Pain cuts across Geeta Thapa’s face as she recalls the day that changed her life forever. It was the day the young girl from Nepal found herself in an unfamiliar house in the faraway city of Mumbai, India.
Her suspicion that something was terribly wrong was confirmed later in the evening. A woman in the place that turned out to be a brothel told her: “Look, I have two children to protect. I have no reason to lie to you. They have sold you for thousands of rupees. Just like I was.”
Thapa is the central character in BAS! Beyond the Red Light, which screens May 10 as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, running from May 7 to May 16.
At the 10th edition of this curated and juried annual festival, films cover themes ranging from sexism and human rights to music. Among them, a number of independent documentaries like BAS! focus on the abuse and exploitation of girls and women and how those issues can be addressed.
BAS! draws compelling portraits of several other former child prostitutes in Mumbai. Thapa was only 13 years old when she was sold. Although trapped and helpless, she found ways to fight back. The other girls at the brothel wore makeup. “But to be difficult, I didn’t,” she narrates.
Written, directed, and produced by freelance Canadian journalist Wendy Champagne, the feature documentary follows the girls as they take tentative steps to regain their self-esteem. They talk about their hopes and fears about the future. By letting them speak extensively in her first full-length documentary, Champagne hopes to accomplish one thing.
“I wanted to break down the barriers when we go and we watch something about an issue,” Champagne told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her Montreal home. “I wanted to create relationships with the girls on-screen so that, in a way, that in itself becomes a way to counter the issue. If we feel that these girls could be our children or friends, then that brings us a step closer to really caring about them.”
She also wants to draw attention to concerns about more attention being paid to law enforcement and the rescue of child prostitutes from brothels but few resources being allocated for the much more difficult tasks of rehabilitation and repatriating these victims back to their families.
The challenges are daunting. In May of last year, the chief of India’s federal police told a seminar on human trafficking that there are about 1.2 million children engaged in prostitution across the country.
According to the Rescue Foundation, a Mumbai-based nonprofit group whose work in helping young victims of the flesh trade is highlighted in the film, girls from interior regions of India, as well as from Nepal and Bangladesh, are trafficked into the big cities. The organization estimates that between 5,000 and 7,000 girls from Nepal alone, many of whom are only nine or 10 years old, are sold into India’s red-light districts every year.
Many scenes in the film show the girls practising dance steps as therapy, under the guidance of a Canadian instructor. In one scene, they are asked to draw strength from deep inside themselves and yell “Bas!”, which in Hindi means “Stop!” or “Enough!”
That cry is echoed in a number of other films in this year’s DOXA festival.
In Africa Rising: The Grassroots Movement to End Female Genital Mutilation (May 15, with a postscreening discussion), young girls stand up to demand an end to the cruel practice of cutting clitorises. Believers in this procedure have held for centuries that it prevents women from becoming sexually promiscuous. From Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania to Mali and Burkina Faso, human-rights activists and even former circumcisers are saying “Enough” to the custom that scars about 6,000 girls every day, with some of them dying. In Somalia, most girls are cut by the age of eight, when they’re too young to run away.
Another set of women voice their defiance in Sin by Silence (May 14, also with a post-screening discussion). They are convicts serving life sentences in the California Institution for Women because of a particular crime: they killed their husbands after enduring years of horrible beatings and insults. Organized into a group called the Convicted Women Against Abuse, they describe themselves as a sisterhood of violence. They have one message to wives who are suffering from domestic maltreatment: get out while you can.
This is precisely what a courageous woman did in the preceding nine-minute National Film Board documentary, “Namrata”, which tells the story of a beautiful bride from the Punjab region of India who came to join her husband in Edmonton. Instead of marital bliss, Namrata Gill found a hellish life. She broke her silence, sought help, and reclaimed her life.
Several young girls and women are also recovering their lost lives in Afghanistan. For many years, and especially during the reign of the Taliban, they’ve had no recourse but to remain in forced marriages, often with abusive men old enough to be their fathers. All that is changing, albeit slowly, as documented in Reclaiming Rights (May 15), the work of Vancouver-based filmmaker Brishkay Ahmed.
“For the first time, women’s legal rights are being taken seriously by the courts,” Ahmed told the Straight from Iran, where she is working on another project. “There’s a court system in place now that wasn’t there.”
According to her, these rights of free consent to a marriage and application for divorce have been in place for decades. However, years of strife caused these rights and others to be ignored.
In many ways, Ahmed sees herself in the eyes of these women. “I was born in Afghanistan, but then my father was a diplomat, so we were very lucky,” she said. “We came to Canada before the Taliban came into power. I might have been one of the girls in the film.”
With the exhibition of these films, DOXA continues its proud tradition of promoting equality and justice for women. In addition to these, the festival also offers at least two other feature documentaries that focus on women as they deal with their personal pain.
In Beauty Refugee (May 9), narrator and film director Claudia Lisboa struggles with depression caused by having grown up in a dysfunctional and beauty-obsessed family. Her 73-year-old mother has breast implants, and so does the young woman who lives with her father. All in all, 30 of her relatives have undergone plastic surgery, including her brother, who himself is a plastic surgeon. Lisboa refuses to undergo any procedure. Her relatives believe she needs a boob job to cure her depression.
Coping with the pain caused by the loss of a loved one is the subject of Motherland (May 15). The idea for this feature developed when American filmmaker Jennifer Steinman was planning to travel and do volunteer work in South Africa. At that time, her friend Barbara Crandall was grieving over the death of her son, and Steinman thought of inviting Crandall. From there, the concept grew, and finally six mothers, including Crandall, who were mourning the deaths of their children ended up making the trip.
The mothers volunteered in daycare and feeding centres for children of impoverished South African families. “There was a sense of going away but also a sense of coming home for all of the women in the trip,” Steinman told the Straight by phone from California about one of the reasons the documentary was entitled Motherland.
One scene shows two of the mothers scattering the ashes of their children at a site for a new school for South African children. According to Steinman, that was an act of “letting go, not holding on to all your grief and holding it inside anymore but being willing to let it out and express it”.
In these DOXA documentaries, women from around the world have had the chance to express themselves, often for the first time. Whether they’re truly heard is up to audiences.
Wendy Champagne will attend a DOXA festival screening of BAS! Beyond the Red Light at the Vancity Theatre on Monday (May 10) at 6:30 p.m.; Brishkay Ahmed will attend a DOXA festival screening of Reclaiming Rights at Pacific Cinémathí¨que on May 15 at 1:30 p.m.