VIFF: The Invisible War and The World Before Her

by | September 30, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Pop Culture

by Jarrah Hodge

So it’s Vancouver International Film Festival time, and I had the chance to check out two great documentaries yesterday, along with Q&As with both directors.

The first movie I saw was Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War, which Jessica Critcher covered for this blog in July. In case you missed that post, The Invisible War is a heart and gut-wrenching look at the rape of service members in the US Military – the problem of the attacks themselves as well as the problems survivors face with reporting and obtaining justice. The main thing that struck me was the incredible courage of these women (and one very brave man) to come forward and share their traumatic experiences, often after having been shut down repeatedly by commanding officers, the VA, and military leadership. It made me really angry to see how people who were victimized were re-victimized through such things as having medical benefits denied, being charged with adultery (this happened to two single women in the movie who were raped by married men), being discharged while the attackers remained at their posts, and just generally not having their reports taken seriously.

The Q&A with Kirby Dick helped shed light on what the filmmakers had been hoping for in terms of policy changes. When asked about the potential for civilian oversight of these cases, he said, “That would probably never happen in the United States,” due to the power of the military. When the movie was made, decisions to act on reports were almost always made by the direct commander, who was often a friend of the rapist or the rapist themselves. Dick was happy Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had moved quickly after the movie was released to push the decision to act up the chain of command to higher authorities, but said what they were aiming for was ideally to get the decision to prosecute moved outside of the chain of command.

He also argued that making real changes in the military would benefit society, citing the success of the military’s programs to fight racism in the service around the time of the Vietnam War, which at one point led to lower levels of measured racism in the forces compared to society at large. He noted that if good values are taught to new recruits, most of whom are young and aggressive, then those values are passed on to wider society upon discharge.

“They could be taught values around respecting women, respecting others,” Dick argued, saying this would be an opportunity for a stronger military and society.

On the issue of rape of men in the military, Dick noted that due to the trauma of rape combined with homophobia, it was very hard to find male survivors who would talk about having been assaulted in the past ten years: “It takes men decades to come forward.” However, he reinforced that the attacks his team found on male service members “involved serial perpetrators acting very much in the same way” as the attacks on women.

Another success Kirby Dick felt the movie had achieved was that the military recently started purchasing hundreds of DVDs of the film to use as part of their training. In closing he said he hoped viewers saw the whole systemic problem and that their focus would be not just on the men directly involved but also on the men who could make the policy change: The President, Secretary of Defence, and Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The second movie I went to was The World Before Her, a documentary by Canadian director Nisha Pahuja. The World Before Her takes us through the often difficult choices facing women growing up in India today, with a dual focus on Ruhi, a contestant in the Miss India beauty pageant, and Prachi, a Durgha Vahini (Hindu nationalist) youth leader. We see Ruhi share her dreams and fears while going through the intense pageant training, while Prachi struggles to reconcile the fact that she wants to dedicate her life to her movement and not marry, while her movement’s ideology tells her marriage is her duty.

The World Before Her

Nothing is simple in this movie – the groups of women who appear to be so much a part of differing extremes of society both face pressures living up to standards laid out for them. They both believe they are part of moving India forward and are passionate about moving forward with their “callings”.  Although the girls being trained in what’s essentially a type of Hindu nationalist terrorist camp are troubling, you’re almost just as troubled by the Botox and skin-lightening cream being practically forced on the teenage pageant contestants.

“I was continually challenged by my impressions in each world and what I thought initially was turned on its head,” said Pahuja in the Q&A, “There were at least as many similarities as differences.”

Pahuja said her goal in making the movie was to “look at how India is changing and how those changes are affecting women”. Her project took three years to film and started off as just about the beauty contest. It was through reading and learning more about the Hindu fundamentalist protests against the pageant that she started looking into the world of the Durgha Vahini camps.

“They’re indoctrinating little girls and teaching them hate and yet you can’t help to like them as people,” she said. However, “there was something about their belief system I understood,” she added, referring to the nationalists’ desire to protect their culture.

At the end of filming, Pahuja had almost 300 hours of footage, which took 9 months to edit. I was lucky to get to see the impressive final product – a film that really makes you think.

VIFF is on until October 12 and there are lots of really interesting films to come. The other ones I’m planning on attending are Virgin Tales, a documentary on the US family that founded “Purity Balls”, and No Job For a Woman, another doc on women reporters during WWII. Find info and get tickets for these or other movies here.

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