'Daughters of Destiny': Director interview
Daughters of Destiny is the critically acclaimed documentary following the lives of a group of young girls from impoverished towns in the Tamil Nadu region of Southern India.
Oscar winning director, Vanessa Roth recorded the girls' lives over the course of seven years and during their time at the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project – a school which focuses on providing education and opportunity for underprivileged kids.
With care and compassion, Roth documents their struggles through poverty, their commitment to the cause of educational rights and the challenges of being a woman in a heavily male dominated society.
We spoke to Roth about the process of making the film, it’s exploration of social justice and the conflicts between modernity and tradition.
Q. How did you come to learn of the Shanti Bhavan charity?
So, a friend of mine, from New York was going to be a volunteer at the school and I found it just fascinating that this was a school that took kids at the age of four from the most impoverished families in India and then they had them in school up until they graduated college and started working.
I was really fascinated by what might happen through their lives and how the school would emotionally and psychologically impact the kids as they grew up in this world.
Q. You have studied social work – is film your way of exploring and challenging injustice?
I’ve been making documentaries for around 20 years and I came to it from always wanting to do some storytelling in that way. But then with social work I always had this other side of me that was always about social justice and social policy and trying to give a voice or understand the voice from those misrepresented people.
Documentaries are a very nice blend of both of those things. You have access to the world and people’s lives that I never would in a different kind of career. So yeah, I think it’s become my way of doing social work by sharing people’s stories.
That’s really my first goal of any film that I make. Hopefully the lives and the stories that I aim to tell can humanise and show human connection where we all have things in common and then at the same time bring light to social justice and social issues. But then from a humanistic stand point, not just policy so through storytelling, through visiting the communities, it becomes a jumping off point, a tool for more action and impact where it’s needed.
Q. You manage to film and capture such intimate and emotional moments in the film. Did you feel that you were intruding upon these moments at any point or did you feel quite comfortable in that situation?
To me, the first priority I had, in this film and any one I make is really is having a close relationship with the people that I’m making the film about and really collaborating with them and see them as the experts in their own lives.
I really follow them in to what is comfortable to them and I’m much more a witness to their own story and their own experience so I feel that it allows doors to open and the trust that we have with each other is something that starts from the beginning and then grows over time. I have known these kids and these families for the last seven years now. I think a trust was built between each other.
Q. What where the hardest moments for you when filming?
I think that for me I always had this feeling that what we were doing was to really highlight these experiences of these young kids growing up and so for me, my sympathy or my empathy or the difficulty was to really watch these young kids and teenagers and the responsibility they had for their own mothers and their families.
I mean I lost my mother in the last five years making this film and I think for me the journey was in watching these kids from across the world have the same kind of love and protection and concern for their own mothers and so there was something in that, that had nothing to do with the poverty and the struggles that have an everyday presence.
I have three kids, two girls that are teenagers and a five-year-old boy who was born at the time of making the film too, so I think there was a personal side of this too of thinking a lot about generations and pain and the opportunities that these girls had, that their parents never had. The contrast between seeing my girls and my kids growing up in the states versus the kids that we were filming. I always felt so proud of them. I really felt and feel for them in a way that they have great opportunities with the life that they have grown up in but they also have great burdens, responsibilities and obligations that I see for them as they move forward in their lives.
Q. What challenges did you face while you were filming?
Every day was challenging, especially in the villages. We were really embraced for being there and I think the families and the communities were very grateful to speak with us. They are so proud of their own kids too so they wanted to share that but we had one particularly difficult day.
It was a 116 degree day and we went and shot in one of the family’s villages and it was one of the main girls in the film, Shilpa. We were filming in her village and there was a lot of tension and stress in her family because of certain events going on in their lives. On the day we were there, we were filming inside their small house and there had been a suicide in town and so the body had been brought out on to the street where we were filming. People were wailing in the street and at the same time, Shilpa was trying to speak with her family about her plans for her future and there was a lot of tension in the house. We had been filming for about three weeks by this time, so our stress as a crew was also very high. It was a physically, emotionally and psychologically draining day but as happens in documentaries, it was probably the most compelling, dramatic and intense scene in the movie.
Q. Overall, where you received quite well in Tamil Nadu?
Yeah very well. Shanti Bhavan also really took us through and were very protective of us and were really helpful and an amazing resource. They were also very open to my vision of what we were doing, which was following the girls and the kids and it wasn’t meant to be a profile of the school, it was really about the kids journey. But to navigate, India and the different villages that we went to, we wouldn’t of been able to do that without Shanti Bhavan bringing us in to the towns and making sure the villages and the families knew that we were approved by Shanti Bhavan. I think that we if had just been a foreign crew, an American/ Western crew coming in just saying that we wanted to just film in this village, I don’t think we would have had the same kind of access and we had the access because we were with their children. The children told their families that we were making something that they should feel ok about and trust.
Q. Did you face any particular challenges or difficulties due to you being a woman?
I think the reason I was compelled to make this film was because I feel very strongly about what I see, not only in India but the treatment of women across the world. But I do have to say again I think I was in a different position, where I was always surrounded by my crew, we had our team on the ground and we were a group of film makers and everyone we worked with were respectful of each other and I never found myself in a vulnerable situation.
My concern was more about when I watched the girls that we were making the film about, when they leave Shanti Bhavan and go in to the city or they go to college. I just keep seeing for them the vulnerability and the sensitivity that they need to have living as a woman in India. For them too I think it’s been complicated because they grew up with these values that Shanti Bhavan taught them about, like critical thinking, asking questions if they don’t agree with something, speaking up and that’s really been put to the test for them in their lives as they’re growing up and getting older and having to find the balance of being treated with the kind of dignity that they should be or everyone should be.
There’s a scene that I just love, it’s in the last episode. One of the girls, Thenmozhi goes back home to her village at 13 and this is the age where they do a traditional coming of age ceremony but it really means that the girl is of age to be married and have children. To me, that scene really speaks of the contrast of these two worlds that these kids are living in and have to navigate their whole lives because they go between the school and home and then when they go to college and work, it’s now more than two worlds, they also have their city life as well. So, it’s a lot for them to navigate for the rest of the lives – modernity and tradition.
Q. Have the girls watched the documentary yet?
No, they haven’t seen it yet. That’s why I am going and bringing my family to see them. We’re going to have a big screening at Shanti Bhavan with all the kids at the school and the alumni on one night and then the next day there will be a screening for all the families of the main kids in the film. I’m excited about that.
The documentary will be shown internationally so my other hope is that people watch it whether or not they have an interest in that particular region of India. I hope the stories show the emotion and that it doesn’t really matter where in the world that they live. I hope that it has universal appeal and brings an understanding to some universal themes.
Daughters of Destiny is available now on Netflix.