Enhancing Life in Rural India,
Film Scholar Comes Full Circle
Reality orientation, Danto says, became an important part of her work in these wards, and one of her most helpful resources for this turned out to be the VCR. Over the next several years, Danto began to employ video in her interactions with patients. Videotaping them and then playing the tape back for them, I found, was very effective in getting them to talk about themselves and engage.
This experience sparked Dantos curiosity about video techniques and technology, so, after some careful thought, she decided to apply for graduate study at NYUs Tisch School of the Arts. I didnt think I had a chance of being accepted. But Danto, who had also earned a B.A. magna cum laude from McGill University in Montreal, was indeed accepted.
(a training film produced by Elmhursts Social Work Department), Christmas for the Homebound, and Working with Patients Who Have Heart Disease.
Dantos dissertation film, titled Orphans, was an adaptation of a play by Rainer Maria Rilke. It later won several awards and was exhibited in more than 50 national and international film festivals.
After receiving her Tisch M.F.A. in Film Production in 1988, Danto went into the profession for nearly ten years, amassing sound design or location sound credits across the media gamut. Her first job was on Praying With Anger, Manoj Night Shyamalans first feature film, shot entirely in South Indiato which, as we shall see, Danto would later return. Though a few Saturday Night Live gigs are on her vita, her main work was on social-issue documentaries: among them, AIDS prevention, womens reproductive rights, asylum for women threatened with genital mutilation, and music education in poor neighborhoods. Dantos writer/director credits during this time include Crack Babies, Madras Child, and Beneath the Surface (on mental health and the elderly).
And she has continued to demonstrate her belief in film as a tool for the enhancement of community life, most notably with a course titled Community Portraits: Documentary Production, which Danto has offered the last five years. Bridging both the Film and TV/Radio Departments, her students fan out into Brooklyn, focusing film projects on specific aspects of neighborhood life. One, The B68, follows a Brooklyn bus route through several ethnic neighborhoods; another, From Roots to Tips, explores how African Americans view hair as a social statement.
Most recently, Danto has turned her attention from the villages of Brooklyn to villages around the globe. With money from the Ted Turner Foundation and the U.N. Development Fund for Women, she produced Shea Nut Gatherers of Burkina Faso (2001), and with CUNY Research Foundation and PSC Travel Fund support she produced Portraits of Two Women from Burkina Faso (2002). It premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival as part of a program, Dialogues with Non- Western Women.
But Dantos most elaborate and far-flung advocacy for film-as-social work has taken place in this academic year, during her leave as a senior Fulbright Scholar. First, she chaired a panel on Infor-mation techno-logy at an international State Department/ Fulbright conference in Istanbul on Women and the Global Community. She then flew to the state of Orissa in northwestern India to lead a series of workshops on Women Working in Media and Digital Documentary Production at a major TV station.
But it was in the state of Tamil Nadu, on the southeastern coast of India, that Danto and her Brooklyn College student assistant, Misha Louy, focused their film- making efforts. With support from the Research Foundation and travel funding from Brooklyn Colleges Claire and Leonard Tow Fund, Danto and Louy worked in collaboration with Gandhigram, a consortium of educational and health care institutions established in the late 1950s to honor Gandhi, on four short video narratives for use in the more isolated villages in the drought-prone rural areas of Tamil Nadu.
Danto prepared the four 5-to-7-minute narrative fiction films, in the Tamil dialect, on maternal anemia, girls education, rural development, and nutrition. Then she trekked out in hill tribe areas to several villages to try them out. This meant hooking a VCR and a monitor to the one electrical generator a village was likely to have.
Dantos films were not a hard sell. You have no idea what a film-infatuated country India is! So even in the remotest villages, we had eager and receptive audiences for our makeshift presentations.
With the help of institutions like Gandhigram, Danto says, real social progress is being made. Gandhigram has pioneered for years the use of street theater and street singing to convey messages of social and economic uplift, and it was so satisfying for me to be able to add video technology to the mix of outreach resources. Danto expects her video technology to aid in the already substantial progress on several fronts in Tamil Nadu, among them the recent rise in the average age of marriage (from 18 to 22), the eradication of malaria and tuberculosis, and the increasing efforts to improve education for girls.
As for the future, there is no danger of Dantos digital video camera gathering dust. Effluents from major dye and tannery industries in Tamil Nadu are creating a growing problem of polluted groundwater, and Danto has received USAID funds and funds from the U.S. Educational Founda-tion in India to co-organize, with the director of the Gandhigram Institute, an international conference on the problem. It will take place in early January 2004 in Coimbatore in Southern India, home of the largest textile mills in the nation.
Needless to add, Danto is preparing a video documentary on the subject.