Nilima Abrams, whose first name means Heavenly Blue in Sanskrit, began traveling to India as a toddler. Her parents were on a spiritual quest, regularly visiting an ashram to meditate. So it's little wonder the University of Vermont senior and South Burlington resident, now 22, would want to return to the subcontinent to make a film. "That's where my heart is," says Abrams, who spent 10 days in and around Bangalore last winter shooting "Jeevodaya: Hope Through Education."
The approach in her half-hour documentary is rather instructional and promotional. While outlining the plight of some 44 million youngsters who work in carpet factories and other industries -- including prostitution -- Abrams suggests that an organization called Child Care India (CCI) offers a solution to the problem. Despite some sketchy camera work and sound, the scope of her one-woman endeavor is remarkable.
Abrams managed to create a time capsule of a Third World country in flux. "Bangalore is an emerging global power for information technology," she explains in a voice-over narration. "But there are vast gaps."
Half of the largely impoverished population cannot read or write. Traditional schools are too costly and tend to teach by rote, which leaves many a child behind. A forward-looking Catholic priest named Father Gerard Backianathan founded CCI, which operates educational programs that have helped more than 10,000 kids in 200 slums and villages.
Abrams has vivid memories of her early treks to India. "The kids begging in the streets scared me so much I would cling to my parents," she recalls. "I had no idea of the politics behind it all or about child labor."
Back home in high school, she read a book on the subject, then contacted CCI and began holding neighborhood garage sales to raise money for the cause.
As a freshman at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, Abrams made a short documentary about animal rescue for a film course. The summer after transferring to UVM as a sophomore, she went to Honduras for two weeks with 14 other students and a professor, Dan Baker, who teaches community-development courses.
Her assignment was to shoot "an eco-tourism video" about Taulabe, a hilly town with caves, waterfalls and various cultural attractions. Local folks also were replacing their antiquated method for processing sugar cane with more efficient and inexpensive Vermont maple evaporators. Before heading south, Abrams first made a training film at UVM about how to implement this technology, which eliminates the environmentally questionable Honduran practice of burning tires.
To finance her excursion to India, Abrams successfully applied for a university grant of $3000. "It really only covered my airfare and transportation around Bangalore," she notes.
That transportation included "riding on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a guy who translated for me," Abrams says. "The problem was that people we interviewed would answer in long sentences and he'd just repeat a few words. He spoke five languages, but his English was weak."
Nonetheless, she was able to talk with a range of people, from an illiterate adolescent boy who sleeps near a bus station in a remote region to a former CCI student now employed as a teacher. "The camera helped open doors," Abrams surmises. "It's a good way to break barriers."
The downside? Not everyone can be saved. Unable to find an appropriate school for the homeless adolescent, Abrams could not locate him again. "It became so personal for me," she acknowledges.
She has organized a few campus screenings and wants to make "Jeevodaya" available to community groups. Although the doc was not done for UVM credit, the political science major's senior honors thesis will tap her profound experiences in India.
Meanwhile, Abrams turned her Thanksgiving break into an opportunity to participate in Hurricane Katrina relief in Mississippi. She worked on "house deconstruction," which involved gutting ruined structures.
"At one point, we dug through rubble to find insurance papers for an elderly man whose wife had died -- not from the disaster, but in a terrible coincidence," Abrams says.
Although she got some footage in the Gulf, her filmmaking instincts are often outpaced by her humanitarian nature. Abrams plans to continue fundraising for India's needy children. After all, jeevodaya means "where there's life, there's hope."
For more information, call Nilima Abrams at 233-0308, or email her at mailto:[email protected].