Film Review: The Revolutionary Optimists

The Revolutionary Optimists is among that rare group of documentaries about child poverty that does not advocate for anything except hope.

Profiling children who live in urban slums is a dismal undertaking, perhaps because their poverty, in stark contrast to the wealth and opportunity that surrounds them, provides a profound illustration of every nation’s worst failure. Half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and millions more will relocate to urban areas this year. In India, urbanization has increased the demand for domestic workers, and for laborers in construction trades—and many of these jobs will be filled by children. India has the largest number of child laborers in the world (according to UNICEF); 20 percent of them are domestics, and nine million toil in “brick fields.” Maren Grainger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham produced and directed The Revolutionary Optimists to profile disenfranchised Bengali children, some of whom work to support their families, and others who labor to improve their neighborhoods.

The filmmakers’ child subjects include Shika, Salim, Priyanka and Kajal, who live in one of the 5,500 slums of Kolkata (Calcutta), the capital of West Bengal, one of India’s poorest states. Twelve-year-old Kajal works in a brick field, transporting sun-dried mud bricks, stacked atop her head, for $1.25 a day. Shika and Salim are neighbors in an area where there is no clean water; while more affluent denizens pay for water, they and their parents spend two hours a day fetching it from another quarter of the city. Priyanka is an abused teenager who teaches dance at Prayasam (“Their Own Endeavors” in Bengali), a nonprofit serving impoverished, inner-city children. Its founder, Amlan Ganguly, a former lawyer and an Ashoka fellow, also appears in the documentary, although The Revolutionary Optimists is devoted almost entirely to the children.

Grainger-Monsen and Newnham are not newcomers to documentary filmmaking. Both have directed television documentaries, and Newnham co-produced The Rape of Europa (2006), which received a theatrical release and was broadcast on PBS. Their first collaboration was Rare (2012), the story of a girl with Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome, and her extraordinary mother who forms an advocacy group for that rare genetic disease. Rare unfolds over three years, as does The Revolutionary Optimists, which is a mix of fly-on-the-wall footage and engaging, educational, and occasionally provocative interviews. It begins with a sequence in which people are walking through the pre-dawn darkness of Kolkata to fetch water, and is followed by a scene in which Salim’s mother tries to interest him in a bath. These passages introduce one of the primary struggles for those living in the slum, which is access to potable water, but at this point they lack context and constitute a rather confusing start to an otherwise excellent documentary.

Fortunately, the filmmakers move quickly to the children; they introduce themselves and, throughout the documentary, retain their integrity. Even Amlan, the film’s Virgil, who guides the audience through the harsh realities of Indian society, rarely characterizes individual children. Parents express concern for how their circumstances affect their children, and some allow the camera into their homes, but for the most part they are extras. Skillful camerawork and editing, lingering close-ups that betray more than adults may be willing to say, tell much of the story. Tangible issues of education, labor and child marriage arise, for the most part, in Amlan’s interaction with the children, as do the more elusive aspects of disenfranchisement in the West Bengal slum, such as overcoming despair or, in the case of girls, grappling with gender bias at home and in the public sphere.

At a time when many contemporary human-rights filmmakers seem unable to profile anyone without lionizing them, or any organization without producing an infomercial, Grainger-Monsen and Newnham are a breath of fresh air. While The Revolutionary Optimists is about children who are in some way connected to Prayasam, and the documentary portrays a variety of its programs, we become so connected to the children, especially to the girls, Priyanka, Shika and Kajal, that it never feels like these filmmakers are advocating for social entrepreneurs in general or Amlan in particular, or even for the cessation of child labor, or the rights of girls to a secondary education (the equivalent of junior high school in the U.S.). If there is at the core of this documentary an obsessive, emotional man whose mind has long been trained to the complexities of the law, and therefore capable of untangling the Gordian knot of child poverty, the filmmakers stick to the evidence of his work rather than to the man.

In fact, what Grainger-Monsen and Newnham are reaching for is difficult to put into words. In the end, The Revolutionary Optimists is not simply about Salim and Shika deciding to map the slum because they could not find it on Google Earth, or about Kajal, who continues to labor at the brick field but is now taking pictures for all of Prayasam’s publications. To be sure, the filmmakers want viewers to contemplate the injustices these children are subject to, but their documentary is actually an illustration of what Emily Dickinson called “the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” Amlan talks about the children as “agents of change,” and they are; because of their enthusiasm and innocence, we want to listen to them and see the world as they do. The filmmakers allow us to watch Salim and Shika mapping their slum, and the meeting they convene with a local politician in which they use their new map to argue for a clean water source.

The politician acts like one, but the children are not discouraged. Once that map was complete, their lives were no longer circumscribed by the walls of the slum. The Revolutionary Optimists very slowly and circuitously depicts a process, not a result, because the tallying of triumphs and defeats belongs to another universe altogether, one that rewards what can be measured. But how do we measure the potential in Shika’s eyes as she gazes at that blank spot on a computer map where her home should be, or another teenage girl’s first realization that her father plans to marry her off so he can pay for her brother’s secondary education? Grainger-Monsen and Newnham wisely stick to the questions, providing facts through a few inter-titles, and relying on the children to illustrate the myriad of ways poverty can be eradicated.