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Freed by the Camera

Self-taught filmmaker Rima Das found empowerment by creating ‘Village Rockstars’

In a small village in Assam, India, we meet our protagonist, Dhunu, a free-spirited 10-year-old girl with a Styrofoam guitar, playing a song of hope. Undeterred by life’s challenges, Dhunu dreams of starring in her own rock band — except with a real guitar.

The onscreen journey of “Village Rockstars’” protagonist embodies the real-life journey of Rima Das, the director. A self-taught filmmaker working with few resources and no budget or star power, Das is the rock star behind the film.

Das originally envisioned a film about young boys she met at a local village festival in her home state of Assam. They were playing fake instruments with such joy that it hardly seemed to matter that they didn’t have the resources to buy real ones.

“But as I began to shoot,” remembers Das, “I noticed Bhanita Das [Rima’s young cousin, who went on to play Dhunu]. She would climb trees and run around with the boys. I saw myself in her and, suddenly, it hit me: She was the story.”

At a time when women are still considered the “weaker sex,” Dhunu and her mother are an embodiment of feminine strength. They stand up, in their own way, to everything life throws at them, from poverty to floods.

Rima Das says the inspiration for her film was the idea that “Children can dream regardless of their background.” She notes the children’s innocence and reverence for nature guided her through the making of her film.

Fueled by little except her dream and a Canon 5D Mark II camera, she looked at the whole film as a painting. She shot in real-life conditions with non-actors. The film looks natural and the performances are realistic because the young actors allowed Das to train them under the blue sky. Although the story was scripted, Das didn’t compromise on incorporating moments from their daily lives, or on capturing the beauty of the land.

Besides directing, she was producer, writer, cinematographer, production designer, costume designer and film editor, learning all of these skills on her own.
It took four years to complete “Village Rockstars.” Since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film has traveled to more than 80 festivals and received over 50 awards.

Audiences and critics have been effusive. The film has been praised for its theme of female empowerment and self-actualization. It received India’s highest cinematic honor, the National Film Award for best feature film, and now is India’s official 2018 entry for the Academy Award for foreign language film.

“There are many things as women we feel scared to speak about,” says Das. “But with the camera in my hand I felt empowered, I felt liberated. I could tell the story of ordinary people who do extraordinary things. I could tell the story of women who are in charge of their own world.

“I could tell a story that was my own and yet could resonate with audiences around the world.”

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