South Asian Projects
Director’s Name: Nipunika Fernando, Sri Lanka
This is the untold story behind every cup of tea. If you have ever tasted Ceylon tea you must listen to this story which brews around 900000+ lives.
‘A Bitter Brew’ is 38 minutes of an everlasting socio-political and cultural issue in Sri Lanka. Tea estate workers are considered the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy. These tea estate workers’ community descends from Tamils who were brought to British Ceylon from the Indian mainland in the 1820s. Sri Lanka is the fourth-largest tea producer in the world, tea workers remain in poverty and their wage is below €5 a day. To earn a daily wage of 700 Sri Lankan rupees (€3.50, $4.15), one person has to collect a minimum of 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of tea leaves to earn that daily wage. Most of these tea estate workers have no right to vote. People who have the right to vote only have the voting right they do not have other basic human rights like shelter, sanitation, education, and health and safety. These tree-plucking families forever live in 10*10 feet rooms which build over a century ago. Government or tea factory owners do not bother about giving them decent homes or fair wages or proper sanitation facilities. Director identified this documentary as an art piece that touches the areas such as human rights, migration, women’s rights, democracy, and labor rights.
Based on a personal drive to film about the subject. Director chooses a specific character from the tea plucking women’s group. That character’s name is ‘Subashini’. Subashini is 29 years old. She started tea leaves plucking at an early stage in her life as a child. She has three children and her husband left her. Young marriages and broken families are common things in this community. Because of the poverty and rejection by the government and society this community has a poor quality of life. Subashini works with a group of elder women at a tea estate. Young Subashini is gradually accepting her fate as a forever tea leaves plucking woman. Other women in the group have spent their whole life plucking tea leaves. Their hands are cracked and it showed how they dissolve their lives among tea bushes. These women work with a smile on their faces. Other elder women especially care for Subashini as she is still very younger among them. The whole life truth of the tea plantation workers will be narrated through Subashini’s life and her interactions with the community. The film shows a slice of Subashini’s day-to-day life which is gratitude for all the women laborers who work day and night to earn foreign currency for Sri Lanka.
When I was a child, the destination for our family trips was Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya is a beautiful town. This town has eye-catching scenic views and a nice climate. I have nostalgic memories of this town. With my aunties, I used to walk through tea estates. Tea plucking women was a common thing in those tea estates. I used to wave at them when I walk past them. By the time when I was becoming mature, I started to talk to them because I always noticed something very heavy and painful in their faces. Following my personal feeling about these tea-plucking women, I started to research them. I started to travel to hill country very often. After spending time with them several times I decided to make this documentary film. Because see this issue as a socio-political issue in Sri Lanka. I found this issue is related to migration, women’s rights, human rights, and equity. This story is bitter but it is wrapped with beautiful and rich visuals. I wonder how the tea factory and tea estate owners and the government have neglected this kind of tea plucking community. Tea estate workers are one of the main pillars to bring foreign income to this country. Men and women are both involved in plucking tea. But the majority are women. Most of these families live in crowded shacks without sanitation, running water, medical facilities, or schools for their children. Some of the plantation sector workers do not even have voting right even though they have lived in Ceylon for generations. Working conditions are very harsh, with long hours and heavy quotas. Generation to generation these tea-plucking people’s lives remain the same or even worst. Most of the time they live without basic human needs.
These tea plucking laborers came to Ceylon from the Indian mainland in the 1820s. From that day on this community was considered a minority and all the authorized bodies use these workers just to get the work done. As these workers are considered a minority no one bothers about their rights and identity. Generation to generation these workers suffer. Their dreams for a better life vanish among the tea leaves. Therefore via ‘a bitter brew’, I need to give a voice to these forgotten and unheard women and their families. I believe this story needs to be heard by everyone. I believe this creative observational documentary will definitely make a positive impact on the lives of this forgotten tea plucking community not only in Sri Lanka but also in countries like India and China where the tea plantation sector is more active. Most importantly I strongly believe I can influence viewers to consider these workers which viewers did not do before. Isn’t that great?
Sun rises above and the tea estate seems like a green carpet. A nice waterfall is falling between tea estates. Radio plays in the background, tea pluckers who live in line rooms got up and they are starting a new day. Subashini is making some plain tea to start the day. She wakes up her children. Gives them some plain tea and cuddle them and talk with them. After some time, she and her children do Hindu rituals and wish for a better day. The audience will see how Subashini is hurried in the morning with her children. She dressed for work. She walks out of the house. Other women also get out of the house and they all walk toward the estates they work. They have small talk while walking. They laugh and talk about day-to-day life.
At the end of the walk, they reach to estates they work. They meet the supervisor at the estate. Like Subashini every other tea-plucking woman grabs their tea leaves collecting sack. Subashini wraps her head and hangs the sack to her back. Young Subashini walks up towards the tea bushes. We see her as a part of the tea estate which seems like a smooth green carpet. Subashini plucks tea leaves in a rhythmic way. Within seconds her palms brim with tender tea leaves. The audience sees the other ladies in Subashini’s working group. Most of the ladies have spent more than half of their lives only plucking tea leaves. The audience sees Subashini as someone who is walking towards the same life as other elder women in her group. But at the same time what the audience sees about the community is an invitation to take action to change their way of looking at marginalized people. Suddenly a car stopped and some foreigners get down and take some selfies with these women. Some of them pluck a few tea leaves with the women as it is a super new experience for them. These foreigners are so happy because they see the beauty of tea estates and took some pictures with these women. Foreigners say ‘goodbye’ and get into the car and leave. This group of ladies is waving at them with a smile on their faces. They get back to their work again. Leeches bits and hang on Subashini’s legs. Leeches suck her blood but she does not have a solution. Like she has accepted being a part of her community and living the same life as they did. Subashini’s hands move very fast when she plucks tea leaves. Subashini and her colleague tea pluckers have chats while they are at work. They share day-to-day life stories with one another. They laugh and sometimes sing. Some women show the skin rashes they have which happen due to not cleaning their bodies properly. (They do not have enough water supply to have a proper shower. They just pour some water over the body to clean themselves.). Subashini shows the scars of leeches biting. Subashini puts her tea leaves into another sack and starts plucking tea leaves again. During her break, she sits near a tea bush and drinks water, and eats little something.
After tiring working hours, Subashini and other women headed to weights the tea leaves they plucked. The audience will see the tea factory atmosphere.
Subashini carries her heavy sack which is full of tea leaves to the supervisor. WomenTea pluckers wait at a row to weights their harvest. The supervisor weights the sacks and pays very little money which is not a fair wage.
Supervisor – 18kg…Is this all you did today? Rs.700
Subashini – I will try to pluck more tomorrow Dorai.
The camera captures Subashini’s hopeful face very closely. The camera moves to other women who are waiting in the long queue. The camera will move among tea bushes and then to the empty sky.
Nipunika Fernando is a Sri Lankan writer, film director, and literary translator. Her short film ‘Sheysha’ premiered at the 10th European Film Festival in Sri Lanka in 2017. Nipunikas’ films have been screened in many local and international film festivals. Her recent short film ‘an Emergency’ was funded by the Gothe institute and it has already premiered online during a pandemic. Nipunika has translated four novels into the Sinhala language. Nipunika needs to make films about unheard socio-political stories. She believes she can be an influencer for a better world via her films.
Research – May 2018 to April 2022 (with unexpected intervals in 2020 to 2022 due to Covid- 19 lockdowns)
Development – May 2022 to September 2022
Pre- Production – September 2022
Production – September to November 2022
Post Production – December 2022
Completion and Release – First Quarter in 2023
Research & Development 4000
Production Accessories 9000
Production Team 20000
Food and Accommodation 4800
Daily expenses 1200
Color grading 1500
Sound Mixing 1200
Poster Design 200
Total $ 57000
Research completed. The filming team has access to the protagonist and all the other human resources in place. At the moment project is at the development stage and ready to initiate pre-production and production when the team finds sufficient funds.
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