Wednesday, October 24, 2012
'Stolen Children' - CHANTI'S WORLD
My dispute with Screen Australia may seem at this point (to those who have followed it) to be about an abstration:
Has James or has he not, intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff?
If I am guilty as charged, my being banned is appropriate, but if I am not, my ‘Chanti’s World’ documentary - the catalyst for the dispute - should be assessed on its merits.
I am in Phnom Penh at present, in the 17th year of filming - the story growing more complex and interesting with each passing year:
Chanti, a very poor twenty seven year old mother of five, lives on the streets and in the slums of Phnom Penh. Under the pretext of helping her feed, clothe and educate her kids, a Brisbane-based church, Citipointe, steals Chanti’s two oldest daughters and refuses, over a period of four years, to return them to their mother’s care - despite Chanti’s repeated and express wishes that it do so.
James Ricketson began documenting Chanti’s life since 1995, when she was a street kid supporting herself and her mother begging from tourists. Chanti’s starring role in “Sleeping with Cambodia” when she was ten years old led to a friendship between James, Chanti and her mother Vanna. Over the following seventeen years the dividing line between being an observer and a participant in Chanti’s life becomes increasingly blurred as James is drawn deeper and deeper into Chanti’s life and world - a world populated by families as poor as her own struggling to survive on incomes of between $1 and $2 a day. James is now ‘Papa’ to Chanti, her mother, her husband Chhork and her five kids - Rosa, Srey Mal, Srey Ka, James and Kevin. (Yes, James was named after the filmmaker but God-knows what possessed Chanti to call Kevin, Kevin!) Despite Chanti’s repeated declaration of “No more babies” Chanti is now pregnant with her sixth child!
For four years James has been helping Chanti and Chhork in their to-date fruitless attempts to regain custody of Rosa and Srey Mal. In the process Citipoiinte church has twice threatened to sue James for defamation; for having accused the church of stealing Chanti’s two eldest daughter - in the sense that Aboriginal children were ‘stolen’ from their poor parents in Australia because it was believed that they would be better off growing up in institutions than with their materially poor families. As he tries to help Chanti James discovers that the ‘stealing’ of children is rife in Cambodia - the Christian and other NGOs who remove children from the care of their families and communities likewise believing that it is in the best interests of the children.
CHANTI’S WORLD begins in the present, with Chanti’s and James’ attempts to get Citipointe church to return Rosa and Srey Mal to the care of their family. Questions abound: Perhaps, despite being forced to become Christians, Rosa and Srey Mal really are better off growing up in an institution in which they receive three meals a day, an education and access to medical and dental care? Perhaps becoming a Christian and being alienated from family, community and culture is a small price to pay if, in the process, Rosa and Srey Mal are provided with opportunities in life that were denied their illiterate mother and grandmother on the streets on Phnom Penh. In exploring such questions CHANTI’S WORLD delves back 17 years to the time, in 1995, when Chanti and James first met when, through the simple act of pointing his camera at Chanti and give her $1, James took the first step into becoming an integral part of Chanti’s world.
1995. Chanti lives on the streets of Phnom Penh with her mother, Vanna. She begs money from tourists to support herself and Vanna. Begging is a job best done alone, leaving Chanti in constant danger of being kidnapped, trafficked and sexually abused. To minimize the chances of this occurring James rents a room for Chanti and her mother, arranges for Chanti to go to school and provides them with a small allowance. He returns to Australia feeling rather pleased with himself . Before long Chanti and Vanna are back on the street – a pattern that will be repeated many times over the years as James tries to balance his documenting of their lives with his attempts to help them. He discovers that helping people in third world countries is much more complicated than it seems. It is fraught with difficulties. The pathway to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
When Chanti reaches her early teens she can no longer rely on her smile to charm money from tourists to support herself and Vanna. She decides to follow her best friend Sekun, also from an impoverished street family, into another form of begging – hanging out in bars frequented by men from the developed world with a predilection for having sex with teenage girls. These men do not like to use condoms and, before long, Chanti has a Eurasian daughter named Rosa. Before she is nineteen Chanti gives birth to her second daughter, Srey Mal.
For a few years Chanti and her family live in a slum when they can afford it and on the street when they cant. Chanti gets occasional menial jobs, runs a stand by the river selling drinks and snacks to tourists and, when necessary, picks up men in bars to support her family. Vanna is a caring and attentive grandmother – bathing, clothing and feeding the girls whilst Chanti is out earning a living or indulging in her passion for partying. Mother of two she may be but Chanti is still a teenager and she wants to have fun! Vanna’s caring for the girls is marred, on occasion, by brief bouts of mental illness that cause anguish for Chanti and confusion in the minds of her granddaughters. Whilst continuing to document their lives James tries to help in every way he can - renting them apartments to live in, buying clothes, food utensils, bags of rice and, when he can afford it, effectively supporting the family. His effoerts have a lasting impact, however, and it becomes apparent to him that Rosa and Srey Mal’s lives will, in all likelihood, unfold much as their mother’s has if they continue to grow up on the street and in slums. Chanti does not want her daughters to follow in her footsteps but seems incapable of changing her life in such a way as to prevent this from occurring – even with the James’ help. This dynamic changes when Chanti meets her husband – Chhork. He is a stabilizing influence on Chanti, refusing to allow her to indulge in her passion for partying and gambling - a pastime that most Cmabodians indulge in. Making ends meet is still hard but, by age 20, Chanti seems to have settled into being a responsible young adult. She has a job sweeping the street in the local markets, as does Vanna. The pay is not great but it is enough for them to be able to rent a small shack in a slum and to have a TV. The family is now self sufficient. Life is may be hard but it is good. Chanti is happy and Rosa has started to go to school.
A year later, however, Chanti loses her job, the family is back on the street and she has a new baby, Srey Ka. Feeding three young daughters, her mother and Chhork is hard. Like Chanti, Chhork is illiterate, has no skills and it is difficult for him to find work. James rents the family (yet another) room, buys them new pots and pans and supports them through this difficult time – aware as he is that this can be a short-term solution only. What is required is a long-term solution; a way in which the family can become self-sustaining and not be reliant on either the filmmaker’s or anyone else’s handouts.
A medium-term solution presents itself when Citipointe church, based in Brisbane, Australia, opens its ‘She’ refuge in Phnom Penh. It offers to help Chanti’s family by providing accommodation, food, education and medical care for Rosa and Srey Mal. The girls will be able to board in the ‘She’ refuge (just a few streets away) and stay with their family in the one room apartment one day a week. Chanti will be able to visit her daughters regularly and Citipointe will, it assures Chanti, help her get some training to enable her to get a job. Citipointe is, it assures both Chanti and James. committed to offering short term help for families in need – the church’s stated aim being to see the young girls in its care re-untied with their families as soon as possible. Chanti asks the James what he thinks of Citipointe’s offer. Should she accept it? James puts aside his own concerns about the evangelical agenda of the church and advises Chanti to take Citipointe up on its offer. She does so but it soon transpires that the church has other plans for Rosa and Srey Mal than those they articulated to Chanti and James. Regardless of its promises and Chanti’s wishes, Citipointe declares that the church will retain custody of Rosa and Srey Mal until they are 18 and that Chanti will be entitled to only 2 hours of supervised visits each month. Chanti’s financial fortunes changed, however. She is living on a boat parked on the banks of the Bassac river and has a stall selling drinks, fruit and snacks to tourists that is doing well enough for Chanti to buy a mobile phone. Chhork earns extra money taking tourists on river cruises. Now that she is in a position to take care of Rosa and Srey Mal, Chanti asks Citipointe, yet again, to return her daughters. The church refuses to do so, citing a ‘contract’ that Chanti has ‘signed’ with her thumb print; a ‘contract’ that, Citipointe tells Chanti, has given the church total control over the lives of Rosa and Srey Mal. When the ‘contract’ is translated it is found to contain none of the conditions the church had told Chanti it contained and was not a legal document anyway since it was not signed by any member of Citipointe church. Chanti had been hookwinked and she was not happy. In frustration she kidnapped Rosa from the ‘She’ refuge, the police were called and Chanti’s access to her daughters was limited to 2 hours per month. At the time Citipiointe had no legal right to be retaining custody of Rosa and Srey Mal against the wishes of their mother.
Chanti asks James to help get her daughters back but he is not sure whether the girls are better off growing up poor and at risk with their family or as Christians in an institution – cut off from their mother, grandmother, friends, community, culture and religion. There is a compromise solution, the filmmaker thinks – one that could guarantee the safety and well-being of Rosa and Srey Mal as they grow up whilst also acknowledging the rights of the girls to retain strong links with their mother, grandmother, step-father, sister Srey Ka and brother, James. Citipointe seems determined, however, to retain permanent custody of Rosa and Srey Mal until they are 18 regardless of Chanti’s wishes or of her ability, financially, to care for her children. Twice, in an apparent attempt to scare off James, the church threatens legal action; to sue him for defaming the church. Neither threat is followed up. Chanti and Chhork have a fifth baby, a boy, and hope that James will buy them a tuk tuk (a three-wheeled taxi) that will enable Chanti and Chhork to house, feed and clothe all members of the family of eight (and soon to be nine) under one roof.
In Oct 2012 Chanti and James' battle to have Rosa and Srey Mal returned to their family continues