What are Indian teenagers doing these days

What does it mean to be a man today?

Exposed to the violence of his father, Ved looks for other role models. The documentary filmmaker Inka Achté accompanied the teenager. A conversation about toxic masculinity.

Interview: Natalie Mayroth

Seven years ago, the brutal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi, India sparked outrage around the world. Several men assaulted Jyoti Singh Pandey, who died a short time later from her serious injuries. The filmmaker Inka Achté experienced first hand the debate that was being held around the world. She starts researching. Where does the contempt for a woman come from who leads to such a cruel act? And where are there attempts to change that in such a way that there is no violence or rape in the first place? Conversations and hours in front of the computer later, the Finnish woman discovers the initiative Men against Violence and Abuse, short: MAVA, and decides to go to India.

She meets the social worker Harish Sadani, who has been giving workshops for young men in the slums of the Indian metropolis of Mumbai for almost three decades. He shows them what a nonviolent life can look like. Because, in his opinion, men can not only be perpetrators, but also part of the solution. Inka Achté has been working for three years on her documentary "Boys who like Girls", which promises a trip to the pulsating metropolis of West India. A journey that seeks understanding. As part of the Human Rights Film Festival2019 her first long documentary was shown in Berlin. Natalie Mayroth spoke to her about the film.

Ms. Achté, we often talk about images of women these days. How did it come about that you dedicate a film to an organization that tries to change the image of men?

Inka Achté: Back then, when the gang rape in Delhi became known, I looked in vain in Great Britain and Finland for actors who actively campaign against abuse. I found them in India: MAVA, a pro-feminist men's movement that loudly demonstrates against violence against women and shows solidarity. I looked at what it means to be a man today. That is a universal question. And it affects everyone who suffers from misogyny. It is not only discriminatory against women, but also against men.

"They need different role models than their fathers"

Have you personally felt hostile to women?

It has had a huge impact on my life that I am a woman. Let's say I was upset that men often don't take seriously that women are being disadvantaged. If the subject wasn't so personal for me, with all the challenges filming in India brought with it, I wouldn't have been able to deal with it for so long.

Inca Achté is a documentary filmmaker, her films are shown on television and at festivals around the world. She studied documentary directing at the National Film and Television School in the UK and is co-founder of the documentary distribution company Raina Film Festival Distribution. She lives in Helsinki.

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Has that reputation that precedes India influenced your work?

I wasn't afraid to go to India. When I got to Mumbai, I was just overwhelmed. Today it feels like my second home. I know that the greatest danger of violence to women and children comes from within their own families. It is no different in India. So, as an outsider, I didn't have much to fear.

What experience do you have with the NGO Men against Violence and Abuse (MAVA) made?

Without the work of Harish Sadani, which he has been doing for so long, my main protagonist would not have gotten any further. Boys like Ved, who grow up with a violent father, need different role models than their fathers. Men who resolve conflicts. The prevailing opinion in Europe may be that people in India are backward, but this NGO was around long before we had a similar movement in Europe.

Perhaps one should just ask the question, what should men change in their behavior and not women?

They learn that in the camps and at events organized by Harish's team. He encourages the young, shows them that they can achieve something through education.

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Natalie Mayroth is a freelance journalist and photographer. In the past she reported from China and India. Her focus is on social and cultural phenomena - from equality to pop culture. In 2017 she took the Media Ambassador Fellowship to India. Since then she has lived between Mumbai and Berlin.

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They accompany Ved, a young man from the slums of Mumbai who is still looking for his way. What did you notice when dealing with the boys in India?

It was strange for the teenagers to meet someone like me. But we could all learn something from our unusual encounter. They could ask me anything they wanted - and I understood that they didn't want any harm. Usually they are kept away from all women except their sisters. That has consequences. I don't think they understand women, let alone have female friends.

"The first step for men to recognize that they have a gender"

There is a scene in the film where two teenagers from the MAVA group try to speak to girls on the beach. But most of them ignore it and move on.

The boys just wanted to talk to girls. When they did get another chance to speak, they were very happy. But it took a while. Many girls fear that they will be badly spoken of when they come into contact with boys. It is culturally manifested. However, this gender segregation conveys to the boys that women are strangers. And harming strangers is easier. Once these young men understand that girls are inherently very similar to them, violence becomes much more difficult.

What feedback have you received so far?

I felt that the audience appreciated that I made a film about a global problem. I was never faced with the fact that it was an India-specific topic. In my experience, after the film, many began to think about what it has in common with the society in which they live. It made no difference whether it was in Norway, Finland or Brazil.

During the filming, the MeToo movement got rolling. How did that affect you, your work?

I was very happy about the MeToo movement. The discussion finally started. So the abuse of power that is happening in Hollywood that is happening everywhere came to light. I was really relieved. For example in Finland we now have a group of men who are fighting against "toxic masculinity" and trying to open up the discussion about gender. It is the first step for men to realize that they have a gender. That was invisible before. MAVA tries to clarify this fact and to sensitize the boys. I hope that since #MeToo it has been easier for Harish to get financial support for his project.

"This way I can better deal with my anger"

What is it like in your home country? MeToo cases have also come to light in Finland.

In Finland, for example, it was revealed that a former film professor had molested his female students, thereby abusing his position. Sexualized blame and harassment were also very common in my college in Finland. When I graduated from my first degree 20 years ago, I experienced precisely this kind of abuse of power by men. I was made to feel that I don't understand humor and that I am just too sensitive.

Did you do something about it?

It made me very angry, but I took it and thought that the world is just like that. Today I can say: The disparagements I made as a girl, as a teenager and as a young woman are true. But just the experience that I have in India MAVA made me hope that it could be different. The film built a bridge for me. It was like a knot in my head that has come loose. This helps me better deal with my anger towards gender discrimination.

The separation between women and men in India - ranging from seated on the bus to recreational activities - doesn't necessarily make it easier for you as a female director. How did you manage to get close to your protagonists?

It's part of my job, but in the end I also worked with a completely Indian film crew. I had an idea and implemented it with the Indian team. Without them it would not have been possible. The second aspect is craft: I have a method with which I try to find a place in the room where I am inconspicuous, but still have access to what is happening. I make sure that we stay aloof. After a certain time, the protagonists forget that you are in the room at all.

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"It's a tool to understand a world"

Longer documentation takes time and resources. How were you able to implement your long-term project?

In Scandinavia we have a good funding system, especially when it comes to documentaries. So I quickly received initial support to travel to India and film a teaser. After that it took two years. But we have received funding from the Finnish and Norwegian Film Institute and television.

In the last few years you have witnessed a few blows of fate from your protagonists. Is it difficult to let them go after that?

I am still in contact with Vedprakash and Harish. It was really frustrating to see how hard Harish struggled and how much burden there was on his shoulders. I kept asking myself why nobody sees how important their work is. It was difficult for him to continue as he ran out of money. I hope people take his engagement more seriously today.

What project do you have planned next?

As a new mother, I actually didn't want to travel that far any more. But a project has emerged that will take me to Somalia. I am accompanying a family that is returning to their old homeland after 25 years in Finland and getting into the gold digging business there.

You also have a foothold in Finnish television. What motivates you to travel far away, to make documentaries?

I love to see documentaries and have shot shorter ones before. "Men against Violence and Abuse" was my first full-length feature. I'm curious. I'm interested in what's going on out in the world. That's why I prefer to film people than from a fictional script. Making a documentary means observing and studying people and life at the same time. It's a tool for understanding a world that is pretty chaotic and complicated. And there is a satisfying feeling when a film is made out of it. But I do not work exclusively on documentaries, as it is impossible to finance yourself from them.