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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, January 02, 2016

entry arrow9:40 AM | Film Log 4 and 5: Word is Out and The World Before Her


In the mid-1970s, the Mariposa Film Group -- composed of queer filmmakers Peter Adair (+), Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix, and Veronica Selver -- began filming interviews of 26 gay men and women, where they were asked to reveal their own stories of coming out, of coming to terms with their burgeoning sexuality in a repressed period of history, and of coming to task with the repercussions of their sexual identity. The result is a strangely effective documentary, Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977), which effectively gave face to what has then been a largely demonised demographic. (I read the book of the film many years ago.) The film is essentially an answer to the question, "Who are we?" Composed mostly of shots of talking heads, the effect is that of a tapestry of voices that tell a complete narrative of being gay and lesbian in America around the time of the gay liberation movement sparked by the Stonewall riots in 1969. Each tale is compelling, and the film reminds me again that what freedoms I enjoy right now as a gay man could not have come about without these men and women becoming brave enough to tell their stories on camera, and most of all, to fight for the right to tell their stories and to become their real selves. We often forget our history though, and documentaries such as this -- an iconic project that captured queer lives at a specific time in history -- are instrumental to counter the erasure. 


It is difficult not to feel the devastation wrought by The World Before Her (2012), Nisha Pahuja's finely made documentary about growing up female in India, in a world ravaged and torn between tradition/faith and modernity/secularism. Ms. Pahuja does her nimble examination of this complex issue by the very simple narrative device of comparing and contrasting: she follows two young Indian girls who are undergoing initiation into two different facets of India. One is Ruhi Singh, a beautiful 19-year-old girl who aspires to become a Bollywood star and undergoes the rigid training required for contestants of the Femina Miss India, which selects the national representative for Miss World. The other is Prachi Trivedi, a tomboyish only child from a strict Hindu upbringing who believes it her destiny to be part of the radical movement for Hindu nationalism, and has thus become the paragon for the indoctrination and training of girls in the controversial Durga Vahini camps.

Any feminist would immediately be hard pressed to ascertain which path -- and which world -- provides the best kind of future for Indian women. Beauty pageants, of course, are anathema for any feminist who believe the whole enterprise to be an industry that caters to the commodification of female bodies -- and we see plenty of that in the way the contestants of Femina Miss India are judged by how they move on a runway, or how their complexion can be evened out by rigid cosmetic care and Botox, or how they can be reduced to disembodied anatomical examination when they are paraded around in sackcloths with only their legs showing to compete for the privilege of having these very limbs pronounced the sexiest. And yet the women in the pageant are smart, are empowered by agency, and are aware that in a patriarchal society, a beauty titlist has a rare platform to have her voice heard. We follow briefly the story of Miss India 2009 Pooja Chopra who admits that as the second daughter of a tradition-minded father, she had been marked for death by his family in a widely accepted practice of female infanticide. Only the machinations of her mother -- who had declared to her husband that this daughter would bring pride to the family, and then promptly left him -- was she ever saved from that fate, and as Miss India she had both made a difference and proved true her mother's prophecy.

Religious tradition eschews this "debasing modernity" and is the perfect foil to the cultural changes promised by a society that puts up beauty pageants. In the film, the Hindu nationalists make many strong statements about preserving the dignity of Indian women and so on and so forth. But the demonstration of this cultural preservation of dignity is embodied in the Durga Vahini camps, and in the film, we see many frightening montages of girls in training, both in armed combat, all for the sake of killing to preserve the Hindu faith, and in relentless indoctrination. They are made to listen to impassioned lectures by female trainers who convince them about their inherent inferiority as women. One such speaker, speaking before a large crowd of young girls, intones with such authority: "I must tell you your duties as women. Girls should be married by the age of 18. Because by the time they are 25, they'll become so strong-willed, you won't be able to tame them. My mother didn't give me permission to go to school. She said, 'If you can read or write, that is enough.' One evening I looked at myself in the mirror, and I got slapped by her. Today, I still remember my mother's slap. Today, girls are educated but their heads are in the clouds. Is it really necessary for you to leave your homes, just for your ego, and go chasing a career? Is that really necessary? Have we become so Westernized? Erase these thoughts from your minds. We keep talking about the equality of the sexes. It's even written in the constitution. But think about this. Can you really hide your natural weakness or character as a woman?" It is difficult to watch this film and not feel your jaw drop, or your skin crawl.

But the magnificence of the film lies in the fact that it seems to hesitate to editorialise, although it clearly does; its power, however, lies in the way Ms. Pahuja's camera seems content in just recording what happens, allowing us to make our own judgment. Both Ruhi and Prachi eventually become studies of different shades of tragedy. Ruhi doesn't get crowned, and returns home to a life of unfulfilled dreams. But Prachi strikes a more tragic figure. She is aware that as a woman deeply embedded in the religious traditions of her family, she is a creature to be looked down, to be tamed, to be married off as soon as possible, even if she protests the very idea of marriage, showing to us a glimmer of confused queer sensibility.

Her father tells a story of disciplining her at age 11 by stabbing her foot with an iron rod that has been fired to glowing red, and he narrates this with proud relish -- which sends a chill down my spine. Asked her opinion about this, Prachi tells the camera: "He has the right. He has given me birth. Knowing that I was a girl child, he let me live. In a traditional family, people don't let the girl child live. They kill the child. So when I get angry with my father, I remember that: he let me live." Another chill down my spine. And she knows that her family's tradition confines her and controls her, and while she might rebel sometimes against it, she will fight for it, and kill for it. Near the end of the film, we see Prachi's family sit down to watch the Miss India pageant Ruhi is in. They disparage the telecast, of course, and Prachi shakes her head at the gratuitous display of Westernized Indian girls on the stage. And yet we catch a tiny glint of longing to belong to that spectacle on TV, perhaps as a possible escape from the confining world that she knows.

One cannot get away from this film without becoming a kind of feminist, but a feminist that questions his/her own fundamentals. Some time ago, I made myself renounce beauty pageants. But after seeing this film, beauty pageants -- imperfect platforms they may be which can be used for nefarious purposes that demean women -- are perhaps not that bad in some respect. I don't know. I'm so conflicted now. 

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