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Islam & Women's Rights at the Human Rights Watch Film Fest

solarmamaThe powerful and poignant documentaries and docudramas of the24th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival were welcomed in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and, for the first time, at the IFC Center, after turns in Toronto; London; and Chicago. Look for selections from this year’s thought-provoking Festival as they travel throughout the year across the United States and Europe.

The Festival is organized around themes that match the program activities of Human Rights Watch, as an international monitoring and advocacy organization—“Traditional Values and Human Rights: for Women, the Disabled, and Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT”); “Crises and Migration”; and, “Human Rights in Asia and the United States”. But the messages that come through from the brave, resolute, and determined people surmounting very difficult situations aren’t restrained by those categories.

Is Islam Inimical to Women’s Rights? Or Just Muslim Men?

The Human Rights Watch Festival delicately terms one theme as illustrating “Traditional Values and Human Rights: Women’s Rights”, but in damning verité documentation and personal memories, a half-dozen moving films, implicitly or explicitly, point a veritable finger at Muslim male attitudes for keeping Muslim women from education and employment, and even contact with the world outside their home, even abusively so.

Salma is the most egregious example not only of oppression and redemption, but also in exposing how patriarchal attitudes become so ingrained in a society that women enforce them on each other, regardless of laws. Beyond even director Kim Longinotto’s previous profiles of iconoclastic women, from Africa (such as Sisters In Law) to South Asia (such as Pink Saris), this is an inspiring biography. The life story of Salma, born a Tamil Muslim in southern India in 1968, is frighteningly similar to that of the 19th century American slave Harriet Jacobs who escaped to pen an autobiography that spurred abolition, or a domestic version of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Salma’s crimes were first being born female, reaching puberty in a small village, then refusing an arranged marriage, and, worse, smuggling out richly explicit poetry about how she felt about being locked up in a small room for years in punishment for her stubborn refusal and being manipulated into caving in to a restrictive marriage. And that’s only the first half of her transformative life, that she revisits in her home village in revealing interviews with her extended family, who still have mixed feelings about her rebellion, her writings (her autobiographical novel The Hour Past Midnight is available in English, while her famous poems are currently being translated for publication), her scandalous escape to the city, and her political activities to help girls and women who still suffer today as she did. Even though the local and state Indian government party politics are a bit hard to follow, see this eye-opening documentary before any possible Hollywood bio-pic can simplify the complexities and nuances.

salmaposterInTall As The Baobab Tree, the Festival closer, director Jeremy Teicher expands from the true stories in his earlier documentary This Is Us that grew out of the autobiographical videos his students made about the issues they face in rural Senegal. Filming in a village two hours south of Dakar typical of sub-Saharan Africa, non-professional actors portray characters whose personal lives closely parallel the (barely) fictional ones. Two sisters want to continue going to the new local school in the nearby town, even as accidents and expectations strain their father’s openness to this modern opportunity, and he resorts to the financial solution of arranging a marriage for the 11-year-old. Her devoted teenage sister undertakes a desperate effort to prevent this in every way she can, from appealing for intervention from elders to working any job she can get no matter how menial, even putting her own dreams on hold. Beyond the authenticity of a score that includes local musicians, including master kora player Salieu Suso, and dialogue in the local Pulaar language for the first time in an international feature film, the story is genuinely affecting as to what will happen to this family, if depressingly honest about limited options for girls.

In Morocco, Camera/Woman is an intimate take on how a Muslim woman can try to forge employment opportunities within the narrow acceptable strictures of helping other women with their weddings. Beyond similar-themed documentaries in the past decade (The Beauty Academy of Kabul and Desert Brides about a Bedouin wedding photographer in the Negev), director Karima Zoubir gets Casablanca divorcée Khadija Harrad to open up about her feelings over the increasing challenges she faces in pressures from her ex-husband and her parents to more respectably support her son, let alone from her landlord and the male wedding planners who hire her. Key to how she deals with her frustrations is the frank girl talk for emotional support she has with divorced friends, a heartening affirmation of the importance of female solidarity within a confined situation.

InGoing Up The Stairs, Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami opens up new horizons for a mature Muslim woman whose life has been circumscribed in the house where she arrived as child bride to a man 30 years older until her grandson asked her to draw for him. Now, like Grandma Moses in Tehran, the illiterate Akram covers every available surface with bright, gorgeous images from her dreams and now awakened imagination (Akram narrates lively explanations as she quickly paints), much to her grouchy, demanding husband’s consternation. Worse, he holds over her the restrictive requirement that she needs his permission to leave the country for an exhibition of her pieces in Paris arranged by the filmmaker, who also promises to be her chaperone to the wider world of art. Whether Akram’s prayers in the women’s section of the mosque will be answered is as suspenseful as enlightening.

TallastheBoababTreeRafea: Solar Mama starts out as if directors Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief are making a promotional piece for Barefoot College, founded in northwest India by Bunker Roy in 1972, which brings mature women, usually illiterate grandmothers, from impoverished villages around the world to their campus for a Ghandi-inspired empowerment program of training them as “solar engineers” who will set up sustainable solar electrification projects and teaching workshops for their communities, providing the first electricity and income stream they’ve had. The non-profit organization even pays for a family chaperone and support for the ones at home while they’re gone for six months, as well as the equipment. Who wouldn’t jump at this educational and entrepreneurial opportunity? Rafea, a Bedouin mother of young daughters, is initially reluctant, but she and her family give in to pressure from Jordanian government officials who want to promote their inaugural participation. Just when she blooms by achieving something, in concert with the other women students from conservative societies, her affronted, unemployed husband sends off a stream of complaints from Amman to India because his second wife is no longer around to wait on him hand and foot whenever he’s not with Wife #1. Such a dramatic example of the stubborn persistence of male prerogatives that’s it’s almost a soap opera, this documentary also continues to be shown on PBS stations.

What similarly comes across in the well-meaning effort My Afghanistan – Life In The Forbidden Zone, that gives mobile phones with HD video cameras to 30 civilians caught in the crossfire of the much fought-over Helmand province, is that Muslim women there are invisible to outsiders. While director/project coordinator Nagieb Khaja really tries to recruit shyly interested women participants over the three years, it looks like the men in their families quash their hopes. At least the farmers and teenage boys include glimpses of how they try to protect young children who are confused eyewitnesses to the noisy chaos (and worse) of living in a shifting war zone. In Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington director Sebastian Junger passionately captures how his friend and photojournalist (and humanitarian) colleague always made civilians a priority in his coverage of such hot spots around the world, particularly children.

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