Thursday, September 24, 2009

Documentary explores the lives of leprosy patients in India

From the Litchfield County Times in Conn. You can watch an excerpt of the video here.

WARREN, Conn. - While big budget movies like "The Final Destination" and "Halloween II" were playing at theaters across the U.S., Warren native Heidi Hasbrouck's directorial debut was playing on a Czech steam engine train headed for Amsterdam from Prague.

On Sept. 1, Ms. Hasbrouck, who is currently living in London, received a finalist award in the international Winton Train Documentary Film Competition for her film "Where the Mind is Without Fear," which provides a humanizing and humorous look at a community for leprosy patients and social outcasts in India.

"It is one of the cleanest, most organized communities I've seen in all of India," Ms. Hasbrouck said of Anandwan, located in the Chandrapur district of the Maharashtra state. She discovered the rehabilitation center during a college undergraduate semester abroad. "It was one of the most inspirational places I'd ever been."

Founded in 1951 by "Baba" Amte, Anandwan serves as an ashram for people with leprosy, or any kind of disabilities, and orphans. According to Ms. Hasbrouck, the community takes in anything left at its door, even alligators. The facility houses roughly 2,500 people, provides education up to the college level and operates three hospitals, one strictly for leprosy patients and two others for the community and those in need in the surrounding rural area. Some people arrive at Anandwan, receive treatment and leave, while others stay forever and make the community their home.

One of the most ancient diseases, leprosy is curable, and 95 percent of people are naturally immune. In the 1980s, the United Nations' World Health Organization campaigned to rid the planet of it by 2000. The bacterial disease of the periphery nerve endings remains a concern in Brazil, Africa and India, though, as of 2008, about 150 people are diagnosed annually with leprosy in the U.S.

It also still carries social stigma in countries such as India, meaning that Anandwan's patients have been exiled from their families and thrown out of their villages. Ms. Hasbrouck's film recounts the story of three people who transformed the horror of disease or disability and the loss of their lives as they knew them into a vehicle to create more compelling relationships and positive circumstances. In essence, they created new lives.

"They re-formed a sense of family," Ms. Hasbrouck said of her film's protagonists, with whom she spent a month while filming.

One is an 85-year-old man, who came to Anandwan when it first opened, became a wanderer after his wife and children shunned him when he developed leprosy. At the community, he is a beloved figure who acted as a guide for Ms. Hasbrouck during her stay.

Another central character is a 30-year-old woman, who left her abusive husband and was consequently disowned by her family. She cobbled together a family that included her own daughter, a young man who lost his legs in a train accident and the woman's best friend, the head of Anandwan's orchestra. And the third protagonist is a poor, illiterate clothes washer who chose to adopt an epileptic, orphaned girl.

"You stop noticing their disabilities and are inspired by their motivation and support for each other," said Ms. Hasbrouck.

A reference to the Tagore poem by the same name, the film's title is similar to the community's philosophy that "charity destroys, work builds." Because usefulness is believed to be part of happiness, everyone contributes if they are physically able. Anandwan has a loom factory and several satellite branches focused on sustainable farming and alternative methods of irrigation in the desert. One of seven projects, the facility is part of the Maharogi Sewa Samiti, the Leprosy Service Society.

The Winton Train Documentary Film Competition and its theme of "inspiration by goodness" commemoratives the 70th anniversary of Sir Nicholas Winton's activities on the eve of World War II. From 1938 to 1939, the British citizen organized the escape of 669 Jewish refugee children from Czechoslovakia and their placement with British families.

As part of the prize, Ms. Hasbrouck received a monetary award and traveled on the exact route Sir Winton planned for the children. The films made by the finalists were shown on the train as it proceeded along the route.

A graduate of Skidmore College, she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College of the University of London.