- Published on Thursday, 18 October 2012 05:51
While many may not know Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim by name, her award winning documentary film, Control Room, made a resounding impact worldwide. Released in 2004, Control Room exposed the difference in reporting on the US invasion of Iraq between Western media and the Arab news network, Al Jazeera, and earned Noujaim the 2006 TED Award for her vision to change the world through film.
Since Control Room, Noujaim has gone on to direct and produce several other documentary films, including Budrus (2009), Encounter Point (2006), and Storm from the South (2006). Her films share a common theme of looking at key moments in Arab countries when cultural shifts are in process, and her cinema vertie storytelling style allows viewers to follow characters in each of these settings, as realities of their worlds are revealed and unraveled in their daily interactions.
Noujaim’s latest film, Solar Mamas, co-directed with Mona Eldaief, tells the story of Rafea, a Bedouin woman living in a tent in the Jordanian desert near the Iraqi border. In Rafea’s village, the 300-odd inhabitants are all unemployed, and make their way through the world displaying the kind of resiliency and ingenuity that only comes with economic hardship.
Eventually, Rafea is selected by Jordan’s Ministry of Environment to attend the Barefoot College in India, a programme that brings women from small villages from all over the world to learn to become solar engineers. Despite much resistance from her husband and mother, Rafea soon leaves her village for the first time in the hope of being able to return and make changes in her community.
Once again, Noujaim captures a dynamic cultural shift on camera
Although the title of the film might lead one to believe Solar Mamas is a film about sustainable energy practices and the innovative programme at Barefoot College, the film is rather about what occurs when a woman shifts gender roles in her community. Once again, Noujaim captures a dynamic cultural shift on camera, and encourages the audience to make their own assessments of the resulting outcomes.
When Rafea returns to her village, she is markedly different than her cohorts – not only because of her more liberally worn hijab and the black eyeliner she has habitually begun to adorn herself with as a result of her stay in India – but also because of her insistence on making changes in the village. In one defining scene, Rafea sits with her weathered mother and neighbours and remarks, ‘All we do is smoke cigarettes and drink tea all day. I can’t do that any more. We have to do something!’ In another, we see her fight with her husband, saying, ‘I’m educated now – I don’t have to take that from you!’ as he laments his loss of control over her. The directors’ intent, it seems, is to highlight snippets of the tangible ways in which formal education can change the situation of women. Although they may seem small individually, collectively they create a marked shift.
Solar Mamas, which won the Sustainability Award at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, will be airing in the US on the PBS show Independent Lens this fall along with dozens of other social issue documentaries. The film is a co-production of Plus Pictures ApS, STEPS International, and ITVS International.By Sara Zia Ebrahimi, REORIENT magazine
This content is provided courtesy of REORIENT Magazine
Sara Zia Ebrahimi teaches Film Analysis at Philadelphia's Temple University, and runs a monthly independent film screening series, Kinowatt, at the Asian Arts Initiative. She is also the founder of From the Mouth of the Lion, an emerging project showcasing the work of members of the Iranian diaspora born on the cusp of the Islamic Revolution.