Threads of Hope
I have to admit to watching this film with much trepidation. Too many films and documentaries are dedicated to analyzing the poor state of women’s lives in the developing world, but few dedicate their focus to researching and explicating the systemic inequalities rooted in patriarchy, that exist to reinforce women’s conditions. However, while watching I was determined to keep an open mind and value the work and perspective of a young woman of color, endeavoring to make a difference in the world by documenting women’s lives in Kolkata, India.
This is a short piece by American student Amanda Ibrahim, who with a scholarship, traveled to India for two weeks to document the effects of the ConneXions vocational training on the women who worked in the training center. ConneXions, Ibrahim narrates, focuses on creating job opportunities for women by training and employing them in fair trade textile production. One of the stated aims is to make women self-dependent while providing them with an opportunity to help their family with money.
Though the camerawork was good, the footage was quite limited. Only a few people and places in Kolkata were included in the film. Much of the filming was done at the center with the management team and the women participants. When the women were depicted, they were always carrying out particular gendered roles, including cooking, cleaning, dancing and sewing. When they were interviewed, they seemed shy, awkward and as though either reading from a cue card or being prompted by the person next to the camera. Two women, Shibani and Krishna were interviewed more extensively, and both assert that through their work at ConneXions their lives have been transformed; they can now afford to put food on the table and pay for their children’s schooling. At one point, Shibani proudly states that everything she makes goes to her family and children. At this point, one could probably ascertain the reasons for women being the recipients of this program.
Though I appreciate the altruistic aspirations of the ConneXions project, this film, and the limitations I expect Ibrahim experienced, the main contentions I have with this film all relate to its limited analysis.
My lesser contention is the overarching theme of Christian ministering that ran throughout the film. The film opens with the words of a Christian prayer, and you later learn that the ConneXions vocational training center was founded by a Swedish couple, who had come to Kolkata as Christian missionaries through the non profit organization Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. The homepage of Servants states that these Christian communities participate with the poor to bring hope and justice through Jesus Christ. All of the managers state their Christian position, and one in particular states that she teaches the women the gospel. What you don’t know by watching this film is whether the women are coerced into listening to the gospel or converting religions in order to access the training program. I am always weary of Christian missions particularly considering its mostly violent history with Canadian, South American, and Australian indigenous communities. That an immediate alliance and little analysis is done on the role of Christian ministering in the slums of India indicates the religious bias and socio-political naivety of the director.
My greatest contention with this film is its focus on female empowerment through Christian vocational training. I don’t dispute that the women are becoming empowered by receiving trained in textile production, and having then the potential to seek employment in the tailoring industry. However, the explicit goal of achieving empowerment through becoming self-dependent does not stand up against the stated end-result of these women spending everything they earn on their family. Self-sufficiency does not always equate empowerment. This is encapsulated in the comment of one of the young girls interviewed who shares innocently that she will have to leave the center in the very near future because she has to get married and will soon be just a housewife. This project perceives these women as simply reproducers and passive recipients of services. It offers a band aid solution to women’s disproportionate poverty by training them in a skill that would lead them to meeting their most basic needs, without addressing systemic gender inequity and the social, economic and political relations between men and women that perpetuate women’s oppression in India.
Ibrahim ends her film by depicting a group of smiling women, stating that the women who work at the center are blessed with deep friendships, which might be true, but which functions to generalize and romanticize the experiences of these women without providing evidence to support this statement, masking their relations with each other and with the center's management.
An interesting short film by a young female filmmaker, admirably attempting to foreground women’s lived experiences in the developing world. I only hope that her future directorial endeavors offer more mature and critical analysis.