Jessica Harris watches WOMB (Women of My Billion) at Midlands Arts Centre.
“If you want to achieve something you’ve never had, you have to do something you never did.” So said Srishti Bakshi as she introduced this moving piece of cinema, part of the Birmingham Indian Film Festival.
The film documents Bakshi’s walk in 2017/18 along the entire length of India, from south to north, and the conversations she had with women along the way. Covering 3800 kilometres over 240 days, and walking around 30km each day, Bakshi talked with hundreds of women and girls. In towns and villages, in homes and communities, she heard of violence against women, and of how it is used to subjugate them. Their stories cut across boundaries of social class and education, and spanned both rural and urban environments.
Three women, Pragya, Neha and Sangeeta, told their stories in detail. Rape, within and outside marriage, was a frequent occurrence, but other forms of violence including acid attacks and beatings were also part of their experience.
Emotional abuse and exploitation were common: a group of women laughed when Bakshi reflected back to them a feeling many recognised: “If only I could brew the sort of tea that would make everyone like me!”
Whilst the stories were hard to hear, the film showed how some women had found the inner strength to overcome their abusers: Pragya, Neha and Sangeeta told of how they had gained independence and moved on in their lives, offering hope to others.
Over the course of the journey, Bakshi reflected on the forces which prevent women from speaking out, and explored wider issues of gender inequality. She ran workshops to help the women she met become more empowered, focussing on the importance of education, financial independence and technical literacy.
Bakshi’s journey was as much personal and it was a physical endurance test. And what started out as a mission to better understand women’s experiences has become a movement of hundreds of thousands of people, both women and men, speaking out against violence.
A question and answer session with Srishti Bakshi followed the screening, where it was noted that violence against women is, sadly, a global issue, and by no means restricted to India.
This documentary is powerful and important: Bakshi was applauded by MAC’s audience, and rightly so. As the opening film of Birmingham’s Indian Film Festival, it was an auspicious start to the rest of the Festival.
WOMB is part of the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival and sister festivals in Birmingham and Manchester. The Festival has a new strand dedicated to ecology-related films, called Save The Planet, featuring ways in which lives are being affected by deforestation and rising sea levels, and how people are meeting the challenge.
Festival Director Cary Rajinder Sawhney MBE said: “We are delighted to welcome our audiences back to the big screen at MAC Birmingham, Millennium Point, and, for the first time at Everyman at The Mailbox. We will this year be showcasing the best of British Asian filmmaking, plus exciting premieres in over seven South Asian languages.”
The Festival continues at MAC and other venues until 4th July. Further information can be found at macbirmingham.co.uk.
Pic – Alice Maestrini