Kanavu: A documentary on an alternative school for Kerala's tribal children

Kanavu is an educational institution set up by writer and filmmaker KJ Baby, and his wife Shirly as an alternative school for children from indigenous communities in Wayanad.
Filmmaker Leela Santhosh in an orange kurta
Filmmaker Leela Santhosh in an orange kurta
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Nebish Benson's short documentary Kanavu - The Dream is a breath of fresh air when it comes to telling tales from the northwestern parts of Kerala. The documentary talks about Kanavu, an educational institution set up by writer and filmmaker KJ Baby, and his wife Shirly as an alternative school for children from indigenous communities in Wayanad. It is also a means to preserve their folklore and culture.

The seven-minute documentary starts with Bellan, a native of Wayanad, singing a song he has composed. He lives with his family in the forest, and walking through it, he talks about his childhood and what living in the forest means. He represents the first of the three generations whose stories are intricately woven into the film.

The shift from generation to generation is shown subtly by showcasing each generation's exposure to westernisation and how it has directly affected their connection to their roots.

We watch as the merry kids play in the fields and run around through the woods, unaware of the world they are leaving behind. Like most of us today, they don't know the songs of their ancestors. Tales of the strong women who built their community over the ages.

They smile innocently, as childhood passes by.

Kanavu has been screened at several festivals

Each tribe in these forests has their tongue, their songs, and stories to share. These tales aren't penned down but are passed on through the oral tradition from generation to generation. With westernization finally catching up with this beautiful corner in the belly of the Western Ghats in northern Kerala, many of these stories have been lost and the songs have started to fade.

”If we lose our language, we lose our history along with it,” says filmmaker and activist Leela Santosh, who in her crisp words recounts her earliest memories of Kanavu, its history, and her wishes for the coming generations. Leela, who spent her formative years from 1994 to 2007 at Kanavu Gurukul is Kerala’s first Adivasi filmmaker. Her not so “regular” schooling has been fundamental to her filmmaking and she is now an active member of the same school that shaped her.

Watch: Kanavu below

Founded in 1991, over 400 students have been a part of Kanavu, including several non-tribal students. Every year around 32-25 tribal kids aged between eight and 13 get trained at the Gurukul. The children learn through reading and travelling rather than conventional books or syllabuses. “Kanavu” translates to “dream”. A dream that has turned into a legacy and is now being carried forward by senior members of the school.

Created on a shoestring budget by a bunch of young filmmakers, the project is self-funded. Co-produced by actor Shebin Benson along with Nebish Benson, and Sachu Shanty James, the short documentary has done justice to the thought behind its conception. It was released under the banner of MookNayak Pictures in association with Yucel Films and Villains of Winter.

Shebin and Nebish

The project was completed in under fifteen days at Nadavayal, the home ground for Kanavu, where the team had set up camp. It was officially selected for the International Tourism Film Festival of Africa among various other festivals.

The project had a grand release and was launched by Megastar Mammootty, with other eminent personalities across film fraternities actively sharing great reviews on social media.

As a generation that is fast-paced and obsessed with modern technology, we often forget our roots. Kanavu is something that each of us should watch and be aware of. It talks about something highly relevant and beautiful. And leaves the viewers brimming with hope. The hope of having the courage to dream. The hope of shaping a generation in tune with its roots yet ready to take on the world

Manisha Martin is a postgraduate student based in Kochi, Kerala.

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