All three films reviewed here explore in a poignant way the lives and identities of women who spend part of their lives in a country other than their own either by choice or by force. While the first is a feature film, the other two are documentaries; they all powerfully capture the struggles, joys, and dilemmas experienced by women who live transnationally. With strength, courage, and determination, the women portrayed in these films strive for greater self-understanding, self-determination, freedom, or happiness.
Yamina Benguigui's Inch' Allah Dimanche insightfully explores the struggles of Zouina, a young Algerian woman who, after a 1974 French law was passed that enabled "immigrant family regrouping," migrates to France with her children and mother-in-law to join her husband who has been there for ten years (until then, only male Algerian workers were allowed to migrate to France). The film highlights the gendered nature of the immigration experience: it focuses on Zouina's silent and valiant efforts to survive in a foreign land while she endures her antagonistic mother-in-law and her controlling husband and, in accordance with Algerian social rules, remains confined to the home. It is a modern cinematic "Yellow Wallpaper"1 in which the female protagonist, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 classic story, quietly begins to challenge her personal imprisonment and must find her own path to liberation and personal freedom. But Zouina's tale is perhaps even more multifaceted than that of Gilman's narrator because it involves finding her way through two gendered cultural models. She needs to make sense of how the French sociocultural norms and expectations differ from Algerian gendered rules and to find her own "Third Space"2 identity path away from Algerian patriarchal constraints while remaining true to her cultural traditions and affinities.
With its foreign context, somewhat slow pace, non-English subtitles, and French school of film feel, Inch' Allah Dimanche is quite a departure from the more accessible Hollywood films that most American students are used to seeing. But most of my students (many of whom are first-generation college students) thoroughly enjoyed the film and made insightful, sensitive comments about it, which is an indication of the compelling quality of the film.
The film raises important questions on female disempowerment in a context of a lonely, unjust marriage. Its fairly sanguine end, with Zouina's husband unexpectedly showing a moment of sympathetic, albeit fragile, attention toward his wife, can also raise interesting classroom discussions about possible changes and self-improvement for men and women toward equality, communication, and female empowerment. In an era of American demonization of the Islamic world and in a sociopolitical context where Westerners tend to think of themselves as the nonpareil in terms of feminist achievements, one of the challenges for the teacher will be to ensure that students do not reach the overly simplistic conclusion that American gender relations are necessarily more equal and happier than those in the Muslim world. Showing the film in class in conjunction with readings such as Lila Abu-Lughod's "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?"3 or the classic Guests of The Sheik4 by Elizabeth Fernea could help avoid this pitfall by incorporating a broader awareness of gender in Muslim countries.
My American Girls: A Dominican Story also explores the interconnections between international border crossing and personal empowerment. The documentary offers a wonderful analysis of Sandra, a woman from the Dominican Republic who moved to the United States alone at a young age to offer an ostensibly better life to her immediate and extended family. She and her husband work two jobs as janitors, struggling to offer their three daughters a better education than they received growing up in poverty in the Dominican Republic. One of the film's main strengths lies in its potential to help students understand the full humanity, individuality, and complexity of first- and second-generation immigrants as it compares and contrasts how each family member experiences and negotiates their Dominican and American identities and their varying degree of closeness to the Dominican culture and lifestyle, as well as their ideas on education, work, family, color, personal freedom, and how to achieve success. The film explores the interconnections among social class, upward mobility, and personal identity, focusing on the fraught issue of education, which can lead to success but also to gaps and distance within the family. Sandra's oldest daughter becomes the pride of her parents when she graduates from college and gets a good job. But as she succeeds, she becomes estranged from her parents and from her younger sisters, who neglect their homework to socialize with their friends and work at McDonalds. Because of her lack of formal education, Sandra does not know how to navigate the world of formal education. Yet, she knows that her daughters' education will lead to their full Americanization and to her living apart from them when she has enough money to retire to the Dominican Republic. The film paints Sandra as a pioneer who works hard for her daughters' future and happiness despite the distance it may create between her and her daughters and the rest of her family.
The film could be fruitfully used in the classroom in conjunction with Julia Alvarez's novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents5 which also powerfully explores the identities, family relationships, and life choices of a family with four daughters who migrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, stressing issues of gendered constraints and empowerment across borders.
In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is also a film about a search for identity across borders as its director, Deann Borshay Liem, returns to Korea to explore her past. In 1966, an American family adopted her at the age of 8 with the name Cha Jung Hee, which wasn't her real name. The Korean adoption agency had asked her to forget her real name. With many poetically evocative moments and the use of different cinematic techniques (vividly graphic newsreels of the Korean War, family videos of her childhood, pictures of herself and the real Cha Jung Hee), the film explores the enigma that surrounds her past. Deann eventually meets her biological family who helps her recover forgotten childhood memories. She looks for and meets many women named Cha Jung Hee and, although she is unable to be sure that any of them is the Cha Jung Hee she was switched with, she enjoys learning about the life she could have had as a woman if she had remained in Korea. She also finally learns the reason for the identity switch: the real Cha Jung Hee had been removed from the orphanage by her biological father just as she was about to be adopted by an American family. For the adoption agency, the true identity of Cha Jung Hee did not seem to matter. It used "Cha Jung Hee" as an interchangeable template for what it had advertised to the adoptive family as a sweet, well-behaved girl and sent Deann instead to the United States.
Although the film focuses mostly on the director's own case, it alludes to broader issues: it mentions how the large-scale American relief effort during the Korean War (which killed 4 million people and left hundreds of thousands orphaned) turned into a multimillion dollar industry that shaped the destiny of thousands of Korean orphans who were sent to Europe and the United States. Years after the war, this trend continued because of Korea's failure to establish a support system for poor families and mothers. While a more in-depth critical analysis of the adoption industry would be useful for the feminist classroom, the film powerfully examines the various impacts that international adoption can have on a woman's life and identity.
All three films could be a good springboard for classroom discussions on which form--the feature film or the documentary--can best help the audience capture an understanding of transnational female lives and identities, including questions such as: Do the evocative powers and the emotional texture of fictionalized truths enhance or get in the way of achieving a deeper understanding of female immigrants' personal quests? Does the documentary provide us with a greater objective truth or better information than the feature film about women's experience?
Catherine Douillet, PhD (email@example.com
), is originally from France and has been spending her life between the United States, France, India, and Trinidad for the past seventeen years. She currently teaches sociology and anthropology at the University of Dubuque in Dubuque, Iowa. Her current research interests focus on postcolonial Caribbean cultures, international migrations, and transnational identities.
1 Charlotte Perkins Gillman, "The Yellow Wallpaper" in Literature: the Human Experience; Eds. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007; originally published in the New England Magazine 1892).
2 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994).
3 Leila Abu-Lughod, "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Others," American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783-90.
4 Elizabeth Fernea, Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village (New York: Anchor, 1995).
5 Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin,1991).