Once you've seen Salma it becomes very clear why this documentary was chosen to open this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For the woman at the heart of it already has and continues to make a real difference to the way women in her community are treated.
Born and raised in a Muslim family in India, Salma's faith was clear from the very beginning. Once she reached puberty she was to instantly marry a man chosen by her parents or stay locked away in her home. She had to stop studying and seeing her friends, becoming a house prisoner in every way but the name.
But Salma had different ideas. She wanted to learn, to carry on studying despite reaching puberty and she certainly did not want to get married. Her refusal to tie the knot meant that she spent some four years trapped in her room following her first period. She was then tricked by her mother to finally go ahead with the marriage.
Following the nuptials Salma had to move in with her husband and his family and was once again kept in the house for over a decade. In that time her only escape was poetry. She would write on pieces of toilet paper and hide those from the disapproving eyes of her husband and the in-laws. Her poems deal with the horrible way in which herself and all other Muslim girls from her village were treated. It was her way of expressing and bringing to light the horror of what they were all going through and in time she learnt that what she was writing was rather good.
When one day a publisher came across her poems and offered to publish them, Salma finally decided to leave her home under a pretext of attending a funeral of a relative. By that time she had been locked away for some 20 years. But the power of her writing was such, that she became an instant sensation. Her neighbours and her family reacted with anger when they finally learned that she was the author of the hard-hitting verses, but it was too late to stop her and eventually her statue was so high that Salma got elected to the local council.
She now lives in Chennai, away from the controls of her family and her husband. Still, she despairs at how all the women she left behind in her village continue being treated like property and not allowed to decide for themselves what their lives should look like.
Kim Longinotto's fantastic ability to simply put people in front of the camera and wait until they are ready to tell us exactly what they think makes this film extremely powerful. By not pressing the characters with a series of questions, instead allowing all them the time to get comfortable and to gather their thoughts, she manages to get them to say things which truly reflect their attitudes towards women and their role in the society. Quite often this means that we hear some very uncomfortable truths, but it is a true insight into the thinking behind what goes on in that and other similar communities.
The film is very intimate and generates a flood of emotions in the viewer; from sadness to anger and despair at how in some parts of the world having been born a woman still means being less than a second class citizen.
The interactions between Salma and her two sons are especially moving, as the now teenage boys clearly find it difficult to come to terms with how their mother is breaking the rules which their Muslim community says she should be obeying.
Despite the tough subject matter Salma is a fantastic watch. I came out of it empowered and inspired. And I have both Salma and Kim Longinotto to thank for that.
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