Queen Of The Beach


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Queen Of The Beach
"Watching this film is a little like watching a man try to clear away quicksand starting from the centre of the pool."

In India, it is illegal to employ children under the age of 14, yet there are currently estimated to be over 10 million child labourers in total. In some places the practice is so common that the authorities turn a blind eye, especially to less dangerous forms of work. Foreign tourists do likewise, often thinking of the children who try to sell them clothing and jewellery on the beach as precocious and cute. Some, of course, try to exploit them in other ways. Others try to save them.

Christopher McDonell originally went to India, he tells us, to make a documentary about foreigners who travel there in search of spiritual enlightenment. Like many visitors from the West, he's overwhelmed by the poverty he sees there and wants to help, but has no idea how. It's all too easy to fall for the notion that if one can just save one child then somehow one will be redeemed despite the fortunate circumstances into which one was born. His church, where cooler heads prevail, advises him against it, but without seeming to see it, at least initially, he's on his own spiritual quest.

The girl is nine years old. At the time, she's calling herself Sonia, her "English name" - it will later become apparent that she can rattle off a sales pitch in several other languages, and one wonders if she has names in those too. Later he will come to know her as Shilpa. She's a trader, sharp and highly skilled. She trades her company and pieces of her identity to him for favours. It takes him a while to see it, and even then, he doesn't entirely seem to comprehend. A documentary maker ought never to get so close to his subject, losing all objectivity, and yet some of the most interesting films emerge when that line is crossed.

Chris wants to be a nice guy. He genuinely thinks that this is about Shilpa, as he returns year after year. He wants to make her dream come true. What is that dream? Repeatedly, we see a clip of film he took on the first day they met: "I want to go to school." It doesn't occur to him that she's just telling him what she figures he wants to hear, like any good hustler would. He's probably correct in his belief that education would empower her, and that it's something whose true value she can't understand without getting a taste of it, but that doesn't change the ground rules. Once his objective is clear, she and her family can bargain with him. Yes, she will go to school, but first he must buy her a nice dress. First they need some tiles for the house, and a colour TV. They are also obtaining such things from her teenage sister's fortysomething white boyfriend.

Watching this film is a little like watching a man try to clear away quicksand starting from the centre of the pool. He never seems to grasp where the power in the relationship lies. Nonetheless, over the course of his many visits, familiarity creates a bond between the two. A curious kind of friendship forms. Shilpa is, after all, just doing what she needs to do to get by. There's no malice in it, and she doesn't blame him for the evils of a system much bigger than both of them, even if he does. All her education, she tells him, she got on the beach. If only he had picked up as much as that at school.

Reviewed on: 14 Aug 2021
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A documentary following a child labourer in Goa through the eyes of the Canadian who wants to save her.

Director: Christopher McDonell

Writer: Christopher McDonell

Starring: Shilpa Poojar, Christopher McDonell, Kiran Poojar, Pooja Poojar

Year: 2019

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Canada


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