Ambika Samarthya Is A Mom & A Filmmaker, So She Basically Never Stops Rolling
As a new mom, you’re supposed to hate pumping — the interruptions every three or four hours, the sudden, deep identification with dairy cows, toting a piece of machinery around all day, cleaning all those parts — but documentary filmmaker Ambika Samarthya viewed it differently. “It was a very powerful experience for me. I know that sounds weird!” she says. “it became a really big way for me to be connected [to my son] when I was traveling.”
That desire to be physically tied to home is foundational for Samarthya as a filmmaker who is also a mom. She’s currently the head of communications for Praekelt.org, an organization focused on getting health information and services to underserved people in 54 countries via mobile technology. Based in Brooklyn, Samarthya works mostly remotely, but she’s on the road up to 15 weeks per year, communicating the organization’s work to the world, planning how to document it, and filming it to help raise awareness and generate funding.
It’s purposeful work with the type of physically and mentally demanding schedule that the uber driven Samarthya has always thrived on. During this interview, she was packing for her next trip to South Africa, where she filmed Praekelt’s work on the MomConnect platform it has created in partnership with the South African government to provide women around the country with maternal health information and services via their phones.
The sense of being anchored that Samarthya felt first through pumping and now through a series of specific family routines wasn’t always there. For one thing, she’s always been on the move. After relocating from India to the United States when Samarthya was 3, her family traveled back to their country of origin each summer. She was traveling abroad alone by age 15. Her freshman year at Georgetown, she returned to India again to educate high school students about HIV at the height of the epidemic there. And it was during a junior year abroad in London that she decided storytelling, rather than the law career she’d envisioned, was how she could best pursue the international impact work that had already become so central to her identity. Her interests were spurred in part by the domestic violence she had witnessed in her family. “My mom had suffered a lot of abuse with my dad when I was younger. She suffered a lot from domestic violence. They had divorced when I was 17, right before I went to college.” As a result, Samarthya had always been interested in work that brought about social change, particularly for women.
I was like, ‘Oh my god, I've never held a camera. I don't know how to use a tripod. I have not watched The Godfather yet.
She applied to film school with no experience whatsoever, and to even her surprise, she got in. “A lot of people decide when they're like eight years old — they've always wanted to be a filmmaker,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I've never held a camera. I don't know how to use a tripod. I have not watched The Godfather yet.’” She learned the ropes quickly, though, beginning to see how she could use film to drive social change, especially in the areas of the world she was most committed to. To fully immerse herself in South Asian ways of filmmaking, she got a Fullbright to spend a year working in Bollywood — a move that “definitely gets you a lot of street cred,” she says — but was disappointed by the work ethic, or lack thereof. “Everybody came to set late like five hours a day, and all the stars were very conscious about very small things, and it just wasn't the experience I had really been hoping for,” she recalls.
After that she went to Los Angeles and did the young-person-trying-to-make-it-in-film thing. "And like everybody else who goes to L.A. at the age of 23 and is working on sets, you basically take every job you can practically get. So I was doing everything from being an assistant director on horror film sets, to do PA work on small documentaries, to do office pre-production work.” Ultimately she began working for Current TV and other outlets creating the content she had always wanted to. “I made films on everything from legalizing marijuana in L.A. to environmental co-ops in Oakland, to work that I did in India around female taxi drivers.” Over the next few years, her work ranged from TV shows that raised HIV awareness in Nigeria to filming the lead-up to the 2008 election in Brooklyn to making a film about child soldiers in Liberia to one about how horses help people work through grief.
Somewhere in there, she started to think about having a family. She had always wanted kids, she says. “I didn't have as much of a family structure as I wanted or was able to get from the way my dad was ... It was something that I always wanted to be able to have in my adult life.” She couldn’t figure out how it could be compatible with the work she was doing, though — work she intended to continue. Plus, dating in New York, where she was living at the time, sucked.
“And then I fell in love,” she says.
I was like, 'Let's move to Uganda!' His response was, 'I have a job. I can't go to Uganda.'
It was her husband, an environmental economist who she met at a buddhist retreat in New York City, who brought home the reality that she couldn’t be entirely nomadic forever, and perhaps might not want to. Once they decided to be together, she says, "I was like, 'Let's move to Uganda!' That's just the way I've always lived my life. I've always never had a leash. And I've always lived off a suitcase. And my husband's definitely not that type of person … he's very much about having a stable home. And even though he enjoys traveling, he's not a wanderer like me. And so his response was, 'I have a job. I can't go to Uganda. I work with economists.'"
"I was like, ‘Sh*t. What am I gonna do?’” she recalls.
Ultimately they reached a compromise. For the time being — and for the health benefits — she would take an actual full-time, salaried position, at a high-end advertising agency, while continuing to do freelance film work on the side. Going forward, their home base would be in Brooklyn, but she would continue to do a lot of work abroad, and he would try to work remotely a few weeks a year.
Yeah, I was traveling. Yeah, I was filming. I ha[d] to do all this stuff, but I was always going to be a mom … There was a way to do both.
It was a change for her, but it also gave her the opportunity to focus on her next big project: having a baby. And that turned out to also be a project in confronting, for the first time, that she was not invincible.
First, she got gestational diabetes. “That sh*t is not a f*cking joke. I mean, I literally was taking blood four times a day, sending out results like all the time to my midwife, while I'm in meetings,” she recalls. Then came a change in her birth plan. She had envisioned using as little intervention as possible, but her body had other ideas. Her son never dropped, an outcome she attributes in part to her petite stature. “I'm really, really short. Like, very short. If you see me, I'm four inches shorter than you think I am,” she says. After 18 hours of labor, she wasn’t dilated at all. She ended up having a c-section, an outcome that profoundly disappointed her. Her physical recovery was quick, but the emotional fallout was profound. “I became very angry ... It became one of those things where I didn't know if I ever wanted to have a second child,” she says. “I just was really upset that I wasn't gonna have that specific experience.”
That’s one of the reasons she threw herself into pumping. “The inconvenience of pumping and just the obtrusiveness of pumping actually made me always feel like a mom first even when I was traveling because I would stop everything and pump. That just made me feel very connected. Like, yeah, I was traveling. Yeah, I was filming. I ha[d] to do all this stuff, but I was always going to be a mom … There was a way to do both.” She remembers speaking at the South By Southwest conference in Austin and feeling a sense of achievement around the effort it took to keep up her supply while attending panels and preparing for her own talk. “It was a real accomplishment that I go to speak,” she remembers feeling, “but it was even a bigger deal that I came back home with like 60 ounces of breast milk.”
When her son, Ananda, was barely out of the newborn phase, she began to look for a full-time role that would allow her to do the international, impact-oriented filmmaking she loved while offering the stability she had discovered she needed. She found it in her work with Praekelt. Ananda was 10 months old the first time she took him to South Africa with her. “My husband would stay in the car with him while I shot, and then I would come out and breastfeed him between shoot locations!” she recalls.
Filmmaking now is different for Samarthya than it was in her 20s, and not just because her husband and son often come with her. For one thing, she has had to start taking care of herself, and self-care for someone who spends so many weeks a year abroad looks different than it does for most moms. Rule #1? No street food. “I used to eat everything. And I recently, when I was in Indonesia, [I] got food poisoning ... the whole trip home. And then I was out for a few days, and that was kind of the last time. I was like, ‘Okay, I can't do that anymore.’ So now I bring my power bars and things like that because sometimes I'm filming in villages.”
She’s also had to commit to sleep in a big way. When you’re regularly flying 18 hours to shoot on another continent, "sleep hygiene” becomes way more involved than not going to bed with your phone on your pillow. When she goes to work abroad, she adopts the schedule of her destination immediately — no napping or easing in. “I try to fall into the hours as quickly as possible when I land. And then to just try to keep at the things the same way I would if I was home,” she says. She also uses the time away from her son to catch up on sleep. There are no late nights socializing with colleagues. When she’s filming, she says, “Hour one of interview one has to be the same as the tenth hour or the twelfth hour. Nothing is going to get excused just because I have a little bit of jet lag, or nothing is going to get excused if I'm like, "Oh I've been doing this for six hours.” I have to maintain that same level through the whole thing.”
Getting spa treatments and having night outs is really not self care. Self care is really about getting yourself to a place where you don't need those things all the time.
The days after she gets home are the hardest. Before Ananda, she had downtime to recalibrate. Now she’s often getting off a plane early in the morning and taking her son to a class two hours later. Then she’s back to 6 a.m. wakeups, making lunches, and organizing playdates.
But she has a very intentional sleep routine at home, too. “I usually go to bed at 9:30 or 10,” she says. “My son is not a good sleeper, so I know at some point in the night he's probably going to get up and end up joining me in bed or have some time we are both awake together. He tends to wake up really early as well, so I just try to make myself to go bed early again to get a routine.” She’s also learned to avoid caffeine. ”There's too many highs and too many lows, so I try to sustain myself. I try to really, really invest in the long haul as opposed to short sprints,” she says. “Getting spa treatments and having night outs is really not self care. Self care is about getting yourself to a place where you don't need those things all the time.”
She thinks a lot about her transitions from the “travel space” to the “mom space” and how she maintains what she thinks of as “two different types of energy: the physical energy you need when you're traveling and you're working, it's like a very different type of energy you need ... with your baby.”
“I try not to push myself too hard because I know I'm going to get burned out, and I know that it's really easy when parents are exhausted from their work for it to show up when you're doing play with your kids,” she says. "I try to put that same level of play and the energy with him, like I would with everything else ... I think that's the hard part, physically.”
When her family travels with her — Ananda has already been to Dubai and Indonesia, in addition to South Africa — it makes her routine both easier and harder.
It doesn't matter if you're hurting or have to pee or whatever. It's just a matter of trudging ahead. You don't really have time to get tired.
“In Johannesburg, I'm going to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning then I'll drive up two hours, and then don't be mom for eight to nine hours during that day and then I'm going to come home to my son and, for my son, that's hour one. Not hour 10,” she says of her latest trip.
“That is incredibly, incredibly physically taxing, but I think that that is also part of what documentary shooting is all, often, about,” Samarthya reflects. “It's that every interview, everything you're doing, it's not short. You're constantly doing the same thing, and you're trying to put the same amount of energy into every single thing you're doing and not miss anything. [You have to] be that alert mentally or physically for a very extended period of time, and it doesn't matter if you're hurting or have to pee or whatever. It's just a matter of trudging ahead … You don't really have time to get tired.”
“Kind of like motherhood.”