This is my third day watching films at The Tribeca Film Festival, and I know by the week’s end I will have only scratched the surface of the 90 or so films that are showing here.
So far, so good. Almost everything I have seen has been worthwhile. This year there are fewer films on the schedule, and the films appear to be more selectively chosen. Still making film choices is hard because everyone including IndieWIRE has a different top ten, and you can make yourself crazy trying to insure you are viewing everything there is to see. I have tried to focus on films either about women or directed by women and while this has narrowed the field, there are plenty selections meeting these criteria.
On Thursday night I went to the screening for the documentary The World Before Her directed by Canadian filmmaker, Nishua Pahuja. Her film was the opener for the documentary competition and is considered a favorite to win.
The World Before Her takes us backstage to the Miss India Beauty Pageant while also exploring a Hindu fundamentalist training camp for teenagers who are indoctrinated into the violent Durga Vahini movement. We meet Ruhi, competing with 19 others to become Miss India, and Prachi, a hard line Hindu fundamentalist. Ruhi hopes that with the title of Miss India she will “break-out” gaining wealth and freedom. Prachi rejects these new values. On the surface the two women’s ambitions seem far apart, but each one is searching for identity and empowerment in India’s rapidly changing society.
India is a beautiful backdrop for any film. Pahuja spent four years shooting on and off inside India but she spent only thirty days with the pageant. While the publicity shots for the film lead you to believe that the film is about the beauty contest, it is the view inside the training camp that is both riveting and eye opening. The young women are trained to protect themselves with martial arts and to use guns to shoot non-Hindu Indians if they are attacked. They become physically strong and ideologically committed to the cause of Hindu fundamentalism. With this new sense of self they are also taught to continue the traditional roles set for women - they are warriors who know their place. The male dominated fundamentalists will allow women to go so far. Keeping women trained in martial arts submissive can be a tricky business.
At the end of the film, Ruhi does not become Miss India; and she returns home defeated, still not sure what is next for her in the new India. She is a pretty face without too many other skills. Prachi will continue her role as an activist, sure of her commitment to her cause and waiting for the planned marriage that is her future.
The 11th Annual Tribeca Film Festival is happening now in New York City. Barbara Castro, a regular attendee of the festival, writes this year for The WIP.