Text by Shubham Ladha
Summing up 35 years of hard work against child slavery and exploitation isn’t an easy task, but Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s efforts are too large to be ignored. The YouTube original documentary, The Price of Free that released last month, tells the tale of the activist’s incredible struggle fighting for a better life for thousands of children, through his work at the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), also known as Save The Childhood Movement. The documentary, directed by Derek Doneen and produced by Davis Guggenheim, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. At its crux, Satyarthi says is, “a strong message for corporate, consumers, law makers and enforcement agencies alike to do their bit for the most marginalised children who are languishing as child labourers and have been left out of the photo frame of socio-economic development.”
We spoke to the activist on what inspired him to participate in the story, his intense rescue missions and how we as consumers can demand for change
Excerpts from an interview with Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi:
How did the idea of the documentary come about?
It was on the same day of the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Davis Guggenheim — who eventually became the producer from director — heard my speech, learned more about the issue through it and was so moved that immediately after he set up an appointment. Unaware about the work that was being done to abolish child slavery, he insisted that, “I want to tell this story to the whole world.”
I could only make the decision once I returned to India, and after a few months we agreed because we knew about his other films such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Waiting for “Superman” (2010), so I decided that if we want to make the film, we’ll make it with him. Since we’d decided on the format of a documentary — which didn’t require any fictional acting — we went ahead with it.
What were some of your most touching experiences while shooting?
The filming crew researched the topic for six months, trying to figure out the storyline and its arc, and another two years to make it. What I quite appreciated about the crew was their ethicality of not talking or interviewing any child without taking legal permission from their parents. Even though we’d already acquired the permission, they insisted that if they spoke to any child, it would put unnecessary pressure on the latter, which wouldn’t be genuine. During the filming, they stuck to these principles, only filming from a distance where we allowed them to, such as when the kids were talking amongst themselves.
While filming the scenes with the rescue missions and raids, there were risks and dangers involved, so we didn’t take them to any such place where their cameras could be spotted from afar. If seen, the traffickers could hide or escape with the children in no time.
There were a few things that annoyed me a little; firstly, the crew filmed everything but had no clear direction in which they wanted to head. It was only towards the end that they decided on the subject children who’s trajectory they wanted to follow or the rescue missions they wanted to portray, but initially, they planned on a very large canvas and we couldn’t gauge where he wanted to take the story. Secondly, Derek Doneen, our director keeps saying — and I keep teasing him about it — is how he wasted hundreds of hours interviewing me in hopes of getting a good scoop, such as me being angry, frustrated, hopeless or inadequate and wanting to give up… anything that would give him an idea that the work I do is very difficult, but I didn’t oblige. Having lived in USA all his life, Doneen says that his life changed when he came here. He expected that everyone would be very stressed here, but was surprised to also see the resilience.
While the scene capturing the raids gave viewers a new insight into how child rescue missions work, you’ve guided several of them through your work. What’s at the back of your mind while you organise the raids, since there have been several instances where you’ve come in close contact with violence?
The first thing that’s on our minds is that the parents of children who’re enslaved have been taking rounds of the office for many days and we are their only hope. It feels like we have a lot of moral responsibility, and that rekindles the faith we have in our organisation. Like it is shown in the film, we try to plan in advance as much as possible; keep a watch on the alleged perpetrators and their moves, do a recce of the area where we feel the children are being kept, ensure that all the information that’s being circulated about the children’s whereabouts is verified et al. It’s important to avoid being cheated or attacked, which we’ve experienced previously.
I also try to drive the rescue cars myself because we’ve also faced situations when the driver’s been scared and he’s run off with the keys or the car, or sometimes they’re bribed to do so. We try to locate the possible escape routes that can be used by the children when the traffickers force them to escape, such as windows or backdoors. We also have to stay aware of where and when we might be attacked.
After the children are found, we must keep a close eye on them, since even the slightest communication from the wrong party could influence them. We’ve also disguising ourselves as buyers or other traffickers, my wife has often attempted to find more information by going as a nurse or a healthcare provider earlier on. Sometimes, these espionage tricks must be used.
Thereafter, during and after the missions, we ensure that the police and magistrate representatives are present with us, so they can help legally take action against the traffickers and enable the children to be entitled to the rehabilitation benefits of the various government schemes.
How were you also able to portray child labour and slavery through the lens of being hopeful about eradicating the issue rather than inciting sentiments of pity?
I’d already discussed with the producers that this documentary shouldn’t describe a tale of pain, agony or hopelessness. This should be a story of hope. As a viewer, one must realise that even though there’s a problem, there’s also a solution.
While we rehabilitate children at our ashrams, our fundamental approach to it is to remember that we are not doing any charity to our children. They have been sinned against by adults for ages, and we’re trying to just help wash that off. The most important factors are the child’s dignity, respect and love. The combination of these 3 factors can restore the senses of childhood, freedom and trust and help rid them of trauma, enabling them to establish a belonging to the rest of society.
To the rest of the world we have to say that every human being is born with a beating heart, that means everyone possess emotion, compassion and love, but that love is confined to a small circle where you put your siblings, your husband, your wife, your mother, father etc. but we say that if your heart beats, then it can beat for others as well. So, I believed from the start that if we are able to take this message to the world and touch their heart, and even their soul, then we can ignite that fire which can illuminate the whole world.
The problem of children being exploited by consumerist industries such as fashion has also been addressed in the documentary. How is it possible for these industries to change their approach?
In the matter of rugs, we have made the Rugmark system already. We’ve also put a lot of pressure on the matter in the chocolate industry, there are fair-trade chocolates because there is investigation. There are more fair-trade goods in the USA and Europe, because they investigate intensely that there is no child labour, along with issues of the environment coming to the forefront. But now, as consumers, we have to ask a lot of questions. It will pressurise the manufactures, exporters and importers to think. Through my experiences at the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals, I’ve learnt that fashion and film can go hand in hand, and in a way, they’re spontaneous filmmakers, since they influence the minds of people in many ways. Everyone’s got their eyes on what fashion designers and models are promoting nowadays. They all can be changemakers in the direction of a market where the supply chain doesn’t involve child labour.
In the cosmetic industry also, one of the main ingredients is mica. When the news came out that children are dying in the mica mining business in India, we started work on that. Brands such as Aveda and Estée lauder approached us when the US media talked about our work. We partnered up with them and in about 100-150 villages around mica-mining sources, we instilled child-friendly values, completely freeing the villages of child-slavery.
Consciousness is the first step towards social change. While we push the effort on that front, the media helps us boost it, especially because cinema is such a powerful tool. I am sure that we are going to create a more compassionate and human society that practices responsible consumerism and ethical cooperation in the trade market.
Why was the film chosen to be released on YouTube?
YouTube had come to us to talk about how to promote the film, and I had jokingly said that it should be released for free to be accessed by all. We wanted to target the youth. It has helped student unions become a campaign partner now, And so, with them it is being shown to 1000 and more children – in colleges, schools, universities – and they’re all taking an initiative themselves; student leaders and teachers’ organisations together are showing it.
The film has found audiences across the world. How do you feel it has been received and the impact it will make?
A few days ago, I was in Doha at a film festival where the documentary was being screened and there were a lot of children. As I was leaving in a car, a young boy came calling to me. I stopped the car and he came, shook my hand affectionately and said, “I wanted to touch you because one day I promise I want to be like you.” The child could have been injured amongst the cars but he didn’t care, and wanted to say that he wanted to be like me.
This is the story of 40 years of my life. If we do talk to people and help them understand, they will care if a child is working or not. I saw that around 35 lakh people watched our film and it’s increasing, and it makes me happy to realise that it’s doing more than I could do in the last 35 years.