The other night I showed Kum-Kum Bhavnani’s The Shape of Water in my globalization class. (I also showed this documentary once before as part of a course on women and documentary.) This time, we watched the documentary as part of a session on global documentary and women’s issues. While we had touched on women’s issues and representations on an off throughout the semester, this session addressed them most specifically.
The Shape of Water explores women’s advocacy issues from different parts of the world. With Susan Sarandon’s narration and map-based intertitles, the documentary jumps around various continents and countries, talking with women associated with them.
In India, The Shape of Water introduces us to two areas of the country. In one, we learn about SEWA, which serves as a bank and a trade union for rural women. In another, we learn about Navdanya, a collective space that raises awareness about biodiversity issues, particularly through biopiracy and through corporate agriculture, and through its resistance with seed preservation. The documentary includes some brief interviews with the recognizable Vandana Shiva, who has written multiple books and appeared in countless documentaries on these and other issues.
In Brazil, we learn about women working as rubber-tappers. Instead of cutting down the rubber trees, as is commonly practiced, rubber-tappers carefully harvest the rubber from the trees without killing them.
In Senegal, we learn about the movement to end female genital cutting and the efforts undertaken to raise awareness against the practice. There, we meet a female hip-hop group, an advocate, and some teenagers all with their views on the subject.
In Israel, we meet members and outsiders of the Women in Black in Jerusalem.
In almost all of the countries, the documentary shows these women living in extreme poverty. Despite those conditions, though, they are trying to make change in their communities. The documentary does raise some connections to corporate exploitation of resources, such as through Shiva’s comments on RiceTec and Suez. It also carefully silences many of the men’s voices, either through their omission or through the represented women silencing them.
This documentary addresses several types of issues — including health, environment, and politics — something that might make this documentary difficult to follow or understand. But The Shape of Water allows little room or time for pitying these women. Instead, we are asked to see them as strong and dedicated to what they are doing no matter the conditions in their lives. It is that positive message that brings these very different stories together.