WOMEN: A TRUE STORY (CTV, starting on Jan. 20, 10 p.m.)
Russian mothers journey to the distant war fields of Chechnya to find their prisoner-of-war sons and are helped by “enemy” Chechen women. A black Brazilian woman, who spent her childhood as a street vendor, is the first female senator in the Brazilian parliament and heads an inquiry into the systematic murders of street children. Three Montrealers—a surgeon with a five-year-old son, a single mother who works nights as a waitress, and a respected labor organizer—talk about women’s work, inside and outside the home. Algerian dissidents, Kenyan villagers, an African-American astronaut, anorexic teenagers and a Parisian executive—all female—speak about the challenges and rewards of their lives. What do these women have in common besides their gender? Quite a lot, according to Women: A True Story, a six-part, $3.6-million documentary created by Quebec production company Pointe de mire. Narrated by actor Susan Sarandon, the series endeavors to provide in six hours what history has mostly ignored: a comprehensive examination of women’s lives. And while the quick-snapshot profiles and scattershot approach can be frustrating, on the whole the series is eye-opening, exhilarating, even inspirational TV.
Women opens with some disturbing images. Small girls, some of them toddlers, are being groomed for a beauty contest in Tennessee. The mothers set their daughters’ hair in huge pink rollers and apply mascara, eyeliner, rouge and lipstick to their small faces. Even more unsettling are the girls’ frozen smiles, their eyes looking provocatively into the camera—and at the judges who evaluate them for “total feminine personality.” The scene is an extreme example of a familiar complaint—that females are valued for their physical beauty rather than their character and abilities.
But just when it appears that the show will go over old ground, the scene shifts to Papua New Guinea and two tribes separated by only a few miles. One is a patriarchal, warlike society in which women are mostly shunned and feared for their reproductive powers, the other a peaceful, egalitarian community in which sexual freedom reigns and men are fully involved in the care of their children. The cross-cultural perspective provides fresh insight into the old debate about innate and learned notions of gender roles.
The film-makers—among the four producers is Quebec TV personality and former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Lise Payette, who initiated the project—use the same wide-ranging approach to illustrate other themes: women’s access to power (and how they use it when they get it); changing attitudes to women’s bodies and minds; the historical reluctance to educate women; how organized religion has reinforced women’s inferior status; the value of work outside and inside the home; and what social, environmental and political changes women will bring about as they increase their sphere of influence.
But as Sarandon’s narration points out, women still lack power. They own less than one per cent of the world’s property, earn less than 10 per cent of the world’s income, and most have no access to loans or credit. One startling segment shows a woman who supports her family by travelling alone in a dugout canoe to sell Avon cosmetics to her neighbors along the Amazon. Meanwhile, there are examples of progress: Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank has learned that lending women money is a better investment than lending it to men.
Yet for every advance, there is regression. In the segment about the fight to achieve universal schooling for women, there is a reminder that, even now, educated females are sometimes perceived as a threat to the established order. Algerian extremists have recently burnt down hundreds of girls’ schools. Other segments show the often brutal consequences for women who balk at repressive customs. Yet the film-makers are careful not to point fingers only at the most egregious offenders. Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams comments on the backlash against women in her own country: “Political opportunists have capitalized on America’s worst myths: that blacks are taking over, that women have stepped out of line and let civilization down by their failure to tend the hearth fires and raise their children properly.” In focusing on the ties that bind women, the show fails to address the divisions among them over such issues as abortion and universal day care. But perhaps that is beside the point for a documen-
tary that aims to move women from the margins of the history pages to the centre. As Ginette Paris, a Montreal classics professor, explains: “A people that loses its mythology dies, and a people that fails to pass on its history is alienated and becomes a stranger to itself. This also applies to women: we cannot afford not to know our history.” Women: A True Story is an enlightening and entertaining step in that direction.
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