Documentary ‘The Sari Soldiers’ shows conflict through the eyes of women

Director Julie Bridgham discusses the process of filming and the focus on female points of view

Butter Lamp Films/Courtesy

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Julie Bridgham’s 2008 documentary, “The Sari Soldiers,” showcased at the first annual Himalayan Film Festival in May of this year, is not unrealistically hopeful — nor is it wholly disillusioned to the prospect of social change. Rather, it attempts to unpack complexities of conflict by providing a fair scope of oppositional standpoints, each with an empathetic eye — a capacity that grants the film its continuous social relevance.

In “The Sari Soldiers,” Bridgham documents the final three years of the 10-year Nepalese Civil War, which began in 1996 — when the Communist Party of Nepal, also known as the Maoists, sought to overthrow the country’s implemented monarchy, upheld by the Royal Nepal Army. Bridgham astutely encapsulates more than just the two primary opposing forces. With the tagline “There are more than two sides to every story,” “The Sari Soldiers” follows six women with strikingly different experiences and political standpoints, providing a multifaceted vision of conditions and complexities of the war.

As each of the six stories are introduced, a new layer is added to complicate the vision of Nepal’s civil war. We are first introduced to Devi, a woman who faces the dire consequences of speaking candidly about witnessing the rape and brutal murder of her niece by members of the Royal Nepal Army. Because of her status as a witness and her open discussion about the incident, Devi became a target of the army, who, when finding Devi absent during their bombardment on her home, arrested Devi’s daughter in her stead. The film follows Devi’s search for her daughter.

Devi’s story is only one of six on which the film centers but is arguably the most devastating. The film’s other subjects are Mandira, a human rights activist who aids Devi’s search; Rajani, a Royal Nepal Army officer cadet; Kranti, a female Maoist soldier; Krishna, a woman whose small village faces violent Maoist attacks; and Ram Kumari, a student social activist at the forefront of the fight for democracy, whose voice of optimism and change is a stark contrast to Devi’s experience. The film avoids vilifying any of its subjects and instead opts to humanize and show perspectives — each of which is in direct opposition with another.

While the film illuminates how difficult it is to break down deep-rooted and overlapping forces of oppression, Bridgham’s multifaceted portrait of the six distinct perspectives allows her to skillfully avert the focus to why such structures exist in the first place. In addition to encouraging viewers to channel a curiosity for issues in countries including and beyond Nepal, Bridgham hoped to shed light on the complexities of conflict. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Bridgham stated, “Conflicts do get so complicated because there is a real human dimension, and ultimately, it’s hard to say sometimes why things aren’t just black and white. In order to understand how change can be made in the future, you have to understand what motivates people from the very beginning and why there are different points of view.”

The focus on female points of view in “The Sari Soldiers” is an aspect Bridgham claimed was incidental. She made it clear that she didn’t intend on making this film strictly about the “female experience” in modern Nepalese wartime: “At the end of the day, I don’t believe ‘The Sari Soldiers’ is a film about women. It’s a film about six really strong people that happen to be women.” While this may be true, the film undeniably highlights the forces of violence against women both in warfare and in society. Bridgham acknowledged this and said, “I felt also it was really an important perspective to show conflict through the eyes of women, because so often it’s a viewpoint that’s just not recognized, and women aren’t given that kind of platform and voice.”

Bridgham provides this platform through her documentary. Yet the film’s inclusion of Devi’s story reveals that one attempt to publicize violent acts of injustice only seems to worsen conditions, illuminating a cyclical structure from which it seems impossible to escape. And Bridgham’s own position as a documentarian, providing the lens through which the audience can access these stories, seems almost paradoxical. Not knowing when or whether the civil war would come to an end, Bridgham held a unique position as a journalist — many of whom were being imprisoned for similar work — during a turbulent time of crucial political change in Nepal. “When we began filming, there was a certain level of anxiety in knowing we were not only telling the story but following people who were very much on the forefront,” she explained. “It’s an incredible journey to be able to really get into the life of someone who is directly involved in these changes that were happening in their country.”

Ultimately, Bridgham’s ability to document and eventually show this film throughout Nepal reflects a change in the country’s political terrain. But again, the major aim of the film is not to feel a sense of hope or despondency. A jarring and profound piece of journalistic art, “The Sari Soldiers” generates a sense of empathetic understanding rather than one-sided political advocacy.

Contact Denise Lee at [email protected].