Monday, 6 September 2010

TIFF 2010 Review #5: How to Start Your Own Country, Pink Saris,

TIFF’s Real to Reel programme is a great section to pick from if you prefer documentaries to fiction features, or, if, like me, you like to mix up your screening experience at TIFF. Both Jody Shapiro and Kim Longinotto are award-winning documentarians whose works are always films to look for on the festival circuit.

Jody Shapiro’s realm is the world of nature and the environment. He co-directed, Green Porno, about the sex lives of insects, with Isabella Rossellini and directed and produced Ice Breaker about life on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel. Shapiro also was the producer and cinematographer on Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (winner Best Canadian Feature, TIFF 2007).

Kim Longinotto’s primary focus is the world of women and trans people. In watching her work over the years, I am always impressed with the way she is able to connect with people of varying cultures in her features. I don’t know how much time she spends with her subjects before she starts filming but her obvious white-skin privilege never seems to be a barrier; there never appears to be any suspicion on the part of her subjects as to why she is interested in telling their stories. Two of her features, Sisters in Law and Rough Aunties are among my favourite documentaries, and her latest, Pink Saris does not disappoint.

How To Start Your Own Country, Jody Shapiro, (Real to Reel) How to Start Your Own Country is a revealing documentary. How does a country -become a country? No one really has the definitive answer to this question but resolute individuals and groups are determined to be breach the doors of the United Nation’s exclusive “country” club. Prior to this film, I had never heard of the six mico-nations that are featured in the film: Hutt River Principality (established 40 years ago in Australia), the Republic of Molossia (in Nevada, no less), the Principality of Sealand (an former WWII gun tower off the coast of England in the North Sea), the New Free State of Caroline (more a state of mind than an actual land mass), the Seasteading Institute (a proposed nation of platforms built at sea), the Kingdom of North Dumpling (a private island in the Long Island sound) and the Principality of Seborga (founded 1,000 years before Italy became a country).

Besides the very interesting founders of each nation/state/country, the documentary also includes interviews with international lawyers well-versed in areas of constitutional and sovereignty laws, as well as United Nations diplomats. What arises out of these interviews is the contradiction surrounding exactly what constitutes a country or state. What does it take to become a member of the United Nations? Some nations are members even though other members of the United Nations do not recognize them, so why can’t other newer nations join? The United States and Canada were both British colonies that have become countries. Will one of the featured micro-nations be allowed to follow in their footsteps, and who will decide?

Pink Saris, Kim Longinotto (Real to Reel) Sampat Pal Devi is loud, abrasive, woman who may have had one sips too many of her own Kool-Aid, but as the leader of the Gulabi Gang (a.k.a. the “Pink Gang”), a group of women who fight for the rights of women in Uttar Pradesh, she is a vital necessity. The gang dress in all pink and are the voice of female dalits (untouchables). Centuries of tradition have given little to India’s lowest caste, and, as is the case where people are oppressed, some of the oppressed become oppresors.

Sampat Pal knows all about being an untouchable, and not having anyone to turn to for help. Born into the dalit caste, she knows what it is like to be married off at twelve and sent to live with in-laws, severing ties with her family. She ran away from her marriage, but not her family; she provides for her husband and their grandchildren, even though she lives with a man who is from the highest caste.

In this documentary by award-winning director, Kim Longinotto, we see Sampat Pal as a spokeswoman, judge and jury presiding over such domestic disputes as a runaway couple, a pregnant young woman who risks being killed by her family if she does not marry the father, a young wife being sexually abused by her father-in-law and physically abused by the rest of the family, and her own niece, whose baby was not given medical attention because the child was a girl.

Sampat Pal believes in family; that they should take responsibility for their actions and support women brought into their families as wives. In cases of domestic abuse, the focus is on stopping the violence, not removing the woman from the home. She does, however, want those most at fault to be arrested, and she has the power to do so. She is a master of the photo op and getting her name in the local paper; this is her power. Her vulnerability is seen at the end of the documentary where she reveals aspects of her own life and her financial struggle to help other women—she, her partner and the extended family all live on donations to the Pink Gang.

Sampat Pal is an extraordinary woman trying to bring about change and hope. Kudos to Kim Longinotto for bringing us this story about untouchable women in modern India, and for documenting a heroine that is a far cry from the usual Princess Diana or Mother Theresa type.

What will you see at TIFF 2010?

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