Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse

Filmmaker Q&A with Executive Producer Von Tan

Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

During my school days, my lecturers were filmmakers. Their passion to tell stories to create impact, that rubbed off on me and I was inspired to be like them. To hone my skills and inspire audiences to help make the world a better place, through storytelling.


What motivated you to make this film?

The selfless commitment, inner motivation, fearless passion and sensitivity towards the victims to fight the stigma of child sexual abuse, displayed by Nusrat (the protagonist) and her team.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

TWO Sony A7s Mark 2 cameras with prime lenses (24mm, 35mm and 50mm) for lightweight setup, cinematic picture quality and ability to handle long filming hours. CameTV optimus gimbal for its small size, flexibility and easy setup. This setup allowed us smooth footage, cinematic camera moves, ability to do interviews in a moving car and track people in walking/journey action.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.

A lot of creative choices were made around filming of the victims of sexual abuse as we had to maintain anonymity. So we captured interesting closeups of their body, or environment. We captured their voices, but coloured them in post to hide their identity, yet retain the emotion (instead of using a voice artist to narrate their story). We stretched filming over several days and two separate trips to allow an easy going approach in filming. We spent nearly 50 percent of production team’s interaction with story subjects as personal and relationship building.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

Our original story idea was to feature the lead of the organisation, Nusrat Khan as the key protagonist and have other supporting characters. But we realised that there are no supporting characters. Everyone is sort of supporting each other and leading each other. Second, we wanted to feature a lot of victims of child sexual abuse, filmed many interviews. But a lot of them removed their consent later thinking backlash from their families. This meant our story kept changing and we had to constantly find new ideas from the material to replace the gaps. Third, we wanted to create a 4 minute film, but ended with a 10 minute story due to the quality of our stories, the potential for impact and the excellent footage we captured.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

The trust and bond between myself and Nusrat & her family is the biggest reward from this film. I feel blessed that they allow me in their family like one of their own. They trust my judgment, value my input to their work and are a big supporter of my documentary work. I have never been able to create such a bond with my story subjects. The people in Cactus Foundation don’t lament about how many sacrifices they make everyday, how many setbacks they face every step of the way, and how selfless they are in saving children from sex offenders. Seeing their work first hand was the best part of this film.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

Make relationships, build bonds with people first and listen. Really listen with your full presence. It will show you the way where you can make the most impact to them through your film.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

Each story is new, each film is unique and so every time you make a film, you go on a road you have never been before. The sheer commitment it takes to get a film made and the cries, the joys you get when people come to you and say, “Gosh, what we see in your film has changed me as a person.” That makes you feel you have given something to this world, that you have played your part, lived your purpose and that you have a talent for it.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why? 

My hat. It saves me from weather, guards my (bald!) head, gives me a seat, acts as cover for my gear, cuts the light into the lens, acts as sunshade for the camera monitor, allows me to blend easily, soaks my sweat and keeps my head cool!


Please provide a brief description of the work or organization featured in your video:

Cactus Foundation is a non-profit that is run by a group of volunteers (mostly housewives) who’ve come together to create a safer, better, healthier world for children by empowering them and their parents to stand against child sexual abuse. They work in Solapur – a small town about 400 km from Mumbai, and go to its schools, hospitals, public service organisations, temples, churches, mosques and other places of worship, children homes, orphanages, poor communities to inform, educate, train and sensitise children and their parents to know when and what causes sexual abuse in a child, how to spot a abuser, what is a bad/illicit touch and what are the state laws to protect its citizens in the event of abuse and how to counsel the victim of abuse. They have educated more than 50,000 people so far and are expanding their work to other cities in India.


What have you learned about the value and impact of the project?

I am aware that this video has helped Cactus Foundation find nearly 1000 new volunteers for their project. It has allowed them to spread their message to audiences far and wide, including outside India. It has given them the confidence, won more followers, who bring connections, resources, ideas, funds and simply support for their project. It has given them extra arms and legs to expand their work in Hyderabad and Mumbai, besides their home town of Solapur, India.


Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.

During the pre-production, we went out for field research and met hundreds of people. After a point it all became a blur in my head. Then, towards the later part of my schedule, when I was really tired, we went to a deaf and dumb school. I told everyone that i don’t plan to stay long here, and hopefully we’ll be back to our hotel room in an hour. Turns out, I didn’t want to leave that school after spending nearly three hours. It was my first ever meeting with so many deaf and dumb children. Their ability to listen, to respond without any speech and the spark in their eyes gave me a completely different view of the use and necessity of speech. These deaf and dumb kids seemed far less distracted, far more alert and emotionally grounded than many “normal” children I have met in my documentary works. This may sound a bit harsh (and childish!) On us normal folks, but it is true that on this day I felt that being deaf or dumb might actually be a blessing.


What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

The audience should realise how serious is the issue of child sexual abuse, how urgent this problem and how every child, and every life must be saved from the horror of sexual abuse.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

– The challenges filmmakers face in covering a sensitive topic like child sexual abuse.

– The cultural nuances that filmmakers need to be aware of.

– How to best tell a story in India that will resonate with those from other countries.


Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the video. How have things changed or not changed?

Our Better World’s story on Cactus Foundation drew about 1.74 million views. We saw an outpouring of people sharing their own stories of abuse over social media, to a supportive community. This was a step forward in amplifying awareness of the topic and the need to break the silence, and begin the process of healing. Some even approached Cactus directly to share their moments privately, including a 70-year-old woman.

From just 10 volunteers a year, the foundation saw 1,021 sign-ups in just a month, mostly from outside its home city of Solapur. This led to Cactus holding events in Mumbai and Hyderabad to meet its volunteers in 2018. It is now exploring how to spread its work to other cities in India.


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

Cactus thrives on the passion of its volunteers and the willingness of supporters to rally around their events or campaigns. The best way to get involved is to contact them or follow them on social media, to stay updated on what’s the latest.



Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.):

Even as the India Government carries out the 2012 Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act, Cactus Foundation believes that there is still something we – not just the government – can do about it.

Relevant stats from UNICEF/Indian Govt:
– A child under 16 is raped every 155 minutes, a child under 10 every 13 hours.
– More than 10,000 children were raped in 2015.
– 240 million women living in India were married before they turned 18.
– 53.22% of children who participated in a government study reported some form of sexual abuse.
– 50% of abusers are known to the child or are “persons in trust and care-givers”. The risk of pregnant girls under the age of 15 years dying is two-and-a-half times higher than that for women above 20.

National Crime Bureau Crime Report 2016:

Stats from Rohit:
Dec 2017:

  1. a) According to the report on crimes in India for 2016, released by Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Delhi, 106,958 cases of crimes against children were recorded in 2016.
  2. b) Of these, 36,022 cases were recorded under Pocso (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act.

According to a 2007 study conducted by India’s ministry of women and child development, 53% of children surveyed said they had been subjected to some form of sexual abuse.



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