An artist and a filmmaker are raising awareness about child trafficking 

A filmmaker-social worker and an artist are on a mission to prevent online child abuse and child trafficking by launching an SOS Community and screening award-winning documentary ‘From the Shadows’ across India

September 30, 2023 05:47 pm | Updated 06:14 pm IST

Still from the film showing Leena Kejriwal’s art work on public walls to raise awareness on missing girls. 

Still from the film showing Leena Kejriwal’s art work on public walls to raise awareness on missing girls.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The film From the Shadows begins with visuals of shadows trying to portray and narrate tales of life and emotions, and forming characters that give the audience the impression that they are trying to speak through their changing figures and shapes.

Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker Miriam Chandy Menacherry, the film’s director, says the title of the film came to her in the form of a shadow of a girl appearing on public walls with haunting frequency, with the same tag ‘#Missing’ in different cities. Curious to know about the mysterious form on the walls, Miriam went to the Pune Biennale 2016 to meet the photographer and social artist Leena Kejriwal, who was exhibiting gigantic metallic installations of the missing girl.

“This artwork by Leena provoked me to go on a six-year journey of making a documentary film that discovers the true-life tales of young trafficking survivors. From the Shadows became a metaphor for all the stories that are hidden in plain sight, waiting to be discovered; stories of young girls on the fringes of our society who want to be given choices as they were duped and robbed of their childhood. As young adults, they now fight for acceptance. They also expressed how they see the film as an opportunity to help other survivors through their trauma,” says Miriam. She went to Leena’s childhood home in Kolkata, which overlooks Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light district.

A still from the documentary film where activist Hasina Kharbhih is shown working with Ella, a trafficking survivor.

A still from the documentary film where activist Hasina Kharbhih is shown working with Ella, a trafficking survivor. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

After the film was released at the end of 2022, there were community screenings in the villages of Sundarbans and Bangladesh, and screenings at leading colleges in Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai. At the Mumbai screening  at PVR Juhu, parents, adolescents, students, and people from all walks of life came to watch the film. 

The film had its premiere at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram in 2022.

“This year, we were one of the 10 films to land a prestigious Impact Grant from Chicken & Egg Pictures USA to screen the film widely. We are currently taking the film to every Indian city. In October, we have screenings in Seattle, US as part of the Tasveer festival and in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles as part of the Change Fest,” says Miriam.

Miriam in the right (front) and her film crew during their shoot in Sundarbans.

Miriam in the right (front) and her film crew during their shoot in Sundarbans. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

How it began

Leena’s childhood home in Kolkata is a huge seven-storey building on the main road from Sonagachi. The backyard of her house overlooks Sonagachi. She grew up with stories of girls being kidnapped and taken to the ‘bad lane’ from where they could never come out. “As a child, hearing such stories, I felt the vulnerability in my bones. Much later in 2000, when I started photography, I visited the red light district of Kalighat with my friend Urmi Basu who was starting the NGO New Light in Kalighat to keep the children safe in a night crèche. This was to keep the children safe from their mothers’ clients. I started to comprehend the multifaceted reasons responsible for trafficking and sex trade. All the narratives and stories later became a complicated layered artwork and gave birth to the #Missing public art project,” explains Leena, who founded The Missing Project in 2014, a campaign against sex trafficking and slavery, with the single purpose of creating mass awareness.

The first art installation was at the India Art Fair and from there, her project has reached across India as well as abroad. The silhouette of a missing girl represents the voice of the voiceless and many young girls took to social media to raise the issue of trafficking.

Screening of ‘From the Shadows’ in Sundarbans, West Bengal.

Screening of ‘From the Shadows’ in Sundarbans, West Bengal. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

After Kolkata, Leena took Miriam to Kultali in Sundarbans where every other home has a case of a missing girl. The film has documented Samina who escaped her trafficker and is now fighting a case against them with Leena’s help. “Three years into making the film, Samina realised the verdict was elusive and she requested that in the interests of her case (which was sub judice), we conceal her identity. Soon after this, the the pandemic struck. So we could not film with Samina and her case was stuck in limbo. This process dictated to me how the film would be made if I kept the survivor and her interests central to the ethics of filmmaking. For the first time, we hired a legal team besides also running it by Leena’s and Hasina’s legal teams to be sure that we could show our film across India,” says Miriam.

The film parallelly introduces the narrative of Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse NGO Network based in Meghalaya, who secured the conviction of a trafficking kingpin for Ella, one of the survivors. Taking extreme risks, together they work for survivors. “The very first shoot was when they were accompanying a group of girls rescued from south India back to their homes in Bangladesh. It was a highly emotional journey,” says Miriam.

Screening of ‘From the Shadows’ in Bangladesh.

Screening of ‘From the Shadows’ in Bangladesh. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Apart from The Missing Project and Impulse NGO Network, Miriam also worked with Kolkata-based NGOs.

The reason for having Leena as the protagonist, Miriam says, is because she has an imaginative approach to address trafficking that speaks to the youth in the form of street art, gaming and digital comics.

The film also has shots taken at police stations, courts and also the Bangladesh-India border. The film crew worked closely with activists and NGOs who helped them with the permission to shoot.

The legal process has been exhausting but Samina continues to fight despite death threats from her trafficker. “The only development in her case so far is that we managed to put her case under POCSO. Once Samina gets justice, I hope she will be able to come out on platforms and talk to other survivors about the trauma she faced. In that way, she can become a role model to others,” says Leena.

Launch of the SOS campaign

At the premiere of the film, the #StopOnlineStalkers (#SOS) Campaign was launched with an awareness-building Public Service Announcement (PSA) film on child trafficking and is being shown at PVR INOX Cinemas across the country to educate nearly 20 million people on the nature of cyberspace today. “The #SOS Campaign is an intervention effort by NGOs Save Missing Girls and CyberPeace, in partnership with PVR NEST ( Priya Village Roadshow Network for Enablement and Social Transformation), to tackle the spike in online child abuse in India. The PSA film introduces the SOS Child Online Safety Desk, an innovative WhatsApp-based tool, which provides 24/7 information and assistance to parents and children grappling with this issue, by connecting with 60030 60040. The SOS Forum is a talk show with schools in multiple cities where students are given a safe platform to express their concerns and experiences,” elaborates Leena.

Leena’s and Miriam’s teams have drafted a petition and they also plan to circulate a signature campaign to urge policymakers to plug all gaps in the anti-trafficking bill and pass the bill in the Parliament.

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