Voices Of India is a filming initiative that gets disadvantaged children to tell the story of their lives through films they learn to make

A group of young street children from Bangalore who started off fighting each other at a filmmaking workshop and refusing to work together, slowly began to bond when Voices of India emphasised that they should rely on each other to make their film.

What emerged is a simple 10-minute film made by the children of NGO Bosco Vikas of how they came by train to Bangalore, how innocent childhood got corrupted, they got involved in gambling, got into street fights, and how their lives were transformed at the shelter.

“It was amazing to see their transition by the time we finished the workshop over a week,” says a happy Leon Etchells, co-director of Voices of India (VOI). “You need to give kids some respect.” He was recently in Bangalore on the jury of the 9th Edition of Children’s India International Children’s Film Festival.

U.K.-based Leon’s mother is Indian. She left Ahmedabad when she was five. Leon himself first came to India when he was 20 and fell in love with the country. “But I didn’t want to be just another foreign traveller to India. I wanted to help people here, and in the process also do what I enjoy, which is documentary filmmaking.” He teamed up with partner Alba Mendoza, experienced in social education and community development.

That’s how Voices of India came about as a project for disadvantaged children in India to “have a voice of their own”, to tell their stories to the world. VOI is a filming initiative where a team of filmmakers and educators conduct workshops for children living in slums, children of sex workers and of AIDS-afflicted parents, orphans, tribals who are school dropouts. At the end of the workshop, the children are given a small pocket camera (donated by Video Volunteers) to make a film on a story they create from scratch. Between November 2012 and now, they have conducted over nine months of workshops starting with Hampi and Bangalore in Karnataka, Auroville in Pondicherry, Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh. Most of the youngsters who attend the workshops are aged between 14 and 18, though they have had 12 year olds and those aged 26 as well, sometimes. The children are enthused by the fact that other children all over the country will see their stories. Some parents have been apprehensive of the venture, come and sit in through some of the workshop and decide they are happy with what’s being done, observes Leon.

“It’s good for the kids. It’s a way of empowering them. Many of these children take time to open up and start talking about their problems. They are not used to doing that. We give them the creative freedom to do what they want because the education system here in India won’t. They decide what they are going to make the film on…,” says Leon. Very often the subjects the children choose to tell stories on include gender discrimination, domestic abuse, dowry, alcoholism, harassment — what they face or see among their own in everyday life. “We don’t ask if they have been victims; we don’t ask if it’s personal,” adds Leon.

The VOI team works with NGOs in each state in order to identify children for their workshops, where usually 25 kids are split into five groups. They are taught the basics of filmmaking over four or five days — they are taught the different roles involved in filmmaking, how to maintain continuity etc. “We help them express their story and be advocates of social issues,” says Leon. Each group draws out the storyboard and plans their film. The film is finally shot over two days by the children themselves. “We started off on a shoestring budget and got help with crowd-funding and donations as we went along,” he says.

You can see the films, vote for the best film, donate on www.voicesofindia.org