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'India's Daughter' filmmaker: 'Time has come to tackle gender inequality'

Leslee Udwin, whose documentary on the 2012 Delhi gang rape has been banned in India, talks to DW about the challenges making the film, the Indian reactions and why rapists are only the symptoms of a much larger problem.

British documentary filmmaker Leslee Udwin's interview of Mukesh Singh, one of the four men convicted of raping and killing a paramedic student in December 2012 in a moving bus in the Indian capital, New Delhi, has sparked a huge debate in the South Asian nation.

The gang rape triggered street protests across India and turned global attention to the issue of sexual violence against women. The incident also prompted the Indian government to pass a new set of stringent laws against gender crimes.

All four attackers in this high-profile case were sentenced to death last year, but the Supreme Court has stayed the death sentences following appeals filed by the accused.

Arguing that Udwin's film, titled "India's Daughter," could compromise the rape case which is awaiting a final resolution, gender rights activists and legal experts in India have come out strongly against airing the documentary.

In response to the controversy, the Indian government decided to ban all media outlets from airing the documentary.

While supporters of the film argue that it looks at the issue of gender equality, critics accuse it of providing a platform for rape convicts to justify their actions and blame the victim. However, in a DW interview, Udwin says that those who criticize the film of offering an international platform for rapists haven't seen the film and urges New Delhi to reconsider its decision. Gender inequality is the "greatest unfinished business of our times," she adds.

DW: Why did you decide to make a documentary on this issue and why did you choose the "Nirbhaya" case?

I didn't choose the Nirbhaya case as such. I chose to amplify the protests that erupted on the streets in response to the Nirbhaya rape. If those protests had been in response to any other rape case, or any other atrocity against women such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, acid attacks, honor killings, female foeticide, then I would have made the documentary about such an issue.

And if the protests had taken place in any other country, then I would have gone to that country to make it. It was the hope, the optimism, occasioned by the massive show of solidarity for women, the momentous expression of determination and courage by civil society to end offenses against women that motivated me to make the film. It was not the rape, nor the case.

It occurred to me that India was leading the world by example with these protests, and was the only country in the world in my lifetime that had made such a sustained and courageous stand - for over a month despite very adverse conditions. It was my gratitude and admiration for these forward-looking ordinary men and women of India spurred me to make this film.

Your documentary has been described as "hard-hitting." What experiences did you make while working on this issue?

What shocked me most was that the rapists were not the "monsters," the psychopaths I was expecting them to be. The horrific details of this particular rape and the media portrayal of these rapists had led me to imagine they were just bad apples in the barrel.

What I discovered, however, was that they were apparently normal, very ordinary men. Their psychiatrist also describes them in the documentary as "normal men with anti-social tendencies." The shock was that they acted as they did because of what society has taught them about women, not because of aberrations in their nature.

I was also completely taken aback by the fact that they showed no remorse at all. They seemed perplexed as to why they were being made an example of, when "everyone is doing it." They couldn't understand why they were being singled out for such a harsh quantum of punishment.

What difficulties did you face in reaching all the people you wanted to interview?

I faced terrible problems in terms of trying to persuade people for an interview. There are two extremely important interviewees whose presence in the documentary I will always sorely miss: one was the only witness on that night on the prosecution side - her male friend Awnindra who was with her on the bus during the incident, who refused to be interviewed - he asked for money to be interviewed and I refuse to pay anyone for interviews - and the other was her very close girl friend who knew her and loved her so well.

Indien/ Vergewaltigung/ Proteste

Udwin: 'I chose to amplify the protests that erupted on the streets in response to the Nirbhaya rape'

She wanted to be interviewed at first, but then bowed out when her brother and father forbade her. I also had personal battles with a co-producer who was blackmailing me for money and whom I had to dismiss.

Everywhere I looked there were problems and there were times when I wanted to give up and go home. But it was my 13-year-old daughter who convinced me to stay, saying that she and her generation of girls were relying on me.

But now the Indian government has banned the film and New Delhi is seeking to ban it worldwide. What do you make of this and what do you urge the Indian government to do?

I urge the Indian government to consider that it is they, not I, who are bringing India into disrepute with this ban. India is a democracy and my film reiterates that and praises the country in many ways. My film is extremely positive about India, as was I when I decided to make it. Sadly this ban is now making people point fingers at India and say it is undemocratic in banning the documentary and trampling on free speech.

As for extending the ban to other countries, I don't believe anyone thinks that is a serious option. India cannot pressure other democracies to flout free speech, especially with a documentary of pubic interest.

However, some in India argue that the airing of an interview with one of the convicts did not expose his wrongdoing but instead provided him with an international platform for his views. What is your take on this?

Those who argue this have not see the film. They are responding to a quote by the rapist used in an advertising campaign without context on either side of the quote. In retrospect I am sure that NDTV, who are the broadcasters of the film in India, would now regret having used the comments of the rapists with no surrounding context.

Symbolbild - Proteste gegen Vergewaltigungen in Indien

'Gender inequality is the greatest unfinished business of our times'

But one can understand their desire to intrigue audiences with the most extraordinary access the film has to the rapists. In fact, NDTV are the most outstanding defenders of democracy, my heroes in their response to the ban, which was to run a black screen for one hour when the banned documentary was supposed to air.

When you say that society is responsible for creating these rapists, many believe that you are referring to Indian society as a whole. But rape is a crime that also takes place in other countries, including Western countries. In your view, what role do these other societies play in the context of creating rapists?

The same is true in every country. Gender inequality takes place in every country in the world, and this is why my film ends with statistics of offenses against women globally. No county is off the hook. It's only a question of degree.

What message do you want to send out with the documentary?

I want to send out the message that the time has come to tackle the problem of gender inequality properly and purposefully. It is the greatest unfinished business of our times. I also want to show that the disease is not the offenders themselves, they are the symptoms. The disease is the mindset shared to some degree by all nations in the world which denies respect, autonomy and safety to women.

Leslee Udwin is a British filmmaker and author of the documentary "India's Daughter."

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.