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The World Before Her (2012)

Written and Directed by Nisha Pahuja
Run Time: 90 minutes

“There are two Indias” Sabira Merchant, a diction coach for the Miss India beauty pageant tells us.

In 1996, India hosted Miss World, causing masive backlash and numerous protests from both extreme-right wing Hindu nationalist groups and feminist organizations. Since then, beauty pageants have been increasingly vilified by right wing organizations. The World Before Her juxtaposes the 2011 Miss India beauty pageant with training in Durga Vahini – a camp run by the women’s wing of a right wing Hindu organization to make women between 15 and 35 “warrior goddesses”, often labelled a terrorist camp, or the ‘hindu Taliban.’

Pahuja shows us these two sides without ever taking one herself – she shows us strong women on both convinced what they are doing is right. The fundamentalist talks about how the models are destroying Indian culture and presenting themselves as slabs of meat for men and is proud of how strong she’s gotten while teaching little girls how to shoot and claiming she’d kill anyone who threatened her religion. The model talk about how she stands for freedom, progress and choice then says her instant reaction if she found out her son is gay would be to slap him.

And they all have their doubts too. In a particularly poignant moment, we see the fundamentalist we follow most closely cry at her father’s insistence she must marry. The Miss India contestants are taken to a beach and shrouded in a robe with holes cut out for their eyes that covers everything but their legs because the man in charge says he wants to see “just sexy legs”. We see a contestant who had previously claimed that is wasn’t “just physical beauty” being judged wonder if it’s worth the humiliation.

But their worlds are not entirely different. We see model and fundamentalist alike talk about how grateful they are to their parents for creating them, giving birth to them despite their being girls. The fundamentalist sees this as justification for her father hitting her. The models see it as reasons why they have to win and make them proud.

Essentially, the documentary takes a non-judgmental view at two very separate realities for Indian women today. It is important to keep in mind that they are pretty end-of-spectrum examples and in reality most Indian women have a reality somewhere in between, but the documentary does an excellent job of taking two extremes and still dealing with them in a careful, nuanced manner.

Further Reading: Bidwai, Praful. “Confronting the Reality of Hindutva Terrorism”. Economic and Political Weekly 43.47 (2008): 10–13. Web…

Pink Saris

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Pink Saris (Produced for UK Channel 4,shot in Uttar Pradesh, India, US Distributor Women Make Movies)

Pink Saris is a new documentary from Kim Longinotto that follows the efforts of the Gulabi Gang, or Pink Gang, a group of female vigilantes against domestic violence in the lower castes of Northern India. The group was founded by Sampat Pal after she was forced out of her home for fighting back when her husband and her in-laws beat her. When women are in trouble, they find Sampat and she fights for them, either through law enforcement or through negotiating with the women’s husbands and families-in-law.

The documentary focuses on Sampat, following her as she negotiates on behalf of five different women. It mostly lets Sampat speak for herself, employing no voiceover, limited subtitles of background information, and brief questions asked of Sampat and her clients. The majority of the film consists of dialogue between Sampat and others. It is clear that Longinotto is in awe of Sampat and her great efforts for women, but it does not shy away from showing her actions that are easily unlikeable. She sends her niece back to the in-laws who beat her in order to garner good will with the family. Within twelve hours, the girl is beaten again.

The film succeeds best at raising awareness of the pervasiveness of the issue of domestic assault and general mistreatment of women of the lowest castes in India, showing that there are few good options for many of the women in these situations. Many of Sampat’s solutions involve sending her charges back to abusive relatives, after negotiation promising change, but with no guarantee that this will be true.

The film was featured at several prominent international festivals (IDFA, Toronto) and has been nominated for s 2011 BAFTA for Best Single Documentary.

Alex Younger April 2011

Shape of Water, The (Dir: Kum-Kum Bhavani, 2006)

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The Shape of Water is a 2006 documentary that gives a face and a voice to the struggles and grassroots activism of women from a number of conflicted global zones. The film ties together stories from four countries, India, Brazil, Senegal, Palestine, following the situations, activities, and personal outlooks of a variety of women engaged in a variety of social, ecological and political activism in support of women’s and human rights. The film is unique in its strong focus on the individual political situations, subjective histories, and local conflicts that shape each of its subjects’ narratives, while simultaneously investing itself in a vision of global women’s work in defense of their communities, environments, cultures, families, and bodies.

Dona Antonia, who lives in the Brazilian rainforest, speaks on behalf of the rubber tappers’ movement against agri-business, the destruction of the rainforest, and corporate exploitation of both workers and the forest in which they work. Dona Antonia has been involved for many years with this truly grassroots campaign, and gives viewers a history of the movement as well as the individual narrative of her life as an activist, mother, wife, and rubber tapper. Her narrations and personal recollections are interwoven with those of Oraiza, a young rubber tapper and mother living in the rainforest. Oraiza works non-stop for 12 to 16 hours a day, continuing the cycle of subsistence crucial to herself and her family. Dona Antonia and the filmmaker expose the threat posed to organic, small-scale rubber tappers such as Oraiza by the interests of big business and financially-motivated governmental policy, while elaborating on the history and future of the strongly egalitarian and solidarity-driven resistance movement among the rubber tappers.

The film explores of women’s activism against genital cutting practices in Senegal, making visible a number of women-led projects from the rap group ALIF, based in the capital, who make strong statements against cutting through their engaging performances, to women’s groups in small, rural communities, whose discussions negotiate and enact the conflicted discourses on front lines of the anti-cutting movement. Those who oppose cutting practices must navigate a new territory beyond a tradition sanctified by time-honored cultural custom and sustained by vocational restrictions on women, standing against both the patriarchal cultural expectations and capitalist economic realities of contemporary Senegal in their struggle to reaffirm their rights to their own bodies. The Shape of Water documents these struggles and their participants with strong focus on the voices of the involved women themselves.

In Israel/Palestine, a group of women of Arab and Israeli Jewish backgrounds have come together to form the group Women in Black, protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine specifically and the violence that characterizes it in general. Dressing in all black to mourn the ongoing conflict’s countless victims, both Arab and Israeli, and carrying black signs bearing slogans, the women make a simple statement against the occupation by standing together in public spaces. These women have had to deal with aggressive and sometimes violent negative reactions from right-wing and pro-occupation members of the public, who attack the protestors with everything from verbal sexual harassment to physical violence. Despite these obstacles, the Women in Black have not faltered in their weekly demonstrations; now, active branches of this group exist around the globe, speaking out against destructive local conflicts and worldwide violence. Rather than associating themselves with a specific ideology or party line, the Women in Black advocate a reconciliatory approach to social conflicts that transcends ideology.

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Finally, The Shape of Water takes us to India, where we encounter the work of two separate groups: the SEWA women’s collective, based all over India, and the Navdanya farm in the rural Himalayas. The SEWA (Self Employed Womens Association) is a hybrid labor union and social movement, its members drawn from hundreds of thousands of poor, self-employed women surviving from their work in small shops, businesses, and other micro-scale labor situations. The women who join SEWA represent a class of the populace who sustain themselves and their families outside of employment by the powerful international corporations that have overtaken much of India’s production economy. SEWA seeks to protect this way of life by providing all of its members with full self-supportability, including health care, child care, shelter, and work/income security—a radical goal, unfortunately, given the climate of drastic poverty and opposition often faced by SEWA’s members. Nonetheless, SEWA has been remarkably successful in achieving its goals, and due to the immense strength of the solidarity generated by its members, has become and continues to grow as a powerful, united women’s movement. The film excellently documents the history, practice, and current efforts of SEWA through many interviews with its committed, outspoken members.

The Navdanya farm, in the Himalayas, is another example of a women’s collective committed to providing and sustaining alternatives to globalized economic modes of production. Grounded in the deeply ecological-feminist thought of its founder, Dr. Vandana Shiva, the farm specifically works to preserve the native biodiversity of its region, especially in regards to the food crops that have been cultivated there for hundreds of years. In the past few years, the agricultural regions of India have been severely and doubly hurt by the actions of large biochemical corporations: the introduction of genetically modified crops has crippled the growth of native crops, while the legal patents on these genetically modified plants have forced the once-autonomous farmers who grow them into a kind of legal serfdom or sharecropperhood. The Navdanya farm project attempts to nourish and sustain native crops while simultaneously empowering its women workers, resisting globalized and genetically modified incursion on rural Indian soil, and fostering rural Indian and women’s self-reliance.

In sum, The Shape of Water offers a compelling vision of the power of women’s activism worldwide. The film shatters typical Western conceptions of third-world women as passive, pitiable recipients of suffering, instead affirming the vital and active nature of women’s work against domination locally and worldwide. Additionally, the strong focus on the link between human survival and ecological survival that is advocated in some way by all of the women in the film cannot be understressed. The film occasionally employs a rhetoric of dichotomy between the ‘feminine’/’natural’ as opposed to the ‘masculine’/’industrial’, while other times advancing a view that transcends binaries in favor of the reconciliation and co-lateral healing of human and ecological communities. The Shape of Water should thus be of prime interest to any study of contemporary eco-feminism. It would also be useful for explorations of third-world narratives, voices, and struggles, particularly those belonging to women; alternately, in a more economically-minded setting, the film could serve as an excellent complement to any study of the impacts of globalization on third-world communities and ways of life.

Internet Resources

http://www.theshapeofwatermovie.comFilm official site

http://www.sewa.org
SEWA homepage

http://www.navdanya.org Navdanya homepage

Tripod Resources

Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1993.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Third World women and the politics of feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991

Ruether, Rosemary R. Women healing earth : Third World women on ecology, feminism, and religion.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996