Queen of the Beach is a deeply uncomfortable documentary about Chris McDonell, a Canadian man who goes by the nickname of Cleetche and attempts to conform a poor Indian girl’s life into a narrative he’s decided upon for her. McDonell met Shilpa Poojar when she was just 9 years old, hawking trinkets on Anjuna Beach in Goa, India, to wealthy white tourists. Shilpa and her sisters were struggling to get by; as the opening text in Queen of the Beach states, poverty in India has resulted in many children living difficult lives and supporting their families by working at young ages. McDonell happened to drop by the beach while filming a documentary about Western spiritual sojourns in India when he met Shilpa and her kin. He does what any Westerner lacking cultural self-awareness with a camera would do, I guess: He shoves it in their face, asks leading questions and buys them things in exchange for their participation. Actually, I doubt most Westerners would do such a thing. Most ignore the locals or treat them as nuisances, as McDonell does, too, on camera and multiple times.
Instead, McDonell sees the Poojar family as subjects to bribe and manipulate into a story he desperately wants to tell. Armed with an endless level of persistence, cultural ignorance and a crowdfunding tear-jerker, McDonell sets out to make the dream he has for Shilpa come true. It’s truly one of the most disturbing documentaries I’ve ever seen, a blazing example of the shallow self-absorption of missionary Christianity and Western arrogance.
I’ve never seen a documentary so confident in the story it’s telling despite reams of footage that indicate the subjects aren’t actually participating in the way the filmmaker wants the audience to believe. Queen of the Beach is disturbing on a multitude of ethical levels. The bizarre travelogue-style editing and music feel at odds with the seriousness of the situation depicted. Every scene is shocking in a new way. It’s a cringe-worthy spectacle. Where to start? It’s almost worth watching as an example of how not to conduct ethnography, how not to craft a story, how not to interact with local cultures. Colonialism is a buzzword on social media among left-leaning communities as a way of describing the way white, wealthy cultures actively work to erase the lives of those who don’t match their vision of reality. Queen of the Beach is the best example I’ve ever seen on film. Its utter lack of self-awareness is appalling.
There are many, many examples of McDonell failing to be curious and open-minded when he talks about Indian culture. For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep it to the most extraordinary. During the first segment, when he’s wandering around buying gifts for 9-year-old girls in exchange for their interviews (in which he asks pointed questions about arranged marriage), McDonnell mentions as an aside that sexual predators prowl at night. He shows a brief sign displayed on the beach warning against pedophiles. “I guess that’s why they put peppers in their tents,” he opines, “to ward off evil spirits.”
The subject of what these young girls have to deal with, working day in and day out on this beach, is never mentioned again. McDonell never once mentions the specter of child prostitution. He never digs into how this affects their lives, how it reflects the gender imbalances present in Indian culture or the way in which male tourists take opportunities to prey on girls like the Poojars. He’s constantly asking whether the girls are going to be married off or if they have husbands. Worst of all, he never seems to consider how a white tourist wandering around buying these little girls special gifts and asking them pointed questions about themselves might come across.
This is not to presume any designs for Shilpa beyond McDonell’s own entitled wish to make her the star of a story he wanted to tell about sending a girl to school. But those intimations of a different connection even creep into that story. For undisclosed reasons, McDonell lost contact with Shilpa for a half-decade and returns to India in search of her. He begins hanging around Shilpa, now in her mid-teens, nonstop and tries to ingratiate himself with her family and her work. Yes, Shilpa now has a better job at a shop far from the grind of the beach — one she loses after rumors spread that McDonell is her boyfriend and their relationship is inappropriate. Once again, McDonell shoves his camera in Shilpa’s face to ask her how she feels about these rumors and about losing her job. Indeed, his presence is the reason why she loses the job although there’s never any indication that he recognizes this — no contrition for or connection to the fact he likely does look like an enamored white tourist to the locals and in scenes of the film. (His first words to the teen Shilpa are compliments on how pretty she’s become.)
Setting aside the awkward nature of their relationship, McDonell simply never grapples with the inherent power imbalance between him and Shilpa. He’s a white tourist, wealthy or at least well-financed enough to return to India to film a documentary; his affiliation with Christian-mission ministry presumably has something to do with it. She’s a poor girl who is scraping to get by. He has money and the ability to get more money for her. When McDonell harangues her about the importance of school, Shilpa seems disinterested. It isn’t until he offers to help pay to repair her family home that she gets “excited” at the prospect of going to school. “She’s excited, finally!” he says to her from off-camera.
So McDonell raises $8,000 from roughly 33 donors on GoFundMe (which puts the average amount raised at something that feels much higher than “crowdfunding”) to fix the Poojars’ house. He relies on Shilpa to translate for a local contractor, into whose integrity he puts very little time or money for vetting. Then McDonell takes her to El Shaddai, a Charismatic Christian organization devoted to helping impoverished children get an education. He films the initial meeting with one of the teachers, who remarks that Shilpa is older than the usual student. The school is for young children, you see, and Shilpa is in her late teens. McDonell is undeterred. He insists that Shilpa attend anyway to learn reading and writing. She clearly feels awkward. What teenager wants to travel away from home to attend what is essentially daycare? He continues pressuring her anyway. He has succeeded, you see, at sending her to school! He’s achieved “her” childhood dream.
There are other instances where Queen of the Beach goes off the rails. At one point, while in a cab leaving her village, McDonell is chased by a band of little kids with their hands outstretched to him and asking for money. He tells the cab driver to hurry away from them. He laughs as they gain distance from the crowd, remarking how there are kids asking for money everywhere he goes. There’s no empathy to the laugh. There’s no concern for the conditions outside of Shilpa’s immediate situation. That lack of concern extends to Shilpa’s family. Despite only knowing him very briefly, McDonell berates Shilpa’s brother for not having a job to help support the family because of the extra strain it puts on Shilpa to be the main breadwinner. McDonell clearly sees Indian culture as backwards and unacceptable. Regardless of whether his assumptions about these specific people are correct, his documentary makes no effort to provide a broader context for the culture he interrogates or the people he meets.
It all comes back to the power imbalance inherent in the premise of Queen of the Beach. McDonell is a white tourist on a mission driven by concerns with his own congregation back home. He rampages through Shilpa’s life uninvited, showing up many years after he’d maintained zero contact to play her savior. Despite McDonell’s efforts, the postscript reveals nothing he did really mattered after he left.
The contractors he hired do not repair Shilpa’s home. Shilpa has to find a new career doing henna drawings on Arjuna Beach because his presence influenced her dismissal from the shop job. She doesn’t attend the school into which he tried to force her. Eventually, the local government fixes the Poojars’ house; McDonell mentions bribes and localized corruption in passing but never goes into detail, so it’s unclear why the Poojars’ house specifically was repaired in such a nice fashion. Thanks to a private tutor, Shilpa eventually learns English and marries off to someone we don’t really meet beyond a bit of footage shot at her wedding. She does say she’s going to convert to Christianity, so I guess that’s a win for McDonell. But what is the value of conversion if all you’ve done is bribe and badger someone into telling you what you want to hear? How much of his “good works” with her are just the result of persistently trying to push her in the direction he wants his movie to follow for viewers back home?
A lot of this review sounds accusatory of McDonell. The intent is not to cast aspersions on him as a person or implications about his motivation. There is enough of him onscreen, though, in Queen of the Beach — which plays so fast and loose with its subject matter — that it’s hard to not wonder how he didn’t realize the way he comes across. He’s aggressive, over-complimentary and constantly ignorant of what Shilpa seems to want — to the extent he causes her to lose work and be ostracized from her local friends. Neither does McDonell explore any of the culture into which he’s inducting Shilpa with any kind of depth. Shilpa is never able to explain what she would get out of going to school. Truthfully, neither is McDonell. In the end, she learns to read and write thanks to a private tutor, but we never learn how that tutor came into play. Were there extra funds in McDonell’s GoFundMe? Did her future husband pay for that tutelage (and perhaps the home repairs)? What value was there to any of this beyond McDonell saying he “sent her to school”? It’s just a baffling, almost maddening look at how not to make a documentary about another culture, and how not to make a documentary about another person. There’s no empathy or grace here, just a man with a camera trying to find a story to tell back home … even if he has to invent it.