WFF 2014: India's Backward Class challenges the caste system with education

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      The Backward Class (Canada/India)

      In Tamil and English with English subtitles.

      In 1997, the Shanti Bhavan School near Bangalore opened its doors to the Untouchables, the lowest caste in India who are relegated to a life of poverty they cannot escape by virtue of birth. Since the 1950s, many laws have been created against the system, but, as this documentary by Vancouver director Madeleine Grant reveals, the Untouchables still have certificates that identify them as part of the "Backward Class".  

      From living in huts and shacks, from family environments suffering from abuse, starvation, and conflict, with parents who work as labourers or sex workers, the children have come to the school to seek a way out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

      "Success is not a choice. I have to do it," one student says, illustrating the forced march that is the reality of their life. Their success is not just for themselves, but for their families as well.

      The founder, Dr. Abraham George, had idealistic goals: he thought he would open 100 schools and that the graduates would go on to become world leaders.

      The reality is that he faced challenges keeping this one school open. Even the students note the deterioration of the quality of instruction, food, and equipment, and the whole student body pitches in to make the school look good when potential investors arrive.

      The effort has clearly taken its toll on the staff, including self-sacrificing principal Lalita Law, whose eventual resignation after 13 years at the school leads to one of the most emotional moments in the film amid a roomful of sniffling students.

      Through interviews with the school's first graduating class as they prepare for their rigorous graduation exams, it becomes clear that the school has become their home and a source of hope.

      With so much at stake, fears and anxieties set in as their exams approach as the results will determine whether they can enter into high quality universities. It's quite a coup that Grant was able to capture this pivotal time frame for both the individual students and the school itself.

      It's a genuinely moving and inspiring documentary that will resonate with viewers considering issues ranging from overcoming personal obstacles to dealing with local social issues in Vancouver, such as homelessness or discrimination. It raises the important question of how far people are willing to go to truly empower the disadvantaged on a substantial level.

      The Backward Class screens on Thursday (December 4) at 9:30 p.m. and Friday (December 5) at 4:30 p.m. at the Whistler Film Festival.

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