Malaika Vaz was interviewed by Robin McGahey, guest writer
Malaika Vaz is a National Geographic Explorer, wildlife presenter, and filmmaker and most recently one of the recipients for the Nat Geo COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists. Unlike the majority of us, Malaika spent her lockdown on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, exploring the challenges facing migrant workers during this time in her new film Refugees at Home, that has been streaming on local TV channels in India, and was published online by The Quint.
I got the chance to sit down with her to hear about her story, experience in the field during the lockdown, and her outlook coming out of it.
Q: The film is called Refugees at Home. What inspired you to focus on migrant workers in Goa?
There are large populations of migrant workers in Goa, due to the various industries in the state. I knew they would be some of the hardest hit, but I never quite expected to hear or see what I did. I was born and raised in Goa, so this film offered me an opportunity to not only dive into learning about the impact that COVID is having on different communities but also understanding more about a place I call home.
Q: What did you find working with migrant workers? What did they say?
There is this huge tussle because migrant workers are coming from remote parts of India and coming into these big cities in the hopes of gaining work opportunities. They live paycheck to paycheck, but when the lockdown began, they suddenly had no work for months. It’s incredibly unsettling as you’ve gotta remember that these people are by no means beggars or dependent on the state. They work hard during the year and live a life of dignity, all so that they can put three meals on the table a day for their families. Right now though, due to the shut economy, they can no longer provide for themselves.
Q: What have been some of the hardest things you’ve seen while filming?
Interviewing migrants who were a part of India’s COVID-19 spurred mass exodus and hearing their stories was possibly the most heartbreaking part. With the shut down of industry due to the virus, many migrants who often work in the informal sector could no longer depend on their daily earnings. And with no reserves of savings to fall back on, their only way out was heading back to their families in the villages and towns they call home. But due to the lockdowns out here which were some of the strictest in the world, all transportation including buses and trains were shut - prompting thousands to attempt a long, dangerous and often life-threatening journey of hundreds of thousands and kilometers. Many died of exhaustion, train/road accidents, suicide, and incidents of police brutality. That really hit my core.
Q: Was there a story that particularly stood out to you?
While filming this documentary, I met a man originally from Madhya Pradesh who came to Goa for work two weeks before the government lockdown due to COVID-19. After he lost his job, he couldn’t feed himself, and wanted to be with his family - so he decided to walk the 1500 km back home because there was no bus or train running for another two months. Unfortunately, the police stopped him on his way and he was forced to stay in Goa. His story speaks to me of the larger story of inequality within my country, which is further exacerbated in the grip of a pandemic.
Q: You focus a large part of the film on the women that you encountered. Can you talk a little bit about what drove your narrative towards them in the end?
Originally, the people I interviewed through the shoot just happened to be men. This is possibly because men are often the ones that are more visible in society. One day though, I was interviewing this construction worker and his wife came out and offered me a cup of chai and we began talking. It was at that moment that I realized I was missing an important part of the larger narrative - the impact of this pandemic on migrant women. So, that’s when I steered more of the film in that direction.
During times of crisis, women in vulnerable communities are impacted the most. They are already ostracized within their communities, forced to take on this huge burden of fending for their family and looking after their kids, as well as earning enough to support their families. There have been spikes in domestic violence and many women don’t always have access to basic nutrition, as in many poorer households in India - women eat last. And when there’s not enough food for everyone - they don’t eat at all. Through my film, I wanted to highlight the fact that financial independence and empowerment is so important for women all through the year, and in the midst of a crisis - this need is only made clearly evident.
For example, towards the end of the documentary, you meet an incredibly resilient woman named Rupali. The second time I went to speak with her, to check on her and her family, she was in the process of packing up her entire house overnight. Her family was evicted from their home of over a decade, almost overnight as they couldn’t afford to pay their rent given the collapse of our economy and the loss of jobs.
Q: Who is the target audience for this film?
The primary audience for this film is local audiences within India. Through this grant, Nat Geo encouraged the democratization of journalism by allowing and encouraging grantees to get our content out on local media ecosystems. Refugees at Home has been broadcast on a local television network and online on one of India’s largest online media networks - The Quint. This is a film of the people, for the people, so I really wanted to ensure that it went back to them and was accessible.
Q: What impact do you hope to have with this film?
While making this documentary, I collaborated with a team of public policy researchers from a network known as the Stranded Workers Action Network in India - that are working to understand what interventions are required to protect migrant communities. Together we worked on a list of key recommendations to the state and industry that were added to the end of the film in graphic form, focusing on rural employment guarantee schemes, universalized ration distribution, and wage compensation amongst others. I really wanted my audience to be able to immerse themselves in the lives and struggles of the migrant worker community - but also understand what the steps are to actually tangibly lookout for these communities in the midst of the lockdown and in the months that follow.
These are painful times, and historic times - and to me as a presenter and filmmaker, it’s important to document this struggle so that we’re collectively inspired to act faster and with more precision to safeguard the rights of vulnerable migrant workers right now in the midst of these cataclysmic times and so that we’re more prepared when the next crisis hits us.
Q: What was your team like?
It was really funny because the team I usually work with isn’t in Goa as the borders shut down. So, I worked with a local wedding filmmaker for this project - it was great and now he’s interested in documentary filmmaking after this film! My friend Taira was the editor of the film. Despite being from the same place, Taira and I only met last year at Jackson Wild, and so when we started shooting I called her up and she came on board, bringing her editing expertise and passion to this film! Thank you to Jackson Wild for that!
Q: What are your biggest takeaways from your time on this film?
My films for television usually focus on stories of biodiversity loss and conservation issues. What I’ve realized is that whether it is environmental change or a pandemic, when it comes to the biggest challenges humanity faces today - it is always our most vulnerable communities that are the most impacted and underserved.
There is a larger systemic social bias towards migrant and marginalized workers that we as a nation need to face. Since the shutdown, there’s been an increase in police brutality, and a general dismissal of migrant needs - not to mention all of the health risks that they are exposed to given the close quarters they share with hundreds of other people. Across the world, we are witnessing a wave of critical conversations on equality and inclusion with communities standing up for historically marginalized people - and while that might be BPOC communities in the US, I think for my country - focusing on the needs and rights of our migrant community is crucial right now during this pandemic - and after.
Q: After having created this film, how do you think about your work as a wildlife filmmaker? Do you plan on continuing down this path?
As a filmmaker, I honestly believe stories are stories. And what’s most important to me is to work on every single film with all my passion and with the intent of amplifying the voice of communities on the ground to create a positive impact. But I have to say that after making Refugees at Home, I’m definitely ready to experiment with a diversity of stories - whether it is filming stories of wildlife in jungles or investigating marine trafficking or going on the frontlines of a pandemic - I’m excited for what’s next.
Here’s the link to watch Malaika’s documentary and read her article on India’s COVID-19 spurred migrant crisis. Check it out!