The Shape of Water. Directed by Kum-Kum Bhavnani. Santa Barbara, CA: Mirror and Hammer Films, 2006. 70 minutes.

Living Along the Fenceline. Directed by Lina Hoshino and Gwyn Kirk. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2012. 65 minutes.

Reviewed by Özlem Altıok

Not all films that highlight the perspectives and struggles of women are created equal. This is evident when one compares two films in this genre: The Shape of Water (2006) and Living Along the Fenceline (2012).

The Shape of Water deals with a wide variety of issues including female genital cutting, water politics, microcredit, and women's peace activism. One of the film’s main appeals is also its main weakness: it touches on a wide range—too wide a range—of challenges that people face in different parts of the world but does not do justice to the complexity of any one of them.

The first ten minutes focus on female genital cutting (FGC) in Senegal. In one of the most memorable moments of the film, a doctor states that cutting originated with men as a way to “colonize women.” Neither this nor a radio DJ's noteworthy statement that she comes “from a tribe that practices FGC, but a family who refused to practice it” are explored any further. Nevertheless, instructors can use these statements to start productive discussions that draw less on homogenizing stereotypes about the “tribal culture” and “backwardness” in Africa, and more on how gender, class, race, ethnicity, and other social categories intersect to shape one's lived experience. To this end, instructors can assign “Female Genital Cutting: African Women Speak Out.” This article discusses different African women's experiences of this violation in the context of civil wars that have meant the destruction of health and education infrastructure and have led to mass malnutrition and famine in much of Africa.1 In another segment Vandana Shiva points to the irony of water being diverted from agricultural lands via the Tehri Dam Project for “use in flushing of toilets in Delhi.” Instructors could use chapters from Shiva's slim volume Water Wars to help students understand the stakes in water politics, including the relationship between the privatization of water, corporate control of agriculture, and the displacement of many millions of people.2

The Shape of Water takes viewers on a somewhat rushed journey from India to the Amazon rainforest, and then to Israel where Women in Black oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Then viewers are taken (again, quickly) to Ahmedabad, India, to learn about a woman who built a small kite business with a microloan. The film highlights microcredit's benefits, but instructors could assign Nalini Visvanathan and Karla Yoder’s article “Women and Microcredit” to avoid reproducing the simplistic notion that providing microloans to women is a panacea to macro problems such as poverty, gender inequality, and “underdevelopment.”3 Provocative blog entries such as Anna Carella's can also start classroom discussions about the promise and limits of microcredit and the “girl effect,” or the idea that investing in adolescent girls would help end poverty.4

In the latter half, The Shape of Water circles back to sites introduced earlier in the film to give more depth to the issues introduced, but this structure can produce a sense of choppiness. The film would have flowed much better had the director finished dealing with one challenge in one place before moving onto other, quite different, ones in other places.

This alternative approach is precisely the one taken in Living Along the Fenceline, which focuses on the untold costs of the military security system from the viewpoint of women. It brings viewers to Texas, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, but the codirectors wisely limit themselves to two themes: military bases' impact on pollution and prostitution.

Viewers meet social justice activist Diana Lopez, and learn about the constant presence of military recruiters in her high school, the contaminated creek near the base, and the high cancer rate in her community. Zaida Torres who works for an organization that supports cancer patients, takes viewers around in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Advertised to tourists as the most “friendly and beautiful Caribbean island,” Vieques was also used by the US military for bombing practice until 2001. In addition to the association between the toxic waste US military bases produce and cancer rates in the communities where bases are located, the film addresses the legacies of colonialism and racism. One of the most touching moments is when Lisa Natividad (of Guam) explains that her “goal is to raise her boy as a decolonized person who does not buy into the subtle or not so subtle racism.”

The second theme in Living Along the Fenceline is the prevalence of prostitution around military bases. (Yes, the film uses the term “prostitution”—not “sex work”—throughout, but it does not moralize the issue or degrade the women who sell sex). In a particularly striking and heart-breaking scene, we hear from Yumi Tomita (pseudonym), who was raped by US soldiers in Okinawa. The film discusses the creation of the bar district near the base during the Korean War. It suggests that the locals created this bar district to make it easier for soldiers to gain sexual access to local women, and that they framed this as “protection” for Okinawan girls who were being raped by soldiers. To avoid the conclusion that this is an issue of the past, instructors can ask students to do some “armchair research” on recent cases of rape and other sexual violence in and near military bases.

The film emphasizes not only the economic and political forces that push women into prostitution but also women's grassroots organizing to fight those forces. It features activists such as Sumi Park whose experience at the Buklod Center in the Philippines (founded in 1987 to organize women in prostitution) led her to create Durebang, which supports Filipina women in the sex industry in South Korea. Therefore, Living Along the Fenceline could also be used in courses on grassroots and cross-border women's activism in the sex industry. Because it shatters the illusion that a military base means safety and security, Living Along the Fenceline is an excellent teaching tool for getting students to think about what genuine security means. For courses on gender and international studies, in general, and human security in particular, the film could be paired with chapters from Cynthia Enloe's Globalization & Militarism and her now-classic Bananas, Beaches and Bases.5 For more theoretically oriented courses, too, Enloe's focus on the intersections of race and gender in discussions of US bases in Britain during the Cold War can be fruitfully coupled with the themes that the film explores: antimilitarist, antiracist, and environmentalist struggles in the Global South in the twenty-first century.

1 Khadija Khaja, Carenlee Barkdull, Marva Augustine, and Diane Cunningham, “Female Genital Cutting: African Women Speak Out,” International Social Work 52, no. 6 (2009): 727-41.

2 Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (Boston: South End Press, 2002).

3 Nalini Visvanathan and Karla Yoder, “Women and Microcredit: A Critical Introduction,” in The Women, Gender, and Development Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Nalini Visvanathan, Lynn Duggan, Nan Wiegersma, and Laurie Nisonoff (New York: Zed Books, 2011), 47-54.

4 Anna Carella, “Now We Have to Save Ourselves, and the World, Too? A Critique of ‘the Girl Effect,’” Aid Watch, New York University Research Development Unit, January 3, 2011.

5 Cynthia Enloe, Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007); Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

Özlem Altıok ( is a full time lecturer holding a joint appointment in women's and gender studies and international studies at the University of North Texas. Prior to this position, she taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she received her PhD in sociology. Her research and teaching interests include gender and politics in the Middle East, international development, migration, and social movements. She is the author of “Muslim Family Laws and CEDAW” (2015) and “Reproducing the Nation” (2013).