Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Shape of Water

Tonight I had the chance to see The Shape of Water, a film about female activists in the third world. The director, an academic who studies development in the third world, set out to make a film that showed how women around the world are standing up for their dignity and survival, in their own ways and within their own cultures. (She was also at the screening, which was pretty neat.) There's much that inspires in this movie and much that breaks your heart - five groups of women living in poverty have their work cut out for them to simply survive, let alone fight forces like multinational corporations and thousand-year-old traditions.

I was very struck by the sensitivity expressed in these groups' approaches to their problems. A Senegalese activist group speaking out against female genital cutting not only hosted movie viewings and public discussions about the issue, but reached out to those who actually relied on performing the procedure as a livelihood by finding alternative sources of income. And they were not afraid to go head-to-head with the people who disagree with them; one of the most interesting moments in the film involved a young man toting a cell phone and wearing a Nike t-shirt arguing to the women that they needed to remain loyal to their African customs and not be so quick to embrace white Western culture.

It takes someone with an understanding of where the custom comes from and why it persists to begin to approach ending it. News stories about FGM and honor killings and other practices that Western readers can't begin to understand portray them as arising out of a vacuum - being an expression of pure evil. But there's no such thing as pure evil; there's a reason for everything people do, even if the reasons are based on misunderstandings or lies or wishful thinking. The Shape of Water gracefully shows that making culture-wide change is more complicated than just asking people to stop.
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