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Filmmaker haunted by plight of rural Indian girls

Kim Longinotto is no stranger to capturing poignant documentary footage but Pink Saris, her latest foray into India's rural villages, still haunts her. 

ABU DHABI // Kim Longinotto is no stranger to capturing poignant documentary footage, but her latest foray into India's rural villages still haunts her. 

Pink Saris, the British filmmaker's latest documentary, is a fast-paced film following the life of one woman, Sampat Pal Devi. She leads a group of feisty women called the Gulabi Gang who push for basic women's rights in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. 

Longinotto's attachment to her project lies not only with the main protagonist, but also with the five women who approached Devi for help during filming of the documentary. One woman, in particular, was Niranjan Pal, the niece of Devi, who approaches her aunt in the documentary to reveal how her baby girl was a victim of female infanticide by her mother-in-law. 

"Watching this actually happening was close to watching fiction," said Longinotto. "I am haunted, heartbroken, but inspired by them. I love the girls I met. These women have no power but their stories are universal stories."

In Pink Saris, Longinotto and her crew followed Devi for three months as she trekked through villages and confronted families about the mistreatment of women, including complaints about rape, child marriage, bride burning and abuse at the hands of husbands and in-laws.

"We were her drivers," said Longinotto of Devi. "She rescues [the girls] for a bit. They come to stay with her but then they must go back to their family." 

"But she is trying make a shift in consciousness."

After Pink Saris was screened at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, distributors from Damascus-based company Proaction agreed to distribute the film to the Middle East with Arabic subtitles.

Longinotto is known for capturing the stories of women fighting oppression or discrimination.

Past projects have included Rough Aunties, which follows a group of tough women who look after neglected children in Durban, South Africa. Sisters in Law is about two sisters who are prosecutors in a little-known town in Cameroon, and determined to change the way spousal abuse cases are handled. 

"I am always looking for films about change. I don't make films about victims, but rebels," said Longinotto.

InPink Saris, Devi has never been to school, was forced into marriage at the age of  nine or 10, and has been just as affected by her own circumstances as the girls she helps. "She needs just as much of what she gives them - counselling," said Longinotto.

A touching scene in the documentary shows Devi wiping the tears of a 14-year-old girl and asking: "What is inside you? Tell me."

She replies: "I don't want to live, that is what is inside me."

Unlike the girls who approach her for help, Devi is confident and walks and talks with the same swagger as some of the men in the village - often bullying the men and shaming them into admitting their wrongdoing. 

"Once things are out in the open, it is breaking the silence," said Devi, explaining why she gathers the village folk before confronting the accused.  "We learn from Sampat that the shame isn't with the victim, it is with the perpetrator," said Longinotto. "She takes her own gender back."

Longinotto has not returned to the villages since she finished filming but has tried to remain in touch with the women she met - difficult, considering they do not have access to landlines or mobile phones. 

For the past few months, she has tried to organise passports for the girls so they can attend various film festivals where the documentary is being shown - including Toronto and Abu Dhabi. But the girls do not have the basic documents needed to obtain one, including birth certificates. 

"It's almost like these girls don't exist."

 

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

 

Pink Saris will receive a second screening at Marina Mall at 3.45pm today.

 

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