Tearful Enlightenment – Women-Focused Films at 2018 Freedom Film Fest (part 2)

Continuing on films shown at the 2018 Freedom Film Fest, Fikri Jermadi reflects on ‘SHE’ and ‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’,

Speaking of literal, ‘SHE’ brings us back to the plane of reality. Directed by Kyal Yi Lin Six, it is a documentary focusing on a Buddhist nun, a Christian nun, and a Muslim woman. We see and hear of their day-to-day challenges of existing in a nation such as Myanmar. In particular, much of that struggle is founded upon gender discrimination, as well as perceived incompatibility with more mainstream readings of spirituality.

What is helpful is that these personalities are not two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. For instance, the Catholic nun (Sister Chit Pone) had a very interesting backstory, firmly couched in the country’s economic discussion; she was dressed up as a boy when she was younger, even though she’s not a tomboy: “These were the old clothes of my elder brother, and I had to wear his old ones.” This can be contrasted directly to Dr. Thet Su Htwe, the Muslim woman who was forced by her mother to wear skirts so as not to appear tomboyish.

At the same time, Dr. Thet also spoke of how her mother practiced forms of equality between the different genders, and she became aware of such fixed gender roles only after getting married. Luckily, her education and profession provided her a platform from which she could put her thoughts on loudspeaker. Not that it has been an easy journey for her; in speaking up about the obstacles she has had to overcome, silent tears streamed down her face, punctuating a powerful monologue. The aforementioned Chit Pone also reacted in a similar way. In relating how her suggestions were rejected because she was a female, she, too, became emotional. It was heartbreaking. It may have been some time ago, but that moment came flowing back to her as she cried on camera.

These are the moments that truly illustrate how difficult it must have been to live in Myanmar under their respective guises. At least in that regard, being a Christian nun in Myanmar is not all that different to being a female worker in the American games industry. A similar gender divide would also exist for the Buddhist nun, Sayarlay Ketu Marla, though hers is one posited along spiritual discourse: “Everyone recognises that a monk is scared, and that a monk is a venerable being. But very few people recognise a nun in such a way.”

That’s not to say that the film itself all that effective. With regards to the filmmaking touch, I would argue that ‘SHE’ suffers not necessarily only because of its own technical and film language incompetence, but also by comparison; put side-by-side to the likes of ‘Retouch’ and ‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’, a lot of films (including my own) would look less accomplished. For instance, a niftier editing could also result in a more rapid pace; I feel as if we can cut perhaps a third of the film without losing too much. There is also a narrative dissonance between our three main characters, presented separately even as they traverse similar paths. It is perhaps fairer to describe Kyal Yi Lin Six’s approach as descriptive, begetting a more observational stance. Given my lack of understanding of the bigger picture context, it meant that my engagement with the film is tangential at best.

Moving on to ‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’, we revert to a constructed narrative and follow the story of Smita (Kani Kusruti), a young woman in India. However, she is in need of some assistance, as, given the nature of the beast, India is not particularly kind to an unmarried Indian woman of a certain age like her. The film itself is a particularly intimate portrait of what life must be like for those on the socio-economic margins, as well as being defined as being on the wrong side of the wrong gender (more on this later).

Once again, patriarchy is firmly targeted by Reema Sengupta, the director, as the difficulty of our protagonist to get anything done is astounding. I can understand how issues such as abortion may well be deemed to be a sensitive one, and is placed a lot more under a male thumb. I didn’t think, however, that getting a place to live in, for instance, would prove incredibly problematic for someone like Smita. Here, there is a need for her to have a husband’s name to get anything done. Such coverture renders the completion of anything practically impossible. That, perhaps, is the single most prevalent thread running through all these films: they may well have engaged on different levels, but I am never unenlightened as to the extent these women’s dignity are toyed with.

‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’ is helped by the director’s firmer grasp on film language. The mise-en-scene, for instance, is one that is carefully planned, crafted to visually express how our protagonist is expelled to the fringes of society. You have the camera being placed firmly in front of her, for instance, as she attempts to negotiate rental conditions with largely disinterested male landlords. I am legally obliged to describe the aesthetic as Andersonian in nature. Yet, while many of these shots have only her in them, she is also situated away from the centre, placing her a lot closer to the sides, a visual mirror of her marginalisation. At times it feels that she is piercing her gaze through to us, an exclamation point against an evil, patriarchal empire.

She also appears to be incredibly compressed, a feeling exacerbated by the location in which props and other elements are blocked closely together. I’ve never been to India, so I can’t comment authoritatively on the matter, but personal anecdotes from other friends have highlighted the lack of personal space in public. I would imagine that to helpfully inform this particular context, making us feel somewhat uncomfortable at her lack of options and avenues for solutions. Kudos to Harshvir Oberai, the cinematographer, and art director Bhagyashri Murade-Gawali, for realising such a compression of time and space in an effective manner.


Read the first part here. ‘SHE’ and ‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’ were screened at the 2018 Freedom Film Fest. This year’s edition will run from 20th to 28th September 2019. Click on the link for the latest information. 

Featured image credit: Etsy

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