Notes to My Father | Harper's BAZAAR India
A first of its kind documentary, Notes to My Father by Jayisha Patel, uses virtual reality to address the subject of sex trafficking in India.
The difficulty of finding a subject who had been trafficked, was willing to speak out with the support of her family, and was comfortable in spite of social stigmas is testament to the anomaly that is Ramadevi. But her story, the one told in Notes to My Father, tragically, is not rare. The My Choices Foundation, in tandem with the Oculus VR for Good programme, set out on a journey a year ago to make the documentary using virtual reality. Having premiered at South by Southwest in Texas in March, it opens in cinemas here this month.
The power of virtual reality lies in its visceral capabilities: A wider field of view and motion sensor headsets off an immersive experience. By creating an illusion of physical presence, it effectively places viewers in Ramadevi's position. "The technology, with great storytelling, gives you an unparalleled, unprecedented platform—there's just nothing like it," says Gabo Arora, a United Nations senior advisory, founder of Lightshed, a virtual reality and social impact start-up, and a producer on the film.
For the film's director Jayisha Patel, VR provided a chance to make Ramadevi's incredible story relatable—particularly in a country that requires awareness around gender issues—through nuance, complexity, and ultimately poeticism (a study led by My Choices showed that 90 percent of girls trafficked in India come from marginalised communities, with a mere one percent ever being rescued). But what makes VR powerful is also where its limitations lie. "The ability of the art [virtual reality] to take hold is accessibility to the headsets' distribution," says Patel, whose short films have been screened at platforms like Berlinale and New York Film Festival. Her first documentary, A Paradise, on child suicide in Cuba, was nominated for over 36 international prizes.
Ramadevi, a woman from a remote town in Andhra Pradesh, was married at 13 years old to a man who, her father believed, could offer her a better life. Instead, it prompted events that eventually led to sex slavery. Ramadevi penned down her experience in a letter to her father, and that inspired the dialogue. Arora understood that Ramadevi's trafficking was commonplace—to capture the hearts of the audience, a unique storytelling perspective was required, and so Notes to My Father was born.
Common misconceptions surrounding the issue of sex trafficking have created many barriers, but paramount amongst them is the role that fathers complicity—though mostly because they are unaware—play in their daughters journey into sex trafficking. Highlighting this was principal to the film and remains a pillar of My Choice's mission. For Patel, it was a turning point in her directorial perspective, as her films have typically focused on a woman's story—Power Girls (2015), on Red Brigade, an all-women group in Lucknow that fights against sexual harassment, and Circle, a multimedia portrait of a rape victim. For Notes to My Father, she felt it was time to readdress the issue and invite men into the narrative.
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