They’re everybody’s favourite punching bag, and doubly so for being women who dare to challenge the established rules of the game. But a new documentary, which presents the lives of women journalists from countries across the world including the Philippines, Syria, India and Cameroon, is out to set right this skewed and distorted picture.
Independent journalist and documentary filmmaker Nupur Basu, who helmed Velvet Revolution as its Executive Producer and Project Director, points out that the film makes a timely intervention, chronicling the hardships and hazards of women journalists at a time when popular empathy for journalists is at a deep low across the world.
And so, the film chronicles the life of Zaina Erhaim from Syria, who is living in exile in Turkey following her coverage of civil war in Aleppo. And that of Kimberlie Ngabit-Quitasol from the Philippines, whose coverage of indigenous rights and the development-induced displacement has earned herself and her team multiple threats from the ruling regime.
It also brings to the screen for the first time, US-based Bangladeshi blogger and journalist Rafida Bonya Ahmed, whose husband Avijit Roy, the founder of rationalist website Muktomona, was killed when the couple were attacked by machete-wielding fundamentalists.
Made as a collaboration among six directors from five countries under the auspices of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television, Velvet Revolution recently premiered at the 13th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival. The third such collaborative effort of the IAWRT, Nupur explains that she wanted to take the film beyond narratives of women being discriminated against in the newsroom, to look at the mundane and profound difficulties they faced on the field, covering situations of conflict.
“And what we found was that they are increasingly under attack by state, non-state actors everywhere. Again, we didn’t want to tell it as a chest-beating story. We wanted to tell the stories in a nuanced way, reflecting the reality,” she explains.
What is most interesting about the film is that even as it tells the stories of determined women struggling against the odds to tell stories that otherwise go unheard, it does not valorise them excessively either. Thus, even reporting from some of the toughest conflict situations in the world, the journalists do not reflect any boastfulness, only a clarity of purpose. “She is only saying, ‘I just have to do what I have to do’,” says Nupur, pointing to such examples as Malini Subramaniam, who was hounded out of Bastar in Chattisgarh with even her house being attacked, for reporting on human rights violations by state forces in the area.
Similarly, Nupur observes, Rafida took a mere three months to recover from the trauma of her attack and the brutal killing of her husband, before stepping in as editor of Muktomona. “Quietly, she just slipped into that role, without making any brouhaha about it.”
Nupur points out that she and the team of directors and editors worked hard to avoid any binaries of gender in presenting the varied narratives. However, she adds, the one sharp difference that emerges, particularly for women in conflict zones, is the threat of sexual violence. “If a male and a female journalist are out there and they are kidnapped by the Taliban, they’ll just shoot the male journalist if he doesn’t do what they tell him to do. But the woman they’ll first rape her and then shoot her, or rape her and leave her somewhere,” explains Nupur.
But it’s not only the threat of sexual violence that marks a difference in Velvet Revolution. The film also presents essential elements that are often absent from the story of heroic male journalists. The film stays almost entirely away from the personal lives of the women featured, but occasionally shows the difficulties faced by them in balancing the duties of their calling, and the safety of their families.
“We wanted to bring out that this is what’s at stake for women journalists. That doesn’t mean that male editors or society should say that the stakes are too high and you should stop going out in the field,” asserts Nupur, pointing out that such balances and conflicts are as real for men journalists, but rarely get highlighted. “They too have wives at home, they too have children at home. (We see) the lone hero having the Taliban put a bullet into their head, but the story doesn’t end there. There is so much that goes on behind,” she says.
Eschewing the heroic narrative as it does, Velvet Revolution focuses on a variety of forms of violence, from the explicit horrors of conflict zones like Syria to the more layered situations of violence such as caste oppression. Thus, the film also focuses on stories such as that of E Bharathi Yendapalli, who reports for Navodayam, a publication entirely managed by Dalit women in Andhra Pradesh. “Here were these women who had made such a success of creating change at the grassroots with their Dalit narrative. The fact that they had to stand outside upper caste people’s houses when they went to record them, that they wouldn’t even invite them in, shows what sort of country we still live in,” says Nupur.
Straddling these multiple worlds, the film still manages to coherently and equitably share space between journalists in both elite and grassroots contexts. Although the women occupy different places on the world stage, explains Nupur, they come together in their determination to tell stories and expose truths. If veteran journalists of the BBC like Lyse Doucet, and grassroots reporters like Bharathi are brought together on a single stage, says Nupur, “they would speak with equal power.”
Yet the film is not unconscious to the way patriarchal sentiment against women journalists intersects in different ways with questions of race, class and so on. Thus, the film raises the interesting example of Lyse Doucet’s experience of interviewing an important Mujahideen leader in Afghanistan, dressed as a man, since she could not conduct the interview as a woman. Alongside this, emerges the example of Zaina Erhaim, who is told by Syrian soldiers that she cannot be Syrian, because she cannot be a Syrian, a woman and a journalist at the same time. The Mujahideen leaders are more willing to tolerate the charade of Lyse’s male avatar than the truth of Zaina, explains Nupur, because they can see Liz as an other, but cannot fit Zaina into their view of what a Syrian woman should be. “Because society is patriarchal everywhere. You just have to scratch the surface and it comes in different forms,” she observes.