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Education shouldn't be about jumping through hoops. Look to film-making to inform, inspire and transform

I have spent much of this year in South India making a documentary about the Devadasi, young girls married to God in childhood, and then at puberty sold for sex. Often the first sign of a girl's Devadasi status is that she is pulled out of school - after all, who needs an education if you are going to support your family by sex work?

In London, where my cutting room overlooks the local primary school, the voices of children at play make an ironic backdrop to that of a 10-year-old Devadasi, a girl called Hanamawa, describing her dismay at not being able to read like the other children. She is desperate to go to school but her mother insists they are "too poor" and demands to know "who will pay for the weddings of my four sons?" The answer is Hanamawa herself. Her dream of school is unobtainable.

Shobha was made a Devadasi at 13. She was pulled out of school by her parents and given to her sister's husband for sex in exchange for a necklace and 500 rupees a week (about #163;7). Unusually for a Devadasi, she resisted and made an arrangement with her family that she describes as "hell": she agreed to have sex with her brother-in-law on condition that she was allowed to return to school.

Back at home, I ask my teenage daughter how her day was. "It was school," she replies with a shrug, and I feel irritation at something so precious being taken for granted. By now I have seen child after child, woman after woman systematically removed from education and forcibly put on a path of sex work. Here, children have a right to an education and a right to grow up without fear of systematic exploitation; if we could offer that to the Devadasi the world would be fairer. But how are we going to get our current generation to care about what happens in a part of the world they have never heard of, let alone seen? How does my daughter learn to understand her own privilege without seeing it in relation to others?

The telling of stories from one generation to another is the way humans have always imparted wisdom, information and values. And if children do not go to shul, church or mosque, sit on the knee of a beloved grandparent to hear of their war, or grow up hearing the lament of the singer in the working men's club telling of a proud or difficult day, then they better have the wisdom of a narrative provided by a Schindler's List, It's a Wonderful Life or Hotel Rwanda and the other innumerable tales that tell us what it is to be human.

As co-founder of FilmClub, a charity providing education through film screenings, I have been gratified by the enormous popularity of what we do; headteachers repeatedly assert that FilmClub provides an entry point for many children who would not otherwise have access to the ideas and experiences contained in the extraordinary range of films they now see at school.

My colleagues and I are knocked out by the response from children to film. It seems that it offers them a fear-free way to discuss everything from form and language to history and social issues, and creates a richness of experience from all over the world that, in the words of one teacher, "breeds interest and enquiry". At FilmClub, we are glowing with pride and pleasure at the growing evidence that watching and then reviewing films has a measurable effect on literacy. But, above all, it makes the pupils happy.

I was asked by the UK Film Council to look at other organisations that use film as a tool for learning in schools and assess the outcome. My journey took me from the delights of the BFI archive in Berkhamsted to Film Education's National Schools Film Week and then to the First Light Film Awards, where school-age film-makers receive acknowledgement for their brilliant and often moving first films.

In the year that I spent in English schools and Indian villages and brothels, I was struck again and again by the contrast. The Devadasi put education as the top priority for their children, the only way out of a cycle of abuse and poverty. Yet here, children often find themselves in a struggle against an anti-learning culture reinforced by the idea that education is a set of hoops they must jump through.

But on my visits to British schools with FilmClub, I see children with their imaginations ignited. The power of a story to engage and inflame their creativity is palpable. They talk and write with excitement about what they have seen, what it means, what they have learnt and how they might use it.

When Shobha was 19, she decided enough was enough and she started a self-help group for Devadasi women who wanted to get out of sex work. For 10 years, she has travelled by foot, bus and rickshaw to the villages and towns of the Devadasi belt. Her work involves her patiently telling her story and asking other women to tell theirs. It is partly a teaching and partly a healing process - through these real-life tales, the women find out about micro-banking, HIV testing, housing schemes, and the law. Some of them have started to save money, many have got out of abusive situations. All of them are educating their daughters.

As both an avid listener to and a maker of stories, I have always believed in their power to transform. This year I saw it happen.

Beeban Kidron is a film director. Her credits include Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason. She is co-founder of FilmClub. Her new film, Sex, Death and the Gods, is being shown on BBC4 on Monday 24 January at 10pm.

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