SFIAAFF 2009: Mosque in Morgantown and Forgotten Woman
Smitha Radhakrishnan reports on two of the documentary selections from this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Published: Friday, April 03, 2009
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture
Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.
Questions? Comments? Write to her at email@example.com.
Welcome back to Desi Dilemmas! Today we take a look at two compelling documentary features screened during the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and ask the question: What makes a great documentary?
A good documentary typically opens up new worlds to the audience, worlds we have most likely never encountered before. And ideally, a good documentary says something about that world, something that perhaps the people inhabiting the world don't even see -- a truth or a fiction so taken for granted that it's news to them as much as it is to us. By that definition of a good documentary, two fascinating features at SFIAAFF this year both meet and even surpass the mark.
The award-winning Mosque in Morgantown, by Brittany Huckabee, and the visually absorbing The Forgotten Woman, by Dilip Mehta, do the good documentary in surprisingly different ways, raising new questions about what it means to represent and display new worlds to faraway audiences.
Set in a West Virginia college town, Mosque in Morgantown centers around the story of journalist Asra Nomani, whose fight for women's rights at her local mosque garnered national attention. The film doesn't really have a fixed beginning or end, but we get to see the progression and evolution of Nomani's activism and its multi-faceted impact on the community. In this interaction, we get a taste of the politics of everyday Islam in diasporic communities, and we are forced to ask deep questions about the meaning of religiosity, the relationship between women and religion, and definitions of words like "moderate" and "extreme" that might otherwise seem easily self-evident.
As the jury of the SFIAFF pointed out when they awarded Mosque in Morgantown the festival's award for best documentary feature, the filmmaker is judicious and careful in her representation of the story. She takes no sides and is respectful even in moments that might have otherwise been damning to one side or another. She is so respectful, in fact, that as viewers, we are at times left wondering what the motivations of certain characters really are, and we are made aware of the ways we all tend to pigeonhole people when it comes to matters of women's rights and religion.
Dilip Mehta's The Forgotten Woman, in contrast, is set primarily in the Indian temple town of Vrindavan, where, inspired by the fictional story of his sister Deepa's film Water, Mehta delves into the devastating lives of Indian widows who quest for salvation when the current world leaves them with no other option. Mehta's background as a photojournalist is evident in every frame, leaving me hard-pressed to think of a single documentary that matches its visual splendor. The stories of the widows are interwoven with the places they inhabit, the activists and scholars who explain how and why they came to be there, and even snapshots of the faraway homes most of these women left behind, helping us to understand the complexity of patriarchy and its many stakeholders.
But this is no neutral set of observations. We cannot idly stand by and observe the wretched conditions under which these women are forced to live. We are compelled to feel the injustice in our bones, through the persistent, haunting music, the almost-surreal scenery, the spectacle of hundreds of women of advanced age practically running each other over to fill their steel containers with a measly serving of rice given away at temples each day. And yet, the stories that Mehta presents are more complicated than simply portraying wretchedness and injustice. We get to see the remarkable spirits of the women who live these lives, the economic circumstances that lead them to where they are, and most of all, the hope in those women who forgo new life chances for themselves, who band together with other women like themselves to refuse the conditions of their marginalization.
Yet, for all the fullness of the stories Mehta portrays, there is an implicit activism in his choices as a documentarian. We never get to see, for example, widows who remarried and reintegrated into society. Such examples may be relatively small in number, but surely we have something to learn from them. Surely their stories might complicate the dreary picture of marginalization we see.
At yet, as a viewer, Mehta's film moved me in a way that Mosque in Morgantown did not. Even though, perhaps artistically or intellectually, Mosque was a "better" documentary for its cool, yet invested objectivity and its scholarly distance from the lives it represented, it was Forgotten Woman whose images and feelings will linger with me long after this podcast has been recorded, consumed, and itself forgotten.
The stakes of such artistic and intellectual choices are indeed extremely high. Both films take on the task of telling the stories of those whom most viewers already have stock opinions of, influenced by mass media representations of oppression: (veiled) Muslim women, and (mostly poor) Indian women. If anything, Mosque did a better job of breaking such stereotypes. We get to see a blonde Muslim convert frosting blue crescents on Betty Crocker cupcakes for her kids during Ramadan, and Nomani herself fighting for "the heart" of Islam in a hooded sweatshirt with flyers on hand, walking the street in front of her mosque. No veiled women shuffling nervously by the camera here. In Forgotten, however, educated, middle-class urban women, one of whom was even a white Canadian, predictably "save" their benighted sisters through education, counseling, and organization. The assertiveness of many of the individual widows, their defiance, and their pride in their own independence, however tenuous, defies stereotypes too. Yet, it remains easy to walk away from the movie shaking one's head about the backwardness of "Indian culture."
So, I leave these two documentaries feeling ambivalent about what makes a good documentary. Clearly, the juries of film festivals have decided. But for those of us who still look to film to move us to tears, to inform our hearts as well as our minds, I think the verdict is less clear. Check out these fascinating new films to decide for yourselves!