The 2nd South Asian International Documentary Festival (SAID) presented by Tasveer is brimming with films that explore substantive topics. From Bollywood to outsourced workers and—the most prevalent—women’s rights in repressive societies, the narratives reflect hope even in a time of despair.
Consider the liberated ladies of Gulabi Gang. If you caught Pink Saris a few years ago, you may recall Sampat Pal Devi as the outspoken activist of Uttar Pradesh India who, in 2006, organized rural women to fight against the abuses of men, and sometimes other women. When Sampat appears on the scene, men tremble. Summoned to a village where a woman has been burned to death, she’s told by the victim’s husband and in-laws that the cooking fire is to blame. But like a television CSI detective, Sampat immediately notes the body lying in a room where there is no stove. Not to be taken lightly; Sampat admonishes, she insults, she lets the men know that she knows they’re lying. Then, she marches straight to police headquarters, haranguing authorities until a murder investigation is opened.
Shouting and waving their bamboo sticks called lathi, the women of Gulabi Gang confront men who are reported for beating and sometimes killing women. But in addition to their vigilante stance, the feminists are also civically involved. Following Sampat’s lead, they make their votes count and actively campaign for candidates who support their agenda, even installing their own members into office. Gulabi Gang women are empowered, never losing hope even while facing adversity. And, in one joyous scene in a display of global unity, they’re joined in song and dance by women traveling from Fiji.
Another documentary about oppressed females, I Was Worth 50 Sheep, unravels in Afghanistan where 10 year-old Farzaneh has been sold to a 60 year-old man in exchange for some farm animals and land. Fortunately, she’s been purchased on an installment plan and has six years before she’s to report for marriage. Meanwhile, her older half-sister Sabere has just escaped a six years-long abusive marriage and returned home—at 16. After escaping to a safe house, she solicits legal help in divorcing her abuser, by whom she suffered several miscarriages including a third trimester fetus that was literally beaten from her body. While moving between the safe house, her family home and court, she dons a burqa lest she be identified by Taliban members. Meanwhile, Sabere’s stepfather laments his lack of a son because living with four women (his wife, his mother and two daughters) makes life difficult even though they wait on him with freshly pumped glasses of water and homemade meals.
Denied education, traded for land and livestock, subjugated and suffering at the hands of brutal men, Sabere nonetheless remains dignified.
“All of our problems stem from illiteracy,” she declares.
Raising her voice in punctuation, Sabere displays a glint in her eyes reflecting the hope she feels for her future.
Women aren’t the only ones standing up for women. In The Menstrual Man, Muruganantham is appalled upon learning about the high infection rate among rural Indian women because of the rags they use during their periods. Washing them, they hang them out to dry only briefly because of the shame associated with bleeding. Thus, bacteria are encouraged to cultivate on the rags that are then reused. Obsessed with creating the perfect sanitary pad, Muruganantham avidly researches to the mortification of his wife, then his mother—losing both when they decide he’s crazy. But when he builds a machine that village women can operate to manufacture sanitary pads, a cottage industry is born. Brilliant, yet not formally educated, Muruganantham is dedicated, driven, modest and munificent—never seeking a profit.
Men can be oppressed, too, in ways that aren’t always evident. In Mardistan, four New Dehli Sikh men are profiled about their societal roles and their views of women. Amandeep is an author; Tarun, a virginal college student; Gurpreet, a man passionate about his twin daughters; and, Dhananjay, a homosexual who opted for marriage and children over coming out as gay.
Three Sad Tigers also makes a case for demoralized men, those who are outsourced. Three Bangladeshi men go to Dubai for jobs that won’t even cover the debts they’ve incurred, including contractor fees they paid to secure those positions.
For lighter fare, there’s An American in Madras, the story of Ellis R. Dungan who went to India in 1935 on a lark, but stayed and made films in Tamil even though he never spoke the language. The black and white scenes, and glorious music, featured from his movies are extraordinary.
In Beyond Bollywood, the film industry is examined through the yearning eyes of four hopefuls. Pooja left home for Mumbai determined to dance in Bollywood, but deals with a jealous boyfriend. Harry, an Australian, finds work as the foreign entity in commercials and the white guy centerpiece in features. Prem Singh Thakur advocates for union members while Ojas, a makeup artist, is far more dramatic than any of the actors he styles.
Finally, there’s more dancing in Remembering Kumari when Nepalese culture is showcased in a goddess dance honoring a teacher.
A documentary is also being screened at the Northwest Film Forum. Shot in Nepal, Manakamana is 158 minutes of intimacy shared with worshippers riding a cable car to the temple of goddess Manakamana. Crowded inside a windowed box, high in the sky overlooking jungles, mountains and villages, the travelers talk displaying a mix of awe and fear.
Among the passengers are an old man and boy who never exchange a word of dialogue, three young musicians fussing with their hair while snapping selfies, a rooster, kitten, several bleating goats, and more. With its gentle message of traditional versus modern life, this film promotes hope through a couple seen departing earlier that returns looking happier than when they left.
2nd SAID (South Asian International Documentary) Festival takes place June 28 and 29 at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, 719 S. King St. in the Chinatown/ID neighborhood. For more information, call (206) 623-5124 or visit www.tasveer.org.
Manakamana shows at the Northwest Film Forum from June 20 to 26. Northwest Film Forum is located on Capitol Hill at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, call (206) 329-2629 or visit nwfilmforum.org.