Shifting Shades of Gray: A Q&A with Gemma Atwal
19.10.2011 - Gemma Atwal's new
documentary Marathon Boy has provoked a passionate response in
viewers wherever it's been screened. Made over a period of five
years, the film tells the fascinating, scarcely believable story of
Budhia Singh, an impoverished orphan boy from India who became the
world's youngest marathon runner, and his coach Biranchi Das, a
controversial figure who was accused by his government of child
The London-based Atwal took some time to answer our questions
about Marathon Boy in advance of her arrival in Abu Dhabi
for its Middle East Premiere.
What initially led you to the material for Marathon
The story was incredible! It was like some Bollywood movie
scripted by Dickens. The shadow of several fiction archetypes
seemed to hover over the narrative, from Slumdog
Millionaire to Rocky to Karate Kid, which
definitely influenced the way I thought about the film. I decided
to give it a narrative spin, like a genre film, rather than play it
as straight documentary.
Initially, I came across a BBC News web story on Budhia Singh, a
small boy from the Indian slums who was running huge distances on a
daily basis. It was both astounding and unsettling. There was a
photograph of Budhia's coach, Biranchi Das, with him, and their
relationship instantly drew me in. Biranchi seemed to occupy that
potent dual role in Budhia's life of being both a foster father and
a coach, and I wanted to understand more about the psychology of
their union - why Budhia runs these distances for him, and what
would be the consequences of stopping?
I was also thinking about the spiritual significance of their
relationship, for which we don't have an equivalent in the West -
it's the bond between a guru and a disciple, more sacred than that
between a mother and a son. So much in India is linked to the
notion of destiny and I was fascinated by those twists of fate that
bind us to one another.
What films and filmmakers have influenced you - whether
documentary or narrative? How do those influences come out in
There are so many filmmakers I admire for the way their cinema
inserts itself within the development of ideas, including Jean-Luc
Godard, Harun Farocki, Takeshi Kitano, Abbas Kiarostami, Jim
Jarmusch, Pedro Almodovar, Charlie Kaufman. Often these filmmakers
include a reflection on and a dialogue with the nature of the
medium itself, which is fascinating.
In terms of influences for Marathon Boy, however,
I'll name just one: Andrew Jarecki's Academy Award-nominated
documentary Capturing the Friedmans from 2003. I wanted to
create a film without fixed notions of good and evil. I wanted the
viewer to feel conflicted towards Biranchi Das in the same way that
I did. It's left to the viewer to decide who Biranchi Das is in
life, aided only by my own sense of [ambivalence] towards
him. I really wanted to embrace this ambivalence, and resist
the urge to characterize any of the people in the film in simple
terms. Instead, the film deals in subtly shifting shades of gray
with no clear heroes or villains.
You've previously stated that you did not want to make a
documentary about an "issue." How did you manage your objective
We didn't want to beat a drum with this film. Audiences
are intelligent and savvy; they know when you're deliberately
trying to aim something at them. We didn't want it to become a
campaign documentary on child slavery in India, or one with an
emotive "How do we save this boy?" storyline or outcome, which
could actually run the risk of revealing more about the filmmaker's
sense of misplaced idealism. We resisted because we felt it
could be patronizing and might result in an overly simplistic
interpretation of events - just to pander to our Western
sensibility. You have to approach the story from an entirely
different context. I would never condone Budhia running
outlandish distances, but I'm equally appalled by his other stark
choices in life - there are no easy options for him.
The question for me was never whether Budhia should be running
these distances. I don't think any of us would say he should, given
his age. The far more interesting question for me was: how is
it possible for Budhia to exist as a running phenomenon in the
first place? What set of conditions - social, political,
cultural - enable this to happen? This is a film about poverty
- desperate poverty. You can see its effects.
What have been the reactions of audience members at the
various festivals where you've screened it? Has it inspired
The reaction has been incredible and overwhelmingly positive! We
had some terrific debates in Moscow and Korea recently, with tears
and standing ovations! I'm excited to discover how audiences will
react to Marathon Boy in Abu Dhabi, where our Middle East
Premiere takes place.
Marathon Boy screens on Thursday, October 20 at 9:30pm
and Friday, October 21 at 1:30 pm at Marina Mall's VOX Cinemas.
Director Gemma Atwal will be present at both screenings to
introduce the film and answer audience questions afterwards.