On the streets of Kathmandu, a group of street children take the filmmaker into their disturbing world. Living on scams, begging and petty crime, they ruthlessly protect their territory from intruders. They survive on the barest of necessities and their only companions are each other and stray dogs. Dismissed by the residents and considered a menace by the city, these children are a Lonely Pack.
Sonu, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Justin Peach’s documentary, Lonely Pack, is a complex and confrontational character. He propels the narrative forward with tense energy. The ethnographic-style documentary vividly observes the life-struggle of a group of adolescents surviving on the busy streets of Kathmandu.
The boys range from the ages of eight to fifteen and live in a loosely hierarchal setup where the oldest and the strongest protect the younger ones in return for a share of their earnings. The days are spent earning: begging, stealing, scamming, and the evenings are spent looking for a feed and a safe footpath to bed down on for the night. With its scruffy, underfed, boisterous, angry and ultimately tragic characters, the film is unique in its nuanced portrayal of the boys. At eleven, Sonu is one of the youngest but makes up for it with his bravado and street ‘front.’
The film inevitably encourages comparisons with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1998), a winner at the Cannes Film Festival. Nair’s fictional characters were played by social actors drawn from Mumbai’s population of street children with an adult cast of professional actors. While Salaam Bombay presented a gritty world of flawed characters with only the occasional moment of joy, Lonely Pack presents a wider canvas with equal moments of camaraderie, hope and warmth.
«95 percent of nepalese street children sniff glue»
The adults in Salaam Bombay overtly influenced the direction and quality of life of the street children while Peach almost removes adults from his narrative. Contrary to the characteristic discourse of homeless children, Peach does not lay blame on any particular social group for the situation. In fact, this approach resists traditional audience responses and enables deeper questions to be asked about economic systems and global disparities of wealth, development and living standards. At a certain level, the idea of ‘childhood’ prescribed by modern societies is systematically challenged by the opposing version of ‘childhood’ presented by Peach.
Sonu is in many respects a character that makes the audience feel deeply uncomfortable, far beyond the normal sympathetic response to his plight. Foulmouthed, vicious and angry, he is the antithesis of the ‘normal’ child. He does not bat an eyelid while scamming a Western tourist into buying him a tin of milk powder which he later sells to a restaurant owner. Stops on the tourist trail in the subcontinent often lead to encounters with this type of character, who uses a smattering of broken phrases from numerous languages, dramatic gestures and tragic tales to plead his case.
Disturbingly, Sonu is a perfect representative of this group. At the same time, he pools all his hard-earned money with the other boys to buy movie tickets and the glue they all sniff. Long-held shots of him sniffing glue, getting high and consequently changing into an aggressive, unstable and hostile character are stirring. However, this boy also plays ball with his friends, feeds street dogs and believes in superheroes. The street has not yet estranged Sonu completely and he retains an emotional longing for his family. He is vulnerable in spite of his tough exterior and at the end gets beaten up, underscoring the fragility of his life on the street.
While the film is constructed using Direct Cinema conventions Peach uses metaphors to offer a sharp commentary on the position of street children within Kathmandu’s social hierarchy.
«adulthood does not represent liberty and autonomy»
Parallels are drawn between the stray dogs that accompany the children and the lives of the children themselves. Both inhabit the streets, are unwanted and live on scraps using sheer animal survival instinct. Both protect their territory against interlopers and life is a day-to-day struggle to find food and avoid danger – living in a pack is therefore a necessity. In a second sequence, twelve-year-old Kale watches a rat die in a narrow alley and stares for a long time at the dead animal. The subtext of the sequence seems to suggest the comparison – both are dispensable and considered a menace by the city dwellers; schoolboys and workmen walk past without a second glance at either. Urban residents, keen to banish the menace, usually dismiss the value of the labour and economic contribution offered by this group.
This inequity is not lost on the children; thirteen year old Ganesh screams to the street: “We clean your shoes and collect your garbage … we are the poor, you need us …”
Stylistically, using only ambient sounds and long observational sequences, Peach patiently allows sequences to unfold, revealing unscripted and unplanned interaction. The director has remarkable access to the boys and they trust him sufficiently to reveal their rumoured ‘scams.’
The spontaneous camera follows the boys effortlessly as they run through the streets, fighting, chasing or playing. The camera does not shy from showing the hidden darkness of life on the streets. In fact, at times the repetitive sequences of the boys sniffing glue seems to border on the voyeuristic until the disturbing reality is recognised – research reveals that 95 percent of Nepalese street children sniff glue, some as many as fifteen tubes a day.
The boys also discuss instances of sexual abuse by Western male tourists in exchange for meagre amounts of money. It is surprising then that in spite of the daily struggle for bare subsistence, the boys fear growing older – unlike for the average adolescent, adulthood does not represent liberty and autonomy.
They understand that their youth is vital to their earning capacity. An adult beggar does not evoke the same sympathy. The camaraderie of the group, the only source of joy at present, would also be lost in the future. Certain victims of a social order that has failed them, Peach resists the temptation to construct the iconic ‘victim’ stereotype. Instead strong characters are presented with a genuine glimpse of the dynamics of street survival. Within the gloom and despair, the characters find a way to experience delight – and notably pose questions that resonate far beyond the ‘underdeveloped’ country in which the children live.