Questions women ask: Documentaries making sense of a world in turmoil


“The world is in turmoil.” This was what Uma Tanuku, festival director of the 12th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival, told me upon arriving in New Delhi to present my documentary, Daughters of Cordillera. It was understandable—the past few weeks in Delhi had seen the biggest student protests in 25 years, following the arrest of a university student who had allegedly said something seditious in a public speech. It was a period of political and social unrest, and many people—herself included—would not have chosen this as the best time to sit down in a theater to watch films.

Still, the show must go on. And if anything, the films shown in the festival, which showcases films directed exclusively by Asian women, reminded me how films, especially documentaries, can be so valuable in making sense of a world in turmoil.

The festival opened with Tazreen (2014), a film by Yasmine Kabir that documented the aftermath of a fire inside a garments factory in Bangladesh. It was a powerful film that was also deceptively simple—it consists almost entirely of medium-shot interviews with the family and survivors of the fire that trapped and killed more than a hundred people, and ended with a silent montage of photographs of the charred remains of the factory and its workers. It reminded me of the fire at the Kentex slipper factory last year, which claimed more than 80 lives back home. The scenario was horribly familiar—workers told of how steel bars and heavy locks barred their exit; those who survived could barely hang on. The film reminded me of how factory workers indeed remain the world’s modern-day slaves, whose voices are only heard and faces are only seen when tragedy strikes.

Tazreen (2015) by Yasmine Kabir
Tazreen (2015) by Yasmine Kabir

The Silenced Siren (2015) by Siya Chandrie follows her family driver as he points out commercial landmarks in Mumbai that used to be textile mill factories during the 1960s. Filmed entirely from the backseat, she used the car journey to tell the history of the local industry’s downfall. A 15-year-old student and the festival’s youngest filmmaker, Siya shows that one need not even need to be a professional filmmaker to create a documentary that is able to explore history and social phenomenon; one only needs to have a truly interesting point-of-view and the courage to pursue it through filming.

Also exploring changes in the urban landscape is Hey Neighbour! (2015) by Bingol Elmas. Filmed in Istanbul, it shows the contrast between the lives of those who live in high-rise condominiums or “lifestyle complexes” and those who remain in small neighbourhood houses over whom the constant threat of demolition looms. It successfully shows the tension between upper middle-class and lower middle-class neighbours whose income and lifestyle gaps are exacerbated by the non-inclusive model of urban development pushed by the government and private contractors. “Neighbourhood relationships are over. Before, our sorrows and joys are all common. Now the doors are all closed,” one resident rued. Hey Neighbour! is a thoughtful glimpse of how in the city, formerly open communities are being turned into gated, almost hostile communities that literally have no place for the poor, and even for those who are feel that a real home “is in its garden, its streets, and the people who live in it”—a fast disappearing luxury, it seems.

Hey Neighbour! (2015) by Bingol Elmas
Hey Neighbour! (2015) by Bingol Elmas

Anyone who has ever wondered about what Syria in ruins looks and feels like to its people, who are perpetually torn between leaving and staying but eventually having no choice but to leave must watch Haunted (2015) by Liwaa Yazjie. The almost 2-hour documentary shuttles between characters who are in various stages of their lives as refugees: would-be refugees hanging on to the last threads of sanity in their war-torn homes; refugees in flux, living under miserable conditions in Beirut; and refugees who have made its safely abroad but feel anything but safe with the permanent loss of their homes. A memorable shot is that of heaps of household items and personal mementos being sold on the streets of Damascus, with no takers. All characters at one point utter memorable lines that reveal the depth of their despair and anger (“They stole my will. They stole a part of my country,” or “The only way is to replace a painful memory with an even more painful memory,”)—and we watch them as they struggle and then finally leave their beloved homeland.

The theme of war and displacement continued throughout the festival’s special program, Voices From Palestine. Palestinian student filmmakers presented short documentaries on how life carries on for ordinary citizens. “Things are okay, except for the Israeli occupation,” laughs Shahd Al Hindi, who presented her first film, Wajih & Himran (2014), a portrait of a camel herder.

Haunted (2015) by Liwaa Yazjie
Haunted (2015) by Liwaa Yazjie

The program shines with the award-winning Tears of Gaza (2010) by Vibeke Lokkeberg—a hard, unflinching look at how the Israeli occupation impacts Palestinian children. It uses actual footage of the aftermath of bombings that are often difficult to watch, as children are killed or maimed before your eyes. Equally difficult is to watch young children become orphans. But I guess sitting through such a difficult film is necessary for greater understanding of one of the biggest unresolved conflicts of our time, particularly the grief and anger that drives Palestinians to continue to fight for their freedom. We Cannot Go There Now, My Dear (2014) by Carol Mansour, meanwhile, is an interesting look into the plight of Palestinians who were displaced again from Syria where they had been protected as refugees. Many of them are now seeking refuge in Lebanon; others have fled to Europe. “Times commingle, and the burden grows heavy,” said a weary refugee. “We, the Palestinians, carry our country in our heart,” said another, with as much bravado as possible.

Leila Khaled Hijacker (2006) by Lina Makboul, on the other hand, is a portrait of the iconic woman hijacker in the 1960s who brought international attention to the Palestinian cause. I actually met Leila when she came to Manila last year for an anti-imperialist conference and protest, so I was doubly curious to watch a film about her. The story was told from the point-of-view of a Palestinian who grew up in Sweden and idolized Leila as a child but is now seeking to answer the question: is she a terrorist or a freedom fighter? The filmmaker finds her answer through probing interviews with Leila, as well as the pilot and attendants of the plane she hijacked. The interaction between protagonist and filmmaker is what makes the film most interesting; it showed subtly how, after all these years, Leila never let go of her principles, and what effect this had on the filmmaker.

The festival featured other film portraits of activists. Aside from my own film (which was about the Macliing women, indigenous peoples rights defenders in Cordillera), there was also Above Us, The Sky (2015) by Lin Li. The film was quite an effective portrait of the Scottish anti-nuclear campaigner Brian Quail. Now 77 years old, he was asked about his life’s work, to which he responds, at first, how he’d really much rather talk about the plants in his garden. As the film unravels, he goes deep into questions of peace and justice (“Peace is not the mere absence of war”), and of what drives people to activism. He reveals that despite the tendency to “compromise, and reach out for the comforts of daily life,” activism, for him, is the most human response to “the grace, the gift of life.”

Above Us, The Sky (2015) by Lin Li
Above Us, The Sky (2015) by Lin Li

The displacement of indigenous peoples in North Vietnam—again a phenomenon happening pretty much across the whole of Asia—was central to Doan Hong Le’s So Close So Far, The Ancestral Forest (2015). The documentary follows indigenous peoples trying to live in a relocation area away from their ancestral lands because the government has built a dam. Shot for a period of more than three years, the film’s startling conclusion affirms the belief that old traditions and ways of living do not die easy, and after all, should not be allowed to die. Meanwhile, Anna Biak Tha Mawi’s The Barber (2015), showed how much has changed—but also fundamentally remained the same—for ordinary people in Myanmar’s changing political landscape.

So are documentaries directed by women marked different from those directed by men? I am inadvertently driven to ponder this question while watching the film festival, timed for International Women’s Day, or the symbolic day of celebration of the gains and struggles of women’s rights movements everywhere in the world. Because I think that much of documentary filmmaking is about observing, listening and building relationships with the people you film, and asking them—and society—the hard questions, I think that women in general have the tendency to do it quite well. They have the ability—through sensitivity, intimacy, and careful respect—to ferret out the truth from people who are at the center of their films—true feelings, true wisdom, and true inspiration,  which do great things for a film, but more importantly, I think, are very much needed to make sense and better order out of a world that is in constant or even increasing turmoil.

Filmmaking, I think, is a necessary component of the continuing struggle of women, especially Asian women, who historically have been marginalized and conditioned to stay hidden or silent along with the stories they hold most dear. Stories put forth by women documentary filmmakers have perspectives that are so instantly recognizable and common across Asian countries with shared histories and experiences of colonialism and occupation. They are more likely than not put forth not just to gain recognition or film awards, but to really try to make a difference in current ways of thinking that oppress or hinder them, or their people, from realizing their full potential—whether as a woman, as a person, or as a nation.

A young Indian student told me that she travelled nine hours by train to get to Delhi for the film festival. She was impressionable, idealistic, and curious, going around to talk to as many filmmakers as she can. She told me of how difficult it is for women in India to go into filmmaking, an industry mostly dominated by men. She asked me, is it difficult for me, a woman, in the Philippines to become a filmmaker? I hesitated for a second, weighing my answer, knowing full well that the context in my country would be different from hers. I said, “Well, no, but…” and went on to explain how it is not difficult for me per se, but perhaps for other Filipino women of different class origin, blah blah blah. “That’s okay. You said no,” she said, and smiled. I ended up thinking that I would want to watch a film a woman like that would one day make.


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