Review: ‘The Daughter Tree’

Hot Docs 2019

4 mins read

The Daughter Tree
(Canada, 88 min.)
Dir. Rama Rau
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)

Rama Rau’s latest film The Daughter Tree has a near apocalyptic setting: An area of Punjab, India where men vastly outnumber women, primarily due to prenatal gender testing that resulted in vastly disproportionate rates of abortion of female fetuses. In this land, aging men tend the fields and smoke from billowing pipes, ruing their lot and refusing to compromise by going the equivalent of a mail-order route, fearing the social repercussions of marrying differing castes then they do their own loneliness.

This stubborn intractability is contrasted by the tenacity of Neelam Bala, a fiercely uncompromising midwife who seems to single-handedly chafe against the societal norms that are constricting her community. In this “Village of Men,” she’s a powerful force, excoriating those whose small mindedness is resulting in continued imbalance.

Bala’s activism is hardly quiet, teaching young mothers and fathers alike the need to love their forthcoming child regardless of what transpires. Despite the outlawing of gender testing the prejudices persist, from members of the community both male and female, keeping alive this school of thought that has resulted in a stultified and lonely group wanting it both ways.

At a local meeting, a group of fathers witness Bala slamming them for their desires to only have masculine children, while they counter with arguments that include the added cost (the parents are responsible for dowry payments) and fears of assault and the shame that would bring. This victim blaming mentality is quickly shot down by Bala, yet Rama’s film never attempts to infantilize or prejudice these other points of view, allowing the participants full reign to spell out their ideas and ideals no matter how troubling they may be.

Beautifully shot by Nagaraj Diwakar, the film remains highly cinematic, capturing the dusty streets and beaming sunlight with warm and inviting tones. The simplicity of the place is never seen to be simple minded, but there’s no doubting that the entrenched points of view are slowly being challenged if not eroded by Bala’s insistence on change.

As Bala and her niece tend to new generations, there’s a sense of slow if deliberate change, with the conversation at least taking place if not completely upending tradition overnight. The title evokes a key metaphor – the idea that every time a girl is born the community plants a tree, and when grown up she can take the fruit and make her own way. In many ways Bala and her assistants are tending to these daughters and sons alike, tilling the sand so that they may better grow, shaping the world to allow all to benefit from the bounty.

Rau’s film deftly handles the balance between the strong advocacy of her central protagonist and the sheer complexity of the situation, refusing any kind of blanket moral relativism but still clearly evoking an editorial point of view. The result is a film both powerful and moving, telling a story that’s often ignored even in India, and shedding light on the travails required to see real change that would work while increasing respect for all. The Daughter Tree has many branches that reach out wide, while to Rama and her collaborator’s credit, the disparate storylines all feel part of a whole, engaging audiences and subjects alike in a discussion that will surely shape the Village of Men for generations to come.

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Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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