Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights duo presents unique portrait of girls’ school in India

July 26, 2016 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Female students in the classroom at Pardada-Pardadi in Anupshahr, a rural town in India. Photo by Ariana Natale

Film ‘Break the Branch’ plays this Saturday

A filmmaker has teamed up with a friend she met in high school in Brooklyn Heights to produce a portrait of a girls’ school in Anupshahr, India, a community that doesn’t believe in educating women.

“Break the Branch,” by director Samantha Cornwell, filmed in conjunction with music and theatre teacher Melanie Closs, is described as a “lyrical, ethereal portrait of a rural Indian girls’ school in lush, sensuous color.”

In the film, we meet several teachers and students who use the school as a means for carving out a fulfilling life for themselves. The stories are woven together poetically, rather than in traditional narrative form.

“Break the Branch” is playing in a special showing on July 30 at 2 p.m. at Repair the World, Brooklyn, 808 Nostrand Ave. in Crown Heights. (To order tickets visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2571183)

Closs is the founder of The Other Side Intercultural Theatre (www.theothersidenyc.org), a cross-cultural exchange of dramatic storytelling between girls from India and the U.S. She first met Cornwell when they were both students at Packer Collegiate Institute.

“Samantha and I were friends at Packer since seventh grade,” Closs told the Brooklyn Eagle. The two girls bonded over school plays and a mutual love of music.

“We have always been friends, through high school, college, both of us living on the East and West Coast at different times and at the same time, and eventually living in New York at the same time again,” Closs said. “Besides being close friends, we have also collaborated and worked together on various music, video, and theatre projects over the past six years or so.”

How did two girls from Brooklyn Heights come to make a movie in India?

“I had traveled to this school in India, Pardada-Pardadi, in 2010, during a nine-month trip around the world,” Closs said. “In that same trip, Samantha met me in Edinburgh to create a video about a performance at the Fringe Festival based on my experiences of traveling. The performance had a focus on the school in India and my experiences there, and Samantha’s interest was piqued. In 2013 and 2014 she and I went to the school together, and she created the documentary while I started my own non-profit working with girls in India and New York, called The Other Side.”

The Other Side is “like pen pals. But with theatre,” Closs said. Through “drama exchange,” girls develop strong friendships and learn to stand up for themselves and each other.

A lot of the girls portrayed in “Break the Branch” and the girls that The Other Side serves “are around the same age as we were when we met,” Closs noted.

The grander goal of the film is to “humanize the struggles of women in India by showcasing their idiosyncratic qualities, rather than telling their stories in broad strokes,” the two friends say.

Saturday’s screening includes a reception before the show and a Q & A with Cornwell and Closs. All proceeds from ticket sales and donations will support girls’ empowerment and education at The Other Side NYC and Pardada-Pardadi Educational Society in Anupshahr, India.