The Sari Soldiers. Directed by Julie Bridgham. New York: Women Make Movies, 2008. 92 minutes.
Woman Rebel. Directed by Kiran Deol. Harriman, New York: New Day Films, 2010. 37 minutes.
For decades feminists have recognized the pedagogical value of films as "consciousness-raising devices."1 This awareness ushered in a new era of activist filmmaking, employing the ethnographic techniques of direct cinema or documentary to tell the hitherto unrepresented experiences of women. Echoing this tradition, The Sari Soldiers and Woman Rebel depict the voices of women enmeshed in the decade long political conflict, also known as the Maoist People’s War movement in Nepal.2 Both films base their plots on the crisis period and feature women as protagonists; yet the tone and perspectives employed by the filmmakers differ.
Shot in real time during the height of Nepal's conflict, The Sari Soldiers follows six courageous women who belong to different sides and reflect the multiple dynamics of a civil war.3 Soldiers of peace, justice, human rights, and democracy appear in the forms of Devi, Mandira, and Ramkumari. With persistence and resilience, Devi Sunuwar, a dalit woman, seeks justice for her under-aged daughter Maina, who was accused of being a Maoist, abducted, and murdered by the army. The human rights lawyer Mandira shows passion for justice as she helps people pressed between the rebels and government forces, such as Devi’s family. Ramkumari is a student activist who believes justice can come only through democratic praxis and peaceful activism. Representing the Maoist cause is Kranti, a soft-spoken brigadier commissar in the Maoists' People's Liberation Army: “Where there is war and revolution, there is bound to be sacrifice....We are drawing Nepal’s people to a beautiful future....We are not terrorists.” A widow and a mother of two, Kranti, whose name means “revolution,” talks about the “haves” and the “have-nots” and dreams of an egalitarian society.
With its emphasis on self-representation and its nuanced perspectives, The Sari Soldiers also reveals the voices of women who suffered from both the state military and the Maoists. Krishna, a village leader, and Rajani, an army officer, both endured Maoist violence. While Rajani joins the national army to obtain revenge for her brother’s death, Krishna, whose family experienced extortions and killings, becomes a village leader to criticize Maoists and political leaders who abandoned the villagers. The film portrays women’s emergence as leaders, and it presents opportunities to discuss how gender roles shift with changing socio-economic structures.
Woman Rebel, a combination of archival footage and interviews, focuses on one revolutionary woman’s journey toward empowerment through the embodiment of ideology and militancy. Uma Bhujel (alias Comrade Shilu) joined the Maoist People’s Liberation Amy (or People’s Liberation Army [PLA]) when she was a teenager and rose to the rank of a commander of a division of the PLA. She then became a Maoist legislator of the Constituent Assembly in 2008. The film reveals economic hardship and gender inequality as precursors to women’s involvement in the Maoist movement. As she explains it, her decision to join the Maoist war came from her experience of economic depression and gender oppression, which show in her parents’ struggle with poverty and her sister’s suicide due to domestic violence. Shilu states the PLA gave her the experience of empowerment, in contrast: “when I wore that dress, I was happy...I felt above everyone.” Although Woman Rebel sheds light on women’s radical activism for social change, the film, which came out in 2010, repeats without question the disputed claim that women were 40 percent of the PLA (in 2008, the United Nations Mission in Nepal found they were about 20 percent).
As Bill Nichols says, “documentary is not a reproduction of reality, it is a representation of the world we already occupy.”4 As such, documentary has a mediator with a tone, a mission, and a point of view. One may ask students: does the subjectivity of the narrator/producer matter in how the subject is presented? How should one learn about revolutionary wars and structures — global and local — that produce conditions of inequality? As feminist teaching values reflexivity and critical scholarship, combining other textual material on revolutionary movements, especially women’s participation in them and the aftermath, may provide understanding beyond the consumption value of the films.
All in all, both films offer many insights for productive discussions on women’s activism and involvement in war and conflict, among other issues. The Sari Soldiers reveals a spectrum of ways in which women become agents of social change. In a patriarchal society where women are seldom expected to lead, show courage, or fight, this film helps redefine the gendered connotations of bravery, courage, and leadership. Likewise, Woman Rebel shows an empowering story of a woman who, without the revolution she embraces, would have probably never seen the halls of the parliament of which she becomes a member.
1 Tania Modleski, “On the Existence of Women,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30, no. 1-2 (2002): 15-24. This special issue titled “Looking across the Lens: Women’s Studies and Film” explores the historical relationship between feminist teaching and films; the section “Teaching Film and Films for Teaching” provides insightful tips.
2 This conflict between the Maoist insurgents and the state security forces claimed more than 13,000 lives, instigated hundreds of disappearances and thousands of displacements, and destabilized the political, socio-economic and gender dynamics in Nepali society from 1996-2006. Other documentaries, such as When the Mountains Tremble (dir. Newton Thomas Sigel and Pamela Yates. Brooklyn: Skylight, 2004 ), and the Women, War, and Peace series by PBS (2011) may be useful in dissecting the activist side of revolutionary wars and getting a more nuanced perspective on conflicts.
3 Parts of The Sari Soldiers review are from my earlier review: “The Sari Soldiers Directed by Julie Bridgham, Produced by Julie Bridgham and Ramyata Limbu; Reviewed by Rama Lohani Chase,” Himalaya: The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies 29, no. 1-2 (2010). 76-77.
4 Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 20.