“Package for you, Christopher, sir.”
I look up from my work station. Hovering before me is a rectangular box wrapped in plastic, clearly addressed to me at the Dream a Dream office in Bangalore. I take it from the security guard. “Dhanyavadagalu, Noor,” I say as I test the box’s weight.
A few of my coworkers have noticed the interaction. Curious eyes peer over their cubicle dividers. I detach the tape and slowly tear the plastic open, racking my brain for possible answers. I slide the contents onto the table; what’s inside would change the direction of my AIF Clinton Fellowship.
First emerges a brand new store-bought chef’s knife in its original box. Next comes a short note reading, “For Rakesh.”
Here’s why this matters:
It was the intention from the beginning of my involvement with Dream a Dream, my placement organization, to tell stories with a young person-centric approach. As a core philosophy, it drives every strategic and creative decision; it suggests a more accessible vocabulary, places the camera at the eye-level of the young people, embraces positivity and heroism and wonder, and, most importantly, creates the space for a shared ownership of their stories. The filmic language is powerful and draws directly on a subconscious recognition of spatial relationships; something as simple as a camera, and therefore an audience, looking down on someone creates in that person immediate inferiority, and in the audience a sense of ownership (Van Sijll 160-167). Film also provides surrogates for audience members; third party voice-over narration can be useful in conveying information, but “it speaks without mediation to the audience, by-passing the ‘characters’ and establishing a complicity between itself and the spectator” (Doane 42). In other words, it creates an additional omniscient presence speaking on behalf of someone else, thus inherently removing that person’s involvement in their own story and creating distance where there should be familiarity and understanding.
These kinds of considerations are of utmost importance when producing stories of dignity in adversity.
Meet Rakesh, a young man who agreed to be the subject of a short biographical film the Communications Team and I were to produce as a case study for this new child-centric approach. There are elements to Rakesh’s story that are universal to the young people of Dream a Dream, but this story, of course, is wholly his own. It was our primary duty to find the truth in his story, in his words, and use the language of film to convey that to a larger audience. We worked closely with Dream a Dream’s Research and Advocacy Team to talk with and learn about Rakesh in an in-depth sociological context through qualitative research methods. From the outset of the project, it was important to me that the story be told through his words and his voice, and not by anyone else; as a result, with a little help in finding exact phrases in English, Rakesh was able to take control of his own story and deliver it to the audience. We filmed in the places in which he spends time, and every creative decision in the project’s execution came from some bit of information he expressed during the research process.
When Rakesh was very young, his father had an accident that left him unable to work. This placed additional burdens on his mother, who, to provide for her family of five, transitioned to selling flowers, primarily on the streets and in marketplaces when she could. It also placed additional burdens on Rakesh – he started working more, and in more places. He took a job as a bus boy cleaning tables during marriages, and eventually started assisting the wedding banquet chefs in the kitchens. Not only was he working to support his family, but he had begun to develop real passion for the first time in memory – for cooking. These experiences would be transformative for him.
However, his community expected him to enter the Indian workforce as an I.T. technician, a safe and steady source of income for the sake of his family. He felt stuck, in need of guidance, and sought an advocate to help convince his community that success in life takes multiple forms. This is where Dream a Dream comes in; through his involvement, he told us, he was able to pivot toward his passion.
The modus operandi of Dream a Dream is to instill life skills in young people from vulnerable backgrounds via practical, pragmatic workshops and sessions that, when unpacked, reveal a multitude of those life skills (“Our Model”). Examine the value of cooking in the life of a young person like Rakesh; what does a grasp of cooking actually do for someone? It’s more than a meal – it teaches patience and time management; it promotes creativity; it forces consideration of resources and money. It’s a microcosm of life skills cross-applicable to innumerable contexts. It also allows for the exploration of new interests and, in the case of Rakesh, passion. As the film took shape, one title naturally rose to the top: “A Recipe to Thrive,” the story of how one young man from Bangalore is using his passion for cooking to change the script of adversity, take control of his narrative, and thrive.
Our short film is his mirror and it finds its main motifs in his passion. We used long lenses when capturing images of him in the kitchen, creating shallow depth of field to imply the rest of the world falls away when he enters his place of passion with a chef’s knife in his hands. We aimed to instill within the process of cooking a beautiful dignity; Rakesh sought an advocate for his work, work that is contrary to expectations of him, and a short film could be that advocate long after his involvement in Dream a Dream.
Dignity and adversity are not mutually exclusive; in the film we sought to present not a picture of adversity for the sake of adversity, but a reality in which adversity, in whatever form, is simply a component, as much a part as dignity. A recurring image of the film is that of hands doing work: Rakesh cooks, and his mother twists twine around the stems of flowers to prepare them to be sold. By creating a parallel visual language for both, neither is highlighted as a byproduct of adversarial conditions. Both mother and son are working, work as dignified as any other. Likewise, we captured the reality of his life by placing him in the context of his life without editorialization or sensationalization. In one sequence, the camera is high off the ground, angled downward – a top-down view of one young man with a dream. We see him in his context: a modest kitchen, a little cramped, and only a small selection of supplies, but this is a brief glimpse into a life presented in its totality – adversity, dignity, and all. We trust the audience to glean information from an image; no need to highlight a particular feature over any other.
The narrative of the film is delivered by Rakesh himself, speaking words that came from the conversations I had with him during the research process, collated and streamlined, and then approved by Rakesh. With only a little help translating certain phrases into colloquial and accessible English, this is his life as he wants it to be told.
Imbuing the film with cinematic dynamicism and beauty while ensuring shared ownership of the narrative between subject and creator is a novel approach that Dream a Dream has empowered me to explore. It’s an extension of the young person-centric approach, and a manifestation of dignity in adversity. Will it work? It’s tough to say. The film has been screened for the organization and some of its stakeholders, and we’ve only just begun a strategy behind its potential impact.
What I can say, though, is that it’s been working. I have to look no further than the package that sits, for now, beside me at my workstation at the Dream a Dream office. An anonymous gift to a young man with a dream, an act of giving inspired by a film that came from a shared ownership of the narrative in an attempt to change the script of adversity for one young man living in Bangalore. “For Rakesh,” it says. “For Rakesh,” indeed.
You can watch the full video here:
Carpenter, Christopher Scott, director. A Recipe to Thrive. Dream a Dream, 2018.
Doane, Mary Ann. “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space.” Yale French Studies, no. 60, 1980, pp. 33–50. JSTOR, 2018. Accessed at: www.jstor.org/stable/2930003.
“Our Model.” DreamADream.org, 2018. N.p. Accessed at: http://dreamadream.org/our-strategy.
Van Sijll, Jennifer. “Camera Position.” Cinematic Storytelling: the 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know. Michael Wiese Productions, 2010. Pp. 160–167.