In the opening scene of The Price Of Free , we see a run-down property. On the outside, it looks to be abandoned — but inside is a different story as dozens of children, underfed and exhausted, make products which sell for barely ₹200. Kailash Satyarthi and Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) rescue these 45 children, assimilating them back into society.
With his name to documentaries such as 2015’s Kobe Bryant’s Muse as an editor and 2017’s Shot In The Dark as a producer, director Derek Doneen, explains over the phone, “I always think of storytelling in a personal way. I’m interested in exploring broad, complex themes — or social issues — but telling them through the lens of human beings and through their personal experiences. The Price of Free was no different; it’s a film about child slavery but I don’t want anybody to watch the movie and say it’s about child slavery. It’s a film about Kailash’s struggle to free children, it’s about an undercover hunt for a missing boy and it’s the story of recovery; children who go on this journey from broken souls back to being normal children, rediscovering the childhood that was taken from from while they were forced to work. Going into this, we didn’t know what stories were were going to find, or who the kids were going to be, but we had an idea about how the story would take shape, and how we would use these personal stories to explore a broader issue. The fact that there are still 150 million children who are deprived of their childhood is mind-boggling.”
The story of how the 90-minute documentary came to life seems like kismet. “My mentor and producing partner Davis Guggenheim and I have been working together for several years. He’s helped me find my voice in a big way. He was filming He Named Me Malala , and was shooting the Nobel ceremony in Oslo for that film. Kailash and Malala were honored the same year, in 2014. Davis met Kailash and texted me afterwards saying, ‘I just met this amazing man; we should make a movie about him.’” The young filmmaker started researching, and realised he didn’t know much about Kailash or the issue they’d be approaching, “I wondered how an issue this massive was something the world wasn’t aware of and why we didn’t all know about Kailash’s amazing work. And as a storyteller I got excited about how we’d tell the story. So we approached him, he was interested and we started the process of getting to know each other.”
Predictably, The Price Of Free took some time, as do most surely-successful projects. “We first started talking about the movie three years ago, almost to the day (sometime in November 2015),” recalls Derek, “and we went to India for the first time in January, 2016 for about three weeks. By then Participant Media, who were already on board, with the idea were shown what we had. We decided our production plan over the summer and started shooting in early October in India with the whole crew.” In fact the team shot and edited all the way through the end of 2017 and premiered at Sundance in January where they won the U.S. Grand Jury Award for Documentary. “In the months since, we’ve made adjustments to the movie, given some of the storylines continued and we kept on filming — because our movie is about real life and real people, their stories don’t stop. So the end of the movie is actually different from what was shown at Sundance.”
In getting to know the 64 year-old Nobel laureate as filming progressed, Derek and his team saw the various responsibilities Kailash juggles, as a father, a husband and a national figurehead for children’s rights. “When he was a young parent, he had to look at his mission in life and choose,” Derek confides, “He had to make some profound decisions, knowing if he took this on seriously, he’d have to dedicate every ounce of energy to rescuing children. He had to sacrifice some very important things, like being a proactively typical parent.”
For the film crew, a lot was about taking cues from Kailash, whom he trusted implicitly. After all, Kailash has been doing rescue operations for about 35 years, so he is very much informed about the volatile climate. “We were cautious,” admits Derek, “but had a job to do and were hyper-focused on our shoot. There wasn’t time to consider the threats during the raids themselves. 45 kids are rescued in the movie’s opening scene, and each of them have a uniquely powerful story. But we needed to figure out which ones worked together to help us convey the broader themes. That’s why the film focuses on two children’s stories.”
An international issue
It was clearly important to Derek, Kailash and the families of the children that various perspectives of a clearly global issue are provided in the film. Derek lists off, “Education, poverty, corruption, oversight, and the sheer scale of how much money is involved all contribute. But most of the time parents simply don’t understand what will happen to their children after they’re sent away. A lot of the parents are duped into sending their kids into such conditions, thinking they will be treated well, earn a living wage and get an education. Many are desperate and wonder where the next meal will come from. It’s nearly impossible for many of them to consider that if they resist the urge to send their children to work and instead help them get an education, they will break the cycle of poverty and ensure a brighter future for their family. This happens all over the world, not just in India — it’s what Kailash is working so hard to change.”
The Price Of Free addresses the larger picture of consumerism; after all, consumer choice has become one of the most common ways for the public to engage in political activism on a wide range of issues including workers’ rights.
“The more I researched about the child labour situation — in India and internationally — the more outraged I felt,” recalls Derek, “What shocked me the most was that we are all a little complicit in this, especially in the West, with such a strong consumer culture of finding great deals no matter the human cost. We hardly think where these goods come from and how they get to the shelf. I hope this movie changes that a little bit, not to say ‘don’t shop for great deals’ but to instead invite consumers to be more conscious and ask the right questions. It’s important to have these conversations, so companies seeing this discourse will be forced to become transparent and accountable. And that’s when change happens on a massive scale.”
‘The Price Of Free’ releases on November 27 — to coincide with #GivingTuesday — on SoulPancake’s YouTube channel.