Thursday, June 13, 2013

HRWFF ’13: Salma

Evidently, Vitamin D is not a big priority in the provincial Muslim communities of southern India—women’s rights even less so.  One prominent Tamil woman understands this from first-hand experience.  For nine years, her family kept her locked away from the outside world until she finally consented to an arranged marriage.  The poet-politician tells her story in Kim Longinotto’s documentary profile, Salma (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

The pre-teenaged Salma (as she is simply known) desperately tried to hide the onset of puberty, because she knew her parents will pull her out of school and sequester her until marriage. She actually valued learning, making her quite the problem child.  She was also disinclined to marriage, holding out for as long as possible.  Finally, she acquiesced, only to find her circumstances largely remained the same.  Only her jailers changed.

Secretly, at great risk of physical abuse or worse, Salma starting writing poetry, which a sympathetic family member furtively submitted to a publisher (not completely unlike Jafar Panahi’s This is not a Film, smuggled out of Iran in a cake).  Her powerful verse became a sensation, scandalizing the village and outraging her family.  However, it also made her a celebrity, forcing her in-laws to let her out into the world, setting the stage for an unlikely political career.

Salma is an eloquent advocate for reform and her experiences are almost unfathomable for the Twenty-First Century.  She is well worth listening to, but Longinotto allows her to leave obvious 800 pound gorilla questions unanswered.  Most notably, just about every viewer will wonder why she remains silent on the nature of the religion used to justify her oppression.  In fact, she is still outwardly quite devout.  Is it all for the sake of her political career?  Longinotto never pushes her on the issue, despite all the fundamentalist misogyny expressed by her grown nephew, among others.

Nonetheless, reality speaks for itself in every frame of the film.  Indeed, the implications of Salma’s personal history are inescapable.  Longinotto nicely incorporates Salma’s verse, adding a literary dimension to the film.  Informative and bravely intimate in a burqa-less way, Salma screens tomorrow (6/14) at the IFC Center and Saturday (6/15) at the Francesca Beale Theater.