Made In India: SEWA in Action

Running Time: 55 min
Self-employed attend a SEWA meeting. © 1998.

Self-employed attend a SEWA meeting. © 1998.

Made In India examines the Self-Employed Women’s Association, an organization that acts as a union and organizing body for poor, self-employed Indian women such as embroiderers or street vendors. Directed by Patricia Plattner, the film incorporates interviews with SEWA’s founders and with self-employed SEWA members, as well as footage of the women working or organizing in the style of cinema verite.

SEWA was founded in the belief that those who worked in the “unorganized sector” – that is, without a main employer such as a factory – could benefit from the solidarity and self-empowerment of being in a union. SEWA founder Ela Bhatt notes that organizing would give women the ability to feel more confident about their work and to dispel the shame surrounding these women’s jobs.

For example, one woman named Geeta works as a rag picker, which involves sorting through city trash to find recyclable cardboard and plastic. SEWA communicated with local middle-class communities so that residents set their trash out for rag pickers to collect, thus improving the conditions in which these women work. Geeta describes how after this change, the middle-class residents will ask for her if she doesn’t come around for a while – her job now carries less social stigma.

In addition to improving working conditions, SEWA focuses on increasing the economic mobility of their members. Because many women had incurred debts since they are short on capital, SEWA started a bank that would give out small loans to self-employed women. SEWA’s bank was unusual in that it was willing to give loans to very poor and often illiterate women. Further, SEWA ensured that the bank’s tellers included rag pickers, vendors, and other self-employed women, so that the women themselves decide who gets loans.

Near the end of the film, one woman says “times have changed,” noting how husbands will now listen to what their wives have to say. The increased economic benefits from SEWA have shifted power structures at home, and the film demonstrates how SEWA’s organizing has impacted the lives of thousands of self-employed women. Made In India provides a striking portrait of an organization that is successfully transforming a economically divided country.

Women Make Movies link:

Further Reading:

[1] Datta, R. (2003). From Development to Empowerment: The Self-Employed Women’s Association in India. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 16(3). Retrieved from

[2] Isaacs, S., Bombaywala, A., Desai, R., Parmar, R., Patni, C., Shah, M., & Shaik, K. (1994). Banking on Self-Employment. Agenda, 23. Retrieved from

Treyf (Alisa Lebow, Cynthia Mandasky, 1998)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 55 min

“Treyf” examines the relationship Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky have with each other, Judaism, their heritage, and Israel. Lebow and Madansky met during a Passover seder in Brooklyn, New York. Throughout the documentary they explore their connection to Queerness and Judaism through footage of the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Jerusalem, synagogues, and their home.

A major theme of the film is the concept of “treyf”. It is a Yiddish term that means either food that is not kosher or person who is an abomination. While Alisa refuses to eat treyf food, Cynthia takes a pleasure in defying tradition and the way she was brought up. They are both secular Jews, so the choice is more about culture and personality than religion.
The women disagree with each other about almost every aspect of the documentary. While Alisa lived in Israel and still has fondness for it, Cynthia seems completely done with it. Cynthia has an obsession with the ultra-orthodoxy, which Alisa thinks of as an exotification. They grew up with a shared culture, but through their sexuality grew apart from it in different ways.
Despite the arguments, they make it clear that they come from the same place and are still tightly bound to the Jewish community and the lesbian community. By showing both of their perspectives, and by interviewing dozens of other queer Jewish women, Treyf manages to capture the way both communities affect who they are as people and the way they see themselves in the world. Even though there are different forms of Judaism, and different expressions of queerness, there is also a shared understanding, although it is by no means uncomplicated.

For further reading,  see Alisa Lebow’s thoughts on the creation of the documentary in her book,  First Person Jewish (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Lisa Yelsey Class of 2013

April 2011

Searching for Go-Hyang (dir. Tammy Tolle)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 32 min

Distributor: Women Make Movies
Original Format: Video

Searching for Go-Hyang follows Tolle and her twin sister as they return to Korea (called “Go-Hyang” in Korean) to meet their estranged family. When the family business failed, their father became an alcoholic. Faced with serious financial burden, their mother put the two girls up for adoption to the United States at the age of eight. The mother was told that she would be able to contact her daughters, but after her children had been sent away, she was denied that right. Upon reaching America, the girls were subjected to physical and emotional abuse from their adoptive American parents. At sixteen, the two girls decided to move out of the house of their adoptive parents, and worked to support themselves through high school. After fourteen years of absence, the film documents the moment in which they reunite with their father and mother, and the conversations that they have with their biological family, through the assistance of a translator.

The film begins with explanatory words on the screen, describing the historical background of the Korean Civil War (1951-1953) that preceded the creation of the adoption agencies involved. These written commentaries continue throughout the film, either translating the Korean of the parents, or giving additional statements from the voice of the narrator. Tolle also utilizes a voice-over narration technique, criticizing the adoption agency, and the frustrations of identity that she experiences between her early life in Korea and her later life in America. Tolle also uses footage of herself and her sister describing their experiences in America to their parents (through the translator).

One noticeable absence from the text is footage or developed discussion of their American experience. The audience learns only that the mother’s name was “Cheri,” and that she tried to erase their cultural identities. All of the descriptions of abuse are told by Tolle and her sister in a very general way, without reference to specific instances, either through the descriptions they give to their biological parents upon reuniting, or through the written commentary on the bottom of the screen. As Tolle’s sister tells their parents that they did not speak English upon their arrival, the written commentary states, “We were forbidden to speak Korean.” When Tolle describes how their adoptive mother changed their names and cut their hair, the written commentaries reads “They told us we were ugly.” There is never any statement from the American parents, nor do the women describe specific instances in which they were abused; they simply mention that they were beaten and physically abused.

Presumably, the girls would not have any resources, or at least did not know of any resources, that might have helped them. There is no evidence that the girls entered the foster care system, nor that they pursued legal action against their American parents, and any evidence of the abuse would have disappeared long ago. It is also likely that the women had not spoken to their adoptive family since they left, six years prior to their return to Korea. Thus, the film focuses on the sentiments of the women upon reuniting with their family. The women meet their long lost brothers, begin to relearn Korean, and share a cheerful, at times poignantly funny, meal with their Korean family, as their mother reintroduces them to their favorite foods, squid and kimchi. Finally, the film is much more a portrayal of the emotional history of the two women, having endured abuse, and looking towards a rediscovered sense of identity, than a chronicle of the abuses of their past. The film ends in self-reflection, showing pictures of the women in high school with their friends, as Tolle tells us “There was no one to be proud of me.” She comes to terms with her Korean and American identities: “I do not wish I had stayed in Korea, nor do I regret or embrace that I was adopted…” appears as written commentary, before Tolle tells the audience “I have come to find peace with it. This homeland I will always search for is neither Korean nor the US but will always be parts of both.”

The Righteous Babes (Dir: Pratibha Parma, 1998)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 50 min

Color Video
Distributed by Women Make Movies

Skin and Sinead O'Connor in Pratibha Parmar's 'The Righteous Babes'

The Righteous Babes is a documentary by director Pratibha Parmar, which explores feminism in music, particularly in the 1990s. The name was taken from folksinger Ani DiFranco’s record label, ‘Righteous Babe Records’, which focuses on releasing albums for non-mainstream musicians. The documentary consists of musical footage with interviews of leading female vocal artists – Sinead O’Connor, Skin (Skunk Anansie), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Tori Amos, and Ani DiFranco – their fans, and feminists Andrea Dworkin, Camille Paglia, and Gloria Steinem.
Parmar portrays women in rock as a new type of feminist, showing the growth of this new form, from women such as Madonna using their sexuality to close the gap between feminism and music, to others like Chrissie Hynde, managing a band of men, to those addressing domestic abuse, like Tori Amos. The documentary also explores the exploitation of female artists by record labels, looking at examples from O’Conner and Madonna.
Parmar and those interviewed also criticize the more commercialized, or what O’Conner terms “bumper sticker”, version of feminism, with the Spice Girls, and also outside of music, Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal. “Feminism is a good word with a bad press. It is time for it to be used again with pride,” the voiceover says, addressing and educating young viewers learning about feminism mostly through mainstream media. While questioning these ditsier girl models and more generally new feminist role models, Parmar also asks, what exactly is feminism?
Parma is an Indian British filmmaker known for her documentaries on South Asian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual people (LGBT), and her debut feature film Nina’s Heavenly Delights. She has also made music videos for Tori Amos, featured in this documentary, as well as for other musicians, Morcheeba, Ghostlands and Midge Ure.

Women Make Movies entry for Righteous Babes:
A site focusing on female musicians, particularly in Rock:
Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe Records site:
Wikipedia entry on third-wave feminism: