Ever since the success of Oscar-winning films "Born into Brothels" and "Slumdog Millionaire," India's slums and impoverished children have been a popular topic for Western filmmakers.
Accusations of "poverty porn" are inevitable, however, and, when it comes to this former British colony, there's always a question of whether these films perpetuate age-old stereotypes of some backward "Orientalist" land, plagued with dirt, poverty and illness, all wrapped in exotic colors and bouncing music. Of course, huge portions of India, as revealed in "The Revolutionary Optimists" (opening Friday) and "Blood Brother" (this year's Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner) do lack basic services, but there are more and less responsible ways of conveying this predicament.
"The Revolutionary Optimists" takes us inside the work of a unique Bengali man, a dancer and former lawyer, who teaches kids living in urban slums not just how to read and write and dance, but also to empower themselves and their communities. We have seen this kind of thing before (i.e. "Brothels"), but "Optimists" is refreshing in that it presents a situation where the will to change comes not from the West, but from within.
Directors Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen also present the conditions of these kids without sentimentality, favoring a less ham-fisted and more observational approach. These people might have to walk two hours to stand in endless lines to get fresh water, but no one is crying about it, not even the filmmakers. In doing so, the film's Western viewers are not asked to pity the film's subjects -- which, as Susan Sontag reminds us, "proclaims our innocence and our impotence," allowing us to escape any kind of culpability for the inevitability of tragedy "over there" in "the third world." Rather, we come to understand their situation in a more objective and thoughtful light.
By contrast, "Blood Brother," as well-intentioned as it may be, presents a view of India's poor children--in this case, orphans infected with HIV--that allows the viewer to wash their hands of the pain of these poor others. By focusing yet again on a Western outsider who swoops in to save the children, the film misses its mark, emphasizing the struggles of this conflicted American wanderer rather than giving a fuller understanding of the far more painfully tragic lives of those he wants to help. We don't get concrete facts; we get tragedies and near miracles. We don't get to understand the kids; we get iconic images of innocence and purity. We also get a full range of sentimental tropes and beautiful cinematography, capturing India's exotic and colorful atmosphere, even amongst its most impoverished. I know the filmmakers want to help these kids, but as a movie, I can't help but be bothered by the way they capture this foreign other world.