Maxima and Mothers of the Revolution documentaries review: women getting it done

part of my Movies for the Resistance and Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Two new documentaries tell inspiring stories about ordinary women radicalized into revolutionary action, from anti-nuke protests in the 1980s to anti-corporate and anti-corruption activism today.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Máxima Acuña is a farmer who ekes out a living on a small piece of the Andes Mountains. She cannot read or write. But for more than 10 years now, she has been battling — with some success — the operators of Peru’s massive Yanacocha gold mine, including its US-based corporate parent, Newmont Mining Corporation, as well as the World Bank, which is ostensibly supposed to help lift people out of poverty. But at Yanacocha, outside the small city of Cajamarca, the open-pit mine is already an environmental disaster, contaminating the land with heavy metals, turning the drinking water toxic, and sickening the local people.

It gets worse. This mine, the second largest such in the world — clever aerial animations give us some idea of its massive, landscape-altering scope — is getting tapped out, and the owners are looking to expand. “This land will become a desert,” Acuña says, if they get their way. She is fighting the expansion not just for her community — she is of the indigenous people who were the first humans here; no one has more right to the land than they do — but for herself: the area Yanacocha wants to expand onto includes her farm. The company has tried to steal it from her and her family, and when that failed, they tried to harass them off the land. The company has, so far, failed in that as well. They’re still trying.

The horrifically scarred earth near Acuña’s farm…

Maxima (no accents in the title, for some reason), the second feature and first documentary from Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Sparrow, is an inspiring portrait of the resolve, the courage, and the spirit of this shy, funny, humble woman. She is scared, sometimes in tears as she talks about Yanacocha’s campaign of violence and intimidation; there’s video footage of the company’s terrorism (the only word for it) from across the years, and it is enraging. But she remains uncrushed before the powerful entrenched establishment, not just corporate but also encompassing everyone from the local police to those in the highest levels of the Peruvian national government: Yanacocha’s profit is guaranteed thanks to widespread bribery and corruption. Don’t fight them, someone warns her; “you’re an ant” next to them. She fights on.

But even more importantly, this often unexpectedly joyful film — my god, watch how she accepts an award for her activism! — is an always needed reminder that, no matter how impossible the task seems, no matter how unconquerable the opposition appears, ordinary people can prevail… because we must. Acuña’s tale is a harbinger of the resource wars that are coming, and of the digging in that late-stage capitalism will do — is already doing — as profit clashes ever more obviously with planet.

Acuña on her land.

Acuña’s struggle, and Sparrow’s telling of it in Maxima, also reminds us that the fight for human rights and dignity and the fight for environmental justice truly are one and the same. (The work of Acuña’s local lawyer, Mirta Vásquez, blends human rights and environmental issues, as does that of the US organization, EarthRights International, that is supporting Acuña’s struggle.) “There is no justice for the poor,” another activist says here… unless the poor insist upon it. And even then, it is not certain. But we have no choice but to try.

no nukes
An ad-hoc group of women who tried and succeeded — in spectacular fashion — are probably women you’ve never heard of before. I certainly hadn’t, and I thought I was reasonably well informed in this area. Documentarian Briar March rectifies this “oversight” with her gripping Mothers of the Revolution.

In 1981, ordinary housewives and mothers in Wales heard that the US Air Force was planning to place nuclear missiles on British soil. They also learned that, because of the closer proximity to the Soviet Union for those missiles, in the event of a nuclear attack, there would be, at most, a four-minute warning. So they said, Nope. They quickly formed an organization called Women for Life on Earth — who could be against that? — and marched 120 miles to the Royal Air Force base at Greenham Common, about 50 miles west of London, where the weapons were due to be housed.

March assembles amazing vintage footage of the women’s walk… and, well, it was almost paradelike. It was colorful, the women happy, buoyed to be taking action; there were babies in strollers being pushed the whole way. It was the ultimate in grassroots action. It was festive and even joyous.

Such high spirits would not last. But the women endured.

Mothers of the Revolution
A re-creation of a protest at Greenham Common.

By a year later, they had set up the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, with little villages at every gate of the base; sometimes the women held hands and ringed the base perimeter entirely. Sometimes they chained themselves to the fence. They had to settle in because their protest was not getting the public traction they needed. (Princess Diana’s wedding was much more interesting.) The posh locals didn’t like these suspicious women, abandoning their children (the babies had gone home) and probably indulging in lesbianism (in fact, some of them did come out as a result of their eye-opening, life-changing experience with the protest). The sexism the women encountered, locally and in the media, is shocking but perhaps not surprising; the abuse, even torture, they suffered at the hands of the police was horrendous, and all for saying that maybe it wouldn’t be great if everyone died in a nuclear war. March gives us it all, through both incredible retro footage and sharply executed sequences dramatized with actors.

The camp was peaceful — and wasn’t disbanded till 2000! — but the women’s actions were audacious and disruptive. They used some methods pioneered by the suffragettes, and they garnered much the same response: first bemused, then infuriated. The women were not being “nice,” and they certainly not being quiet. And it thrilled them. Interviews with some of the women today let us understand how revolutionary action helped these women not only change the world — spoiler: the missiles never arrived at the base — but find themselves. “I was out of my comfort zone,” one protester explains, with something like glee. “I had never done anything like this before.” “It was the first time I’d ever said No in a major way,” says another. “Well, in any way.”

Mothers of the Revolution
Life at the peace camp. (photo by Sahm Doherty/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

But there’s so much more to the story. Some of the Greenham women reached across the propaganda divide to contact and coordinate with like-minded women in Russia, and you can imagine what sort of official response that provoked. (These sequences are like the stuff of espionage thrillers.) They inspired women across the planet, from Europe to America to Australia and New Zealand, to start their own anti-nuke movements. It became a global movement… and it’s been all but forgotten. How?

Remember the Greenham women we must. And take direction from them. Disruption works! Citizens can force their governments to listen! The price can be high — the lives of many of these women were altered forever, and not always in positive ways. But when things get bad enough, ordinary people get radicalized. “These women changed our future,” narrator Glenda Jackson says. It’s not too extreme to say that they helped end the Cold War; no less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR, has said as much.

But humanity and the planet did not stay saved, and we are in big trouble again, because we left action on climate change so late. Gear up…

more films like these:
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch [Prime US | Apple TV]
Suffragette [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Netflix]

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