At the 35th annual Sundance Film Festival last month, 30-year old Derek Doneen won one of only four Grand Jury Prizes, considered Sundance’s biggest honor, for his documentary film “Kailash.” The film follows Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize winning Indian activist whose team has liberated more than 86,000 children in India from child labor, slavery and trafficking.
Doneen, in his first stint as a director, spent months in India with his crew creating a suspenseful, action-packed thriller that follows Satyarthi and his men, along with the police, raiding illegal factories staffed with young child workers. They also document Satyarthi’s success in building a global movement to rescue children from slavery.
The idea for the film came from producer Davis Guggenheim—Oscar winner for “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2007 and Emmy nominee for “He Named Me Malala” in 2015. He met Kailash at the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize awards, which were given jointly to his film subject Malala and Kailash “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
“He emailed me from Oslo and said he wanted to get Kailash’s story out there,” Doneen said. “I was stunned when I learned more about Kailash, because I’d never even heard of him or his work before. How were we not aware of it?”
Doneen spent a total of six months over a period of two years in India making the film. During the development trip, he and a producer met with Kailash about doing the documentary, and the rights worker “was excited,” Doneen said. “We spent three weeks with him to get a sense of how to tell the story, and shot video every day, and met some of the kids. We then used that footage to make a nine-minute short film that we showed to Participant Media, our partners.”
The film “Kailash” essentially tells three stories, Doneen described. The first story is the life story of Kailash and his fight against child labor around the world for the past 35 years, and the various organizations and marches he’s founded.
The second story follows the real-life hunt for a missing child following complaints from a family.
“That takes us undercover to factories and traffickers, with one of the activists on Kailash’s team wearing a hidden camera and us in the background using long lenses,” Doneen described. Team members went inside posing as buyers for manufactured products. Then they did reconnaissance and planned their rescue strategy.
Doneen explained that during these factory raids, the rescuers have to work quickly, because the children are “brainwashed” and afraid of them, and try to escape across rooftops and any way they can. In addition, because local police are often corrupt, different police sometimes have to be brought in from another district.
“It’s dangerous and the rescuers themselves have been beaten multiple times, and two have even been murdered,” he noted.
The third part of the film shows the rescued children rediscovering what it’s like to be a child.
Doneen said he hopes the “Kailash” audience will take away the fact that the power to end child slavery is in the hands of his audience.
“We’re all complicit in this global problem and in finding a solution,” Doneen said. “We need to tell companies that we don’t want goods made by children, and we want transparent supply chains.”
Doneen started his career as the first in-house filmmaker for Participant Media, directing award-winning video content for Starbucks, American Express and the Gates Foundation. He met Davis Guggenheim while creating ancillary content for “Waiting for Superman,” and soon after, the two began a formal partnership. Doneen produced Guggenheim’s film “The Dream is Now,” directed “Spent: Looking for Change” and edited a short documentary about President Obama for the 2016 Democratic National Convention. He also edited “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” for Showtime, and is one of the producers of the newly premiering “Shot in the Dark.”
“I believe in the power of storytelling to make audiences think about the world around them,” Doneen said.
The filmmaker said he was definitely not expecting to win the big prize at Sundance. When they announced his win at the awards ceremony, “It was a total shock and surprise,” he said. “We didn’t make the film to win awards, but I’m glad it’s connecting with audiences and will create impact.”
Doneen has spent much of his life visiting a family home in Malibu where he learned kayaking, swimming and surfing. His mother, Ann Doneen, a Malibu native, still lives here.