Children of God

06/13/2010

Nepal & South Korea / 2009 / Nepali

Directed by Seung-Jun Yi

Still from 'Children of God'At Pashupatinath, the oldest and most sacred temple in Kathmandu, crowds of devout Hindus come every day to cremate their dead at the edge of the Baghmati river. The bodies of the deceased are reduced to ashes according to custom, offerings floated out onto the water on banana leaves. For the homeless children who live among the alleyways, plazas, and ancient buildings of this holy complex, these funeral rites are integral to daily survival, as they collect food and money offerings brought by the mourners, scraping out a living in a place full of the dead and dying. With all the deference required by Hinduism, they fish coins from the river and pluck gold fillings from the jaws of charred corpses. The mourners do not mind as the funerals have already been completed. Such rituals are, in a sense, alms-giving, and nothing goes to waste. When an offering of food is laid out, the children and older beggars first wait for the dogs and crows (both being sacred animals in their own way) to have their fill before taking any.

Documentary filmmaker Seung-Jun Yi presents a lush, vivid, and quite unflinching portrait of children who live rough and independently, who are given lower priority than the inert cadavers of the wealthy. It is one of those films that goes to places where one is immediately and lastingly surprised that a film could venture: into the lives and stomping grounds of homeless people, warmly and intimately investigating what they think about and hold dear. And it is brave in showing both their hardships and happiness. No one is entirely miserable, even if everything around them is bad, which, for the street children of Kathmandu, may sometimes appear to be the case. These are the kids that one sees throughout the city, enveloped in the jostling crowds and often on the outskirts of vision, on the roadside or hopping fences, congregating in squalid alleys to play. The film brings them out of the periphery, and draws out the complexity of their lives to the front and center with unusual deftness and skill. The candidness with which they speak to the South Korean crew and their Nepali translators shows how entrenched the filmmaking process became in the various aspects of their lives.

Still from 'Children of God'The heavy, overpoweringly reverent atmosphere of Pashupatinath is captured quite well, the camera at times literally swimming through the unthinkably polluted water of the Baghmati as the children bathe, frolic, and drink from it. And then director Yi periodically takes the focus away from them, relegating them to the bustling background of the place, to visit the hospice care center located on the temple’s grounds. There people bring their terminally ill relatives to be cared for, to be close to the temple in case of death. Like Varanasi in India, this is a sacred spot where the dead may achieve moksha (freedom from the cycle of reincarnation). This happy occasion for a person’s soul is accompanied by the true and worldly pain that their families experience. To create a detailed sense of the place (and without ever entering the temple itself, which is off limits to non-Hindus), Yi depicts Pashupatinath as a sort of accretion of human tragedy, talking to the relatives of the dying and getting to know their lives. Throughout the film he revisits the family of a man who went away to one of the gulf states to seek work, only to return years later nearly destroyed by a degenerative brain disorder. These are the people, shaken by grief, who make their way slowly through the temple every day. The body of a murdered boy and the victims of a microbus fire are brought in to be cremated, representatives of the city’s sadness brought to a final outlet. And the children watch all these daily occurrences with a sensitive but altogether undisturbed view.

One charismatic young boy, about ten years old, comes to the fore as the primary character, followed through his tribulations and sublime moments of joy. His mother makes a living begging, but she is often found too drunk to be roused, unable to care for him or his siblings. He has an older brother who is rarely around, seemingly lost to the unforgiving streets of Kathmandu. The boy is left to care for his four-year-old sister, being parent and disciplinarian to her. These children are amazingly self-sufficient for their ages. When he has saved up enough money from selling the clothes of dead people, he takes his sister to a restaurant and they each have a plate of dal bhat (rice and lentils). At one point he joins his friends on a sojourn into the city, where they beg from people in cars at traffic stops, and sniff glue by the side of the road. An older boy of nineteen discovers that they have gotten out and summarily slaps each of them, admonishing them to return to the temple. Back in the safety of their usual dwelling, in the sacral surroundings, the boys gossip and play and imitate the music of rappers that they have heard. Children of God is not merely a tear-jerker – in fact, it mostly isn’t – as it focuses a great deal on how the children enjoy themselves, divining pleasure and happiness even from dire circumstances.

The film negotiates a fine line in being at once tenderly human and seemingly as unsentimental as its subjects. While reveling in the children’s liveliness and resilience, it also has a sort of existential quality to it, depicting them as balancing, perhaps in a somewhat literal sense, between the worlds of the living and the dead. They appear resigned to death, unmoved by it, or even welcoming of it in a way that is heartbreakingly cynical, or perhaps just real. While films of this type often ask their subjects about their dreams and aspirations beyond their abject poverty, there is almost none of that to be found in Children of God, as there is very little that matters to them outside the walls of the temple. The children are thoughtful, reflective, but not in a way that goes beyond the concrete reality of their existence. In the course of their storytelling there is little talk of the past because, most of them having been born into their situation, it has bares no distinction to their current lives. Many have had sad things happen in their lives but have no safety net, no mourners to set their souls free when they die, and the film captures the urgency with which they live, but with a tone that is not harsh or indifferent or statistical.

Still from 'Children of God'They talk of death matter-of-factly; the twelve-year-old boy who predicts that he will not live past thirteen, indeed doesn’t want to, illustrates this fatalism and the feeling that, as they live not far from it at all times, dying represents no great cataclysm, and would in fact be a relief. This is said not out of detached acceptance, but during the course of a normal, lively conversation, and is all the more distressing because of it. There really is no future projected in this film, no glimmer of hope or spark of inspiration through the funereal smoke, only a haunting and richly detailed look into the lives and loves of people who live on the margins of civilization while still being very much surrounded by it, their passions, delights, and relationships explored with remarkable clarity and poise, their opinions given the plain and unlabored attention that they deserve. With no outside narrator, their story is told through their own actions and words, the present tense being what they know best.

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