Jhol (2017) the story of a young man who lovingly prepares fish curry for his father and comes out as gay during the meal. Apart from the film winning awards internationally including India’s National Award and a City of Annecy Award, the 12-minute film is used widely as a resource for counseling parents of LGBTQ children. The film is now also part of film and animation curricula internationally. Many peers have borrowed the film as a tool to come out of the closet to family and friends. Personally, the most significant impact of Macher Jhol was, however, at home, Abhishek says. When he first shared the idea for the new film with his parents back in Hazaribagh they were shocked. Maybe even concerned that their son was trying to telegraph a message through his work. “I had to teach them everything” he said. After the film was out a friend was visiting and while his teacher mother was serving tea and snacks he asked Abhishek if there was a treatment or a doctor one could visit to cure homosexuality. Late that day, Abhishek’s mother asked him never to invite the friend home again. She was deeply disappointed by the fact that the young man, who was well educated, knew so little. To Verma, this change in the outlook of his ageing  parents was high impact indeed.

Friends and strangers alike are curious to know if Abhiskek was driven to making Macher Jhol based on his experiences as a gay man. He says “I did not have to be an acid attack survivor to make a film about acid attacks. It does not work like that.” In filmmaking, Verma explains, the director tells the actors to live the emotions of characters, but the animator must live the emotions in order to bring them alive on screen. “You cannot draw the right expressions without acting them out yourself.”

Poster for forthcoming film Kitchen
Abhishek Verma Drawing
Concept Sketch by Abhishek Verma

The Present

Verma’s next film Luka Chhupi about the impact of open defecation on the lives of girls and women in India in funded by the Government of India. The film is complete and in the festival circuit but remains unreleased awaiting to completion of formalities.

In the meanwhile, Verma has returned to Bombay and under the banner of his News and Animation studio The Matchbox.Co he and his partners are working on future projects including an animation series on the Indo-Chinese War for Discovery Networks.

Abhishek has two animation projects in development that we look forward to; Kitchen that looks at the central role of women in Indian households and a virtual reality film on the burning issue of manual scavenging in India titled The Manhole.

Gonzalo Mejía

Journey to Film

Gonzalo Mejía joins Media for Change with a hunger to help others 

by Isabella Vaccaro
PHOTO: Elisa Gutierrez

Gonzalo Mejía grew up scrutinizing MTV music videos as a young child in Ecuador—it seemed everyone in his close circle knew that he’ll grow up to be a filmmaker, except for him. Mejía didn’t fully realize his passion for film until he started college at the University of Miami, where he surrounded himself with friends who were studying film and quickly fell into line with his peers.  

“I probably never realized film as a career because over 20 years ago, if you told your parents or friends, ‘hey I want to be a filmmaker,’ people would say ‘you’re crazy,’” Mejía said. 

Despite the opinions Mejía went ahead with his goal of becoming a filmmaker.   During his time at the School of Communication at the University of Miami he would meet an important mentor, Sanjeev Chatterjee. Mejía said his first impression of Media for Change founder was intimidating, to say the least, but once he began to take classes with Chatterjee, he soon considered his film professor a role model. 

 Even after Mejía graduated, he and Chatterjee never lost touch—and Chatterjee actually hired Mejía, then back in Ecuador, to line produce his award-winning documentary  One Water,  about the global water crisis so many know so little about.

At the beginning of his professional career, Mejía opened an ad agency in Ecuador, and after 5 years, this very job forced him to come to terms with his true calling: filmmaking. He decided to return to the U.S., Mejía lived in New York and Atlanta, where he began his own production company, Bananas Films, which he started mainly to produce narrative feature and documentary films, but eventually began producing dozens of commercial video content for big name brands in both English and Spanish.  Quite a few years after, Mejía would move his business back to Ecuador, where he said he pioneered the online video content industry, were his production company singlehandedly created the highest number of online videos in the country at the time.  

For him, owning his own business was the end goal, and he was adamant about remaining self-employed. Luckily, there was one condition to his steadfast rule.  

“90% of my career has always been on my own,” said Mejía. “So, I said I don’t ever want to work for anyone—unless I work for UM. And suddenly I got this offer from the Frost School of Music where I work now, and even though I still keep Bananas Films going, I’m more invested in UM at the moment.”  

Four years ago, Mejía became the Director of Media Production Services for the Frost School of Music.  There he creates all of the school’s audio and video content as well as online graduate courses for Frost Online. 

Gonzalo Mejia
On the set of the short film Las Llaves, un Gato y el Pez Negro.  PHOTO: Roberto Knapp
On the set of his short film La Monedita, PHOTO: Daniela Moreno

Another serendipitous event occurred as Mejía moved his life back to Miami—Chatterjee asked him to join Media for Change as the Director of Sustainability. Mejía said he was more than flattered when Chatterjee, whom he described as his “go-to person” and someone he aspired to be like, extended the offer, and accepted it on the spot.  

Now, Mejía will join the Board of Directors as the Director of Organizational Administration, a new role he said will entail seeing projects through their courses and making sure Media for Change is “keeps moving forward.” Besides monitoring the progress of certain projects, he said he is also “connecting with nonprofits around Miami to spread the word that we exist, and find out how we can lend a hand.”  

It is the perfect role for Mejía, who says filmmaking and helping others are both a part of his DNA. Growing up in Ecuador, he said, his parents were always involved in helping others.  They always found ways to feed, clothe, provide health, educate and even find homes for the less privileged.  Mejía now feels that he’ll continue their legacy in the form of storytelling alongside Media For Change. 

“I always say film can cure any disease,” said Mejía. “And the reason is because it’s the best way to connect, besides person to person.”  



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