Shooting a video in India for a church mission, Canadian filmmaker Christopher McDonell stopped by the beach in Goa to clear his head like so many other tourists drawn to the lush shores. He wound up making a friend who would captivate him for roughly a decade.
Shilpa Poojar is just nine years old and selling clothing at a small booth to support her family when McDonell meets her in 2008 in his documentary, Queen of the Beach. She has responsibilities beyond her years, but Poojar also is precocious with charisma to spare. She easily carries this earnest film about child labor, education, and how to best help others less fortunate than ourselves.
McDonell (Tribe of Joseph) initially chats up Shilpa and the other girls who implore him to check out their shops. He then agrees to pay them a small fee in exchange for their interviews because he’s taking time away from their work. The girls need to “make business,” they say, owing tens of thousands of Rupees (or several hundred US dollars) to their bosses by the end of the six-month tourist season. Their monthly wages? About 1,000 Rupees, or $16 USD.
The girls also have plenty of overhead. They have to pay back the supplier who sold them their inventory, pay rent for their tentlike shops, and pay rent at the house where they stay for six months. Poojar’s family lives miles away.
“I like to go to school but I know I can’t,” Poojar says. Back in her small village, her father doesn’t work. He’s “no good. Only drinking. Fighting.”
Queen of the Beach includes statistics from India’s 2011 Census about its 8 million child laborers ages 5 to 14, but its strength is in maintaining the focus on Poojar, her family, and her handful of friends. With the support of his wife, Abha, McDonell explores how to help Poojar attend school, which officials from El Shaddai Charitable Trust explain is an uphill battle. The organization runs formal and informal schools across Goa and educational outreach programs.
Convincing some families about the value of education isn’t easy when there’s money to make each day. Plus, El Shaddai officials explain, “white people feel pity for them, and they buy things.”
Sure enough, a French tourist befriends Shilpa and sends her family a refrigerator, which works only half of the day when the electricity turns on. She and her sister, Pooja, ask McDonell to buy them things too – lunches, new dresses – but this makes the other young vendors jealous.
Queen of the Beach includes a few interviews with tourists, one of whom finds the girls “abrasive,” even though she says she knows that they have to make a living. El Shaddai says people sometimes report that the children are being exploited. Yet from McDonell’s footage, it looks as though more often, the Westerners haggling over jewelry, clothing, and henna tattoos are happy to obtain mementos of their travels without thinking too much about the socioeconomic system that provides them.
Poojar is so bright, chatting with customers in different languages, that it’s understandable why McDonell would return to India several times over the next several years to catch up with her. A relatable guide, he admits that he isn’t sure he’s doing the right thing by opening his wallet, but he sees potential in her and wants to make a difference in her life.
To the film’s credit, Queen of the Beach also shows how this can backfire, such as when someone accuses a teenage Poojar of having an inappropriate relationship with the filmmaker. Poojar takes that in stride. “This is called life,” she says. Sure, she appreciates how learning to read and write in English can benefit her, but she also schools McDonell in what her family and society expect from her, making Queen of the Beach a compelling and balanced portrait.