A somewhat controversial first Indian Nobel Prize winner at home gets a laudatory documentary portrait in “The Price of Free” (which won Sundance’s top U.S. documentary prize under its festival title, “Kailash”). Derek Doneen’s feature directorial debut, after working on prior projects for producer Davis Guggenheim, can hardly help but rivet attention with the alarmingly still-widespread issue of child slavery as its subject. Driven activist Kailash Satyarthi has spent decades fighting for an end to the practice in India, with major ripple impacts across the globe. Still, the film’s edge, if not its worthiness, is slightly dulled by an over-slick approach that in the end makes it feel less like reportage than a first-class fundraising video.
Beginning with a police raid on a New Delhi “factory” site where Kailash and company have been tipped to — and where they duly find numerous boys cowering under sacks — the film alternates between such exaggeratedly presented “action” sequences and more straightforward presentation of the subject’s life and work. He began his crusade while an engineer, meeting wife Sumedha when she was a newspaper editor and he a moonlighting writer of child-exploitation exposés. Now they and their own children are all involved full-time in the “family business” of eradicating child labor. Their organization BBA (Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Children Movement) currently employs more than 200 activists, social workers and lawyers.
Its achievement has been remarkable: Their aggressive lobbying as well as individual rescues has played a huge role in shrinking India’s child worker estimate from 12 million to four. But it’s dangerous work, involving infiltration of criminal enterprises, confronting angry mobs, and so forth. Kailash himself has sustained numerous serious injuries during scuffles with irate beneficiaries of illegal operations; one of his colleagues was beaten to death while trying to organize a protest march. Owners often bribe police to protect underage worker rolls, while sometimes even parents are complicit in their children’s unending toil.
Most often, however, the families are desperately poor ones hoodwinked into giving up a child with a promise of short-term, well-paid work, only to discover that’s the last they hear of either offspring or any financial return. The kids get packed off to a range of grueling posts, logging up to 16-hour days laboring in fields, quarries, factories, as domestic servants, with toxic chemicals, or at brothels. (One of Kailash’s most notorious rescues was of several girls who’d been sold to a traveling circus, which prostituted them.)
As we see here, it’s not enough to pluck children out of such abusive situations; reuniting them with their families can (as recent dramatized-true-story hit “Lion” showed) actually pose great difficulties. Further, without improved law enforcement and access to education, many risk simply falling into exploitation again.
It’s a complex, multi-leveled issue that “The Price of Free” somewhat simplifies for maximum case-pleading impact. Occasional aspects of this portrait feel a little contrived (there’s no screenplay credit, but Duneen and Guggenheim get a notable attribution for “story”), and the director leans a bit heavily at times on manipulative techniques, such as too many beatific shots of “saved” children jumping for joy in slow-motion.
Also, the film would only have gained interest if there was at least some acknowledgement of the mixed attitude toward Kailash among many Indians: His foes have accused BBA of pandering to Western charities’ penchant for Third World “atrocity porn,” exaggerating its successes and demonizing well-entrenched cultural traditions, among other criticisms. Of course, many such gripes doubtless spring primarily from fury at losing dirt-cheap labor, and “The Price of Free” misses its opportunity to explore how that attitude is very entwined with Indian class divisions.
Despite a little too much handheld wobbly-cam to heighten the excitement of the raid scenes, Doneen’s film is more glossy than gritty in its widescreen presentation. Jason Carpenter contributes several painterly animated sequences illustrating backstories told by the subject and rescued children.