One ongoing trend in documentary filmmaking involves privileged minority world saviours travelling to distant destitute lands in order to do good or capture the act of doing good on film. In films like FUCK FOR FOREST, playing at this year’s Hot Docs film festival, people from rich countries set out on wild adventures to help the world’s poor and downtrodden.
When it’s not subjects doing the saving, it’s the filmmakers themselves who set out to change the world with their film (Rob Stewart’s REVOLUTION comes to mind). If you hang around film festivals long enough, you start to see that this is quite an industry, and one some call a new kind of benevolent colonization: where those who have the wherewithal tell the stories (and sometimes make a living from doing so) of those who do not have the resources nor connections.
This kind of filmmaking—the opposite of David Vaisbord’s hyperlocal approach to documentary—is perhaps best summed up in the paternalistic minority world expression “Giving voice to the voiceless.” Yet too often the principle voice we hear, whether directly or through the artifice of filmmaking, is that of the outsider to a local situation.
Not so with the beautifully shot, edited and directed BLOOD RELATIVE, programmed at this year’s Hot Docs. Nimisha Mukerji’s new documentary is about the struggle of children with Thalassemia, a genetic disease that inhibits development in those afflicted, living in India. The film centres on two individuals who look like they are much, much younger than they are because of the consequences of the disease, and a tireless activist working to provide them with care and support by the name of Vinay Shetty.
While the film comes close to promoting the liberal notion of individuality overcoming the social conditions of many, something often referred to as the hero complex in film and literature, BLOOD RELATIVE thankfully keeps a steady focus on the children and their families who cope with the disease and whose bold fortitude is exemplary.
Shetty is a kind of hero, to be sure, and his non-stop labour to make up for a healthcare system that should be providing for the children but doesn’t, is at times painful to watch, especially when his own resources are threatened. I would had liked to know more about what motivates Shetty, but it may be as simple as the film portrays: he is moved by their condition and situation and cannot stand idly by while they suffer.
BLOOD RELATIVE is a film composed of tragedy and a spirit of resistance that triumphs over tragedy. Gorgeously shot, and compellingly told from a clearly intimate and compassionate perspective, it is a story that bucks the just-parachuted-in trend in so many other documentaries.
Art Threat took a few moments of Mukerji’s (pictured above) busy festival schedule to ask a few questions.
Art Threat: How did you come across this remarkable story?
Nimisha Mukerji: Vinay Shetty is my uncle and we reconnected a few years ago in Mumbai. My family in India kept telling me about all the incredible work he was doing over there to help children get access to medicine. I had never heard of Thalassemia before, and I was surprised to learn that it’s the number one genetic disease in the world.
There are many documentaries that explore negative aspects of contemporary Indian society, from violence, to corruption to poverty. While your film does show the desperate situation for poor people struggling with an under-resourced health care system, it also showcases the heroism of people selflessly making a difference, and as such, offers some hope in an otherwise depressing situation. Can you speak to this dynamic and talk about how you constructed the film to really do both things?
The tagline for our film is India’s heroes aren’t just in Bollywood, and from the beginning I loved the idea of focusing on Indians in the country working to create positive change. I’ve often seen films about foreigners going into third world countries to save the day. But in Vinay I found this remarkable man, born and raised in India, who was tirelessly working to get these children help. I wanted the film to focus on his positivity and hope for the future, as well as the strength that children like Divya and Imran possess.
You have excellent access to your subjects, can you speak about how you met them, the filming process, and also what they think about the film?
When I started filming with Vinay I was introduced to some of the young people who are struggling to get treatment. I was drawn to Imran and Divya’s stories since they were in such different circumstances. For Divya her parents were relying on spiritual healers and prayer and had no understanding of the medicines that are available. They also treated her differently than her brother simply because she’s a girl. For Imran he was working to not only pay for his treatment but also to support his family. The biggest challenge though, was getting access to the government hospitals as well as government officials. We started filming right after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, so walking around with a camera could get you into trouble pretty fast. We had our gear and footage confiscated a number of times, but were always able to get it back. We were persistent and eventually got access to the Health Minister for the state of Maharashtra, which was really a miracle. Through him we got access to the hospitals.
Vinay and Imran were very surprised when they first saw the film. While there is a small documentary community in India few people have actually seen one, and I don’t think they fully realized that we were making an actual film, and that they were the stars of it! They were very surprised by the interviews with their family members. For Vinay it was the moment where his sister Smita gets emotional and for Imran it was seeing his mother get emotional. Divya has yet to see the film, but we are hoping to go to India and screen it for her family.
Everywhere in the world there is a link between health and wealth — those who have more money can always access the best systems, experts, medicine and treatments, while those who are the most marginalized are further oppressed when they suffer from health issues. Can you speak to what people can do to address this ongoing inequity?
I feel like if change is really going to happen in countries like the US and India, it has to come from the government. People have to start caring about the well-being of the community. Children with Thalassemia in Canada, where I currently live, receive treatment for free and go on to lead healthy, productive lives. The children we filmed in India do not deserve to be abandoned because of their economic status. For me the worst part was that Thalassemia is a treatable and manageable disease, but in India they continue to see fatalities just because there is no access to proper medical care.
There are two things that people can do. One, they can ask to get tested for Thalassemia and find out if they’re a carrier. This is very important since there have been successful prevention programs implemented in countries like Greece, where there are very few children now suffering from the disease. The second way people can get involved is either by donating to Vinay’s cause or supporting the film as a tool for spreading awareness. Vinay will soon be able to accept international donations to Think Foundation, so follow the film on Facebook for updates on how to help!
How can people see this film?
Right now we’re on the festival circuit, which has been amazing! We’ve picked up a number of audience awards and are planning an online release of the film later this year. People can visit our website and follow us on Facebook to get updates soon on how to see the film!