The Sundance Film Festival takes place in Park City, UT, January 18-28. International Examiner writer Misa Shikuma is attending to provide coverage of select films featuring API stories, artists, actors and/or originating from API countries.

Dir. Derek Doneen
USA, 2018

Part biography, exposé, and call to action, director Derek Doneen’s documentary feature, Kailash, which premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, follows the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner in his campaign to end child labor and slavery not only in his native India but all across the globe. To date, his organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA; translates to Save Childhood Movement) has freed over 80,000 children from factories but, as the film acutely conveys, the root of the problem is multifaceted and requires a synergistic approach to fully eradicate.

Kailash Satyarthi, now in his sixties, began his professional career as an engineer to please his family, but quickly found his passion in activism. Words turned to action when an escaped slave (like the children that BBA helps, the man was neither compensated for his work nor allowed to leave the premises), inspired by Satyarthi’s writings, sought help to free his daughter still being held at the factory. Satyarthi and the father came close to freeing the girl and other laborers, but were stopped by corrupt policemen. This was the first raid, and its failure only strengthened Satyarthi’s resolve to liberate all the children being abused and taken advantage of.

“Every child should be free to be a child,” he says.

Since its founding in 1980, BBA has grown to encompass a core team of activists and lawyers who share Satyarthi’s zeal and dedication, partnering with Mukti Ashram to provide the rescued children support before they can be reunited with their families. BBA’s offices keep records of all the raids they’ve conducted – stacks upon stacks of files, with labels indicating the number of children recovered in each. The record at the time Doneen shot the film was 63.

Opening with visceral footage of an actual raid in an industrial neighborhood of Delhi, where BBA agents search the unconvincingly empty factory to find over two dozen children hidden on the roof and in a storeroom under sacks of packing material, Kailash gradually widens its scope to offer viewers a sense of the horrific cycle that Satyarthi and his allies are up against.

Many children are first picked up by traffickers who target poor villages and promise families good care and wages; in reality the parents never see them again, and no compensation is ever given. In the factories, which range from producing bricks to cosmetics to jewelry, the children are forced to work long hours in awful conditions. Physical abuse is rampant. Such is the docility that the captors beat into them that even when the BBA and police burst in, the children are frozen with uncertainty, their ability to trust gone.

Extreme poverty and illiteracy make rural families easy for traffickers to take advantage of. And the links that many factories have to organized crime make BBA’s work risky and dangerous. The same police that Satyarthi needs in order to make arrests and prosecute also take bribes to look the other way and warn owners when raids are imminent. Satyarthi has suffered multiple fractures from raids that turned violent. A colleague of his was beaten to death simply for organizing a march. And yet, they persisted.

Doneen is unflinching in his portrayal of the broken social, political and legal systems that let this activity fester, also pointing out the Western consumerism that drove companies to seek cheaper labor in countries like India. The director isn’t quite as critical of his main subject, but briefly touches on how Satyarthi’s work often came before his family, even by their own admission. (His children both work with BBA).

Certain scenes in Kailash need no commentary, like the juxtaposition of vloggers in YouTube videos raving about cheap finds with children in cramped dark rooms making them for no pay, or the reunions between parents and children who haven’t seen each other in months. The obvious message, of course, is to support BBA and its affiliate organizations, but its story of a man of ordinary means and background who has fought for decades against a crime that many wanted to ignore is immensely powerful and inspirational in a time where long-withheld tensions are bubbling up to the surface.

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