Alum's Moving Documentary Played at IH

An award-winning film at International House caught our eye.

Annenberg School of Communication alumna Nilita Vachani documents the life of a domestic worker who struggles to support her own children in Sri Lanka by taking care of someone else's child in Greece. First prize winner at the Festival dei Popoli in Florence, an important documentary film festival, "When Mother Comes Home for Christmas" was screened at numerous international festivals before arriving at Annenberg Feb. 19.

Vachani, who had also helped Mira Nair in the direction of "Salaam Bombay," introduced her film. "When Mother Comes Home for Christmas" is a moving account of how separation and foreign income affect Josephine and her children. The film tracks her first visit home in eight years.

In Sri Lanka "one in 10 works abroad," Vachani said, so many that the government runs a program to train domestic workers in the tools--vacuums, microwaves, electric mixers--that they will encounter in overseas households.

An elegant woman simply dressed in traditional Indian loose pants and long tunic, Vachani stayed afterward to answer eager questions from about 25 people, or half the audience of about 50 who came out on a weekday night.

The questions seemed to be evenly divided between the issues that the film raised and the technology of documentary making.

Someone in the audience wondered how the presence of the camera may have affected the events being filmed.

"I always wonder about that dowry scene at the end," Vachani said, speculating that the cameras may have encouraged the groom's family to accept a lower dowry so as not to look greedy on camera.

Someone expressed concern about changing gender roles.

"The family has completely been restructured in Sri Lanka," Vachani said. "There are villages without any women."

Vachani expressed passion not only for her subject, but for her film making. While not everyone in the film had liked how they seemed on camera, Vachani offered them no apologies. She said she had filmed them as she saw them.

The film was presented as a joint effort of the Annenberg School for Communication and the Neighborhood Film/Video Project (NFVP), which has helped turn Philadelphia into a film-lovers paradise. NFVP presents an average of 120 programs a year--including feature films, documentaries and groups of short films--with about 50 guests, like Vachani, to introduce and discuss their films with the audience.

This year, the project is showing films in four major series--Egyptian films, films by Russian women, classic academy award-winning films and films by people who had Philadelphia connections.

Vachani's film is part of the Philadelphia Connections group.

Admission for most programs are $6 for the general public and $5 for students, seniors and International House and Philadelphia Independent Film/Video Association members.

Originally published on March 4, 1997