Rafea: Solar Mama review (Sheffield Doc/Fest)

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Rafea Solar Mama green light

Hugely hopeful documentary about women unleashing their potential and putting into practice small-scale, realistic solutions to enormous problems.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There is so much awesome going on in this little film that it’s hard for me to believe that it runs less than 80 minutes. It expanded my mind and showed me horizons I didn’t even know existed in the world, and it gave me hope that we’re not, perhaps, doomed to destroy ourselves. So many documentaries are about exploring the sprawling, seemingly intractable problems of the world, gigantic messes that seem to have no solution — which isn’t to say that those films shouldn’t be made. They’re necessary. But Rafea: Solar Mama is a very welcome change from that. It’s about people putting into practice small-scale, realistic solutions to huge problems… or at least tiny parts of those huge problems. But just to know that someone is chipping away at all the bad stuff in the world is a relief.

The first wallop of awesome comes in the form of the Barefoot College, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in India that (among other development and sustainability projects) takes poor, uneducated women from rural indigenous areas around the planet and teaches them solar engineering — solar engineering! — so they can go back home and improve the lives of their villages by getting them electrified on solar power and teaching their new skills to other women. And it works! The students are women who are often illiterate, kept deliberately uninformed by the traditions of their cultures, but they’re not stupid — in fact, the ones we meet here are so starved for learning that they practically pounce on the work.

Holy. Shit. Who knew such incredible things were happening in the world?

But this isn’t the story of the Barefoot College (though I could watch another movie about it, for sure). It’s the story of one student, Rafea, a Bedouin from the deserts of Jordan, where it’s “shameful” if a girl continues her education past the age of ten. It’s a huge battle to get her husband to agree to let her go to India for six months to learn solar engineering — for he is powerless, poor and unemployed, as their entire village is, but exerting the power he has over his wife makes him feel manly, apparently. But she wins, and off she goes (though it’s hard to leave her kids!)… and then something even more extraordinary happens when she gets to India. She meets women from the Maasai in Kenya. Women from Colombian tribes of South America. Women from India, of course. Women from all over the world. They don’t speak one another’s language. They would never ever have met if not for the Barefoot College. (Probably most of these women had barely traveled to the next village, never mind getting on a plane to go to a different country.) And yet… they discover how very much they have in common.

It seems an obvious thing — that women all over the world have lots in common; of course we do — but there is something deeply moving and all-around amazing in how filmmakers Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim (Control Room) captured that. Watching this movie was one of the most emotionally overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had with cinema, and thinking about it now makes me start sobbing tears of wonder and joy (again). It’s just little snippets of the women teaching one another bits of their languages, comparing dances and clothing and hairstyles and names… it’s not even the focus of the film.

Or is it? Rafea is an unforgettable character, so determined and ambitious, but she is not, I think, actually special in any way — she’s not a genius, that is; she’s not a radical or a revolutionary. It is her ordinariness, and that of the other women she meets at the Barefoot College, that produces the true hope and optimism of the film. They are an illustration of what happens when the creative energy of women is unleashed, after it’s been long bound up and actively thwarted by their cultures. These ordinary women have real power to make their lives better, and they are grabbing it.

And they are hugely inspirational.

I wish everyone could see this film — especially the men who are so determined to crush women’s spirits — and see how much of the human race’s potential is being lost when women are denied opportunities to live their lives more fully. Cuz, you know, Rafea’s lazy slob of a husband? (Those are her words, though I’m paraphrasing a bit.) He gets to enjoy the solar-powered electric lights, too.

viewed during the 20th Sheffield Doc/Fest

Rafea: Solar Mama was winner of the 2013 AWFJ EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Film at Sheffield Doc/Fest. I served on the jury.

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