Pili movie review: the trials of women are many, and universal

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Pili green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A wholly remarkable film, just barely fictionalized from the lives of its cast of nonprofessional actors, about the indomitable spirit of the women of East Africa. Pili’s life isn’t unrecognizable to women worldwide, though.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Pili lives in rural Tanzania and struggles to support her two young children, since her husband left them, as a daily farm laborer. But then the opportunity she has been waiting for pops up: a market kiosk in her small village comes vacant, and if she can scrape together the fee its owner is asking, she can start her own business — she wants to sell beauty products — and can finally get herself and her family on a solid financial footing. It’s a big if … and it will demand that she make some extraordinarily difficult decisions, ones that could have life-altering repercussions in all sorts of ways.

There’s a lot of medical support for HIV+ women like Pili, but social stigma is still an impediment to timely treatment.

This feature directorial debut from British filmmaker Leanne Welham, which she wrote with Sophie Harman, is wholly remarkable. Pili was shot in the village where it is set, utilizing mostly nonprofessional actors, telling a story that is only just barely fictionalized from their own lives. Bello Rashid, as Pili, gives the film a quiet yet rock-solid center: there hasn’t been a movie like this one before, showcasing the determination, the dignity, and the indomitable spirit of the women of East Africa, and Rashid presents a proud portrait. Unexpected angles on Pili’s life bring us a new understanding of the challenges women like her face. She is HIV+, for one big thing, and through Pili we discover that although a lot of support is available to her — free buses to free clinics, free drugs — social stigma is still a huge impediment to treatment. Pili’s anitvirals ran out a month ago, and because she is so dedicated to keeping her status private, getting them refilled secretly can be difficult. So now she also has to cope with not feeling well, and knowing that she won’t feel better — unless it’s already too late — until she can get a new supply of her medicine.

The walk to the farm for work is long and dusty, but the company of a good friend makes it endurable.
The walk to the farm for work is long and dusty, but the company of a good friend makes it endurable.

As is so often the case when we get an intimate look at the lives of others, even those who are very different from us, we see much that is familiar — which is cheering even when the familiarities are often depressing ones. The barriers Pili faces and the hoops she is forced to jump through in order to — maybe — achieve just the first tiny step on a long path to a very modest idea of success? They are immense… and women everywhere will recognize them, from the juggling of work and child care to the jealousy of those who begrudge her even the smallest helping hand. There is terrible suspense along Pili’s journey here, as we fear for what new obstacle is going to appear before here (there are so many). But there is also hope, in the support of her friends and in her own resilience. Even if her resilience is mostly a lack of other options for improving her lot in life. She will not be deterred, and she is a hero for it. An exhausted, dejected hero, but a hero nevertheless.

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