Women’s History Month 2014 got off to a great start at Eastern Michigan University, beginning with two events that were similar in structure, but which differed heavily in perspective.
The first event, held on Monday, March 3, was a screening of a portion of the film “Half the Sky,” followed by a panel discussion.
The second event, held the following day, was a screening of the film “Poto Mitan: Haitian Women: Pillars of the Global Economy,” followed by a Q&A with one of the film’s co-directors and co-producers Mark Schuller.
These events seem similar enough. Both featured films that related to the mistreatment of women in other countries, followed by a discussion. But through the discussion, and particularly the intense and thought-provoking panel at “Half the Sky,” it became clear that the films were shown for different reasons.
“Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” was a 2009 book written by Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn that focused on the oppression of women throughout the world. The book was adapted into a documentary for the PBS television series “Independent Lens,” which followed the book’s writers, along with celebrities including Olivia Wilde, Eva Mendes and Meg Ryan, to 10 different countries.
The portion of the documentary that was shown focused on intergenerational prostitution in India, and particularly the efforts of Urmi Basu. Basu founded New Light, a charitable trust that hopes to educate girls who are at risk of sexual exploitation.
It became clear why the film was presented when the three panelists began discussing it.
Devika Dibya Choudhuri, a professor in EMU’s counseling program, said she felt the film was “dangerous,” and that she disagreed with the use of celebrity America Ferrera to serve as “a bridge to the audience.”
“What this does,” she said, “is cause the audience to say, ‘That’s horrifying, that’s awful, I’m so glad that I’m not there.’”
Choudhuri also disagreed with the portrayal of the young girls’ mothers as powerless so that the audience doesn’t have to listen to them.
Nigora Erkaeva, a graduate student at the School of Education, said she felt the film showed “lives portrayed in simplistic ways” and said that, instead of “othering” others, they should have instead just shown the issues.
Amalina Dave, a women’s and gender studies graduate student, said of the film, “I felt that it was too rudimentary for me to feel like it was making any significant point.”
In one scene in “Half the Sky,” Kristof comments on one of the girls at New Light by saying, “She speaks such beautiful English.” Dave responded to this quote by saying, “They’re idealizing literacy, but it’s a specific type of literacy.”
Choudhuri said that it’s important in situations like those presented in the film to stop spectating, listen and assist people as they want to be assisted, without worrying about how it corresponds to yourself.
Erkaeva closed by saying, “I hope this conversation helped us see things from another perspective.”
“Poto Mitan,” on the other hand, did many of the things that “Half the Sky” was trying to do, but it did them in a more respectful and honest way. Rather than focus on one issue relating to the country, the film focuses on several issues that are effecting Haitian women, including poverty, awful working conditions and health care. None of the interviews contain any English, and the women featured were actually the ones who wanted the film made. In fact, they saw five rough cuts before it was completed, suggesting changes and ensuring that they were satisfied with the final cut.
The film mostly focused on Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. While it was built for 200,000 people, it had gotten to more than 3 million people by 2009. Along with the overpopulation, the harsh working conditions and extremely low pay have resulted in poverty. Haiti has also gone from being one of the top exporters of rice to being the number four importer of U.S. rice in the world, due to the cost of local rice being too high.
Completed in 2009, the film has been shown at fundraisers for the 2010 Haiti earthquake. A short follow-up was also made after the earthquake, showing how the lives of the women featured in the film had changed since the disaster. This follow-up was also shown at the event.
Schuller said he was glad that the earthquake received a lot of media attention, but was disappointed with how Haiti went “back in the forgotten zone” afterwards.
But there is hope. The Assessing Progress in Haiti Act of 2013 was passed in the House on Dec. 12, 2013, and is now going to the Senate.
Brea Haywood, a senior English major who had attended both events, said that she felt “Poto Mitan” had done a better job at showing the problems from the perspective of the people affected by them. She also felt that the discussions at the events offered better commentary than the films.
Women’s History Month 2014 has gotten off to an impressive and meaningful start. The two events may not have been intentionally juxtaposed, but they nonetheless showed different ways of assisting people in need.
Barbara Walters, an assistant professor in EMU’s social work program and the presenter at the “Half the Sky,” said that it’s important to learn from people who are leading the way rather than imposing your personal views on them. “Don’t try to step in and tell people, ‘We know what we’re doing.’”
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