The Sari Soldiers
The Sari Soldiers is a documentary that follows the lives of six Nepali women amidst the political turmoil that erupted in Nepal in 2001, after Nepal’s King and nine royal family members were massacred. The film is near perfect. It accomplishes the tenuous balance that only the best documentaries can provide: a bird’s eye view of a convoluted topic achieved through exploring the infinitely specific and intimate stories of the individuals involved.
After Nepal’s King was killed, the King’s younger brother Prince Gyanendra took the throne. Maoist opposition to the monarchy, which had already flourished in Nepal for years, multiplied. In February 2005, monarch Gyanendra Shah cited Maoist insurgency as justification for declaring a state of emergency. He disbanded parliament and established military rule. In the villages throughout Nepal, an environment of fear reigned. The Royal Nepalese Army kidnapped and killed individuals suspected of Maoism; Maoists terrorized villages with pro-government ties.
The documentary begins with the story of Devi Sunuwar, a woman who seeks justice for the disappearance of her fifteen-year-old daughter, who was kidnapped by government soldiers. Devi and her family must hide out in Kathmandu, Nepal’s largest city, because soldiers sporadically come looking for Devi in her home village. Director Julie Bridgham focuses the camera on Devi’s face as she tells her harrowing story. When the footage switches from a one-on-one interview to scenes of protest in the streets or political speeches, Bridgham does not forget to keep it personal—even when panning out on a massive crowd, the camera intermittently zooms in on a single face. The documentary offers clear descriptions of the overall political situation in Nepal, but never lets the viewer forget that politics is personal—especially when many have lost the lives of their family to the struggle.
The film looks unwaveringly at all sides of the war. We get to know Kranti, a Maoist Brigadier Commissar. From Kranti we learn that the Maoists are “guiding the Nepali people towards a beautiful future.” Yet we also learn about Krishna, an elderly woman whose village is chronically attacked by Maoists, who abduct the men of a village to either be murdered or recruited as Maoist soldiers. Just when sympathy for Krishna blossoms, the film moves on to Mandira, a human rights lawyer who represents the many victims of the military regime. The film also features interviews with Ram Kumari, an anti-government political activist, and Rajani, an officer in the Royal Nepalese Army.
The documentary was shot over a three year period, so the viewer is able to literally watch as the political situation unfolds into the country-wide protests that force the King to step down, all the way to April 2008, when free elections are held in Nepal, and the Maoists gain thirty-eight percent of the seats in the new parliament. We also see the stories of the six women unfold. When the monarchy disbands, Devi finally learns where her daughter’s body has been buried. Within the short film running of ninety minutes, the filmmakers somehow succeed in giving a comprehensive account of the Nepali Civil War, while also telling six separate and deeply moving narratives. This is the best documentary I have ever seen, and it reminded me how powerful a tool the documentary form can really be.