Gregg Helvey is a 2010 Oscar nominated and internationally award-winning director. His filmmaker experiences range from documentaries about solar rickshaws in India and orphanages in China to fictional films in Kenya and England. Gregg was one of three students chosen to direct a USC financed thesis documentary called “Overexposed.” It examines how sexuality, mass media and pornography affect man’s abilities to be intimate. Dr. Drew, Adam Carolla and other cultural pundits comment on the issue while we follow two men trying to navigate the rocky road of love, sex and relationships in an age of virtual fantasies. It recently won best short documentary at the 2007 Bombay International Festival. His latest project took him to India for a short film called “Kavi” that is the first fictional film to focus on child bonded labor injustices. This week Kavi was nominated for an Oscar, live action short category. Plywood recommends this movie to everyone that is interested in a great story fighting injustice. The greatest way to support Gregg and his work is to buy his film, 30 percent of all proceeds support organizations fighting modern day slavery.
JEFF SHINABARGER: What is the difference between modern day slavery and bonded labor?
GREGG HELVEY: Bonded labor is slavery. There is no difference, except some people don’t like saying the “S” word, because it’s ugly… but so is slavery. People who are kept against his or her will (either by chains or by violence and intimidation) and then forced to work without pay are, by definition, slaves. Specifically, I’m using brick making and a family in my movie forced to work at the brick kiln. This family was tricked into taking a loan from someone who had no intention of letting them payback the loan. Until the family can find a way to repay, they must work in the brick kiln as collateral; therefore, their work doesn’t even count towards the repayment. Astronomical interest rates can quickly make this a hopeless situation. If they try to rebel or to escape then they are beaten and the cost of their bandages can be added to what they owe. To make matters worse, many of these people trapped in slavery are not only illiterate, but they are innumerate, too, so they may never have any idea how much debt they owe. What might have started as a $10 debt grows to the point that it is passed down through generations, leaving family after family enslaved.
JEFF: What experience did you have that really captured you into the passionate pursuit of the first fictional film on this issue?
GREGG: I was first drawn to this issue about five years ago when I learned that slavery still exists. It boggled my mind that people are bought, sold and then disposed of when they’re no longer useful… and now in a way that is far more brutal and frequent than ever before. The media does give some attention to the issue; however, that attention tends to focus on sex slavery and human trafficking (both very worthy of the attention). However, I wanted to shed light on the type of slavery that is the most common, yet least known or recognized: bonded labor.
JEFF: You have shared with me before the global collaboration that took place in creating this story, what have you learned from that process?
GREGG: I could not have made this film alone. Making this film was a constant lesson in humility, patience and a reminder that very little is possible without teamwork. This really has been a global collaboration, pre-production all the way through post. To better understand the slavery issue and the backdrop of my film, I spent a month on location scouting about 15 different brick kilns throughout India. I relied on anyone from taxi drivers who didn’t speak English-speaking locals who knew how to locate these kilns. I told them that I was a student who was very interested in the process of brick making. After scouting, I was able to learn more about the issue in general by talking to organizations like “Free The Slaves” and “International Justice Mission.”
Back in the States, my faculty mentor, Bruce Block (Father of the Bride, Something’s Gotta Give) has been a huge help in advising me on the script and pre-production. Nina Foch (An American in Paris) gave me significant advice in directing. In the UK, Bart Gavigan (Luther) was invaluable in helping me improve the story. In India, Uma da Cunha (Monsoon Wedding, Water) helped with casting.
To raise the budget, I sent letters out to friends, family, contacts… pretty much anyone I could think of that could help. What really made the project financially possible was the support of an anonymous donor (anonymous even to me!) who agreed to match every dollar I raised. The support has been a humbling reminder that this is all so much bigger than I am.
Once in Bombay, I worked with a 60 person Indian crew and flew out 2 friends from America to join me. Working in Hindi was a significant challenge because I don’t speak it. In auditions, it was so bizarre to hear actors reading the words I wrote, but no longer understood. While many of my cast spoke some English, Sagar, the young boy who plays the title role of “Kavi,” did not. So not only did I have the challenge of working with a child actor, but it was also a child actor who didn’t speak the same language. Nevertheless, I had a dialogue coach, and after Sagar and I spent so much time together in pre-production we learned to communicate in our own ways on a more intuitive level with lots of gestures and a smattering of English and Hindi. Overall, innumerable skills and contributions from people around the world were channeled into producing this film.
JEFF: How can I know if the products and services that I buy have connections or ties to bonded labor?
GREGG: It is very difficult to know if the products and services you buy are linked to slavery. For example, the cotton t-shirt you are wearing may be tainted with slavery. That’s because in the supply chain, cotton is collected from a variety of sources and all heaped together, at which point it’s impossible to tell which cotton is legitimate and which is slave produced. This is why boycotting, in general, is not effective. It’s far more effective to support the organizations that are actively fighting slavery at its source. That said, your best bet for purchasing goods that aren’t linked to slavery are organic or fair trade products… but this is only a “best bet.”
JEFF: What are your hopes for this film? What do you hope will happen as a result of this cultural creation?
GREGG: I hope “Kavi” will touch audiences in a way that moves them to take action to end slavery. I want this movie to be an experience that transports you to another world, but allows you to identify with the characters in a way that reminds you how close they really are. “Kavi” is going where no documentary could go: straight into the heart of a family who is trapped in the middle of slavery. This story allows us to intimately watch a boy who wants nothing more than to escape and live the life he was created for one full of hopes, dreams and full of potential to make changes himself. I hope viewers will take this film and share it with their communities and organizations and use it as an effective way to tell people that slavery still exists and we need to do something to change that.
GO TO KAVI THE MOVIE WEBSITE