Documentary channel

Stories of love and dance in ‘Raising the Bar’, Onir’s documentary about children with Down syndrome

The India-Australia collaboration follows the experiences of six families across the world.

A group of girls in Melbourne alight from a bus bearing a large a poster of the Netflix show Stranger Things. Seconds later, they break into a dance routine led by Alle Sayers, a smiling teenager.

Sayers has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that impairs cognitive functioning. The scene is from Raising the Bar, a documentary by Onir about the role of dance in the lives of a group of children with the condition. Onir’s 70-minute film covers several cities including Melbourne, Delhi, Mumbai and Ichalkaranji in Maharashtra as it traces the journeys of six children with the genetic disorder who congregate at the 2015 World Down Syndrome Congress in Chennai. Mitu Bhowmick Lange and e.motion21, an Australian non-profit, have co-produced the film.

Raising the Bar, which was premiered at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne in 2016, was screened in Mumbai last week. “I was worried about how the children would trust me and interact with me because that was very important for the film,” Onir said. “The difficult part was to know the family before shooting and gaining their trust so that they would not be conscious. That process was rewarding.”

Raising the Bar.

Alle Sayers’s mother Cate Sayers founded e.motion21, an Australian organisation that offers dance and fitness classes to children with Down syndrome. “At two in the morning one night, my husband and I, through tears, just looked at each other and said we have to choose a path and that we will be her champions,” Cate Sayers says through tears in the documentary. “A path where we make sure that she would show the world how awesome she was.”

The documentary features interviews with the families of six children with Down syndrome, including the Sayers, across India and Australia. Relationships, brotherhood, love, and most importantly, parenthood, is the focus of Raising the Bar.

Onir explained that he wanted to stay away from depicting the medical aspects of the syndrome and focus on universal experiences like love and friendship. “I just thought about the important things in our lives today,” he said. “There is friendship, love, acceptance, education, job, security, laughter and old age. All these are common things, that they are also worried about. My focus was their emotional aspect of life.”

Raising the Bar marks Onir’s return to documentary filmmaking. He started his career 25 years ago with Fallen Hero (1992), a documentary about the Bengali painter Bijan Choudhury. In the interim, he has made several feature films including My Brother...Nikhil (2005), I Am (2011), Shab (2017) and the recently released Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz (2018).

Speaking about the inspiration for Raising the Bar, he said, “Mitu [Lange] was down in Bombay a couple of years ago and she was looking for a documentary filmmaker who would be sensitive enough to deal with something like this. Mitu’s daughter too has Down syndrome and I immediately accepted the project. That is how the journey began.”

The documentary also explores the emotions of the parents of children with the disorder. “The mothers were telling me that they were really skeptical about opening up because there are a lot of people who just use these kind of things for their own benefit,” Onir said. “But they felt that they could trust me. Honestly I did not have to try hard. I spent time with the children, talking and playing with them.”

Establishing trust was key to the filmmaking process. “I remember one day I was spending time with one of the kids Aarshya, and we had gone to her school,” Onir said. “As she was coming down the stairs, she left her mother’s hand and came and held mine. For me that was a moment of trust from her.”

Raising the Bar. Image credit: Mind Blowing Films.
Raising the Bar. Image credit: Mind Blowing Films.
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.