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Regrounding in Place, Regrounding in Truth: The Caste Study of Son of a Sweeper

DOI: | Issue 6 | May 2021

Lisa Mills (University of Central Florida, US)


This creative media research centers on the lingering discrimination faced by India’s scheduled caste Dalits or “sweepers,” who have been left behind during India’s technological growth and global expansion. The author explores the works of Dirlik and Cresswell to situate Dalits within Global Colonialism. Her collaboration with a Dalit education activist results in a documentary film that highlights his efforts to bring community transformation through academic excellence. As the filmmaker interacted with documentary subject Vimal Kumar in his community, this physical “place within a place” became a small, interpretive world in which she and Kumar worked together to make aesthetic filmmaking choices. Her selection of images and sounds in the editing process created a narrative around Kumar’s activism that became a personal expression of the filmmaker’s presence, grounded in both physical place and social concern. The author suggests collaboration between filmmaker and documentary subject is a negotiation of power that may remedy outsider bias. She asserts that the collaborative space existing between her camera and her documentary subject is transformed into a meaningful place resulting in “collaborative truth.” Such a truth can evoke human emotion and activate the viewer because it expresses a more personal understanding of the human experience.


The opening scene of Son of a Sweeper sets the viewer down in the middle of one man’s heartbreak north of Kolkata. Under the relentless traffic noise that is India, heavy, chime-like music notes add tension to the scene that unfolds. A text graphic over video tells us we are in Barrackpore, a suburb most Westerners have never heard of. The camera walks us under a tattered temple entrance into an empty courtyard, where the man that will become our hero is sweating in a blue dress shirt, looking around at the rubble of a bright pink building. We can see pain on his face as the handheld camera circles around him. He says:

It’s so sad to see the center like this. We developed this with

a lot of love. We painted all these walls by ourselves. We cleaned

every day. We set up computers, books, everything. I came back

here and nothing is here. It’s like a different place for me. This place

is the community’s place. No one is the owner here. It should be

be used for the community’s benefits. For the people. Now, some

people are using this place politically.

Son of a Sweeper

During the voiceover, cutaway shots show us piles of brick and stacks of roof tile littering the ground. The camera follows the man inside and pans across an empty, dusty room. Walls that held bookshelves are bare and full of holes. Outside, political flags flutter in the breeze.

This is the mise-en-scene constructed for the opening of the film through the collaboration of the filmmaker and her film’s featured social actor, Vimal Kumar. Kumar’s voiceover and movements indicate that the film is made in the cinematic mode Bill Nichols named performative (2010: 199-209), exemplifying the role he willingly takes on as both victim of discrimination and agent of social transformation. That role is cast by the person to whom he is speaking off-camera in the scene, the documentary filmmaker, which also makes the cinematic mode of the film participatory (Nichols 2010: 179-194). I asked Kumar to walk through the rubble of a building and talk about it as the camera and mic followed. I wanted viewers to identify with him, to feel the pain he was experiencing, and I wanted them to connect that pain to a political act within the historical world of the film. This performative/participatory scene exemplifies the blend of cinematic modes in which the film was made, a ‘loose framework of affiliation within which individuals may work.’ (Nichols 2010: 158) It was one of the last we shot in India, but by choosing it for the film’s opening moments, I could engage viewers with a poignant mystery that will unfold over the next 30 minutes: ‘Who is this man? What was this place? What happened? Who is to blame?’ and most importantly, ‘Why does any of this matter?’ Of course, before the opening scene is even shot, the documentary filmmaker faces two central questions of her own: Why do I feel compelled to make this film and how shall I make it?

I went to India in April 2019, intending to portray Vimal Kumar as a dynamic individual on a challenging journey, with a mission to raise his people above India’s cruel caste system. Shortly after returning to the U.S., the call for papers in the International Journal of Creative Media Research led me to examine the works of Dirlik, Gray, Harvey, and Cresswell. Situating my footage within their discussions of groundedness and indigeneity helped me to more ideologically contextualize Kumar’s story. His social movement is regrounding India’s indigenous sweeper communities by transforming their physical spaces into what David Harvey calls ‘spaces of hope’ (2011: 49). Dirlik quotes Harvey’s definition of spaces of hope: ‘political projects that may be crucial to human welfare and survival.’ (Harvey 2000) The readings also led me to confront my inherent bias as a filmmaking outsider and my fear of creating just another colonialist documentary about a victim of cultural injustice. Within the notion of radical documentary and its ‘commitment’, Thomas Waugh argues that whenever a film is an ideological undertaking it should ‘not be made about people engaged in those struggles, but also with and by them as well.’ (2019: 187) While organizing my footage for the edit I decided to search for moments where Kumar and I collaborated on what would be shot and why, so that the construction of his story better represented our partnership. I set out for India to make the story with him as much as I did to make it about him. I hoped that Kumar’s performance in front of our cameras would counteract my limited understanding of Indian caste politics and my Western outsider perspective. Stella Bruzzi argues that ‘documentaries are a negotiation between filmmaker and reality and, at heart, a performance’, suggesting that ‘the new performative documentaries herald a different notion of documentary ‘truth’ that acknowledges the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film.’ (2000: 106-7) The theorists’ debate over what constitutes ‘truth’ in a documentary film, or whether the truth can ever be achieved, seems to center on transparency in the relationships between filmmaker, subject, and audience. What is most important to me as a filmmaker, is that my work has a meaning, as described by Minh-ha:

Truth, even when ‘caught on the run,’ does not yield itself either in names or in (filmic) frames; and meaning should be prevented from coming to closure at what is said and what is shown. Truth and meaning: the two are likely to be equated with one another. Yet, what is put forth as truth is often nothing more than a meaning. And what persists between the meaning of something and its truth is the interval, a break without which meaning would be fixed and truth congealed. (1993: 92)

Minh-ha suggests documentary must be aware of its own artifice, understanding the ‘mutual dependence of realism and ‘artificiality’ in the process of filmmaking.’ (1993: 99) I accept the artifice of the filmmaking process but cannot reject the aim of trying to represent truth as a meaning because if that is not the motivation, why bother making the film? I borrow from Tim Cresswell’s concept of ‘more than human geography’ (2013) by asserting the space between lens and subject can become a meaningful place that regrounds the realities of subject and filmmaker into what I will call a ‘collaborative truth’. It is not my intention here to join the theoretical debate over whether or not a documentary can actually tell the truth. I will not attempt to argue this collaborative truth is the only truth, but I do assert that the way films arise from the filmmaker-subject relationship deserves more discussion. Bruzzi argues ‘documentaries are performative acts whose truth comes into being only at the moment of filming’ (2010: 16) but I will to go further in asserting the trust and emotional bond that developed between filmmaker and subject were the blueprint for constructing my documentary. First, I will use the works of Arif Dirlik, Gray, David Harvey, and Tim Cresswell to establish the world represented in my film, what Bill Nichols calls the ‘historical world’ (1991: 16).

Sweepers grounded in the Historical World

Son of a Sweeper is a documentary about Vimal Kumar, a social activist and founder of the Movement for Scavenger Community (MSC). The MSC website defines its mission to help scavengers, also known as sweepers: ‘The organization commits itself to the social and economic empowerment of the scavenger community through the medium of education and by connecting engaged actors all over the country, and also beyond.[1] This mission is carried out through Kumar’s establishment of MSC Centers inside Dalit Communities, where children of sweepers receive homework help and academic mentoring. Kumar himself is a Dalit, and the term Dalit is synonymous with ‘untouchable’. (Ghose 2003: 83-5) While the Indian Government has asked the media to refrain from using the term Dalit, [2] Dalit intellectuals, writers, and social activists still use it and dozens of books have been published over the past twenty years highlighting everything from Dalit politics to Dalit literature. Dalits do not belong to any one single ethnic group and practice a variety of religions. They and members of other castes use cultural or geographically-specific names for Dalits, depending on the part of India where they reside. Even though they are not indigenous in the sense that native peoples or first peoples are, they consider themselves to be so. The legal and political definition of indigenous people in India is especially challenging. As Witt and Wiles explain, ‘extremely poor rural Indians often live in similar situations to tribal Indians, using local resources with little or no access to money, and because many of those peoples considered ‘non-indigenous’ still arrived in India thousands of years ago, the distinction between indigenous and peasant becomes quite nebulous.’ [3] Andrew Gray sees ‘indigenous is as much a concept of political action as it is of semantic reflection.’ (1995: 41) He emphasizes ‘self-determination’, ‘self-identification’, and ‘cultural expression’ as ‘clinching concepts’ in his definition of indigenism. Dirlik’s statement on indigeneity is the most definitive: ‘Fundamental to any claim to indigenous identity is an assertion of an inalienable connection between community and land, and, by extension, between society and nature.’ (2011: 67) Janitors, street sweepers, garbage collectors, and sewer cleaners are literally grounded in the land every day, whether digging in the fields of rural India or sweeping in the city streets. They remove dead animals, pick up garbage, and use sticks to keep stormwater drains clear after it rains. Some Dalits are still employed as illegal ‘manual scavengers’, crawling underground to clean sewers and septic tanks by hand. Most often, they are not provided with personal protective equipment of any kind.

Son of a Sweeper

Dalits are place-based but ‘unseen’, raising families in slums established generations ago, but some are newcomers, migrating from rural areas where they faced caste violence from land-owning farmers (Kumar 2019: 76-90). In the cities, they live separately, populating dense, cramped housing, often without modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, their garbage collection vehicles parked nearby, sometimes encircling their community at night. They are grounded in place, even if subjected to discrimination and the poverty that comes with it. They often do not own their land, nor is it necessarily sacred to them in a religious or spiritual sense, but they feel the land and homes belong to them. In the case of Kumar, Dalit communities identified and donated spaces that they felt empowered to set aside for the sake of their children’s educational needs. These are the spaces where Kumar houses his MSC Centers, transforming the spaces into meaningful places that reground his community with education. These are the spaces where I wanted to bring my camera and microphone.

The experience of Dalits is one represented in every society that contains a subaltern or vulnerable population that is marginalized, whether technically indigenous or not. Space and place are more than geographic terms. David Harvey connected social imagination with geography across disciplines, explaining that the construction of public spaces requires a discursive process between authority and marginalized people (2005: 211-55). Tim Cresswell examines this idea from a different direction, suggesting that people on the margins can convert spaces into meaningful places through transgressive actions (1996: 163). Examining these geographical philosophies helped me realize that Kumar’s story exemplifies them and it helped me think about the significance of his story within a global context. Kumar sees every day the ‘sharpening class difference between a mobile global elite’, and his community, ‘a largely stationary population sinking every deeper into abject poverty, hopelessness, and oblivion.’ (2011: 48) India is a classic example of the new economic divisions Dirlik believes Globalization has ‘produced (or brought to the surface)… between those who have benefited… and those who have been marginalized… and new transnational class divisions with an unprecedented accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a minority… a situation of simultaneous integration and fragmentation.’ (2011: 53) Dirlik is referring to his description of Global Modernity from his book, Global Modernity: Modernity in the Age of Global Capitalism (2006). India’s transformation during the global technology boom of the past twenty years resulted in unimaginable wealth for many individuals, but left people like Kumar and most of the country’s population behind. Recent scams indicate India’s capitalism remains strongly linked to corruption, thus the ‘East Asian Miracle’ does not provide equal economic opportunity in the world’s largest democracy (Gandhi & Walton 2012: 10-14). India has a rising middle class, but professionals and business owners who send their children to government schools must then pay teachers for extra tutelage, hoping it will result in the academic advantage needed to gain admission into highly competitive prestige universities. Parents who live and work in impoverished rural areas or migrate to cities for manual work can barely afford to have their children attend school, much less pay teachers for extra help. They are destined only for jobs as the lowest-paid sanitation workers in a complex and cruelly oppressive ancient Indian religious/cultural hierarchy where each group is defined by occupation. Dalits technically fall into the ‘scheduled or backward castes’ outside the four-varna system of brahmins (priestly), kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (artisans), and shudras (menial laborers). This hierarchy is also associated with the abhorrent practice of ‘untouchability’ in which a person belonging to the upper caste becomes polluted just by touching or setting eyes on a Dalit (Patnaik 2017: 73-9). Untouchability was outlawed after British rule under India’s Constitution, which took a three-pronged approach: protect scheduled castes (SCs), reserve a certain number of government jobs and higher education slots, and provide government benefits to bridge the socioeconomic gap. Rather than eliminating the notion of caste from Indian culture such affirmative action measures have become controversial and identity politics have emerged. Indian Marxists thought the post-Colonial development of capitalism would bring in a ‘supra-caste solidarity through class struggle.’ (Patnaik 2017: 75) Instead, commodity production led to fragmentation as workers competed with each other in a nation where there will likely never be enough jobs for everyone.

Collaboration and Power Sharing

When I first met Kumar I really did not understand India’s caste system and I had never heard of Dalits. When Kumar agreed to collaborate on a film about his community, I had the same ethical concerns that every documentarian shares as an outsider. Research would help me become better informed, but I also had to find a way to win the community’s trust. I decided to bring gifts of mobile filmmaking equipment to one of Kumar’s community training sessions and offer a mobile video production workshop. [4] There is a long list of documentaries in which filmmakers shared video technologies and authorship with indigenous groups. Filmmakers working with the National Film Board of Canada were among the first to address social issues tied to the land of native peoples with You Are on Indian Land. [5] Inviting the documentary subjects to become part of the filmmaking process has become almost commonplace, but little has been written about how it transforms the space between filmmaker and filmed. Only a few filmmakers write or talk about how working with their subjects changes outcomes.

The French anthropologist and father of ethnographic film, Jean Rouch, strongly believed that interactions between the filmmaker and his subject were critical, and that a shared relationship with his subjects resulted in a unique social truth, penetrating the depth of daily life as it is really lived (see ten Brink 2007). In speaking about Chronicle of a Summer (1961), he describes scenes with the film’s subjects in two very particular spaces, a market and a staircase, which became places of collaboration between subject and filmmaker:

In the empty Halles, when Marceline is talking about her deportment, she speaks

In rhythm with her step; she is influenced by the setting, and the way she is speaking

Is absolutely inimitable.

…a worker, Angelo, Leaves the Renault factory, takes the bus to go home, and gets off at Petit-Clamart. To get to his house, he has to climb up a stairway, an unbelievable stairway, and this ascent—after all, it’s only a worker on his way home—becomes a sort of poetic drama. (Morin 2016: 466-7)

Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin are credited with founding the documentary method in which social truth is discovered through instigation. They called it cinema verite or ‘film truth’.

Coffman found strong connections between ethnographic filmmaking and collaborative partnerships in her case study of two professional documentary filmmakers and two academics making films with nonprofit organizations and socially disadvantaged groups. Her study revealed collaboration gave those groups an important sense of control in how the content gathered would be used. Giving up some control is an important step toward winning trust from a community to which the filmmaker does not belong (2009). However, Coffman does not discuss how interactions between the groups and the filmmakers had an affect on the way the film actually turned out.

A documentary filmmaker with decades of success working as an outsider is Steve James, and his films Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011), filmed 17 years apart, are excellent examples of how he approaches his subjects collaboratively. In both cases, he was operating as a white male camera person inside African American geographic spaces in Chicago. He sees the presence of the camera as having a positive impact, allowing for change, creating places for conversation both inside and outside a community in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

Being an outsider isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the outsider sees

things that the insider has long become immune to or stopped questioning.

And really, isn’t what inspires people to make documentaries a desire to come

to know and understand the world beyond their own neighborhood or class

or ethnic group? To find common ground and universal truths that transcend our differences? (West and West 2011: 60)

I believe that this collaborative nonfiction filmmaking is more common than documentary production literature indicates, and is also exemplified by James’ film Life Itself (2014). He recounts a conversation in which Roger Ebert was willing to give him total editorial control of the film when James stopped him:

‘Roger, I appreciate that you understand that. But what I also want you to understand is that I really view the filmmaking process with the main subjects in a very collaborative way. I want to hear from you. You already understand that so I don't even need to say it. But yes, you will not have editorial control of the film, but I view it as a collaborative undertaking in the sense that I can't do it without you and I really do want to hear from you, and I will show you the film before we are done.’ [6]

The sharing and connecting that go on between filmmaker and subject in the process of storytelling are one thing. The ethics surrounding that process are another. Nichols measures the power held by the filmmaker over their subject in relation to the subject’s access to means of representation: ‘Do subjects have the means to represent themselves; do they have alternative access to media apart from that provided by the filmmaker? To the extent the answer is ‘No’, the filmmaker’s ethical obligation to avoid misrepresentation, exploitation, and abuse rises correspondingly.’ (2016: 159) Issues of oppression within India’s caste system have been the subject of very little coverage in the mass media and relatively few documentaries, even within India. In their recent examination of Indian documentary, Jayasankar and Monteiro state this may be because Indians do not see caste the way outsiders do: ‘This perhaps has to do with the normality of casteism in everyday practices, related to food, kinship, labour, education and language, that invisibilises this pernicious, socially and ritually sanctioned mode of racism.’ (2016: 31) What Kumar and I agreed we wanted to do was make a film that could be shown to general audiences around the world that would make more people aware of his sweepers and his efforts to help them. It was never intended to be an explanatory film that would thoroughly cover their history and all of the issues they faced. The more I learned about Kumar, his movement, and his people, the more I felt confident that in travelling to India I could make a focused profile film that contained all the elements needed for a successful narrative structure: a passionate main character, visually interesting settings, dynamic movement, conflict universal in the human condition, and some level of moral resolution. Throughout the remainder of this article I will use the term narrative in the same way Belinda Smaill uses it in Note no. 1 from Chapter 1: ‘how a sequence of events and individuals are represented in a documentary in ways that infer a recognizable order of time and space.’ (2015). The space between a documentary filmmaker and her subject is a place of power. Power can be used to manipulate the subject, but Smaill’s work supports my more positive argument that it can also be shared, resulting in a collaborative truth negotiated between the filmmaker and subject: ‘The process can function as a site of dialogue between filmmaker and filmed. While the finished documentary is ultimately out of the control of those depicted, the performance indicates a negation between the capacity for the subject to speak and the context in which that speech is enabled.’ (2015: 18) In the year following the conference where we met, I established a collaborative relationship with Kumar, suggesting that we work together as a team to find the best way to tell his story and the story of MSC. When we communicated by email, I shared links to some documentaries I had made, and he sent a copy of a research paper he had written about caste violence. We also shared links to articles about India’s sweepers and upcoming national elections because India would be voting while we were there (and as it turned out, politics provided the conflict featured in the open of the film). We had virtual meetings via Skype approximately every six weeks from May of 2018 up until mid-April of 2019, the day before our flight to India. I recruited two graduate students to travel with me and my academic institution provided funding for the trip. Kayla Beadle participated in most of the meetings and assumed the responsibility of production manager, handling the logistics of travel and accommodations. Kevin Garcia came aboard as cinematographer, thankfully handling technical issues. The early addition of Kayla and Kevin to the team allowed Vimal and myself to focus our conversations on storytelling and shooting opportunities.

Case Study: The Shoot

Son of a Sweeper is a journey film, which also makes it a ‘place’ film, focusing on Kumar’s travels between educational resource centers he developed in Indian cities that most Westerners have never heard of. It is also a ‘quest’ film, illustrating Kumar’s mission to do something concrete (establish and maintain education centers) in order to bring about the abstract (justice for sweepers). Shooting a journey film is labor intensive and expensive. As with most independently-funded documentaries, the aesthetic style of the film was driven by its very low budget (under $5000), fast travel and limited time at each location (four cities spread wide over north-central India in under two weeks). We were traveling inside India on a tourist visa, so we could not attract attention by carrying a lot of professional gear. We rented a Canon C-100 DSLR but everything else came from the university’s student equipment room: a digital audio recorder, shotgun mic, wireless mic, lavalier mic, cables, and no lights. Kayla brought a very small tripod that we did not use often but came in handy for interviews, for which we used available light (mostly windows or shot outdoors). I brought a laptop, two portable drives, and a brand new Samsung Galaxy S10 smartphone. I planned to use my new phone as a second camera because it shoots high-resolution video and contains three different lenses (it exceeded every expectation). We were able to carry everything between the three of us, snapping it up into overhead compartments of planes or piling it onto our laps every time we mercilessly stuffed ourselves into the back seat of a tiny TATA car. Our travel inside India ultimately involved three internal flights and hundreds of miles in the back of an Uber.

We could never have found our way from town to town and to Kumar’s MSC Centers without his collaboration, but beyond that, the plan for shooting was straightforward, predictable, and not worthy of much detailed description. There would be multiple interviews of Kumar, active sequences of him interacting with children and volunteers at his education centers, and there would be transition shots I could use with music to get the viewer from one place to another. We would use available light, the camera and phone would be handheld, and Kayla would wield her shotgun mic with a digital recorder most of the time. We brought hardwire lavalier mics for interviews, because I wanted sound quality that would be good enough to use for voiceover narration selected from the interviews. This proved to be one of our biggest challenges, since India has to be the noisiest country on the planet. Kumar speaks excellent English and enthusiastically offered to translate any interviews we wished to conduct with sweepers who spoke Hindi. In reviewing the decisions made about how we would shoot all of this I believe the most significant and worthy of discussion are those that involved conversations and resulting collaborations between Kumar and myself about what where he would go, what he would do, what he would say, and why. In other words, ways that we collaborated on the direction of the film. Before I move on to this I want to add that using my mobile phone as a second camera helped greatly in making Kumar and his community feel comfortable with the process. India has become a ‘selfie culture’ and everywhere we traveled people wanted photos and videos with the ‘film people from America.’ I discovered that when I used my mobile phone to record spontaneous action or interviews, the audio was surprisingly good, the image excellent. The phone allowed Kumar and his community to relax and the footage felt more intimate.

When we first arrived in Kurukshetra it became clear that Kumar expected us to shoot footage of two full days of training sessions for his MSC volunteers out of Dalit communities. However, I found the training sessions lacked action and the sweepers were very shy. Sessions were held in a dim hotel basement and consisted mostly of people quietly sitting around three large tables. I was honest with Kumar about my concerns, and thus our first negotiations began. Kumar quickly realized that we needed moments that were visual and emotional. He became more aware of where Kevin was holding his camera and began interacting with volunteers inside the frame. He set aside time in his sessions for us to get shots of his volunteers giggling over their new mobile video equipment. As the sessions neared their end I felt it was time to shoot our first interview with Kumar. When I suggested we do this at a nearby lake, he was at first hesitant. I believe it was at this moment that he first truly understood the action would center around him as the main character, and that the film was going to be a profile, rather than a film on the general topic of Dalits. As we all walked toward the lake, I believe I watched him embrace the idea in his increasing awareness of Kevin’s frame, greeting sweepers working nearby, participating in a pickup game of cricket, and helping us find the best place for his lakeside interview. He removed his shoes, dipped his feet and hands in the water, talked about how it calmed him. He spoke to me, directly into the camera lens. He began to understand that the film did not need to cover so much historical and informational ground, that we wanted viewers to understand him as a person. He understood that our camera could give him a voice. I did not adopt the Rouchian ethnodrama methodology, but the space between camera and subject was beginning its transformation.

This continued throughout our journey in North Central and Northeastern India, where we arranged our shooting days in conversations taking place in Uber rides, hotel lobbies, and on scene in Dalit communities. Ladwa, Haryana, Kumar’s hometown, is a half-hour north of Kurukshetra. There, he arranged for us to shoot at the rural home of his parents where his childhood friend and MSC volunteer ‘Rocky’ stopped in for a visit. It was Kumar’s idea that he and Rocky flip through old photo albums together, show off trophies of their teenaged cricket championships, then drive into town for footage at the original MSC Center, where he took our camera on a tour. We shot footage of Kumar and Rocky riding on a scooter together through the town, then back out to the rural family home surrounded by farm fields as far as the eye could see. This inspired me to shoot our second interview with Kumar at the edge of a field, visually grounding him in the land.

After leaving Ladwa we drove five hours north to Solan, Himachal Pradesh in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here, we could not resist capturing scenic shots of flowering hillsides above terraced sweeper slums, and the city’s wastewater rolling down gutters into the Dalit community. Kevin and I began to seek out these visual contrasts. Solan offered more opportunities to shoot footage of the children that Kumar’s MSC Centers served. Before we entered with camera and microphone, Kumar explained why we were there and offered anyone who did not feel comfortable being videotaped a way to exit from the scene. Kevin and Kayla shot much of this footage on their tripod because we wanted to frame it at eye level with the children.

Lisa Mills

Early one morning Kumar led us down a hill in Solan as sweepers blew their whistles, collecting household waste while upper caste children in crisp school uniforms passed by as though they didn’t exist. He encouraged one sweeper to take a rest from his work and describe his life for us. Kevin framed the conversation on a hand-held two-shot and Kumar translated from Hindi as our camera rolled. Suddenly, an upper-caste woman approached to complain about sweepers ‘not doing a very good job.’ Kumar’s emotional restraint and diplomatic approach to this woman created a powerful moment. He could have been defensive, he could have lashed out. Instead, he listened, and then translated. The next morning, I wanted to shoot the assembly at Solan’s government school for girls, because I believed it could provide an interesting visual and aural opportunity to show India’s public education system. I obtained permission from the school principal, but Kumar was hesitant because of his negative experiences as a student at such schools. We talked about this, and I told him he didn’t have to go with us but ultimately, he went. To his surprise and delight, two girls from his Solan MSC Center were honored at the assembly. Kevin scrambled to get shots of them, but unfortunately neither of us got any shots of Kumar during this proud and emotional moment. The principal invited him to her office for tea afterward and they had a long conversation in Hindi, which I decided not to shoot. I could see the tension between them and it felt it would have been intrusive. Kumar and I really won each other’s trust in Solan, because we respected each other’s initiative and embraced these unplanned moments that worked well for the film.

Then, it was on to Guwahati, Assam, home of perhaps the most impoverished and eye-opening of the sweeper slums we visited. The city does not provide space where Sweepers can store their garbage collection trucks at night, so they are parked on the streets encircling the community. The stench is unmistakable. The Dalit community has existed in this particular location for more than 100 years and as Kumar led us around and introduced us to his volunteers, their pride was as strong as their concern over unsanitary conditions. One of my favorite scenes in the film was shot when Kumar took us up to the roof of a slum apartment adjacent to Guwahati’s athletic stadium. As we shot footage of youth cricket leagues inside the stadium, sweeper children played cricket outside in the streets because they could not afford stadium fees. Kevin had to get out his long lens to capture these moments from above. Vimal translated as their families told me the city is embarrassed that stadium audiences can see the poverty that exists next door. It struck me how similar this is to the situation in major metropolitan areas of the U.S. where arenas exist in the middle of historic inner city neighborhoods. Before leaving Guwahati I shot another interview with Kumar in which we talked about this parallel and his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had seen a photo of King hanging at the Kurukshetra training session, but unfortunately, neither Kevin nor I shot any footage of it.

We flew from Guwahati to Kolkata, West Bengal and spent a couple of days there resting before traveling by train and ferry to our last stop in Barrackpore. Kumar explained to me that there had been political turmoil resulting in the closing of an MSC Center. However, nothing prepared us for what we found. His MSC Center was in shambles. Kumar sensed the importance of this moment as he walked through the rubble talking about ‘the community’s place.’ His efforts to reground the Barrackpore sweeper community in education were overtaken by the BJP party’s efforts to reground it in politics. We experienced more tension here than at any other location, so we held back our cameras until Kumar motioned for us to follow him through the rubble. He was fuming. I sensed he was thinking about how the cameras could show what had happened. Outside, Kumar waited until our cameras were in position before having a serious conversation with members of the community who allowed the BJP takeover. You didn’t have to understand Hindi to feel the heat of that conversation.

In reviewing our footage that evening, I felt I had plenty of good material for a short film, but I wanted to interview Kumar one more time. I asked him to talk about what happened in Barrackpore but he seemed hesitant. He mentioned that he had been ‘threatened by goons’ there in the past but didn’t elaborate, perhaps because his wife and son were present in the hotel room, or maybe he was just tired. It had been a long three weeks and our journey together was ending. The next day we said goodbye and I returned to the U.S.

Case Study: The Edit (and one more shoot)

Rather than describing the full process of editing the film, act by act, I will again focus only on the parts that reveal the importance of collaboration in the storytelling process, and how the resulting ‘collaborative truth’ plays a role in the film’s construction.

I returned to the U.S. on 17 May 2019 and immediately began all the technical tasks required to protect my footage and get ready to edit. By the end of July, I was ready to start cutting sequences together. At about the same time, I got an email from Kumar, excited that he had won the McCain Fellowship and would be coming to the U.S. in September. I was happy for him, but was initially unsure of whether or not I would travel to Washington to shoot new footage. One reason I was hesitant was because I felt I already had bookend scenes that would begin and end the film with the conflict in Barrackpore. Reviewing the footage each night in India had convinced me to utilize an inductive model for organizing Kumar’s story. According to Hewitt and Vazquez, ‘the inductive model presents episodic sequences without telling the audience what the documentary’s thesis is about.’ (2014: 183) I wanted to begin the film with an engaging scene, rather than an informational prologue.

I began to edit the film myself in the formal and conservative style with which I am most familiar. Continuity editing allowed me to condense time and allow the story to flow logically from place to place. I also wanted to maximize the viewer’s identification with the character and what the scene shows us about him. Nichols suggests that when the editing goal is the ‘achievement of a realism that directs all of our curiosity, anticipation, empathy, and suspicion to the realm of the story itself’, this psychological realism ‘poses a transparency between representation and emotional engagement, between what we see and what there is.’ (1991: 173) I looked for transparent moments in the scenes we shot, moments that would help viewers see and understand Kumar’s pain and struggle, but also his moments of success and celebration. He is looking at me or directly at the camera in many of these moments. In the edit I did not intentionally call attention to my presence, nor did I try to hide it. This decision resulted in what I believe Bill Nichols would consider a hybrid participatory/observational mode (2010: 199-209). Vimal’s interviews served well as voiceover narration most of the time, but I had to insert my presence to fill in information gaps and connect threads of dialog in some places. I did this by using full screen intertitles very sparingly, and by inserting information on the bottom of the screen. Eventually, these bits of narration were situated between Kumar’s subtitles. I differentiated my words from Kumar’s by italicizing and adding a saffron/yellow color. The film was eventually subtitled in order to fit institutional constraints, which I shall now explain.

As previously mentioned, my goal for the film was for it to be broadcast on public television in the U.S. To make sure I was creating a film that would be attractive to programmers at the American Public Television Exchange (APTV), I commissioned a story consultant with whom I had worked on my previous film distributed by APTV. Susan Geiger carefully reviewed my sequences and provided valuable feedback on how she thought the film could please those programmers and American broadcast audiences. She told me subtitling Kumar was essential, which I found surprising because I hadn’t had any trouble understanding his excellent English. She also suggested that I needed animated maps to show American viewers where in India the action was taking place, so I hired an animator to create them. Susan felt the music I had chosen was working well, wasn’t too stereotypical, and added energy to the transitions from place to place. But, she and I agreed that there was one part of the film that was confusing. It came immediately following the title screen and its purpose was to explain who sweepers were, how dangerous their work was, and why they still faced discrimination in modern Indian culture. This section was important not only because it provided detailed information, but it would also need to serve the dramaturgy, establishing what was at stake for the main character of the film. It needed to help the viewer empathize with him. I had edited and re-edited together several small portions of Kumar’s three interviews but it wasn’t working. It was just too complicated and unclear. I needed Vimal to explain it in a more concise way. This was a turning point because it meant I needed to collaborate with him again. I decided to schedule another shoot after he arrived in Washington. He was very excited about this and told me he would explain sweepers in India on camera again, as many times as it took, until I had the clear and concise definition the film needed. In looking back, Kumar and I created a world for the film while we were shooting in India, then we modified that world after he arrived in the U.S. The territorial space between filmmaker and subject was constantly transforming during the shoot and again during the edit. I assert that the resulting ‘collaborative truth’ is at the heart of why the film turned out the way it did. But, there was another important factor that I have already mentioned, and that was the call for this paper.

Shortly after my return to the U.S., the call was forwarded to me by a colleague who knew about the film I had shot in India. He suggested that what I wanted to say with the film might be informed by the works of Dirlik. I am very grateful for his insight. Reading Dirlik helped me to better understand why Kumar’s story was significant, and took me beyond his compelling personality and unwavering determination. It took me deeper. Knowing how his story connected with the concepts of groundedness, globalization and indigeneity helped me make editing decisions about what actions were most important. It was especially helpful as I prepared to collaborate again with Kumar on one more shoot in Washington. Besides gathering footage of Kumar at his McCain Center Fellowship there was another location we would need to visit: the Memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Kumar loved the idea.

Son of a Sweeper

We arranged our December 2019 visit to Washington through Arizona State University’s McCain Center for Character Driven Leadership. The shoot exceeded my expectations in every way and provided both visual and thematic contrast with the footage acquired in India. ‘I feel free’, said Vimal, as he stood dressed in a western suit on the terrace of ASU’s office space in downtown D.C. It felt like a great moment for the film at the time because the contrast between Kumar in India and Kumar in Washington was so dramatic. But as I look at the film now I wonder what this scene will convey to his community. Does it suddenly take the film into colonialist territory by portraying a brown person ‘saved’ by a white institution? In saying he ‘feels free’ and he is known only as ‘Indian’, is Kumar rejecting his Dalit identity? Or is he simply expressing his freedom from discrimination? I feel comfortable with the way it is used in the film because it serves the story. I believe it helps the viewer identify with Kumar in that particular emotional moment.

We shot the explanatory interview that I needed in our Washington hotel room (and it greatly helped the section of the film that wasn’t working). We also shot Kumar walking around and interacting with visitors at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The weather was very cold and grey, he was wearing a jacket, and he could not have looked more different than he did in our footage from India. We watched planes take off from a nearby airport. Kumar told me something very personal about himself that I never knew. He became emotional describing a time in the early 1990s when his mother and many other women had been arrested during a sweeper strike. The parallel with King’s sanitation workers strike was unmistakable. Kumar’s revelation constructed the ending of the film.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The COVID-19 pandemic in India brought more hardship, illness, and death for sweepers forced to work unprotected. Kumar established an American nonprofit organization, completed his fellowship in Washington, and returned to India four months after the pandemic began. He continues to expand his MSC Centers, which are now also providing groceries and meals to needy families in sweeper communities. Son of a Sweeper will be submitted to the American Public Television Exchange in Fall 2020.

The unique relationships that form between filmmakers and their subjects are rarely written about in documentary production textbooks or scholarly literature. Coffman describes community media projects with great detail including modern challenges, such as who pays for and ultimately owns the work. Rabiger’s seminal text on documentary filmmaking covers more of the basics. While we learn much about how to choose documentary subjects, how to convince them to work with us, how to shoot them, and how shots imply thoughts and feelings, there is little discussion of the real power and truth that lies in collaboration.

My aim here has been to illustrate that when filmmaker and subject can work together and share power the result is a documentary that produces what I call “collaborative truth”, perhaps yet another particular kind of truth to include in debates over whether or not a documentary is fact or fiction. I do not think about those debates when I am in the field shooting. The shared beliefs and common goals of the filmmaker and subject are what propel the story, and it is derived from the heart. Son of a Sweeper is a direct, personal encounter with Vimal Kumar but he is almost always aware of my presence, talking to me, explaining to me, and guiding me. This had a direct effect on what I shot, how I shot it, how I cut the film together, and ultimately what the viewer will see and hear. It is performative, but it is also participatory. Nichols writes about participatory documentary giving us ‘a sense of what it is like for the filmmaker to be in a given situation and how that situation alters as a result.’ (2016: 181) The filmmaker’s interactions give us a distinct window onto a particular portion of our world, saying ‘I speak with them for us,’ instead of ‘I speak about them to you.’ (2010: 180)

Rabiger frames the storyteller as an authorial voice with a mission to use screen language to show ‘an individual grappling with the particularity of a human predicament, and who uses heart and mind to articulate the process.’ (2015: 258) When I went to India my intention was to profile a unique individual and make audiences empathize and identify with him. When I returned I explored the work of Dirlik and it helped me to better understand how Kumar was regrounding Dalits with education. I began to think about my filmmaking process in the same way, realizing the shared space between filmmaker and subject is regrounded into a meaningful place where a collaborative truth takes shape in front of the camera. In this way, documentary becomes what Jonathan Kahana describes as a ‘metagenre, constantly raising the question of how the social context of cultural representation becomes its content, that is, how the outside of a work of art becomes its inside.’ (2008: 23) Kumar wants Dalits to have more power, and he states in Son of a Sweeper in order for that to happen, ‘our stories must be heard, and we must raise our voice.’ That voice can be heard through his collaboration with a filmmaker. The place between lens and documentary subject holds power through its ability to communicate unheard voices to a worldwide audience.


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[1] The Movement for Scavenger Community, ‘Who We Are’, [] (accessed 5/24/2020).

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[6] Interview with Steve James,

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