I Knew of the Big Trouble
As much as I respect our culture, I think of myself as a very modern young girl and I want freedom.
Prachi Triveda looks daunting. Her gaze intent and her lathi in hand, she practices martial arts moves on an urban rooftop. “People are forgetting history,” she says in voiceover, “We are becoming modern, our country is becoming modern. Our past is our roots, we cannot leave our roots.” Moments later, the scene cuts to Ruhi Singh, first on a city sidewalk and then in her room, pale green teddy bear on the bed beside her. “A lot of people think that if you allow women to work, and get modern and get educated, you lose your culture and your heritage and your deep-rooted values,” she says. “But I don’t agree. If we want India to develop, I think all of us have to change. We have to change our mentality.”
This first sequence of The World Before Her sets out a seeming opposition. But even as Prachi and Ruhi describe their dissimilar notions of Mother India, the film insinuates their similarities too. In both scenes, the young woman’s motion is slightly slowed and the camera is slightly low; as they contend with oppressions past and present, both “want freedom,” as Ruhi phrases it, the freedom to choose their future.
Winner of Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca and Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs this past weekend, The World Before Her sustains its refreshing complexity. As the film cuts between Prachi teaching martial arts at a Durga Vahini camp for girls and Ruhi competing at the 2011 Miss India Pageant in Mumbai, and both girls at home with their parents, it reveals not only how they hope to exercise their “freedoms,” but also how they might have come to their beliefs and self-identities.
In this focus on contexts, Nisha Pahuja’s film resembles My Name Is Faith, which had its world premiere at Hot Docs. Directed by Tiffany Sudela-Junker, Jason Junker, and Jose Torres-Torres, this documentary looks at children with Attachment Disorder, damaged and fearful, unable to express emotions or establish relationships, following early experiences of neglect and violence. Focused on the Junkers’ adopted daughter Faith, now 12 years old, the film opens with her direct address to the camera: “I think half the world’s population is people that have been hurt, and people don’t put that together, and I’m hoping that my story will make them put that together.”
The scene cuts from Faith in her baseball cap to Diane Sawyer on a TV screen, reporting, “More than 10 million of the world’s children have been either orphaned or abandoned by their parents.” It’s a staggering number (and an old one, judging by the dated look of the 20/20 footage), setting a broad context for the specific story of Faith and her family. Following a brief description of Faith and her younger brother Jonah’s dire history (a mother addicted to meth, sexual abuse, killing kittens), Faith describes herself in remarkably detached language and affect: “I would go over to my mom while she was sleeping and I would get steak knives and hold them over her,” she says. “She woke up scared. I wanted to make her scared and sad.”
My Name Is Faith
Faith’s self-knowledge is at once chilling and heartening. As her parents recall, they were at their wits’ end when they found Nancy Thomas, who runs camps for children with Affective Disorder, along with her daughter Beth, once a child with the disorder (an interview with Beth as a little girl has her describing how she stuck pins in her little brother and wanted to stick them in her parents when they were asleep: “I don’t like them seeing me do it,” she explains, “So they can feel me do it”). The film follows the Junkers’ experiences at Thomas’ camp in Lake Conroe, Texas, cutting together their video footage with interviews with staff members and parents. Repeatedly, the kids at the camp engage in verbally aggressive or otherwise disturbing behavior and adults ask them to describe their feelings. It’s hard to say what the film doesn’t show, what exactly happens when a parent calls out “flight check” and her child is ushered out of the room by a staffer. Asked where Faith is during one of her removals, Jonah says, “She’s sleeping in the lake, starting to die. She’s in flight check.” And what is that?
“Flight check,’ he explains, “is when a kid goes to the flight check room and gets interventioned.”
Whatever the particular methods may be, the film does make clear the Junkers’ faith in it (with Thomas’ help, they’ve started their own camp). And the results for Faith certainly look positive. In her conversations with Nancy, Faith appears to be an extraordinarily self-aware kid, admitting she’s lying when she’s called on it. “Telling the truth about your feelings is a good thing,” Nancy instructs, standing over Faith, off-screen. “What makes that hard for you?” The girl’s eyes fill with tears. “Because you’re holding me accountable to be honest,” she says. Again, the voice from off-screen asks, “Who should hold you accountable to be honest?” Faith knows the answer: “Me.”
Again, it’s unclear what’s happened off-screen, how Faith has learned the therapeutic language, for example. Following several tearful interactions with her mom and Nancy, her behavior changes visibly, and by the end of the film, she’s visiting with her birth mother Andrea, equipped with a set of file card on which she’s written all the things she wants to say to her, the many ways she’s been hurt. Perhaps the most striking moment has Faith talking over the encounter with Jason. When she asserts that Andrea has lied to her (based on a “trick question” she’s devised), Jason points out how lies aren’t always intentional or even lies per se, that they may be functions of misperceptions and faulty memories.
Whether or not Faith processes this idea, My Name is Faith suggests that it’s a basis for the complexities of daily communication, the trust and distrust that shape relationships. If Faith’s choices aren’t always informed (she’s a little girl, no matter how bright she is), and if the documentary can’t show every moment of her experience, it does reveal the contexts that produce her and children like her, before and as she’s “interventioned.”
The World before Her
The World before Her considers other sorts of contexts, in part through scenes that show Ruhi and Prachi at home. Both girls are encouraged to pursue particular ideals by their parents. Ruhi’s mother—first visible through the narrow doorway to her kitchen—laments the oppressions still facing women in Jaipur: “Most of them are poor, they are not allowed outside the house,” she says, “A woman, a girl, should have some freedom,” she says. Prachi’s father sees his daughter’s lot otherwise: “I don’t know what she wants or doesn’t want and it’s not important,” he says, as she sits just off-screen to his right. “Marriage is her duty. She has to get married and she will.” The camera pans to show Prachi, who says, “We will see about that.”
In scenes with and without her father, Prachi insists that she’s not meant to be married. “I’m the only child of my father,” she explains in a solo interview, “So he grew me up like a boy and a girl both.” She sees in herself strength and commitment, able to smile and show the scar on her foot her father describes (it’s a mark, he says, “that is meant to be a lesson for her,” one he delivered when she lied to him when she was in seventh grade). Alternately obedient and defiant (and sometimes both at once), Prachi insists that Durga Vahini is a means to preserve the “values” of Indian women. At the same time, Sabira Merchant, a diction expert at the Miss India contest describes the great opportunities for the girls, to “have exposure” around the world. The lessons in diction, pageant walking, and makeup, she says, are a “manufacturing unit, where you go inside and you’re polished like a diamond, to the best that you can be polished too. That’s it, “she sums up, “the modern Indian woman.”
But still and again, the difference between modern and traditional is ever shifting. And by setting each story alongside the other, the film insists on the ways that zealous commitments—to whatever cause, to whatever era—can lead to blindness, willful or not. When the pageant director decides he wants the girls to parade with sacks over their heads, so hey might be judged only for their “beautiful hot legs,” the scene turns bizarre and not a little barbaric. The girls parade, their eyes peeing through cutout holes, and the director smiles. “We want to chase our dreams,” says one contestant, Ankita Shorey. “‘Is it worth it?’ Yes, sometimes the thought comes into my head.”
The film never loses sight of the ways that any of the girls’ “dreams” is shaped by their experiences. When Prachi dismisses Gandhi’s nonviolence as ineffective and declares her devotion to Durga Vahini, the film follows with a short series of images showing atrocities committed by Hindu extremists (the 1999 murder of Christian missionary Graham Staines, the 2008 Melagon bombings, and the 2002 Gujarat riots). The camp where Prachi works includes training with weapons. The film shows little girls aiming at targets, their tiny frames swaying with their rifles’ weight. “We’re not terrorists,” says Prachi, because “we can’t teach them to make bombs.”
At home, she watches the Miss India pageant on TV with her parents, the flickering screen reflected in her glasses. Her mother observes, “It’s a new culture, they’re not going to follow our old ways, each generation chooses its own path.” When Prachi is asked to explain how she can be “fighting for a belief system that actually is controlling you,” her answer is as roundabout as it has to be. “I know that,” she says, “I completely know that. Whatever I’m thinking, whatever I want to do, whatever decision I’m trying to make, whatever I’m thinking for my life. It is against the system for which I’m working.” Convoluted and confused, her assessment sums up precisely the problems she and too many other girls are facing.