A documentary made by children of an orphanage in Kolkata wins the first prize at the Kids for Kids International Film Festival in Athens.
"I will always remember the respect you have given me. Earlier as a beggar in the streets, I was only used to abuse. For the first time in my life I am being honoured for something."
Ashikul Islam, 12, in his acceptance speech at the Kids for Kids International Film Festival in Athens in June after receiving the first prize for the documentary `Aami', which he directed.
ASHIKUL ISLAM lives in the Destitute Children's Home run by the Centre for Communication and Development (CCD) at Madhyamgram in suburban Kolkata. `Aami' (I Am), a 20-minute documentary made by children of the orphanage, all of them between six and 12 years of age, was one of the 45 films shortlisted at the Kids for Kids International Film Festival in Athens from 323 entries received from 40 countries. It was the only film selected from Asia in what is one of the biggest children's film festivals in the world.
What makes the achievement special is the spirit behind the venture. "The story is about us," Ashikul Islam told Frontline, "the dreams and lives of my friends and myself at the Home." The idea came when some of the children decided to draw pictures of their dreams, aspirations and curiosities. Saiful Mandal, 11, who handled the camera for the film, said, "Some of us want to be pilots when we grow up, some others doctors. We are curious about a lot of things. For example, how can fish sleep with their eyes open and we can't? My drawing was why stars can be seen in the night and not during day time." He wanted to be a doctor, but now he is set on becoming a cameraman. "When I was very small I saw someone use that kind of camera for some shooting in my village, and I was very interested. But they didn't let me touch it. I like to be with the camera all the time," he said.
The children had no idea how to make a film, and started by putting down in writing what their crayon paintings represented. "Before I came to the Home, I was only used to lanterns. I had never come across electricity and was astounded when I first saw it in the Home. I wanted to express that experience through my drawing and the film," said Ashikul.
He learnt to be a director at a two-day workshop on film-making organised for the children by Gauranga Films, a movie production house. "Initially we were shown what to do and then we did it by ourselves. I first arranged the pictures and then made the script. I explained to everyone their roles. I told Saiful how to make the shots and from which angle to take them," said Ashikul. The entire film was shot in 12 hours and Gauranga Films agreed to do the production work. The children took part in the editing work.
Ashikul was the only one who represented the children at Athens. "I am not at all sad that I couldn't go. Ashikul is my friend and he went for all of us. I am very happy," said Saiful. For Ashikul the experience was at once exhilarating and terrifying. "I never thought I would ever get on a plane. I was very scared," he said. However, he enjoyed himself watching the films made by children of other countries and said he liked all of them. The defining moment was when he stood on the podium to receive the prize - a digital camera and a certificate - and spoke from his heart.
Ashikul almost missed the trip to Athens. He did not have a birth certificate and that posed problems for his acquiring a visa. But Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee intervened to sort out the problem. "He [the Chief Minister] asked me what the film was all about and gave me a new set of clothes, pens, exercise books and a camera. He told me to do well," said Ashikul.
ASHIKUL was born in Maricha village in South 24 Paraganas district. His father was killed by dacoits when he was still in his mother's womb. He was born into extreme poverty and begged, along with his mother, for survival. His mother died when he was only five. "I was completely alone and depended on charity. Then I started working in a tea stall, for which I got food twice a day and shelter for the night. If I broke anything accidentally they would beat me and halve my salary," he said. He left the tea stall to work in a restaurant. He was made to wash utensils with hot rice starch, which would scorch his hands. His last job, at the age of eight, was in a leather factory, where he applied glue on the products.
Life was no less difficult for Saiful. Born in Keyadanga Chandpur village in North 24 Paraganas district, he lost his father when he was five. He and his mother used to graze other people's cattle for a living. "They wouldn't pay us for that, but gave us two meals a day. If any of their cattle got lost, they would beat us," he said. His mother then began working as a maid in different houses.Aami.
"Sometimes we did not get food, and sometimes only rotten rice," he said. He joined the Home four years ago because his mother could not cope with the pressures of taking care of a small child and making ends meet. He says he has never been happier, but at times he misses his mother very much.
Saiful's deputy, assistant cameraman Alamgir Mandal, 10, was abandoned by his distraught mother one night when he was asleep at home. His father had deserted the family before he could even remember. "I woke up one morning and there was nobody there. I was scared and hungry and I started crying. The neighbours heard me and unlocked the door and brought me out," said Alamgir.
With nobody to take care of him, the three-year-old was put to work in a brinjal farm. "My job was to run around the field all day, chasing away birds from the crop," he said. When the brinjal season ended he worked in a sweetmeat shop and stayed there. His aunt came periodically and collected all his earnings. One day the shop owner threw hot water on him for breaking a cup. When the local people protested, the shop owner threw him out. Four years ago CCD adopted him.
For the children this documentary was not just an experiment; it was made by them, on them and for the world. "I want our film to be shown to all. There are so many children who are starving and wandering on the streets. They need four things - love, food, education and a place to live. If we only tell people about us, some would listen and some would not. Now the whole world knows about us and children like us," said Saiful.
Ashikul and his friends are already planning another documentary - on beggar-children. This idea is Ashikul's own. "I want to do a film on those children who are not as fortunate as we are and have to live in the streets. They can't even think of their own future and what they will grow up to be," he said. This documentary, if it is made, will again be a world that Ashikul, Saiful, Alamgir and their friends know only too well.