Reports suggest around 12.4 lakh deaths in India in the year 2017 were attributed to air pollution. In the year 2018, 2.15 million new cases of tuberculosis were noted in India. According to a report by IndiaSpend, as of 2017, the population-doctor ratio in India was 11,082:1, which is 25 times higher than the WHO recommendation (10000:25). With these staggering statistics and a huge economic divide in the country, it is not difficult to compute the odds that a patient with lesser privileges in the socio-economic equation has almost no chance of getting proper treatment.
Shouldn't it be their right — a basic human right? That's the question filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray explores in his latest documentary, From Durban To Tomorrow, that features five frontline advocates from different parts of the world spearheading the battle for a future driven by rights in the sector of global public health. On 3 April, a special advance screening of the documentary was organised at Mumbai's Godrej Culture Lab where the filmmaker was in conversation with Meena Saraswathi Seshu, General Secretary of the Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM), who is also one of the pivotal voices in Gray's film.
Gray's previous film Fire in the Blood (2013) depicted how American pharmaceutical giants monopolise over the market to an extent that they obstruct the access to low-cost ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS in parts of Africa and the global south. Fire in the Blood, which is now available on Netflix, was premiered at Sundance and has won several accolades at various global platforms. It is touted to be one of the longest running (theatrical release) non-fiction film in the history of Indian cinema.
From Durban To Tomorrow features five formidable voices from five different countries — Vuyiseka Dubula from Durban, Mouslihou Diallo from Guinea, Vanessa López from Spain, Péter Sárosi from Hungary and, of course, Meena Seshu from India — talking about their journeys in the united fight for human rights in health. In an environment where many gains have been lost due to societal negligence and a feeling of despondency lurks around, Gray believes the most important thing is to give the message that some people haven't given up.
"Many have lost hope in this battle because they have been beaten down, disrespected, discouraged and have been deprived of any social status... These five characters are among those and it is important to talk to people who have resolved to continue fighting and to hear them out — what their perspectives are, what their views are, what their sources of hope are," he explains and adds that one of the ideas of doing the film in this format was also to shoot in countries that generally are not discussed and at the same time create a sense of commonality between people in different parts of the world. He says it was important for the film to have a balanced representation of women, people of colour as they are primarily the ones affected by the issues in concern. "Even if they work for different issues, the struggles are very similar and the obstacles and adversaries are very similar in nature. We wanted to see where their journeys go when they have devoted their lives to these causes," he adds.
Meena Seshu is of the opinion that Gray's film brings across the up and the down of the AIDS epidemic and the response to it. "When HIV hit us, both the government and the society didn’t know what to do. Then slowly they started creating money and resources to respond to that epidemic. But unfortunately, now we are that low where the state doesn’t think HIV epidemic is worth a fight. There’s a lot of despondency around that, I think, we all are responding to in various parts of the world in our own ways," she says.
For the past 25 years, Seshu, through her NGO SANGRAM, has been fighting for social justice among marginalised communities who have been discriminated against for their sexual preference, sex work, HIV status, gender, caste and religious minority. Her "collectivisation" model has enabled many from the margins to come to the forefront as one collective voice and fight for their rights. "It was necessary to organise them because otherwise, they cannot look for safe-working conditions, they cannot look for better health options and they cannot fight for what is their right as health," Seshu explains and adds how this collectivisation model also enables women to articulate that sex work is work, it is not oppression or exploitation. According to her, just like exploitative practices exist in all other workplaces, similarly, they exist in sex work. "Sex workers are not any different from other people! It’s just they are so marginalised by both the society and the state — the state criminalises and the society calls them 'bad women' — that it has its own stigma. Hence, there’s the need for inculcating the idea of self-worth and dignity, and that creates a huge difference," she points out.
Despite the continuing success of the collectivisation model in pockets of the community-welfare groups, Seshu feels there's a sense of fragmentation seeping in, especially in the rat race to grab fundings from the government or other foundations. "Since the pot of gold is too little, we all are trying our best fight for it. In that, we are often being pitted against each other and that is a huge problem. We have to create a system where we can talk to each other; build that solidarity and look at that pot of gold to decide how to use it where it is most required," remarks Seshu and reiterates the need for creative spaces and constructive forums.
"We really need to come together as a force just like we started back then — fighting HIV as a community that has been wronged by the state and the society by either ostracising us or criminalising us."
Having worked with sex workers in the rural districts of western Maharashtra and north Karnataka for many years, Seshu feels she had to unlearn and let go off a lot of usual notions around sex, sex work and sexuality, and instead learn from real life to see what it means living and surviving in the margins and fighting back for a life. "Sex work is very contentious. While the feminists are obsessed with the sex part of it, the workers are obsessed with the work part of it. The workers are constantly trying to create safe working conditions with tools like condoms, medications etc. For the feminists, the conversation is always around rape, violence; the sex-positive feminists also talk about pleasure. But, the centre of discussion between the feminists and the workers is very polarised and that is a problem," comments Seshu, a feminist herself, who also points out that over the years she has observed many sex workers to be active feminists themselves.
"When I started working with sex workers, I couldn’t believe how contemptuous they were about the men’s sexual power. That really made me look up and take notice of what this is about," Sethu recalls her initial days as a counsellor in the health clinics, and continues, "Married women came to us upset and crying because their husbands wouldn’t use condoms knowing they are HIV positive. On the other hand, for these sex workers, it was sex with condom or no sex at all. Who has the power then — these women or the 'married' women?"
From Durban To Tomorrow has been commissioned by a consortium of foundations from the United States which are very active in issues of health and specifically some of the areas touched upon in the film — improving lives of sex workers, drug users, LGBT and other marginalised communities, and improving communications around health. On why films focussing on health awareness are important and who/how these films are funded (given it requires a humungous amount of data gathering, fact checking and travelling with the production unit), Gray feels it is the lack of investigative journalism that has paved paths for documentaries to bring out these stories.
"If you want to tell a story in depth, it takes time especially when you have got to bring in peoples’ perspectives from different parts of the world. That has pretty much disappeared from the landscape of journalism and exists in only a few odd places. It used to be standard fare, now it is not," Gray states and further adds, "These foundations, earlier, would participate with journalists and bring out bigger stories/features; they would commission reports that will be very carefully covered by the media. But they have suddenly stopped. Instead, making films or supporting films which are already working towards those causes have a much deeper impact in those focus areas. A lot of these foundations have done a 180-degree turn in terms of how they view a film as a tool and the potential impact it can have."
Gray's film is 40-minutes long — an unusual length for a documentary feature — and took nearly two-and-a-half years in making. Given the constraint of featuring five people from five different countries, language obviously came across as a huge barrier, especially while editing the film. But Gray maintains that all such obstacles can be compensated with a thoughtful execution in terms of portrayal of characters and communities: "It is very important to show beauty in the world, especially in the places where people have been conditioned that there is no beauty. That, I feel also humanises those communities and those individuals (not that they need to be) who are often dehumanised in the media."
"We have to realise that everybody has the same concerns and there are commonalities of human existence and everybody goes through it."
Films like From Durban To Tomorrow which strongly talks about issues pertaining to health awareness — both nationally and globally — also aim at opening discussions around the policies and ideologies of the current governments around the world. Ahead of the Lok Sabha Elections this month, both Gray and Seshu stress that public healthcare system needs to be strengthened in India, like everywhere else. "Unfortunately health is not on the agenda of both the citizens as well as the government. We as citizens don’t look at health as a right but as a matter of fate. That needs to be changed. There is a vast gap between healthcare providers and healthcare receivers. We [healthcare activists] are arguing for a patients' rights charter which must apply for both public as well as private hospitals," suggests Seshu.
"It is important that healthcare policies are formulated driven by health rather than driven by social attitude. If you want to have a responsive healthcare system and make health a right, you have to ensure that public health care is the leader and not a poor brother. The private providers are obviously here to make money; their packaging is better. Actually, the mindset that one has paid more and hence has received better is fundamentally wrong," says Gray, alluding to how public healthcare is often subverted by the nexus of politicians and global pharmaceutical companies. He points out how people use the phrase 'Health as a Human Right' very easily without giving a lot of thought to what it means. "It is simply put: human right to well-being, dignity and respect. It needs to be built first in our own communities. It is a very good litmus test not just in the political arena, but also in the social arena. What we expect for ourselves, should be the same for others too."
Watch the trailer of From Durban To Tomorrow:
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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2019 11:20:49 IST