In 2008, a Canadian location scout and budding documentarian named Chris “Cleetche” McDonnell visited Anjuna Beach in the southern Indian state of Goa. A notorious gathering place for international hippies attracted by hashish and a laid-back “let the youths do their thing” attitude, Goa’s beaches at that time were alive with cows, cricket players, musicians, henna tattoo artists and overweight white people trying to soothe their souls by practicing yoga. McDonnell was on assignment in India to document the visit of some Christian missionaries. But on a side trip to the beach his attention was drawn to the young local girls selling trinkets and cheap cotton clothing to the tourists.
Of course, all sorts of Westerners, with all types of motives, have visited beach towns in Goa—and in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc.—for years in search of fun in the sun. The setting is exotic, the weather is hot, the beer and snacks are cheap, but unfortunately much of the populace is desperately poor. As McDonnell’s curious documentary Queen of the Beach unspools, we initially suspect his interest in one particular Indian youngster—a lively nine-year-old girl named Shilpa Poojar, who speaks surprisingly good English—might be predatory, in spite of the signs posted all around warning potential “paedophiles” that sexual abuse of children is strictly forbidden.
McDonnell doesn’t exactly behave like a sex tourist. While strolling around with his camera and providing his own first-person narration, his voice has the clueless tones of a character from The Simpsons, full of naïve wonderment at the sights of a faraway culture. He makes it clear he wants to find a way to help Shilpa and her friends quit their beach jobs and go to school, despite the fact that the kids are broke and in debt to their boss, who beats them for not making their quota. The bosses use little girls as hawkers to arouse pity in white people. Meanwhile, poor parents often do not believe in school for their kids.
We get a lesson in Third-World labor economics. Shilpa’s monthly wage as a hawker is 1,000 Rupees (US$16), and she already owes the boss 35,000 Rupees (US$564) for time-off. Her monthly rent is 2,000 Rupees (US$32). The monthly Anjuna police payoff is 1,000 Rupees. According to 2011 census figures, there were nearly 36 million child laborers—ages five to 19—in India, a country with a population of 1.3 billion.
Nevertheless, McDonnell is so determined to promote Shilpa’s rise out of poverty that he gives her and one of her friends a regular stipend, with the condition that they enroll in a government educational sponsorship program and get off the street. McDonnell eventually returns to his wife in Vancouver, but returns several times over a period of 13 years, to check on Shilpa’s progress. He is met with a spiel familiar to anyone who has ever stopped in a market in the developing world to look at local products: “Come see my shop!” School can wait; right now Shilpa just needs to sell more goods, avoid a beating and care for her sick father back in the village in Karnataka.
McDonnell’s relationship with Shilpa is endlessly transactional, one continuous negotiation. Over time, we can see that he has doubts about Shilpa, but continues to open his wallet. Hope for the future? What’s that? Meanwhile, the doc serves as a worthwhile travelogue of ground-level Indian life and the lessons of the marketplace. A blonde woman complains that hawkers are too “abrasive,” while carefree Western backpackers dance at the Shiva Nightclub. It gradually dawns on us that Shilpa is never going to school and never going to get a good-paying job. Queen of the Beach might have been an effective narrative fiction from Shilpa’s point of view. That never happens either; it’s McDonnell’s show. Life is hard, and despite its “empathy,” this is a very tough documentary.
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