If you’re looking for a documentary to break your heart with harrowing images, “The Revolutionary Optimists,” by Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen, is not for you. If you’re looking for a film to inspire you, it is. The documentary, which opened on April 5, instead presents a hopeful view of Indian slum life that balances optimism and realism — a view that is at least as effective and much more inspiring.
The documentary follows four Indian children from the Kolkata slum colonies as they try to build brighter futures for themselves. Salim and Sikha are two preteens pushing for the construction of a drinking-water tap in their colony. Kajal works in a local brickfield as her mother and grandmother did before her, but she hopes to become a tailor one day despite her lack of education. And dancer Priyanka is pushed toward child marriage by her abusive parents, though she dreams of becoming a teacher. The changes enacted in their lives are simple and sweet: a community’s first co-ed soccer game, a new brickfield school. The joy these changes inspire remind us that youth is uniquely resilient, unwaveringly positive and ultimately stronger in the face of hardship.
Guiding the children through their struggles is Amlan Ganguly, leader of nonprofit organization Prayasam. He shines as the linchpin of the film precisely because he strives not to be. His goal is to build up the children’s “aspiration levels,” as they are called in the film, and make them, not adults, the leaders of change in their communities. “(Amlan) is an on the ground, street level, ‘I am here with you in this slum too, so let’s solve this problem together’ type of guy,” Grainger-Monsen said in the film’s released production notes. “He has such a vision for improvement and change.” This enthusiasm and spirit indeed show through the movie and uplift the audience.
It is fittingly this same optimism that sets “Optimists” apart from similar documentaries. Whereas other movies may inspire activism through the pornography of pain, the documentary’s filmmakers defy this norm, making their plot even more inspiring. “We had all these people telling us about how so many films would get them discouraged at all the problems they would see,” Newnham said in an interview with The Daily Californian, “and they weren’t sure of what the answers might be.” For that reason, she shied away from portraying the community as bleak or hopeless. As Grainger-Monsen agreed, “Being optimistic itself is such a revolutionary idea.”
Yet slum life is not all cheer and hope, and the documentary maintains a delicate balance between the positive and the negative by referring to extreme problems but from a more distant perspective. The audience experiences domestic violence through the commentary of a heartbroken Ganguly, not through actual footage. We also see muted sadness on characters’ faces instead of outright sobbing. “But there’s a tiny hope in every story,” Newnham said, and this is the prevailing message of “The Revolutionary Optimists.”
Newnham and Grainger-Monsen have created a documentary that presents a holistic view of slum-life hardships but also provides hope for improvement. “We wanted to show a slow, organic change,” Newnham said, “the kind of change that can actually last.” The film is a reminder that all people can create better futures for themselves and others. “I’ve been told that everything that happens is our fate or luck, but if I do something good or something bad, that itself is what determines my luck,” Sikha said. “So we should forget about fate, and, as much as we can, we should put in our own effort.”
Contact Josephine Yang at [email protected].