Today, the holiday commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an ironically fitting occasion to consider first-time filmmaker Kiran Deol's documentary short, Woman Rebel. In just over 30 minutes of often breathtakingly beautiful footage, the film deftly captures the last decade in Nepalese political history, much of which mirrored the civil rights movement led by Dr. King - aside from those oft-ignored tenets of nonviolence (12,000 lives have been claimed by the struggle).
In 1996, a small group of Maoist rebels gathered rural peasants, took up arms, and began a decade long offensive against the Nepalese government (a constitutional monarchy), demanding equal rights for all citizens, regardless of class or gender. Eventually, women grew to comprise 40% of the People's Liberation Army. While the presence of women in the military should not be a surprise to Western viewers, it may be a jarring sight to those not used to seeing women in infantry combat positions, fighting and dying alongside their male counterparts. Tragically, the equality so many Nepalese women sought in life could only be found in death.
What's important to understand is that Woman Rebel is not simply the story of women in the military. Told through the eyes of Silu, a former political prisoner and then Brigade Commissioner in the rebel army, the film is more significantly about the lengths to which women in Nepal have had to go in pursuit of basic human rights. In a number of ways the film is a kind of updated off-shoot of last year's little-seen documentary feature, The Sari Soldiers, which tells the identical story through the eyes of six Nepalese women. Woman Rebel's narrowed scope of subject helps draw the viewer in more intimately, however, and Silu has an incredible life story to share.
Together these films (in addition to the unheralded Pray the Devil Back to Hell) shine a tragic yet subtly hopeful light on the fight for international women's rights, as well as begging the question - will that fight ever end? As Silu herself admits, even though the combat in Nepal has mostly ended as the result of peace agreements, the "war" is not yet over. She has gone on to elected office in the congress of the new government and is a hero in her rural hometown, but she has not given up her fighting spirit, and she poignantly acknowledges that although having a child - particularly a daughter - would come with its own challenges, she hopes to raise another female leader to continue the fight for equality for the next generation. Nepal's female citizens should be so fortunate, considering the many challenges still ahead for the country.
Woman Rebel (aka Women Rebels) is one of eight films shortlisted for a 2010 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short. The trailer can be viewed at the film's website here. The Oscar nominees will be announced on Tuesday, February 2nd.