Rooms Of Shadow And Light

John Webster

Finland, 2000, 60 min

They earn their living in houses on the streets of Bombay – behind curtains drawn time and again to let in the customers from the street. They sit behind the windows staring at the world passing by. Some of them have children in villages far away from Bombay, which was the only place they could go. To survive.

The claustrophobic world the film invites us to experience also includes a young, male social worker, a modern Sisyphus who makes an endless effort to inform, encourage and provide general sexual education. He believes his efforts can change something, and he loves the girls and women in the small rooms of shadow and light.

The same basic human love emanates from the film. This has demanded great respect, a distinct filmmaker’s viewpoint and an appreciation of cinematic language that not only depicts the lives of poor Indian prostitutes among the dregs of society, but also conveys the emotion that these women endure their fate through humour and by caring for each other.

Director John Webster successfully lets us look at this world of poverty and hopelessness without making us feel like intruders. The women talk to the film crew with a trust that must have been established over a long period of time. This also applies to the most alarming and heartbreaking sequence when at one moment we are watching children – some of them not yet teenagers – play outside the curtain as children do all over the world, and the next, one of them invites a customer, Want to fuck?, and disappears behind the curtain with the man. In itself it is indeed a shocking scene, but in his slow cinematic rhythm, in the way he builds up a scene like this, acquainting us with the children, inserting pauses and letting a woman speak on behalf of the children (Nobody feeds them, nobody gives them money), the director gives us food for thought instead of sensationalism.

A text early on in the film states that it takes place Five days before Divali, which is a festival of light. Ironically the film ends with pictures of the sky illuminated by fireworks while the characters of the film keep working in the dark rooms behind the curtains. The social worker breaks down in front the camera when asked why he does all this. His answer is that we must bring something back to humanity. But the girls and the women continue their struggle for a decent day-to-day survival.

Finnish director John Webster returns to the fore as one of the most skilful human life documentarists. This film has the same high quality as his previous film on prostitution Don’t Tell Daddy from the Baltic region.

Modern Times Review