Bas: Beyond the Red Light is a gorgeous, moving and remarkable Canadian documentary about former sex-trafficked girls at a recovery centre in India who take up dance to express themselves, heal and to tell their story. Or, from the site, it is about “13 young girls sold into Mumbai’s infamous network of gated brothels confront the inner and outer perils of life after rescue and reveal the very human story inside the big business of child trafficking.” The film recently won the Colin Low Award for most innovative Canadian documentary at DOXA in Vancouver, and will undoubtedly win more prizes as it makes the festival circuit. Wendy Champagne, the documentary’s director, took a moment out to speak to us before heading off with the film to Australia recently.
Art Threat: How did you find out about this program in India and what was it that inspired you to make a film about it?
Wendy Champagne: I was in Nepal researching a print story in international adoption and I met Geeta, the character at the centre of the film. She had just returned by train from India bringing six Nepali girls who she helped rescue from the brothels in Mumbai. She was a four foot ten warrior, complex, conflicted and just 18 at the time. Her story compelled me to take the leap and embark on the deeper process of documentary storytelling.
The film is very poetic and non-formulaic. In particular, there are many scenes throughout that allow the audience time to breathe: to reflect and think about these incredible girls, their stories, their struggles and their ambition and desire to transform. The film also remarkably and refreshingly focuses on the girls, and totally avoids interacting with the North American instructor brought in to teach them dance. By doing this it avoids the saviour narrative that so many western docs seem to trap themselves in. Can you talk about these aspects of the film and the process of envisioning the narrative, as well as your thoughts on making docs that fall outside the purview of the talking head-b-roll formation?
Thank you, it is not an approach for the faint-hearted I can tell you. We, myself and editor Hubert Hayaud, began with a commitment to have the girls tell their own stories. And you are right, it was risky with Nancy, who was so magnetic on tape and connected with the girls so well. We had to really stay aware of the “saviour” trap. Making a documentary is a great learning curve, the subject continually teaches, the girls always seemed to ask for our purest intentions. We also purposefully took our fingers away from the controls. The story and the issue is full of ambiguities and this had to be reflected in our treatment of the subject which of course makes it tougher to create a dynamic narrative. Personally I am very interested in making films like good novels where you create a sketch and the audience has to fill in the gaps. I don’t know if we always achieved that but that is what I am aiming for a director, to create a strong and lyric narrative that demands audience engagement.
The girls seem fairly open and honest when they talk with the filmmakers. Can you talk about the process of access, of gaining their trust, and of the politics of representation: the responsibility of the filmmaker to fairly and justly show oppressed characters without exploiting them (which you did for sure)?
Over the course of three and half years I made six visits to India and Nepal, some longer than others and in between times I called the Rescue Foundation to see how they were doing. I worked with the same translator, Anjana Rawal, a Nepali journalist and we became “aunties” to the girls. We stayed with them in the dorms, spent a lot of time with them before we did the interviews you see in the film – they happened closer to the end of that process.
Sometimes I wished it were possible to take an objective/traditional documentary position and have the stories unfold in front of me, but I am not sure I am capable of that. This film had the aim of creating a relationship between the girls and the audience, to make an issue personal. After so long with the girls I was part of their family and I had a responsibility to be true to that, so there is mutual respect that grows that makes it impossible to be ambiguous. I had gained their trust and could not abuse that. I am still bound to that and in a way that is what makes the whole process personally valuable and very Indian also. I now am part of their lives, that can’t be broken. About exploitation, it is the eternal question for a “principled” person and certainly for documentarians. It is a tricky path to navigate and I think that one has to get away from ideals and into realities to address it effectively, otherwise it is just talk. Documentary filmmakers are very priviledged people, we gain access into other people’s lives and, in my opinion, there is an ethical commitment that comes with that priviledge and for me that extends beyond the “great scoop”. I omitted potentially explosive and sensational scenes I captured over the course of shooting because of that.
What did the girls think of the film? Did you go back to India and screen it with them first? Did they have feedback, or was the final cut shown to them? Will it be shown around India?
No, this is a great sadness. I will get back to India late this year and show the girls. India does not have a market for films like this, in fact there is still a very small audience for documentary. The Indian government does not like films/books that highlight the dark side of life in India and Indians generally like to watch happy film. The dance video [which the girls’ dance troupe eventually produce for their message] is a kind of homage to Bollywood and it may work on Indian TV, as a kind of PSI and the girls will benefit directly from that, as all funds will go to them.
How do you think political documentary, and your film in particular, can contribute to progressive social change? Many argue that information isn’t enough – that audiences will go home and do little to nothing about the issues they’ve just seen projected on a screen. Others (like myself) argue that a good film will inspire audiences into more concrete and committed action. What are your thoughts on this? (and how can people really get involved?)
You have to trust that; that you can make a difference, If there is no audience there is no point, in my opinion. I want to create those relationships and emotional experience that make it hard for people to be complacent, distant from what is happening in our world. We are here together and as a journalist and filmmaker that what drives me, to tell great stories with compassion and love. It is that internal engagement that will really create lasting change, I think.
Lastly, the film just won an award at Vancouver, congratulations! What is the future for this documentary? Where can people see it? Any upcoming projects?
I just heard tonight, while waiting for my flight to Australia here in LAX that it will be shown at Cinema Parallele during Grand prix week – June 11 to 16th and the DVD launch will be in September. The award has given it a bit of momentum, I am happy to say. So I want to help it get out to communities. I know people respond to this story and I want it to be seen and heard. I feel those girls deserve that. In Vancouver the Georgia Straight put a picture form the film on the cover nd titled it “Girl Power” – that’s a great message indeed.