Vancouver director Madeline Grant started out as a volunteer at a school in rural India, returning to make the moving doc, The Backward Class


Documentary filmmakers often rely on intuition, trusting their instincts that what unfolds on camera will make a compelling experience for audiences.

So it was for Vancouver director and first-time filmmaker Madeleine Grant and the eager students she profiles in The Backward Class.

They are the first graduates of Shanti Bhavan, an experimental school in rural southern India established to educate members of the Dalit “untouchable” caste.

“You start out questioning yourself,” admitted Grant, 31. “Are we totally crazy for doing this?”

Grant had volunteered at the Shanti Bhavan in 2008 as part of a service tour she did with her sister in India and Southeast Asia. They lived and worked at the school, soon becoming part of the community and conveying the family atmosphere that the school nurtured among staff and pupils was crucial to Grant when she made the film.

“I had a very strong feeling this was going to be a hopeful story when I first met them in 10th Grade,” said Grant, who returned to the school do a test shoot for a possible documentary but ended up starting work on the film when visa issues kept her there.

“We were extra members of that 12th Grade class,” Grant said of the large and changing crew that shot with her on multiple visits. “We were there all the time. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with them, played sports with them.”

The Backward Class has had no trouble finding an audience, winning the people’s choice award at Hot Docs 2014 in Toronto. It also won the World Documentary Award at the Whistler Film Festival and the Grand Prix of Cinema at the Windsor International Film Festival.

The Backward Class opens Friday at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Grant was also able to arrange for some of the students to accompany her for the Toronto and Whistler screenings, which not only let audiences find out more about them, it let the young men and women appreciate how much Canadians valued their experiences and appreciated their struggle.

The students, seen onscreen in the final months of Grade 12 preparing for national ISC high school graduation exams, had started at the school 13 years prior, living there during the term.

Destined by birth to be India’s poorest citizens, denied opportunities and unable to do more than fulfil their legacy of poverty, the school represented an unheard-of chance to break from the cycle.

We meet students including Mala, Bina, Pavithra, Vijay and Prakash, following their stories as they share hopes for a future that would be otherwise unattainable. The words, taken from the personal statement essays they have written for university entrance applications, open and close the film.

Grant said recognition for The Backward Class has “been wonderful,” but it is also “incredibly validating” for the students, along with their success, which Grant includes in an updated ending for the doc.

“They’re doing really well, it’s really exciting,” said Grant.

The school has graduated several more Grade 12 classes, all of whom have gone to university, Grant said. The students she followed for The Backward Class are finishing their degrees and many already have internships or full-time jobs at Bangalore branches of multinational companies including Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young. Some are applying to study for master’s degrees.

“They’ll be making (salaries) in five years what their parents make in a lifetime,” said Grant.

“It’s mind boggling. It’s such a huge change and life shift.”

Director Madeleine Grant participates in Q&As on Feb. 6-8. See for details.