A film festival engendering female empowerment

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The San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival features more than 20 films from across the South Asian subcontinent, the United States and Canada and includes independent films and classics as well as bigger-budget Bollywood films. With a penchant for inclusivity, this year’s theme is gender revolutions in the women’s and transgender movements.

“The Gulabi Gang”

If Sampat Pal Devi, the head of the Gulabi Gang, were ever to be immortalized in sculpture, she would be depicted with one hand holding that of the woman beside her and the other gripping a big stick — one part love and one part justice. In Nishtha Jain’s documentary “Gulabi Gang”, Devi is immortalized in a similar way. The members of the Gulabi Gang have been hailed across the world as fighters against patriarchy, class oppression and corruption in rural India. Described often as badass vigilantes who beat up men who harass women, even if those men are in the police force, these women don’t discriminate in their pursuit of justice.

The documentary follows Devi, clad in pink, as she interrogates police officers, investigates murders and intellectually clobbers most of the men who are unfortunate enough to cross her path. In villages where women are murdered at all stages of their lives — at birth, upon marriage and after marriage — she stands in contrast, a hardened hero whacking back the shit that is thrown at her with her big stick and hitting home runs every time. Her words, once spoken, are the kind that can rob you of yours.

Filmmaker Jain conspicuously refrains from any voice-over narration, creating the illusion that she is absent from the film, simply a neutral observer of a series of events. Yet her voice is undeniably present in the narrative in what her camera lens chooses to include. Sometimes, it is also literally present in the sporadic questions she throws at the subjects of the film, such as in her interview of an ex-Gulabi Gang member. This shadowy narrative presence, this guise of objectivity, precludes Jain from discussing the numerous layers and complexities involved in the Gang’s work, resulting in a film that does document the Gang but does not seriously question or deepen our understanding of it. Despite this, Jain’s hustle is bold, and her film on the Gulabi Gang is as fierce as the gang itself.

“Beauty in Truth”

Toward the beginning of Pratibha Parmar’s documentary “Beauty in Truth,” which follows black activist and writer Alice Walker, there is a scene in which Walker remembers with a chuckle that when she was a child, her mother used to come home after working at a chicken farm with chicken feet, which she used to make soup for the family. This scene, along with many others, walks us through Walker’s life.

She grows up in poverty as the daughter of a sharecropper, sustained by her mother’s love, and becomes a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of renown as well as a mother figure whose love sustains black women writers. Toward the end of the film, there is a scene showing Walker at her home lovingly feeding a group of chickens clustered around her. A shift has occurred here: Walker no longer relies on chickens for nourishment, but rather, chickens have come to rely on her. There is a cyclical beauty to the way Parmar depicts this, aptly emblematic of the movement of Walker’s life.

Interspersed with excerpts from Walker’s novels and poetry, interviews with her friends and loved ones and footage from the Civil Rights Movement, the documentary is thorough. The lingering shots of fields and forests caress nature in the same way that Walker’s poetry does.
The film begins with this quote from Walker: “I am the woman offering two flowers, whose roots are twin. Justice and hope. Hope and justice. Let us begin.”

The fact that a film on the black woman’s struggle is being featured at a South Asian film festival is a reminder that, in the beauty of this interracial solidarity, the twin roots of justice and hope are present.

Contact Kanwalroop Singh at [email protected].