It's Better If We Try
Rafea Anad smiles and smokes a cigarette as she bends over chunks of a cupboard, now piled on the dirt floor inside the tent where she lives with her four daughters. She uses a smoldering stick to light the chunks on fire, children huddled nearby. “This is out central heating system,” she says. As the camera in Solar Mamas offers glimpses of her kids, aged 13 to three, Rafea asserts, “They mean the world to me.” And so, she worries for them. “I have had a fifth grade education. A girl is not supposed to continue school past ten because it’s shameful.” A couple of her daughters watch her work, smiling shyly at the camera as they lean on a tent pole. “I would love to have a career and succeed,” Rafea says at last, “To help all the women in the village who are in the same situation.”
Rafea’s efforts to change that situation, for herself and for her daughters, shape the narrative arc of Solar Mamas. Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary follows Rafea’s education as an engineer at the Barefoot College in India. The film is as remarkable as that summary suggests, both in the story it tells and in its intelligent, respectful, and wholly compelling storytelling.
Solar Mamas is one of several films featured on 12 December during the “Why Poverty?” online film symposium . These films—including Brian Hill’s Welcome to the World, Alex Gibney’s Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, and Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty, by Ben Lewis—are also available to view online at PBS video (the complete program is comprised of some eight documentaries and another 30 short films).
Focused on the structures and effects of poverty, the program raises more questions than it answers, from the ambitious schemes to end poverty remembered, colorfully, in Poor Us, to the recent Chinese efforts to privatize higher education in Education, Education, by Weijun Chen, efforts that lead to fewer opportunities for fewer students. In tracking the sacrifices made by children and their families, the film reveals pressures and frustrations as well as ambitions: as hopeful as students may be, they’re daunted by implacable institutional structures, tests and fees.
Bosse Lindquist’s Give Us the Money looks at another relatively recent phenomenon, the increasingly complicated relationship between celebrity and charity, a relationship that might best be described as an industry. Following along with Bob Geldof and Bono as they make their way from one political body to another, the film notes the contradictions and hypocrisies in the process of fundraising. So, as Geldof, for instance, agrees to pose for photos with politicians before and after meetings, he laments that the broader point is missed. “If we smiled,” he says, “Then there had to be a price, I mean, it’s nonsense.”
While the documentary broaches its own broader point—asking whether celebrities can effect change in entrenched global and local systems—it assumes the stars’ good intentions. Even as Bono might be surprised to learn that the president of the United States can’t just forgive debts and loan money (as Congress has a part in this particular nation’s decision-making), the film underscores that politics, more than policy, frames the process all over the world. It’s hard to do the right thing, and sometimes making problems visible by using celebrity wattage appears a best option.
Looking at another set of political and business decisions, Hugo Berkeley and Osvalde Lewat-Hallade’s Land Rush considers how multinational agribusiness threatens African farmers. Much as they struggle to maintain their livelihoods and feed their communities, farmers in Malia are at risk of exploitation by land-leasing schemes such as Sosumar, courtesy of the American sugar developer Mima Nedelcovych.
While Sosumar promises to help local farmers with increased access to irrigation and industrial farming techniques, the history of the region is such that it’s difficult to know who owns the land, individuals or the state. As taxing as these disputes can be, the film keeps focused on complexities of colonialist histories and racism, as well as potential benefits of investment and modernization, all shaping an as yet unknowable future.
What’s unknown, future possibilities, inspire both Bunker Roy, director of the Barefoot College, and Rafea, in Solar Mamas. As the film reveals in subtly observational images as well as frank interviews, Rafea makes hard choices daily. As she steps into a world she hasn’t yet imagined, she embodies both hope and risk. Leaving her family behind, however temporarily, is traumatic, as are her husband’s fear and disapproval. Still, she presses forward.
In her classes, learning to develop solar power for her community, Rafea’s enthusiasm and talents help her to stand out, but at the same time, she sees herself as representative more than exceptional. “We can change this village,” she says, “We can change this life.”