Enhancing Life in Rural India, Film Scholar Comes Full Circle

You wouldn’t think of going to the “City wards”—B7 and A7—of Elm-hurst Hospital in Queens for uplift. In the early 1980s, as Brooklyn College professor of film and recent Fulbright Scholar Annette Danto recalls, they were filled with elderly Medicaid in-patients so debilitated or disoriented as to be unable to care for themselves. But that is where the newly minted Columbia University Master’s in Social Work found herself.

“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 Danto’s curiosity about video techniques and technology, so, after some careful thought, she decided to apply for graduate study at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I didn’t 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.

Annette Danto with her Brooklyn College student assistant Misha Louy, center, filming on Ghandigram Rural Institute grounds. Right, Danto on location in Dindigul, India, filming A Daughter’s Letter, a short dramatic film supporting education for girls in Tamil with English subtitles.
Three training film projects completed before graduation indicate a dedicated social worker was still blossoming at Tisch: Nursing Home

(a training film produced by Elmhurst’s Social Work Department), Christmas for the Homebound, and Working with Patients Who Have Heart Disease.

Danto’s 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 Shyamalan’s first feature film, shot entirely in South India—to 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, women’s reproductive rights, asylum for women threatened with genital mutilation, and music education in poor neighborhoods. Danto’s writer/director credits during this time include Crack Babies, Madras Child, and Beneath the Surface (on mental health and the elderly).
Annette Danto with her Brooklyn College student assistant Misha Louy, center, filming on Ghandigram Rural Institute grounds. Right, Danto on location in Dindigul, India, filming A Daughter's Letter, a short dramatic film supporting education for girls in Tamil with English subtitles.
Then, in 1997, Danto brought her technical know-how and keen interest in the heavy lifting that film-making can do in social work to Brooklyn College; her joint appointment is in the College’s Film Department and its Television and Radio Department. Danto’s course titles have covered every conceivable member of a film-making team: Film Production, Narrative Production, Documentary Production, Post-Production, Music Video Production, Location Sound, and Sound Design.

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 Danto’s 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 College’s 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.

Danto’s 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.

Graduation Deferred for Meeting of Minds

It meant deferring his graduation with a TV/Radio major for a year, but Misha Louy says that “the chance to work with a seasoned director like Professor Danto for three months was just too tempting.” And he came back not only with some professional Tamil Nadu contacts made through his native crew members, but also some poignant memories: of the tiny peaceful village of 200 souls, for instance, that had a Catholic church, a Hindu temple and an Islamic mosque. He was also grateful to meet (and film) a woman house builder who had to support a sister, husband
and three young children on the equivalent of a dollar a day. On a more mundane note, Louy says he was “shocked at how different from our American notions of ‘Indian food’ the cuisine of Southern India is.” Louy also fondly recalls participating last summer in “TV Boot Camp,” a special collaboration between CUNY and CBS News Sixty Minutes II. He hopes to become a globe-trotting documentarist after graduation. Already he is mulling a project on the “coyote” system of immigration in Ecuador.
While on her Fulbright sojourn in Tamil Nadu, Danto also wrote and directed The Dindigul District, a 70-minute documentary dealing with rural development issues, including the health care needs of women and children. She also produced a 15-minute documentary, The Gandhigram Children’s Home, to be used as a fund-raising tool. “I was so happy to make this film, because orphans’ homes like Gandhigram’s are wonderful, caring places—“orphanage” doesn’t carry the negative image it does with us,” Danto says.

As for the future, there is no danger of Danto’s 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.

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