The Revolutionary Optimists

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About the Film

Kajal running in a colorful sari against a blurred background. Allhadi reaches her hands towards camera as children encircling her also extend their arms towards her. Amlan Ganguly seated with a large group of children as one girl performs with a marionette. Priyanka looking down with hand to chin in pensive pose.

Amlan Ganguly is a visionary. This lawyer-turned-community activist is not only changing a neighborhood, but also changing the way its youngest residents envision their lives. In this character-driven and highly cinematic documentary, acclaimed filmmakers Nicole Newnham (The Rape of Europa, Sentenced Home) and Maren Grainger-Monsen (Worlds Apart, The Vanishing Line) reveal Ganguly’s critical work in a Calcutta slum neighborhood. Filmed over the course of three and a half years, The Revolutionary Optimists follows Amlan and three of the children he works with through adolescence as they challenge the idea that marginalization is written into their destiny.

Using theater, dance, and data, the children have cut disease rates and turned garbage heaps into playing fields. Now, they have set their sights on goals that push at the limits of optimism: trying to bring clean water to a community that has long been denied it, and enabling the migrant children working in the brick fields on Calcutta’s outskirts to receive an education.

Twelve-year-old Kajal lives inside a brickfield gate and spends her days washing dishes and carrying bricks. She dreams of becoming a tailor. After Amlan sets up a makeshift school, Kajal suddenly has the chance to have an education. But when her mother falls ill, she must balance her desire to learn and with her need to survive.

Priyanka is the teenage leader of a dance group founded by Amlan to keep slum girls in school and dissuade them from early marriage. But she sees only one way out of her abusive family: to marry her young boyfriend. As she considers elopement, Amlan struggles to encourage her and the rest of the girls to stay in school and keep their eyes on her future.

Shika and Salim are twelve-year-old best friends who walk three kilometers at four o’clock each morning to take water from a neighboring slum. Hoping to convince the Colony Committee to give them a drinking water tap, they are chosen to speak in Delhi in front of Parliament on behalf of their group. Can they enable desperately needed change for their entire community? The film explores the cost of not having clean water on the neighborhood’s families as it traces the children’s incredible efforts to take action, and to dare to be optimistic.

The Filmmakers

Filmmakers Maren Grainger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham (L-R) Maren Grainger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham

Nicole Newnham co-produced and directed The Rape of Europa, about the fate of Europe’s art treasures during World War II. The film played theatrically in 80 cities, was broadcast on PBS as a primetime special, was nominated for two national Emmys and a WGA award, and shortlisted for the 2007 Documentary Oscar. Newnham was nominated for a national Emmy Award for co-producing and directing Sentenced Home, which was broadcast on Independent Lens and follows three Cambodian refugees in Seattle who are deported back to Cambodia after 9/11. With Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker, she also co-produced They Drew Fire, an acclaimed special for PBS about the combat artists of World War II, and wrote the companion book distributed by Harper Collins.

Maren Grainger-Monsen is a physician and the founder and director of the Program in Bioethics in Film at the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics. She directed Hold Your Breath and Worlds Apart, a large-scale project on cross-cultural conflicts in medicine, which was broadcast on national public television and is currently being used in 63 percent of U.S. medical schools. Grainger-Monsen also directed The Vanishing Line, which was broadcast on P.O.V.; Where the Highway Ends: Rural Healthcare in Crisis, which won a regional Emmy Award; and Grave Words, which was awarded first place in the American Medical Association Film Festival. She studied film at the London International Film School and received her medical doctorate from the University of Washington.