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July 7, 2009

SCA Alumnus Wins Student Oscar

Film Addressing Slavery Takes Home Gold Medal

By Mel Cowan

Director Gregg Helvey, right, with actor Gary Oldman at the 36th annual Student Academy Awards. © Greg Harbaugh, AMPAS
Writer/director Gregg Helvey, M.F.A. '09, has turned bricks into gold with his film Kavi, which won the gold medal for narrative short film at the 36th annual Student Academy Awards on June 13.

Kavi is the story of a young boy in India who wants more out of life than work. Kavi wants to play cricket and go to school, but instead he is forced to work in a brick kiln as a modern-day slave. Unsatisfied with his fate, Kavi must choose to either accept what he's always been told, or to fight for a different life even if he's unsure of the ultimate outcome.

"For my first film, it has been humbling, exciting and thrilling to see Kavi touch people's hearts and raise awareness about modern slavery," said Helvey, who not only wrote and directed the film, but produced it as well.

Kavi benefited from the expertise of other Trojan personnel, including director of photography John Harrison, M.F.A. '08; sound designer Gentry Smith, M.F.A. '04; and composer and Thornton School of Music adjunct professor Patrick Kirst.

The inspiration for the film came when Helvey learned that more slaves exist today than during the entire 400 years of transatlantic slave trade. "Bonded slavery is the biggest form of slavery today and I realized how important it was to raise awareness of this injustice through a great story," he said.

Working to make his story as authentic as possible, on a separate trip, Helvey spent a month location scouting at brick kilns across India, meeting many child workers during that time. For production, the shooting location included a village four hours outside of Mumbai with two dormant brick kilns.
Helvey working with actor Sagar Salunke. Photo credit: Aman Puri

Helvey's 60-person crew was almost completely composed of professionals from the Mumbai film industry. Many of the cast and crew only spoke Hindi, while the production's nearly 40 extras were locals who spoke Marathi, a completely different language.

In addition to the language barrier, the monsoon season posed a threat to the production. With an imminent storm rushing toward them, Helvey's crew worked overtime to finish the film, barely escaping the monsoon, which swept through their set two hours after wrapping.

But the difficulties were worth it for Helvey. "The entire process really affirmed my calling to make films. Although it was a difficult and sometimes painful process leading up to the shoot, as soon as we were shooting, all the pain disappeared and it was a joy," Helvey said. "In the end, it was an extremely emotional process and I am so thankful that I can give a voice to the voiceless in this small way."