Photo caption: Child activists in “Revolutionary Optimists” march the streets of Calcutta using megaphones to spread health messages. Photo credit: ITVS.

A genuinely inspiring documentary featured at Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), “The Revolutionary Optimists” is aptly named. But instead of guerillas in camouflaged soldiers’ uniforms, these idealistic rebels are children dressed in colorful clothing.

Hailing from the slums of Calcutta (Kolkata), these kids live where drinking water must be stolen from a distant well or purchased from thieves. Utilities taken for granted by the affluent are denied to them, and they exist in crushing poverty. That is, until former lawyer Amlan Ganguly arrives via his nonprofit, Prayasam. By the time Amlan’s finished motivating the children through storytelling, puppetry, music, dance and soccer, they’re inspired to march all the way to Parliament to demand solutions.

Maren Granger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham, co-directors of “The Revolutionary Optimists.”
Maren Granger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham, co-directors of “The Revolutionary Optimists.”

At 12 years old, Kajal scuttles about in a dusty brickfield, balancing six heavy bricks on her head at a time. Longing to be in school, she has to earn money for her family instead. But Amlan’s created the first school inside a brickfield, and Kajal’s able to continue her education for a while.

Priyanka is 16 and leads a dance troupe that Amlan founded to discourage girls from marrying too young. But while facing problems at home, Priyanka begins to think her only escape is to become a wife.

Eleven year-old Salim, along with young neighbor Sikha, is determined to get his community included on Google Maps. Even with its population of 9,000, their slum can’t be googled. Soon, the kids are parading with bullhorns, demanding the involvement of adults around them. As for Sikha, she becomes the first girl allowed to play soccer in her community. While these children’s circumstances seem harsh, by the film’s end, hope prevails due to Amlan’s method of empowering them through political action.

Co-producers Maren Grainger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham are filmmakers-in-residence at Stanford University. Grainger-Monsen is also a physician and director of the Program in Bioethics in Film for the school. Both women also have Seattle roots—Grainger-Monsen grew up on Capitol Hill and Newnham on Bainbridge Island. Below, they discuss their documentary.

IE: What’s the inspiration for this movie?

Grainger-Monsen: “I read ‘Mountains Beyond Mountains,’ a book about Paul Farmer — a physician and anthropologist. We came across Amlan working with children … and got captivated with him.”

Newnham: “We didn’t want some person who was the leader of an organization and wasn’t out in the field. We wanted someone who was raw, passionate and engaging on an intimate level. His organization is very small and has accomplished a great deal. He visited every community and had relationships with all these children to the point he knew when they were slacking off at school. There was that level of love.”

Activist Amlan Ganguly with the children in the slums of Calcutta. Photo credit: ITVS.
Activist Amlan Ganguly with the children in the slums of Calcutta. Photo credit: ITVS.

IE: What did you come away with from making this movie?

Grainger-Monsen: “In order for sustainable and long-term real change in public global health, there isn’t one single issue. You just can’t give vaccinations and leave. Amlan’s working on improving education and helping kids stay in school, working on gender issues and issues of poverty — he’s there for the long haul. It’s going to take multiple generations. Despite Priyanka marrying, he’s willing to wait for her children.

Newnham: “The idea that you’re going to teach people how they should behave or what they should do to change their lives doesn’t work. It works when an entire community shifts. It’s organizing children as a means to do that. These people came to their own conclusion that they deserved better and that they can ask for it. Over time, we saw parents celebrating on that soccer field where when we started shooting, girls weren’t allowed to play. You can’t fly in and give people money. Amlan works with them in a way that honors and respects their culture. Not some Western person who flies in to save the day. It has to be something that grows organically out of India.”

“The Revolutionary Optimists” screens June 17 on Independent Lens. Check local listings.

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