LRFF Programmer Craig Renaud talked to director Gemma Atwal about the remarkable Marathon Boy. Thursday’s screening was jam packed and today is expected to be the same. Do not miss this film today, Friday, at 1:45pm at the Riverdale Cinema.
Can you talk about how you first discovered this story, and did you and Matt ever imagine you would end up filming for 5 years. Sure! So back in 2005, I came across a BBC news web story on a very small boy from the Indian slums who was running huge distances on a daily basis. It was both astounding and unsettling. Thoughts of a boy running his way to a better future or out the slums sprang to mind. There was a photograph of Budhia’s coach, Biranchi Das, with him and their relationship instantly fascinated me. Biranchi seemed to occupy that potent dual role in the boy’s life of being both a foster father and a coach, and I wanted to understand more about the psychology of their relationship; why Budhia runs these distances for him and what would be the consequences of stopping? I was also thinking about the spiritual significance of their relationship, for which we don’t have an equivalent in the West – it’s the bond between a guru and a disciple – more sacred than between a mother and a son.
We actually thought that we’d be filming over a much longer time-frame! One of our favourite films is “Hoop Dreams” and our initial intention was to follow Budhia through to when he reaches adulthood, to see what happens to him – would he become India’s greatest runner as India’s rural masses and his coach believe? Halfway through filming we realised, however, that a much darker, more complex story was emerging. What begins in hope and as a sporting epic, crosses the line into top-level greed, envy and corruption.
One of the most remarkable things to me about the film was the depth of coverage over such a long period of time, and it seems like you didn’t miss a thing. Can you talk about the challenges to making an epic documentary like Marathon Boy, where you basically had to live the story for 5 years, and how you were able to maintain your access even when things were going badly for your characters.
We made several trips out to India each year, sometimes for as little as 10 days, other times for up to 3 months. Our trips would be based around catalyst events in Budhia’s life or key turning points of change. In between, we’d return to the UK and take pretty much any job that paid so we could self-fund our trips back out to India. There were a couple of occasions when something pivotal occured on the ground and we weren’t there to film, but we hired a fantastic local cameraman to obtain footage for us. So much happened during those 5 years – the various twists and turns and complexities of characters were impossible to predict from the outset, but shooting observationally, and just allowing the story to play out in front of us without prejudicing it or interfering in it, enabled us in the edit to be entirely flexible. The challenge was to present an objective picture of what is a very complex situation.
Being able to maintain trust with all the characters involved over such a long period was crucial, particularly at a point when a custody battle began over Budhia and this sets of a chain of devastating events. We were always honest with different individuals about who we were filming with and the type of conversations we were having, and we’d never side with one contributor against another. Usually there’s that balance you’re aiming for with contributors: something that is less than friendship but more than a professional ‘shirt and tie’ relationship and I have to say tith “Marathon Boy”, that all went out the window! I became deeply involved in all their lives, and I’d have quite heated debates about what was happening late into the night, particularly with Biranchi and Budhia’s birth-mother, Sukanti. I think ultimately this free-flow of dialogue enabled us to maintain trust with everyone. Biranchi knew I didn’t approve of a boy being made to run long distances, I made sure that he was aware of international guidelines. Similarly, I made sure that Sukanti knew I didn’t believe that Biranchi had stashed away enormous piles of money, there was absolutely no evidence for this. Ultimately, these individuals made their own minds up.
I know from personal experience that it’s much harder to stay objective when one of the people you are filming is a child. And you have mentioned that you were “driven by a commitment to tell the story of two poor people in an unimportant part of the world whom we came to care deeply for”. I imagine it was very difficult for you as a filmmaker to stay objective while the controversy surrounding Budhia Singh and Biranchi was ripping them apart. Yet to me one of the most brilliant things about the documentary was never being able to sense the filmmakers’ beliefs throughout all the twists and turns of the story… Can you talk about filming during those difficult times for Budhia Singh and Biranch and your approach to telling the story.
Filming with such a young child meant that ethical considerations were paramount. I also became pregnant and gave birth to my own son while making “Marathon Boy”, which definitely had a bearing on how protective I felt towards Budhia. Everything seemed to be in constant flux, from my emotional response to the story to the fact that as a film-maker you have to grow with your film to truly understand the interconnection of all your story elements. This knowledge only really came during Rough Cut for me, when I was able to stand back and objectively look at the material to determine what makes the best film.
It may sound implausible, but for the first two years of filming, I wasn’t sure who the subject of my film was. Was it Budhia, and if so, was it okay to have a small child at the heart of your story who essentially has no voice of his own for much of the film? But then I realised that the film is as much about Biranchi as it is about Budhia. Budhia is the vehicle into the story while Biranchi is the main driving force behind it. Once I understood this, things began to fall into place. The film for me is as much about this poor man living in a flawed society who’s trying to make a difference and do good things. It’s his search for meaning in a world that seems ruthless and chaotic. And so “Marathon Boy” became the story of a poor man and a slum boy – united by a dream but divided by the world. What adds to this richness, is that the dream is inherently flawed and problematic. And Biranchi Das is not our hero, he’s the anti-hero – a deeply flawed lead character. The film then became very much about how other people and darker forces gradually begin to infect their shared dream and tear them apart.
You also mentioned that ” For us, it’s a film about poverty, desperate poverty, but we didn’t want it to be issue-led or campaign driven.” There aren’t a lot of documentary filmmakers these days that take this approach to filmmaking.. Why was that approach important for you and Matt.
We didn’t want to beat any drum with this film. American audiences are intelligent and savvy; they know when you’re deliberately trying to aim something at them. We didn’t want it to become a campaign documentary on child sporting slavery in India, or one with an emotive “how do we save this boy?” storyline or outcome, which could actually run the risk of revealing more about the film-maker’s sense of misplaced idealism. We resisted because we felt it could be patronising to our contributors and result in an overly simplistic interpretation of events, just to pander to our western sensibility. You have to approach the story from an entirely different context. I would never condone Budhia running outlandish distances but I’m equally appalled by his other stark choices in life – there are no easy options for him.
So I wanted to make a film with inexact notions of good and evil. I wanted the viewer to feel conflicted towards Biranchi Das in the same way as I did. Another film we love is “Capturing The Friedmans” – the way in which you never quite know how to feel towards Arnold Friedman; how the film refuses to deals in black and white and instead ends up being this philosophical exploration on the nebulous nature of truth – it was remarkable. Similarly in “Marathon Boy”, it’s left to the viewer to decide who Biranchi Das is in life, aided only by my own sense of equivocation towards him. I really wanted to embrace this ambivalence and resist the urge to characterize any of the people in the film in simple terms. Instead, the film deals in subtly shifting shades of grey with no clear heroes or villains…the opposite of what is required for an issue-led or campaign-driven film, at least in the current climate. We need to know who is good and who is evil, partly so that our own belief system is bolstered and approved.
Last question is about Budhia Singh. I know people who see this film will want to know how his life turns out 5, 10, 20 years from now. How is he doing now and any thoughts or plans about continuing to follow his story.
Budhia seems to be doing well. The whole Marathon Boy team were extremely touched by his story and maintain regular contact with him, sending him packages whenever we can. The last time I saw him was in February this year at the government sports hostel where he now resides. He came running up to me and greeted me in English! He shares a room with another boy and they seem to get on really well. It’s difficult to know though how Budhia is processing the events in his life and the long-term impact. Time will tell. My main concern is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone to take care of his emotional well-being going forward. On a positive note, he goes to a terrific school now, mixing with the highest echelons of Orissa society, and I hope that education will be his way out. We’ve launched the Marathon Boy Trust Fund through our website and we hope that people who see the film will be inspired to contribute to Budhia’s welfare. He’s an extraodinary boy.
Because we were filming over such a long period of time, you end up caring very deeply for those you film with and want to ensure that they can benefit in some way from the film. We have set up the Marathon Boy Trust Fund as a way to help not only Budhia but all the orphaned slum children whom BIranchi rescued from a life of great social misery and transformed into sporting champions. If we can find a way to safeguard their future and keep them all together, it would be incredible. Please visit our website for more information on these children.
Matt and I have thought about continuing Budhia’s story but right now we’re so happy that he is being left alone to simply enjoy his childhood. No Indian media are allowed to interview him. His life is no longer this mini-Truman show. It should stay that way for a very long time to come!