As beauty and faith flow through India’s spiritual hub of Varanasi, so to do exploitation and hopelessness. Water for Birds takes place in an alternative educational centre—amid Varanasi’s red-light district—run by Guria, a non-profit organisation battling human trafficking and forced prostitution throughout North India. The film asks a key question: how can destitute children be empowered to navigate the toxic forces of their worlds, and how might they, in turn, help others do the same?
Following Varanasi’s most vulnerable from fetters to freedom, it also chronicles the trials and tribulations faced by Annu, a 24-year-old student-turned-teacher at the helm of Guria’s centre. She is patient, if firm, with her students, even in the face of her own trauma and illness. As the film opens, she is working closely with three of the centre’s older students, who are showing encouraging signs of leadership. One in particular, 15 year-old Krishna, has captured Annu’s attention. Annu sees much of herself in the young Krishna.
Krishna’s six-year-old brother, Shishu, also a student, is dragged to the centre one day by their mother, Priya. Distraught, Priya informs Annu and another teacher, Suryabhan, that Shishu has been fetching supplies for local pimps. Shishu’s father and grandmother abuse Priya at home in response to her protests; their poverty leads them to disregard education in favour of money. Without more serious intervention, Priya fears that Shishu might fall irretrievably into the sinister world at his doorstep.
Water For Birds is a glimpse into a centre that has become a school and a home to the children of a world full of scarcity. An oasis in a desert where boys and girls are taught - using art as a tool - the fundamentals of personhood, right from wrong, and most importantly the value of self-introspection. These lessons of an alternative education ripple across and beyond the centre, giving new hope for the generation to come.
How does the project meet the aims of a philanthropic foundation?
Over the last 25 years, Guria have seen significant success. Their achievements and activities amount to a vast list, as detailed in the relevant section on their website. They have participated with Indian state governments in executing official rescue operations and raids; have advised Indian parliamentary committees on human trafficking; have been involved with UN reports on global human rights, and have been visited and consulted specifically by a delegation from the US State Department under Obama. They have raised a 42,000-member rural women’s organisation to prevent human trafficking in high-risk non-urban areas; have commissioned large-scale awareness-oriented recreational events, including an 800km foot-march from Varanasi to Nithari; sponsored interns from Princeton University, and are currently supporting the education and vocational training of over 6,800 children.
On account of the above, Guria is visible, but, unfortunately, their specific work in the educational centres they’ve opened—and continue to open—around North India is not. This is where we come in. The events documented in Water for Birds occur inside Guria’s centre in Varanasi. At various points throughout filming, we were advised that our cameras were the first ever to document the hope—and trauma—of the centre’s teachers and students. We were humbled by this revelation, and it has charged us with enhanced passion. It is our dream, and it now feels like our responsibility, to realise this film.
What outcomes do you hope to achieve by making this film and how will you measure its impact?
Aims & Objectives
Ultimately, we hope that Water for Birds sets in motion a grassroots campaign to help fund the development and further replication of Guria’s centres, as well as rippling its important teachings throughout India and the world.
The blossoming Varanasi centre, considered in hand with the scalability of Guria’s model, provides a path toward self-introspection that can be followed by anyone. The lessons with which the centre’s students grapple have broad philosophical applicability, and their potential is limitless.
We hope Water for Birds generates a visceral response in viewers through the authentic, and unprecedented, access to its subjects we were provided with. We want viewers to think critically, and to emotionally engage with the multitude of issues around which the film, and its subjects’ lives, revolve: poverty, socio-structural inequality, abuse, education, sex work, trafficking, and so on. We want viewers to listen, learn and question, with open hearts, eyes and souls, just as Guria’s students are encouraged to do, and just as we did in the process of filming.
Our faith in Guria’s centres is profound. What we observed in producing Water for Birds has changed our lives. We hope, with further assistance, to bring the compelling stories housed in Guria’s centres, and the broader philosophies they are interwoven with, to as wide an array of audiences as possible. To date, Guria has opened four centres across North India, supporting over 350 children. We hope to shine as bright a light as we can on this inspirational, and ever-expanding, element of their organisation. We want to help Guria’s centres acquire further funding and spread their admirable—and gentle—educational ideas as far as possible. We want to help them accelerate the impressive, life-changing work we’ve witnessed them perform on a day-to-day basis, for the benefit of so many lives that might otherwise remain hidden and ignored by larger structural actors in India and around the world.
What is your education and outreach strategy?
We will enter Water for Birds into international film festivals to engage awareness of the issues, messages and lives explored in the film. We’ve grown to understand that social issues in India are more likely to be recognised and acted upon by powerful structural agents, if they have been acknowledged in the West, especially via channels like feature film. Following that, we aim to align with organisations in Australia and beyond, whose pre-existing networks will strengthen the impact and reach of Water for Birds. Furthermore, Guria will assist in the outreach and education of the film through the countless schools, communities and organisations they work with, and will promote it in their interactions with various Indian governments, committees and other official entities.
Water for Birds will have a website providing audiences with the capacity to connect with Guria, gather information on screenings, and continue raising awareness about—and engaging with—the film’s multitudinous conversations and themes. Visitors will be able to donate to Guria’s efforts in the development of existing and new centres in India's red-light areas. We will also invite participation in our Community Screening Program, in which supporters can register to host screenings of the film at their local school or cinema; this will be a global initiative.
We intend to approach educational foundations and school boards at all levels to recognise Water for Birds as a valuable resource to be included in curriculums. This will ensure the continued conversation of the messages highlighted around Guria’s centres and the power of their histories, students, teachers and educational models.
By ensuring a wide reach of the project through distribution, screenings, exhibitions and the creation of books and online platforms, we wish to give viewers an avenue to engage with Guria’s compelling missions and philosophies. Based on both of our prior educational experiences in elementary, primary and secondary schooling, we feel that these philosophies—of the organisation broadly and of the centres incisively—would be a welcome addition and complement to more conventional Australian educational approaches, as multifaceted as they are. Again, we can all learn from an intimate glimpse into lives and stories at Guria’s centres, regardless of geographic distance, linguistic disparity or cultural difference.
Perhaps, even, on a larger scale, the film’s vivid imagery of children structurally encouraged to think openly and grow comfortable with their true internal voices, despite trying external conditions, will contribute to—or even spark new—debates about Australian educational policy. Having experienced it firsthand, we truly believe it could. Australian schools, as in any well-intentioned educational facilities, pine to provide as good a space for their pupils to creatively flourish. The question, of course, is: ‘How?’ We believe that Water for Birds could be part of the answer.