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"The Revolutionary Optimists" Avoids Perils of "Indian Poverty Porn"

Thompson on Hollywood By Anthony Kaufman | Thompson on Hollywood March 28, 2013 at 1:09PM

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.
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"Slumdog Millionaire"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

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.

Revolutionary Optimists

"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. 

Read the rest of this article here.

This article is related to: Features, Slumdog Millionaire, Documentary, Documentaries, Blood Brother, Revolutionary Optimists


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.