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A tribute to matriarchy

Generally documentaries are part of film festivals more as a matter of routine, but the ones that are well made do make an impact. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN writes about three such films.


``Blossoms of Fire''... underlining the shrewdness of the Juchitan woman.

WHEN DOCUMENTARIES and shorts are included as part of feature film festivals, they are usually poor cousins on sufferance. However, at the Films from the South (Oslo, October), this neglected genre got considerable attention.

Three documentaries focussing on women in different parts of the world were notable in theme and style. ``Blossoms of Fire'', directed by American born Maureen Gosling and Ellen Osborne, presents what is perhaps the last lingering matriarchy in the world, at Juchitan, Oaxaca. This is hometown to artist Frida Kahlo, who has captured the flaming colours, flamboyant costumes, and the magnetism of her people.

In this pageant, the startling ornamentation first rivets the eye — not just beads and baubles, but whole bunches of feathers, flowers and even balloons towering over the heads of the women sashaying along in confident, comradely groups, attending fairs and feasts together. They are good workers earning good money, with social standing and secure bonding among themselves.

We see how feminine ascendancy has made the people more stable and prosperous, with a better nourished populace and lower infant mortality rate than its surrounding patriarchal settlements. No outcasts here — transvestites and homosexuals are accepted as part of family and community.

"I do my work, sell my fruit, watch TV in the evenings and sleep without a care,'' says an active grandmother, as the camera follows her gathering, washing, marinating plums in sugar syrup, selling her product in the marketplace.

Multiple perspectives and voices underline the industriousness, shrewdness and the economic independence of the Juchitan women. Their work ethic breeds self respect. "We don't wait around for the men's pay cheque. We help support the family,'' says one. ``I spend what I earn on the family and save what he earns,'' says another. ``If men have money in their pockets, they get ideas,'' a matron laughs. ``They run around with friends and waste it.'' Traditionally, the Juchitan male turns over his earnings to his wife, with the result that the household is managed with thrift and skill.

We hear the menfolk too. ``We are like yoked oxen, we plough together,'' says one as he toils in the field. Another explains, "A woman's work complements a man's. So we live in dignity.''

The ancient Zapotec matriarchy is a buzzing hive, engaged in agriculture, handicraft or trade, and in rituals of feasts and festivals. Hospitality is a major virtue. You are plunged into riotous eating, drinking and merrymaking, reminiscent more of primeval nature worship than of Catholic ceremonies.

The research and keen observation of the film crew is evident in every frame. No dwelling on the dark side, but we see the looming clouds. There is concern for the preservation of the Zapotec language. TV and internet pressure the young to adopt Western clothes, food, values. ``It will be difficult for our tradition to continue,'' a woman sighs. But the film is no nostalgic serenade. It gives you a radically different perspective on feminism. In Juchitan, economic and social empowerment do not promote self-centredness. To the matriarchs of this remote culture, the family remains the epicentre of a well nurtured community.


Sagari Chhabra's ``True Freedom''... the Indian entry which retraced stirring experiences.

"A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel Abbes'' by Belkacem Hadjadj (Algeria) looks at a woman's role in society, this time in an Islamic nation. What happens when a woman breaks norms to enter the male domain, as Soumicha does when her husband dies? She becomes a cabdriver with her husband's yellow Renault.

Hadjadj uses this radical move as a take off point to explore Algerian society through cab rides within the city of Bel Abbes and to villages and towns close by.

We note male disapproval when a client tells her, ``Talk to my wife, not to me,'' adding sarcastically, "Now I should teach my wife to become a pilot!'' Another grudgingly admits it is better for his womenfolk to be driven by a woman because ``when a man is with a woman, devil is never faraway.'' Some men refuse to enter her cab, but most wish her well. Fellow cabbies accept Soumicha. Soon we know why. This is not woman's emancipation but grudging condescension in an exceptional case. ``She's a widow with three kids to raise and no man to bring in money.'' You suspect Soumicha has an easier time because she is not a young and beautiful virgin. And you do see her enjoying her rebellion and independence. Problems? ``None I can't cope with. This job has turned me into a man."

Like``Blossoms of Fire''the director lets the tale develop through many voices, and first hand accounts of injustice and oppression, bouts of fear and anger. Soumicha's friends say, ``Men are harsh, still in the Middle Ages.'' From the personal they move to socio-political analysis. ``We made a mistake in 1962. We should have started with education.'' Another speaks of widening vision. ``Taking up a job opened my eyes. My husband had closed them.''

A chilling episode recounts the terrorist attack on 11 school teachers, murdered on their way to work. ``They have been replaced by other women who take the same risks on the same road everyday,'' a colleague sobs.

At Telagh town we meet women from the local factory which had been burnt down by fanatics to stop the employment of women. Their jobs had given them economic independence, self reliance, and professional skills. The men had enjoyed the financial gain but ``were not prepared for the socio-cultural changes.'' The scenes of jobless women still thronging hopelessly before the factory make a sharp contrast with the town streets where you see only men, striding alone or in groups. The few women who do appear find the street an embarrassing place. All public spaces are shut to them. ``Wearing the hijab does not make us more virtuous,'' a woman observes wryly. ``We wear it out of fear.''

The Indian entry, ``True Freedom'', assembles well-researched slices of history usually bypassed in textbooks. Director Sagari Chhabra brings some surviving women participants in the freedom struggle who worked with Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose. They retrace their stirring experiences in Satyagraha and the Rani Jhansi Regiment. The tales are so fascinating that you forget feminist concerns in the larger human drama.

Chhabra got more applause in question answer sessions when she stated unequivocally, ``If we are lovers of cinema, we are lovers of humanity. I am not into the business of benumbing entertainment but of bringing about social change. I want my film to arouse debate and discussion. Cinema has to use all its strategies to work for world peace.''

You knew she was speaking for all documentary film-makers; ambitious people who believe that their cameras will and should make a difference to the world.

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