Brooklyn College Film Professor Receives Fulbright Scholarship to Work in Southern India

Brooklyn College Associate Professor Annette Danto while filming Shea Nut Gatherers of Burkina Faso last year.

Annette Danto first visited southern India more than a decade ago. She was there with her New York University classmate M. Night Shyamalan, working with him as he directed his first low-budget feature, Praying with Anger. "I spent five months in the region," says Danto, an associate professor of film at Brooklyn College. "When I wasn't working on the film, I was working on a documentary of my own, Madras Child, about children in an urban elementary school."

   While her friend Shyamalan went on to direct the Hollywood blockbusters The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Danto made movies that help society. "I've always been interested in using film as a tool for community development," Danto explains. "I started out as social worker and began using videotape when I was working with Alzheimer's patients at Mount Sinai Hospital and Elmhurst Hospital. The project developed into a series of training videos to help doctors and nurses know what to expect when dealing with people with severe cases of Alzheimer's dementia."

Villager in Gandhigram preparing the ingredients for a fabric dye.

    The videos sparked her interest in filmmaking, and she enrolled in the NYU film school, graduating in 1989 with an M.F.A. in film production. She has made documentaries on how children deal with death, and on cocaine-addicted babies, as well as Beneath the Surface, a film about the issues of the elderly. Last year, Danto was commissioned by the United Nations Development Fund for Women to travel to Burkina Faso, in western Africa, to make a documentary about the women who produce shea butter, a cosmetic product that is one of the few exports from this desperately poor country.

    This fall, Danto returns as a Fulbright Scholar to southern India, where she will live in the Gandhigram Rural Institute in the foothills of the Sirumalai Mountains in Tamil Nadu and work on a documentary about women's health and prenatal care in rural Asia. The start of the five-month project will coincide with the end of the rainy season, and she plans to begin filming in December.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of
Gandhigram's designation as a university.

   "For the first few months I will be doing research in the area, getting to know people and developing the scripts," says Danto. "You just can't pop up in those places with a camera and start shooting video." Indeed, Danto is especially interested in the ethics of making documentary films about impoverished people. "I think there are a lot of problems involved in the way the people in those films are fundamentally exploited. There are advantages to spending the least amount of time and getting the most that you can from your subject. What I try to do is involve the people who will be in front of the camera as much as possible in the entire process—in the development and in aspects of the post-production."

    Local health officials in southern India will use Danto's films to improve awareness of women's health issues and to emphasize the importance of prenatal care and medical care for infants, traveling with portable televisions in order to show them in remote regions. "To make a film like this, it's important to enter the culture and understand how people perceive things—the sense of color, the style of speech and movement, and their behavior on screen. When you're trying to appeal to a certain population, it's very important to remember those cultural sensitivities."

The Gandhigram Rural Institute is located in the hills of rural southern India and was dedicated by Gandhi in 1947, shortly before his assassination.

   Danto will be working in Gandhigram, a village north of Madurai named for the Indian leader after rioting locals stopped his train there in 1946 and demanded that the Mahatma give them his blessings. Gandhigram Rural Institute was founded in 1947 with the aim of promoting economic development of the people of India by using small-scale methods of manufacturing that do not disrupt the integrity of village life. The university, which is also a self-sufficient community, is guided by Gandhi's revolutionary ‘Nai Talim’ (new education) system. Residents develop and teach ways of producing Ayurvedic medicines, dyes, textiles, shoes, and furniture from organic natural substances. Danto's documentaries will be part of the overall mission of the institute to improve life in these rural villages.

   "The idea is to have both men and women watch these films," says Danto. "The dynamics of Indian families require that men also understand, for instance, why it is important to give the little girl in their family as much food as the little boy."


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