Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Rooting For Roona’ On Netflix, A Documentary About A Girl With Birth Defects Facing Overwhelming Odds

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The beauty of documentary is the flexibility of the form; they can stretch on for hours and hours, or clock in at mere minutes. Rooting for Roona, now streaming on Netflix, tells quite the story in just 41 minutes, adding color to a viral news story from a few years back. The short documentary takes us on a trip to rural India, where remarkable baby Roona lives with her parents. 

The Gist: In 2013, the story of infant Roona Begum went viral online. Born with hydrocephalus, a birth defect caused by a build-up of fluid in the brain that causes extreme swelling of the head, Roona’s head had grown to a circumference of 37″, rendering her unable to walk, talk, or sit up on her own. Children born with this condition generally require intervention at birth to prevent complications like Roona’s, but her parents, Abdul Rahman and Fatima Khatun, hey were unable to afford taking her out of the state for treatment that local hospitals were unable to offer. We’re introduced to Fatima first via voiceover as we get glimpses of tranquil Jirania Khola, Tripura, India. While some parents might have abandoned a child with these kinds of needs, for Fatima and Abdul, there was never any other option. The couple recounts how people they met tried to tell them they were being punished for their sins, but no matter what was said, they hoped and prayed that one day, Roona would get better. 

These prayers were seemingly answered when photojournalist Arindam Dey visited Tripura and took photos of Roona and her parents, and the images spread through the news like wildfire. People from all over the world commented on stories and reached out wondering how they might be able to help, and eventually, Fatima and Abdul were able to take Roona to a doctor in New Delhi who believed she was curable. Over the next few months and years, we embark on a journey with Roona through her multiple surgeries and the way she (and her parents) change in their aftermath, including the addition of a younger brother.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Rooting for Roona fits in quite nicely with a lot of the other short documentaries available for streaming on Netflix; though the subject matter is different, those who liked films like End Game and Period: End of Sentence (and documentaries that depict medical anomalies and stories of struggle and hope) will likely enjoy Rooting for Roona.

Memorable Dialogue: The film’s opening lines, spoken by Roona’s mother Fatima, go straight for the heart: “I’d always wished for a daughter. Always. A daughter knows her mother’s sorrow.”

Our Take: A unique portrait of an even more unique situation, Rooting for Roona packs some four years of life into just forty minutes. What the filmmakers do best is keep things simple; they build the world in a swift and intriguing manner by giving us glimpses of the town and the people who live in it from the beginning, allowing Fatima to draw us in on a personal level via voiceover. Fatima is, in a way, the heart of the film, despite it being about Roona; she is a mother unashamed in her doggedness and unwavering in her love, unable to see anything but a beautiful future for her daughter despite the circumstances. This is really Fatima’s film. It’s a portrait of a mother’s love and a mother’s anguish, of making the most out of every single day with her child, of creating a new normal for her family.

It might have been easy for the filmmakers to make Rooting for Roona a little soapier due to its sensitive subject matter, but instead, they document events in a way that makes us feel like we’re standing beside them. Like we’re sitting on the floor next to Fatima as she fans Roona, or in the car on the way to the hospital. It’s all so very down to earth, which is why it’s so effective.

If you’re someone who has a tough time with medical subject matter and surgery visuals, this may not be the film for you. But even as a slightly squeamish viewer, I was still moved by it all. More than anything, it’s a story about hope in the face of overwhelming odds, about survival and the strength to fight, even when you’re the underdog. It’s a tale of people who are optimistic because they can’t possibly fathom being anything else. There are some truly painful, raw experiences chronicled here, but they only help to create a clearer picture of this little girl’s impact and the love she left behind. Despite the sad truth about what happens to Roona, it still doesn’t feel like a waste of time to root for her.

Our Call: STREAM IT… but know it’s a bit of a tearjerker. At 41 minutes, it wastes no time in getting to the real heart of the story, and while Roona’s fate may be relatively common knowledge today, it’s still a journey well worth investing in.

Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.

Stream Rooting For Roona on Netflix

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