Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Democracy Unveiled

Another day, another set of movies. Today's crop included a short documentary by James Longley called Sari's Mother, as well as a one-hour feature by Danish film-maker Eva Mulvad about Afghanistan politician Malalai Joya, called Enemies of Happiness.

The Mulvad documentary is a fascinating watch - less for what it tells us about Joya, than for its depiction of a society coming to reluctant grips with democracy. Set almost entirely in the ten days leading up to the first parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in 2005, Enemies of Happiness chronicles the day to day life of Malalai Joya, a 28-year old woman fighting the election on a platform of women's rights and opposition to warlords, a stance that had her banished from the national assembly in 2003 (for violating 'common courtesy' - link leads to video clip of the incident) and that has made her the target of assassination attempts ever since. As the film unfolds, we see Joya struggling to cope with the pressures of the forthcoming election, balancing her role as a sort of impromptu village elder giving advice and support to those who come to her with their troubles, while struggling to get her message out there in a pre-election environment where she cannot move out of her office unless wearing a burqa and with a heavily armed escort in tow.

There is no doubt that Joya is an inspiring figure (you can read more about her here) but I can't help feeling that the film is a little too obviously on her side, it's viewpoint so heavily subjective that it's impossible to arrive at your own opinion of Joya, making one's approval of her an article of faith. Things are made even more problematic by the fact that the film provides little or no background information about the issues Joya is fighting for or the context she's fighting in, treating all that as something the viewer would know about (which I suppose one should, but frankly, I don't). Instead the film spends a lot of its time on the details of one particular problem - somewhat tangential, I would think, to Joya's main platform - the insistence of an 80 year old opium dealer on marrying a girl younger than his grandchild against her wishes. By itself, it's not an uninteresting story, but in the larger context of the film it feels like a distraction, and I found myself wishing the film had spent more time telling us about the 'warlords' that Joya is fighting against - who they are, what they're guilty of, etc.

Where the film works, I think, is in documenting Afghanistan's first tentative steps towards democracy. Some of its most fascinating scenes are only peripherally about Joya - the UN briefing of the candidates standing for election ten days before polling, or the scenes at the polling stations as people figure out how this whole thing works. These scenes are both rueful and heartening, and their magic lies, fittingly enough, in the knowledge that, ultimately, democracy is about the people. To watch a 100 year old woman enact how she used to place mines to kill the Russians, and then hobble her way into a polling booth to cast her vote for Joya is to see, in miniature, what democracy should really be about, and to have hope that, no matter how much the democratic process is subverted by self-seeking warlords, some change will happen, even in a place as unpromising as Afghanistan.

By contrast, James Longley's Sari's Mother is an unsatisfying work. The story of a woman whose son (Sari) has been infected by HIV via blood transfusion and is now fighting to receive aid and compensation from the Iraqi government, Sari's Mother seems directionless and insipid, a mini-documentary hastily assembled from a section left out of Longley's Iraq in Fragments (which I blogged about here). Sari's plight is heart-breaking, of course, but while one feels sympathy for him and his family, it's hard to achieve any level of indignation. Sari's mother tells us how she's been fighting for four years to get support for her son, but in the film the footage of her encounter with the authorities (billed in the film description as "a Sisyphean journey to Baghdad, into the offices of government officials, devastated hospitals and through the country’s labyrinthine healthcare system") lasts all of two minutes, and, by the standards of your average government office back in India seems fairly responsive (though I can't help wondering how much of that is because she's accompanied by an American with a camera). Longley spends the rest of his time filming Sari and his family at home, and while the footage is beautiful in parts and certainly redolent with atmosphere, it really doesn't tell us very much about Sari's family or the world they live in. The one mention of the situation in Iraq beyond the family's immediate concerns seems artificially tacked on, so that the only real sense of being in Iraq you get from the film is by hearing the helicopters pass over the family's house.

One scene, however, stands out in my mind - a scene of Sari's siblings playing in the yard, pretending that they're fighters placing a bomb in the path of the foreigners, the childish glee in their voices as their little clay 'humvee' runs over the pebble 'mine' and blows up. So much for winning hearts and minds.

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