March 31, 2001
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The Harsh Days of Their Lives
The Harsh Days of Their Lives

Looking at the line, you might have thought a big Hollywood movie was opening. Over 600 people had showed up at least half an hour before the screening. And by the time the film started, most of the 950-seat-auditorium was packed. The demand for tickets was so overwhelming that a second screening was held the same evening.

But it wasn't a popular movie they were going to watch.

In fact, it wasn't even a lengthy documentary film.

Woman By Woman, which premiered in Palo Alto, California, on March 29, is merely 28 minutes long.

"But within those 28 minutes, it offers a life full of experiences," said the best-selling novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who after the screening, moderated a discussion about Indian women's progress.

Divakaruni, a co-founder of Maitri, an empowering association for South Asian women in the San Francisco Bay area, was particularly gratified that proceeds from the film's premiere was going to Maitri and a handful of other organizations for women. The screening was held at the Spangenberg Theater.

Woman by Woman is directed by Emmy Award-winner Dorothy Fadiman, best known for her three-part series, From Black Alleys to the Supreme Court and Beyond, which focused on the long fight for abortion rights in America.

Her new film focuses on the efforts by women, in a part of rural Bihar, where they strive to rise above the traditional handicaps and prejudices. Fadiman, who is a passionate advocate of reproductive freedom for women and family control, has been curious about population-related issues in India for several years. But she went to India for the first time only in March 1999 when she was about to start working on the film.

"I had quite a few expectations," she had said in an interview last year. "I thought I was going to get sick or that I would be sorry for the people." But the expectations were blown away in no time since she was meeting many courageous and exemplary women.

Though Fadiman and her producer Kristen Atwell returned from India wiser and hopeful -- and with film footage that could make a three hour long film -- they did not want to rush to complete it.

"We needed the help from the Indian community here," Fadiman said, "in shaping the final product." She did not want to be charged with being "exotic".

After holding discussions and screenings of the rough cuts, Fadiman and Atwell looked at the content of their film again. "We realized that we had been trying to hide the poverty and we had to be more explicit when we talked about the empowerment," Atwell said.

Filtering it down to 28 important minutes turned out to be a good move. The film received a prolonged applause after the premiere. "I was moved by the film because it presents the lives of people truthfully and without being sentimental or condescending," said Divakaruni. It celebrates the courage of women under difficult circumstances, she added.

"It focuses on hope rather than despair. It uses true life to challenge stereotyped notions," the author said.

Spreading the positive message of the movie -- change individuals can make -- is a husband, who works side-by-side, as equals, with his wife and a mother-in-law who encourages her daughter-in-law to advance. The film also records the accomplishments of Janani, one of many non-profit groups in India that works to improve the status of rural women.

Woman to Woman also works as a powerful plea for family planning. It was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which gave away grants worth $ 500 million last year to projects like Fadiman's film, that encourage conservation, science; children, families, communities, the arts and philanthropy .

At the Spangenberg Theater premiere, interestingly, more than half of the audience was non-South Asian.

Why? One view was, "I came to see it because like many others here I have admired Dorothy's work for years," said Julia Wilde, an educator. "This time I was intrigued by what she had discovered about India."

Design: Dominic Xavier

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