From the Shadows, a documentary by Miriam Chandy Menacherry, follows two women working with survivors of child sex trafficking in their fight for justice

From the Shadows, a documentary by Miriam Chandy Menacherry, follows two women working with survivors of child sex trafficking in their fight for justice

It started six years ago, when Mumbai-based filmmaker Miriam Chandy Menacherry saw the silhouette of a girl painted on a wall, first in Kolkata, then Mumbai and Bengaluru. The artwork was accompanied by #missingirls and a message that read “every 8 minutes”.  

The haunting shadow, part of artist Leena Kejriwal’s public art project on sex trafficking of young girls in India, brought home a sordid reality to Miriam, a filmmaker known for spotlighting lesser-known stories of real people through acclaimed documentaries such as Rat Race (on a Bollywood dancer moonlighting as a rat killer) and Lyari Notes (on children who choose music over violence in an area known for gang warfare in Pakistan).

Miriam Chandy Menacherry

Miriam Chandy Menacherry
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The journey that began with chasing shadows culminated in From the Shadows, a documentary that follows two women working with survivors of child sex trafficking to take on the trafficking nexus in the country. There is Leena who stands by Samina’s protracted battle against her traffickers, who hail from her village and activist Hasina Kharbhih who is helping rescued young girls get across international borders to Bangladesh, their homeland.  

As it intercuts between their individual trajectories, the film speaks about the mental and physical struggles of survivors, their long road to justice and rehabilitation, the need for awareness among vulnerable communities and the role of the State. 

For Miriam, the subject of her film was a legal minefield fraught with the danger of missteps. Not only did she have to grapple with the ethics of representation as a filmmaker, but owing to the court case, the inability to use Samina’s face as a canvas to tell the story, also posed a further challenge.

In Bengaluru for the screening of her documentary, Miriam spoke about From The Shadows (FTS), which, in her own words, has been her most difficult film till date.  

Activist  Hasina Kharbhih with Ella, a trafficking survivor, in a still from the documentary From the Shadows.

Activist Hasina Kharbhih with Ella, a trafficking survivor, in a still from the documentary From the Shadows.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The quest for justice is as integral to the film as art and activism. When Samina’s court case did not go as expected, how much did you have to change your original vision? 

It was a huge challenge to distil the essence because you are no longer using the same visual that you shot with, but generic images. That required a bit of craftmanship beyond normal editing where sync sound is used with the character. I don’t think the story changed. The highlights were still the ups and downs of Samina’s tireless trips to court, her legal battle for justice and the twists that it threw up at every stage. So what we had taken as safety shots became the actual shots for the entire scene. Long shots had to be used because those were the only ones where you couldn’t see her face clearly.  

You stayed with this film for six years. Apart from the anticipation of a favourable verdict for Samina, what bound you to this story for so long? 

Samina’s battle became our narrative storyline. Since these hearings take a long time to come up, there was a huge gap between shoots. It is a reflection of the system as well, because post-Nirbhaya and the Delhi rape case, laws were introduced to fast-track such cases, but in execution it did not unfold the same way. Her journey became our journey as well. 

When approaching an idea for a film, where does the filmmaker end and the activist begin? 

I’m primarily a filmmaker and my brand of storytelling is centred around social issues — be it Rat Race, Lyari Notes or From the Shadows. We are telling factual stories with real people. So I’m drawn to ‘what is a good entry point?’, to see whether I’m finally able to hold people’s attention, especially in a long format.  I like to have interesting characters and a graph, but I definitely think your politics shows in a film. In this film, because it follows two activists, it’s easy for people to mistake me for being the activist. I’m merely reflecting a story about both art and activism in this sphere. 

You have spoken about how documentary films neither have finance nor a distribution network. How do you plan to take From the Shadows ahead?

We will knock on all the doors to see how many different platforms we can air it on, and what is the best way to get it out to the widest audience. While filming we stumbled upon some smaller anecdotes and stories which didn’t make it to the final cut but are nevertheless fantastic, inspiring stories. So apart from screening the film in its entirety, we want to find a way to put those smaller stories on online platforms or curate them for colleges and schools as short films.

What has been your strategy for screening?  

We hope to screen for people who are involved in the fight against trafficking, especially the youth who are strong agents of change and can intervene in their own peer group. We will have impact screenings, followed by discussions. I’m also pushing for personal screening in geographies where we have shot the film or where the characters are placed. At some point, I want to have a screening in Bangladesh with the girls. It’s definitely a game changer when you see survivors stand up and speak, thereby preventing other girls from being lured by traffickers. Ella is a clear example of someone who has reclaimed her story. 

Where do you think documentary filmmaking in India stands?

The documentary format is where we are shining right now. For a country that produces the most number of fiction films, it is the documentary film that has stolen the march. It has received massive international attention because of very strong factual storytellers. Their works are a reflection of our times. It’s also amazing the kind of audience that documentary is now garnering. Having witnessed a step-motherly treatment for long, it’s wonderful that it’s now in the spotlight. 

Writing with Fire’s win at the Oscars was later eclipsed by the controversy about misrepresentation. What is your take on that discourse? 

Consent is definitely critical. For FTS, I actually shared rough cuts and ran it by Samina’s legal team because they are fighting an actual case. We also reached out to survivors through the people working with them, because comfort and trust were important factors apart from ensuring that we were following the right procedure. It was Leena and Samina’s equation and they were comfortable enough to let me in on it, as were Hasina and Ella. It helped that we had an all-women crew to create a safe space to share.  

As far as Writing with Fire is concerned, at the end of the day, there is a line you shouldn’t cross but it is also your story. Even though we may not agree on every little detail, the filmmaker enjoys editorial freedom so long as it factors in everyone’s consent through healthy dialogue. It’s very important in documentary filmmaking that we see eye-to-eye on 90% of the content with about 10% editorial freedom on factors the filmmaker feels strongly about.


What are you working on next?

I’ve been working on a short film, which also premiered at the same time as FTS at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK). It is about an Adivasi family in Aarey, which is the last lung space in Mumbai. Both these films are travelling now. It’s a feeling of delivering twins and you have to ensure both their journeys go smoothly, even though they are very different from each other. 

Miriam with a crew member during the shooting of From the Shadows

Miriam with a crew member during the shooting of From the Shadows
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

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By Dipak

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