Young filmmaker Greg Helvey on the making of “Kavi”, which has been nominated for the short film in the 2010 Oscars!

The desi connect with the Oscars continues. The 2010 Oscar nominated short film (in the the Live Action Short category), “Kavi”, is about a boy in India, who would rather be playing cricket and going to school but, like a vast majority of the sub continent's young people, is made to work.

Writer, director and producer Gregg Helvey's film is about 19 minutes long and tells the story of young Kavi, a modern-day slave, choosing to accept what he's always been told or fighting for a different life even if he's unsure of consequences. It's the tagline that draws attention first—“Not all prisons have bars.”

“Kavi” is Helvey's thesis film for his M.F.A degree in film production from the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts and is the outcome of the young filmmaker's interest and research on issues of bonded labour.

“There are 27 million people around the world trapped in modern-day slavery. The more I learned about the extent of modern slavery, I knew I had to make a movie about it. There has to be more awareness about this. For me, filmmaking is a combination of my passion for social justice with powerful storytelling,” he says.

Research and more

Another India-based movie with the grit and the dirt filmed through western lens? Helvey hastens to correct impressions: “This is a global issue, not just an Indian one. World wide, there's more slavery than the entire 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade, and it exists in the United States, too. In 2002, I shot documentary footage in India for a BBC One science show about solar-powered rickshaws in Udaipur and I fell in love with the country, people, food, sights, sounds and smells. It was a thrilling sensory overload, I always wanted to go back, and this time I wanted to take an audience on the journey.”

And it certainly has meant more than just exploring shocking statistics. Helvey didn't want to be the stereotypical great white hope armed with solutions to the developing world's problems; he wanted to get a first hand feel of the issue to be projected cinematically.

Helvey did a month of location scouting and visited over 20 brick kilns around India. In one kiln he met a young boy named Anil. “He was hauling bricks when I saw him,” says Helvey, “He didn't know his age. Perhaps he had genuinely never known it. Or worse he was afraid that he would get into trouble because he was an underage worker.” His translator met questions about working children with a simple answer—“Child labour was outlawed 30 years ago.”

Weathering conditions

“I couldn't openly do my research so I said I was a student very interested in the process of brick making. Organisations like “Free the Slaves” and “International Justice Mission” provided a lot of general information on the issue,” he explains.

Raising the budget meant sending out letters to friends, family, and taking out additional student loans. He also received a very generous anonymous donation, which showed him that the issue was very important to others as well.

After his December 2006 location scouting, he was advised to return in September and film when the brick kilns began work. “When I came back everyone said that I arrived too early… they worked only after the festival of lights, which could be anytime in November or December,” he laughs.

Thankfully Google had more clear answers than the vagaries of the Hindu calendar and Helvey realised he and his team would have to create their own brick kiln. However, an abnormally long monsoon meant they almost had to cancel the shoot. While they waited out the storm, they took advantage of the extra time to do more rehearsals.

The weather, language and working styles were very different from what he had known before but the director learned to adapt.

Most of the crew was regular Mumbai film technicians who spoke Hindi and the people on the set were Marathi speaking locals. Finally the clouds relented and the crew sped to the location, Shriwal, a few hours from Mumbai.

The visuals are arresting with their gritty stark brown locales. “We had to convince and pay real brick kiln owners to make the thousand of bricks we used for the shots. Both the kilns were made to look like one unit. To create a convincingly dry working environment we had to remove all the monsoon growth in front of the camera,” he explains.

The work was hard and the rewards many. For Helvey the entire process was a reaffirmation of his calling for celluloid.

“My goal is to reach at least 50,000 people with “Kavi” in the first year. This is my first fictional film and I want to make a longer version where the United States will play a part. I want to partner with agencies that work to create awareness on the issue,” he explains.

He wants you to cheer Kavi on. But he has a larger agenda: “The film motivates action through awareness. I hope you enjoy this story and are moved to action.”

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“This is a global issue, not just an Indian one. World wide, there's more slavery than the entire 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade, and it exists in the United States, too.