Helping prison kids

Nepalese social worker Pushpa Basnet (left) houses, feeds and sends children of prisoners to school.
Nepalese social worker Pushpa Basnet (left) houses, feeds and sends children of prisoners to school.PHOTO: WF MAMU

Waiting For Mamu shows social worker Pushpa Basnet taking in and providing for children jailed with their parents in Nepal

In Nepal, as in several other developing countries, children are often locked up with their incarcerated parents if no one on the outside is willing to care for them.

Prison children grow up without school, at risk of abuse from other prisoners as well as adding to the cycle of poverty and crime that led their parents to jail.

Since 2007, Nepalese social worker Pushpa Basnet has taken in many of these children. Her Kathmandu facility - the Early Children Development Centre - houses, feeds and sends them to school. Today, it has 45 children in its care.

A few years ago, American film-maker Thomas Morgan, 47, met Ms Basnet in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, as she was passing through on a United States government-sponsored programme.

"She was playing with my one-year-old son when I went over to get him and started talking to her. She told me what she did and I couldn't believe children were in prison. I was shocked and amazed at what she had done. I asked her right then if I could do a documentary on her work," he tells Life.

The father of three sons and a daughter is now based in Singapore - his wife, an executive in a real estate asset management firm, was posted here about a year ago.

In 2012, Morgan and a small crew travelled to Kathmandu to film Ms Basnet, her staff and the children she helps.

With a budget of US$118,000 raised from friends and family, Waiting For Mamu (2013) was made mainly to raise funds to build a permanent home for Ms Basnet's children. It had a side benefit of helping her top CNN's 2012 Hero Of The Year worldwide online poll, in a field of 45,000 nominees.

Tomorrow, the 40-minute film written and directed by Morgan will premiere in Singapore at The Projector, with Morgan and Ms Basnet, in her early 30s, attending a question-andanswer session after the screening. The box-office takings, after costs, will go towards her centre.

The film features interviews with the indomitable Ms Basnet as well as heartbreaking stories of children sent to jail with parents convicted of crimes such as human- or drug-trafficking. One boy lived in prison with his father, who murdered and dismembered his mother. One prisoner, a mother, talks of how happy she is that her child is now in school through

Ms Basnet's work. "My child will have a future much brighter than mine, because I did not go to school," she says.

Waiting For Mamu is a production of Reframed Pictures, a label co-founded by Morgan and Oscarwinning actress Susan Sarandon for the purpose of making documentaries that tackle social issues. He travels to New York, where it is based, every three weeks, he says.

He also executive-produced the controversial documentary India's Daughter, about the 2012 gang rape-murder of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi, and which is banned in India.

As of last week, Waiting For Mamu has achieved its goal of raising close to US$1 million (S$1.37 million) through festival and other screenings, a drive that was made more urgent when the April earthquake struck the mountainous country, damaging half of the building under construction.

"Once I started the film, my intent was always to build the permanent house with it. I'm so proud to have been able to do that," says Morgan, a banker who turned to film-making in 2009.

The new facility, called The Butterfly Home, is set to open next year.

When he started work on Waiting For Mamu, things were much less certain. For one thing, he avoided getting permits from the Nepalese government.

"We didn't get the permit to film as we didn't want the government to take our footage or to follow us. We literally had to sneak into jail to film and were lucky to get everything out," he says.

But the film has since been screened in Nepal with no repercussions from the authorities.

• Waiting For Mamu will be screened at The Projector tomorrow at 8pm, and followed by a question-and- answer session with Thomas Morgan and Ms Pushpa Basnet. Proceeds will go to The Butterfly Home. Tickets at $15 from theprojector.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline 'Helping prison kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe