‘Kailash’: Film Review | Sundance 2018

Derek Doneen looks at the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi in a documentary with hints of Jason Bourne-style action and lots of uplift.

Derek Doneen’s Kailash begins less like the Sundance social issue documentary it is and more like a Jason Bourne thriller.

Shot with jittery handheld cameras and some concealed body cams, the opening scene thrusts viewers into the middle of a raid on a factory in New Delhi. A team of civilians and law enforcement bursts through doors and rumbles down tight hallways as a voice urgently yells, “Tell me where they are!” Locks are shattered as we hurtle past unassuming workers and out into back alleys and onto rooftops before, hidden amid a pile of innocent-looking trash bags, the invading forces find their target. A group of scared children is pulled to safety.

The Bottom Line

An exciting and inspirational look at the fight against child slavery.

RELEASE DATE Jan 18, 2018

It’s hardly unprecedented for a progressive documentary to cover itself in the trappings of an action film. Look no further than Sundance favorite and Oscar winner The Cove for a recent template. Still, it isn’t the usual way to start a worshipful film about a recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The title refers to Kailash Satyarthi, whose superhero origin story is quite simple. As a schoolboy, he saw children working in the streets and he was forced to ponder “why some people are born to work at the expense of their childhood.” After starting his crusade with his journalist wife, he founded the grass-roots organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), which has been credited with rescuing more than 85,000 children from slavery. Kailash has faced violence and death threats, and seen colleagues murdered in the street by mobs working for the businesses that need child laborers to deliver goods to Western companies at low cost. Somehow BBA has become a family operation in which his wife, son and daughter lead a team of hundreds undertaking raids, busting human traffickers and attempting to rehabilitate the children they save. Most of these kids have physical and psychological scars, and all of them are products of an economic and legal system that too often looks the other way in the face of the sort of terrifying epidemic we like to believe isn’t a part of our lives in 2018.

Doneen, directing his first feature but boasting Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) as a powerhouse producer, was essentially embedded with BBA and Kailash for a couple of months, and he’s able to give a glimpse of their process that’s exciting, inspirational and sad.

In addition to the opening raid, there are multiple attempted sting operations as Kailash and his team follow the case of one abducted boy from the initial tear-filled reporting through identification of his captor and multiple attempts to find his whereabouts. We watch the recovery of a pair of young boys, Karim and Sanjeet, as we see the role education plays in Kailash’s program and witness the challenges of reconnecting the boys with their families. Karim’s fragility in particular caused a viewer behind me to break into tears multiple times, and I doubt her reaction will be unique.

Doneen presents a clear line between these victimized boys, the industries that need them and local governments that enable them, the modern slavers who transact their business practically in the open and then the American stores that stock some of the products that are being made in this system. Perhaps the clearest call to action at the end of the documentary is urging viewers to give much more careful consideration to whether what they think are retail bargains are too good to be true.

Kailash is a snapshot documentary rather than a piece of extended and long-term reporting, and that has its limitations. I’ve mentioned only the rescue of young boys, who simply happen to be those who were saved by BBA in the film’s time period. A documentary centered on girls taken from brothels or domestic servitude would probably have an entirely different focus. Doneen and his editors also have to give what is an illusion of progress when it comes to Karim and the other kids, editing into a journey that was really only a few weeks. I was also struck by how many people in Kailash’s sphere are presented as characters — with names as chyrons and everything —  only to be left with fleeting screen time at most. Even Kailash himself is treated as an embodiment of this awesome mission and as a purveyor of inspirational shouted mantras; I might have appreciated a layer deeper into the man.

Doneen fills in some of these gaps with documentary footage from past BBA raids and also with beautiful flashback animated sequences from Jason Carpenter, who did similar duties on Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala.

An interesting advantage of this snapshot approach, though, is that it prevents closure, which sounds like a weird thing to be pleased with, but I truly appreciated that Kailash doesn’t always have answers or happy endings or pat resolutions. It’s appropriate for a movie that justifiably celebrates the efforts its subject has made and, at the same time, acknowledges that there are still 152 million child laborers around the world in cities as exotic as London and Los Angeles. Kailash ends on the right notes of hope, without abusing sentiment.


Director: Derek Doneen

Story By: Derek Doneen and Davis Guggenheim

Producers: Davis Guggenheim and Sarah Anthony

Executive Producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Elise Pearlstein, Laurene Powell Jobs, Shannon Dill, Jonathan Silberberg

Animation: Jason Carpenter

Editors: Brian Lazarte, Joshua Altman

Cinematographer: Lars Skree

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

90 minutes