Webs of Injustice: Three Women-Centric Films Search for Redemption and Truth

Over the past several weeks and ongoing, there have been many movies made available via streaming that normally would never see the light of day inside a movie theater. I am a strong supporter of the theater experience, but even I have to admit that the creation of widely available virtual cinema screenings of rare films from around the world is making me rethink distribution models and what we prioritize regarding them. The three movies I watched over the past week were all women-centric films and like many women-centric films, they dealt with trauma. It’s perhaps a bit worrisome that when women are primary subjects of either narratives or documentaries (one of the three movies is the former and the other two the latter), they are constantly showcased as having to overcome systemic and traditional forms of oppression and violence. This is, of course, a fact of reality, but it would be nice to see more happy stories about women. Regardless, the three movies I saw were remarkable for the ways in which they keenly understood the different systemic webs that result in oppression. They also consider racial and class divisions in their undercurrents and the ways visual media, narrative, and journalism all intertwine to create stories that either stand for the truth and for those who suffer, or become machines of propaganda that work as one of a million arms of those in power.

Song Without a Name (Melina León)

Webs of Injustice: Three Women-Centric Films Search for Redemption and Truth
Song Without a Name (2019) – source: Film Movement

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), a young woman who gives birth in Melina León’s Song Without a Name, finds herself separated from her newborn child right after delivery. The nurses give excuses for why she can’t see the baby and keep reassuring her that the child is “fine” while simultaneously shoving her out of the door of the delivery ward. She has no idea what has just happened and that’s precisely the point. Georgina finds this sketchy and off-the-beaten-path medical ward from a random loudspeaker announcement by a local radio host while she is at her job selling potatoes on the street. The ward is unmarked besides a number, it’s in a building that looks partially abandoned, and when she goes back day after day to scream and bang on the door demanding to see her child, nobody answers… because nobody is there anymore.

Georgina is so far removed from the web that operated behind that steel door which she bangs her fists on that she wouldn’t know where to begin looking for her kidnapped (and possibly trafficked) child. Meanwhile, a war rages on between the government and a rebellion movement by a group called Shining Path. Are these two things related? There is a whirlwind of the unknown in Leon’s film that makes injustice into a demoralizingly convoluted puzzle that’s impossible to solve, especially for those most subjugated to its cruelty.

León’s visual canvass is melancholic and dreary. Everything is in black-and-white but there is a distinct dreamlike, fuzzy, and overall worn look to the way she films Georgina’s home. The borders between images are blurred, everything blends in together, and nearly all the shots are establishing shots with silhouettes of figures coming and going. She lives in a barren hillside, with almost nothing next to it, and no contextualization for how she gets into town. Directions to and from are meaningless, just like at the hospital ward she goes to. Georgina is poor and an Andean indigenous woman. She is considered a second-class citizen in more than one regard.

The one source of help who comes to Georgina’s aid is a young reporter named Pedro (Tommy Paraga). The functionality of journalism in the film is as a life-vest for the underprivileged to navigate the web of corruption that continuously preys on them. Yet, Pedro is also left helpless in many cases. We never really know how deep the connections between the trafficking of Georgina’s child goes, only what Pedro can unearth in his interviews and investigations. He too is constantly turned back with statements of ambiguity and warnings to not keep “poking the bear”. His empathy of Georgina is an idealist representation of the news media but it does serve to help us understand what the role of journalism should be in the lives of citizens.

A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Diaz)

Webs of Injustice: Three Women-Centric Films Search for Redemption and Truth
A Thousand Cuts (2020) – source: PBS Distribution

The standard of journalism as a disseminator of truth and revealer of lies is what Maria Ressa, CEO of the Filipino independent news outlet Rappler has aimed to do during her nation’s tumultuous era under ruthless populist oligarch Rodrigo Duterte. In A Thousand Cuts, we get to tag along with Ressa’s journey from covering Duterte as a firebrand populist mayor and the ways in which Rappler became a target of government suppression tactics on media as he rose to power as president. The documentary juggles a portrait of Ressa and her theories and ideologies in her work as a journalist along with an examination of the ways that the internet and social media have completely changed the battlegrounds for political coverage in the news.

Ramona Diaz paints a portrait of the Philippines as a political binary – truth vs lies, bureaucracy vs journalism, the people vs power, the good guys vs the bad guys. In this way, A Thousand Cuts allows for people outside the intricacies of Filipino politics to be able to relate the nation’s political climate to their own. There is a progression to the rise of suppression of dissenting viewpoints and online trolls doling out death threats on behalf of a nationalist leader that is eerily similar to what is going on in many countries now from U.S. to Brazil to India to the U.K.

Outside of Ressa many of Rappler’s young millennial reporters have to deal with the emotional trauma of witnessing the on-the-ground terror of Duterte’s “war on drugs” wherein thousands of poor addicts, as well as dealers, are killed in the streets. While Rappler fights to deliver the truth to citizens, Duterte and his cohorts – Bato, a ruthless former police general and current Senator in the Philippines, and Mocha, a pro-Duterte pop-entertainer who took it upon herself to be Duterte’s own version of Kellyanne Conway – retaliate with unsubtle acts of legal action, arrests, and threats.

There is ample time given to Bato and Mocha and their personal campaigns, perhaps in the aim to not make the documentary seem one-sided or expressing a bias adulation of Ressa. The coverage of the populist movements also serves the purpose of helping the audience understand what Ressa and people like her across the globe who are fighting lies and corruption of nationalist rhetoric face. For nationalists, the job of getting people to identify under a common identity of the country is one of the easiest jobs in the world. People by their very nature are predisposed to associate and group themselves into clans.

Duterte, like many oligarchic leaders, bends and transforms morality to work in their favor. One of the most terrifying statements that Duterte makes on camera is “they are concerned with preserving human rights, I am concerned with preserving human lives”. The war on drugs allows for the government to pin all the nations ills on a group of people who they devalue as having any rights as a human because they don’t consider them human at all.

Sunless Shadows (Mehrdad Oskouei)

Webs of Injustice: Three Women-Centric Films Search for Redemption and Truth
Sunless Shadows (2019) – source: The Cinema Guild

Inside the walls of a women’s prison in Tehran, there is a strange and unnerving comfort to the lives of the women there. Mehrdad Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows begins with a girl named Negar asking for forgiveness and also promising to give it out. Her voice is confident, empathetic, and good-natured. It’s only later that we find out that she, along with her mother and sister, murdered her father. In fact, almost all the young women and girls in the prison in Oskouei’s film are there because they killed the patriarch in their family.

These are grave crimes, but the moral ambiguity of them being crimes of retaliation, vengeance, and liberation make the waters muddy and provide the majority of the film’s discourse. The girls speak directly to the camera, sometimes truly breaking the fourth wall to address Oksouei personally – this ends up being charming because they refer to him as Uncle Mehrdad. Oskouei allows the women to treat his camera as a confessional, positioning his film as a map between them and their own souls.

We get to hear stories of what home life was like for many of these women. In some cases, multiple women in a family find themselves in jail because of the death of the patriarch and they talk to each other through booths or recorded videos. The confined spaces in the film and separation from society prove to be a complicated matter. The girls seem happy and carefree at certain times. They cook, they clean, and they play games and do crafts. The iron bars of the jail exists right on the peripheries of the camera, but in focus is a group of young women who find peace at knowing they are no longer under the presence of men.

For the young women’s mothers, the matter is much graver. They face a death sentence for their crimes, and there is almost no hope for appeal. Especially in the case of one mother, whose own sons are demanding that she be executed for her husband’s death. In one sequence, the group of young women sit in a circle in the middle of their jail hall and have a panel discussion of their histories, beliefs, and hopes for the future. Most of them blame society and tradition for the predicament they are in. Some of them blame themselves.

What is the most revealing in the film is when one previously detained girl comes back to visit, she expresses the harsh truth that life outside of the jail is really no better than in it. She is directionless, unable to find anything to latch onto to progress in the world. Roger Ebert mentioned in his review of one of my favorite films Bandit Queen, “that Phoolan Devi was a criminal was beside the point, in a society whose rules themselves are a crime against women”. It’s a lose-lose situation where those in power are never held to the same moral standard as those being consistently beaten down.

Song Without a Name, Sunless Shadows, and A Thousand Cuts are all currently streaming through virtual cinemas.

Does content like this matter to you?

Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.

Join now!

Similar Posts