Questionable practices are not unusual in the film industry with much of its survival hinging on the fact that actors will often not speak about it, especially during the production period of a film which is when it often happens.
A good fairly recent example would be of the critically acclaimed 2013 French drama Blue is the Warmest Colour. On the day it premiered at the Cannes festival it was revealed that there had been complaints made about the conditions that had to be endured on set – including working hours which were as long as 16 hours.
However, when it comes to international films it is even easier for unethical practices to slip under the radar or go unreported. Typically, filming in non-Western countries involves a flashy, prominent production company recruiting and later working with naïve, young, poor actors. I use the term loosely since in some instances the individuals cast may not have training as they or their parents never had the intention of them acting. Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 film directed by Danny Boyle and starring Dev Patel, was marred in exploitation controversy not long after its release. Child actors such as Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail – who played young Salim, Jamal’s brother – were reported to still be living in poverty in the slums despite starring in a film that had raked in millions and even won an Oscar. Additionally, because many actors formerly living in poverty experience a newfound affluence/fame that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation – especially from family members.
Almost, as if by textbook, similar circumstances were found to befall many of the young actors who starred in the critically acclaimed Brazilian film City of God (Cidade de Deus) (2002) which follows a young boy navigating a life of crime and poverty in a favela of the same name in Rio de Janeiro. In the documentary ‘City of God; 10 Years Later (2013) – which can be found on Netflix, many of the actors reported experiencing a strong discord between their poverty filled daily existence and the Hollywood red carpet treatment they received as part of starring in the film. In relation to this, one quote revolved along the lines of what is the point if everyone knows your name if you are still living in poverty? The film did indeed open doors for some actors – Alice Braga, who played Angélica, reported that due to her recognition from the film she was given the opportunity to audition for Will Smith who turned out to be a City of God fan. However, for the majority of the cast, their stories were not as fortunate with many eventually becoming involved in criminal activity due to their pay not being enough and only lasting temporarily. For instance, Rubens Sabina Da Silva, who played Blackie was arrested after starring in the film due to his attempt to rob an elderly woman for money; an act of desperation that you could argue was forced by his circumstances, an indicator of how insufficient the film’s salaries were. The actual reported payment received by the starring actors varied in the documentary from around 2,000 – 5,000 reais which translates to around £280-705. Imagine that being the only compensation for hard work you invested possibly over several months in order to shoot a film.
Because many of the City of God actors were unfamiliar with the industry navigating the way contracts work and how pay is agreed were foreign concepts to them. One of the lead actors reported that he was given the choice to either receive an upfront salary or a cut of the Box Office revenue. Not knowing what the Box Office was, he chose the upfront salary which he now regrets based on how well the film did globally (the film grossed over $30 million worldwide.) But then again, how was he meant to know this? It seems almost predatory of the directors to offer such a choice knowing it was likely that poverty would force them to choose the upfront payment. By doing this they took advantage of the fact the actors (and their parents) were probably not well informed of the ins and outs of the industry. It also took advantage of the fact the actors were young so the idea of immediate money would have strongly appealed to them or their parents. It is worth noting that parents can play a key role in the exploitation of child actors, particularly because their own desires come into play and unlike well-connected talent managers in the industry, they don’t necessarily have the business knowledge or leverage to fight successfully for their child’s interests.
As viewers and frequent consumers of media, we need to be more inquisitive about the working conditions of actors, especially within foreign films. It is often joked in popular culture that there is a ‘Disney curse’ which befalls many actors who worked on Disney channel shows when they’re younger. This typically consists of them soon leaving the network and going ‘off the rails’ – Lindsey Lohan and Miley Cyrus are good examples of this. However, this does point to a serious issue around the vulnerability and lack of safeguards around child actors. When combined with the colonial and unequal class dynamic that comes with working on Non-Western films with local actors from low-income backgrounds there is room for much more abuse which the industry needs to do better at preventing and punishing effectively.
However, it’s not all bad, as we can see from where the Slumdog millionaire child stars are now. Both now teenagers, Rubina and Azhar in the aftermath of the film were able to enter formal education and eventually move out of the slums. This was all made possible through director Danny Boyle’s charity The Jai Ho Trust. Unlike the director of City of God, Fernando Meirelles who eventually lost contact with the film’s cast, Danny Boyle is still in touch with the child actors from his film and even travels to India annually to visit them. The moral of this story? If the effort and concern are there then ways are possible to prevent exploitation.