There were two Nobel Peace prizewinners in 2014 when recipient and activist Malala Yousafzai, the young woman from Pakistan, grabbed the world’s attention with her campaign to make sure every girl around the globe has the opportunity to go to school. The other recipient was Kailash Satyarthi, a man who’s rescued 87,000 children from child labor in India over the past four decades. Satyarthi and his wife Sumedha founded Bal Ashram, a refuge for these children. But more than a haven for them, it’s a place where they regain their dignity and learn how to advocate for themselves and for the rights of all children. It’s somewhat like the old proverb: If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish you feed him for a lifetime. Bal Ashram is a place of hope for the future as well as a place for rescued children.
Galen Films, based in Vineyard Haven, produced the documentary “Children of Bal Ashram,” which makes its world premiere at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival on Thursday, March 21, at 5 pm at the Chilmark Community Center, and screens again on Saturday, March 23, at 3:30 pm at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern. For the people behind Galen Films — Len and Georgia Morris, Petra Lent, Christopher Mara, and Barbara Dupree — it’s an opening for the hometown audience. This is the film company’s fourth film on children’s rights since 1996. It’s a slow process documenting the exploitation of children around the world, according to producer and director Len Morris. Len and his wife Georgia have known Kailash and Sumedha for more than 20 years, and they’ve filmed their efforts for just as long.
“This film is really 20 years in the making,” Len said. “I think the best part of the story are the children and the resilience of those children, their power and their capacity to come back and get an education and form a family among themselves and share the love they missed. It’s a remarkable and humbling thing to see, and quite wonderful.”
In the film’s opening moments, you see a parade of young people in India chanting for human rights as they march through the streets. They’re part of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the Save the Childhood movement founded in 1980 by Kailash. So besides a physical space, Bal Ashram, he’s also created a movement that identifies, releases, rehabilitates, and educates children who have been in servitude. The goal is to create a child-friendly society where all children are free from exploitation.
“If you want to do something, just start the work,” Kailash says in the film. “Don’t think about success or failure.” His wife Sumedha appears just as driven in the documentary. She stands toe to toe with a politician during a community gathering, and takes him to task for not speaking out against child labor with the urgency that is needed. At one point she says to him, “You work for us.” Bachpan Bachao Andolan coordinates with law enforcement in organizing raids on businesses, where the children are sometimes rescued. Sometimes, though, by the time the raid takes place, the business owners have already gotten wind of it, and the children are hidden from the authorities.
According to “Children of Bal Ashram,” there are 28 million child laborers in India. They stack tobacco leaves, run sewing machines, lug heavy mounds of clay and mud and mold them into bricks, they work in quarries inhaling dust all day, and they decorate pretty little gift boxes that tourists love to buy, all when they should be going to school, playing with friends, and enjoying their childhood. Instead, they are bought and sold like cattle, in some cases their parents are lied to and their families are left dealing with guilt and grief. The parents living in poverty are duped by people who take their children with promises of jobs and decent wages in the city. Instead, children work for no wages, sometimes for 15 to 20 hours a day. Some parents receive a small payment or two before realizing they’ve lost all contact with their children.
“It’s a criminal enterprise,” Len told The Times last week. “The offer of work and pay is used as an inducement. Once they’re removed from their village, their parents have no way of contacting them, and the children have no escape. This is an enabling thing; traffickers prey on families because they can’t feed the children they have, and often the children want to go. They end up utterly betrayed and used.”
Galen films has also produced “Stolen Childhoods,” which took seven years to make and covered child poverty across eight countries; “Rescuing Emmanuel,” a documentary about a 13-year-old boy living on the streets in Nairobi, Kenya; and “The Same Heart,” an essay on the effects of extreme poverty on the world’s children.
“All the movies are connected,” Len said. “I like to say we’ve been making one movie for 23 years.”
The films provide a window into the world of global poverty and how it impacts the lives of children. Len said despite the scope of the challenges the films document, he remains hopeful.
“Things are a lot better than they were when we started,” he said. “There are 100 million fewer children working in child labor, there are tens of millions of girls getting their education. Children and adults are aware that the products we use have children involved in their production. Many global brands like Disney, General Motors, or Coke now have HR people who try to keep the company on the right side of these issues, keeping the use of children out of the supply chains.”
Along with Galen Films, the filmmakers created a nonprofit, Media Voices for Children, an online community that fights for children’s rights all over the world. Len has produced short films for MVC on topics such as human trafficking, domestic labor, child labor in agriculture, access to education, and gender equality. The team at MVC has been together for 30 years, focusing on human rights. Their work continues to grow with each experience they commit to, Len said.
He said he was surprised by a few aspects of making “Children of Bal Ashram,” since it was his first time filming in India. “I had a partner who generally did shooting in India, but he passed away in 2013, and this was the film that took me to India,” Len said. “India was a surprise. I wish I’d gone 30 years before, it’s a remarkable country and a tremendous melting pot.
“At the northern border, I was struck by how much happier so many people are with so much less than what we have, and how conscious people are of the gifts they have. As they learn and improve themselves, they want nothing more than to go back to their village and be the doctor, the teacher, the environmentalist. I was just lifted up by the whole thing.”
Working with a team of people that has grown into an extended family is one of the benefits of Galen Films and MVC, he said: “It’s a very special thing to have such a huge life experience and have it with people you’ve known for so long.”
Bringing the work back home to the people on the Island via the M.V. Film Festival is something they all look forward to, Len said: “Our plans are that you spend a few years making a film and you’re going to spend a few years getting it to audiences. This is a very special and very important audience; this is our community.”
The Chilmark festival will launch “Children of Bal Ashram,” and after that there will be trips to Washington, D.C., a panel discussion at the U.N., and creation of a classroom version of the film and a study guide.
“I hope people come to see the film,” Len said. “These are tough subjects, and I hope we got out of the way enough to let the children tell their story. After all of this, I remain optimistic that we can all but eliminate child labor. I’d like to make myself obsolete, and all the people I work with feel the same way.”
“Children of Bal Ashram” plays at 5 pm on Thursday, March 21, at the Chilmark Community Center, and on Saturday, March 23, at 3:30 pm at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern. Visit mediavoicesforchildren.org and galenfilms.com for more information. Visit tmvff.org for the schedule of films playing during the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.