Women and Economics on the Global Scene: A Review of Films

by Terry Brown

LA PETITE VENDEUSE DE SOLEIL. 45 mins. 1999. Director: Djibril Diop Mambety. Rental: Inquire. Sale: $195.00. California Newsreel, 149 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103; phone: 415-621-6196; email: contact@newsreel.org; website: www.newsreel.org (Subject: Allegory of global economics)

WHO'S COUNTING: MARILYN WARING ON SEX, LIES AND GLOBAL ECONOMICS. 94 mins. 1995. Dir.: Terre Nash. Rental: $75.00 (52-min. version); $90.00 (94-min. version). Sale: $250.00 (shorter); $295.00 (longer). Bullfrog Films, P.O. Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; phone: 800-543-3764; email: video@bullfrogfilms.com; website: www.bullfrogfilms.com (Subject: Global economics and gender)

DAUGHTERS OF IXCHEL: MAYA THREAD OF CHANGE. 29 mins. c1993. Dirs.: Kathryn Lipke Vigesaa and John McKay. Rental: $50.00. Sale: $195.00. University of California Extension, Center for Media and Independent Learning, 2000 Center St., Fourth Fl., Berkeley, CA 94704; phone: 510-642-0460; email: cmil@uclink.berkeley.edu; website: www-cmil.unex.berkeley.edu/media/ (Subject: Maya women change ancient weaving practices to meet new economic demands)

WOMEN OF CHANGE. 54 mins. 1999. Dir.: Joan Prowse. Rental: $75.00. Sale: $295.00. Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th St., New York, NY 10016; phone: 212-808-4980; email: info@filmakers.com; website: www.filmakers.com (Subject: Feminist activists in Canada and Mexico)

WORKING SISTER. 27 mins. c1998. Dir.: Jennifer Stephens. Sale: $175.00. UC Extension (See Daughters above.) (Subject: Chinese girl leaves farm and family to work in city factory)

BEHIND THE SMILE. 46 mins. 1998. Dir.: Alan Handel Productions. Rental: $75.00. Sale: $295.00. Filmakers Library (see Women of Change above). (Subject: Women factory workers in Thailand)

MODERN HEROES, MODERN SLAVES. 45 mins. 1999. Dir.: Multimonde. Rental: $65.00. Sale: $295.00. Filmakers Library (see Women of Change above). (Subject: Overseas contract workers from the Philippines)

SISTERS AND DAUGHTERS BETRAYED. 28 mins. 1996. Prod.: Chela Blitt. Rental: $50.00. Sale: $150.00. UC Extension (see Daughters above). (Subject: Sex trafficking)

PERFORMING THE BORDER. 42 mins. 1999. Dir.: Ursula Biemann. Rental: $60.00. Sale: $250.00. Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, Suite 500, New York, NY 10013; phone: 212-925-0606; email: info@wmm.com; website: www.wmm.com (Subject: U.S. industry on border with Mexico)

"Soleil! Buy the Soleil!" sings a little girl, holding herself up on crutches as she hawks her papers by the highway while cars speed by. In Djibril Diop Mambety's moving short film, La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun) (1999), a young paraplegic girl named Sali Laam drags her legs on crutches as she sells newspapers in the streets of Dakar, Senegal. The newspaper boys in this boys-only occupation intimidate and threaten her, throwing her to the ground. "Those newspaper sellers are savages," a man says after watching them attack someone in a wheelchair. The marketplace is ruthless; the able-bodied compete and succeed through intimidation and threats. Sali Laam's story is allegorical: we can see her as a symbol of a developing country's struggle to compete in a global marketplace and as a story of the women whose bodies are broken under the crushing weight of global economics. As the headline of her newspaper announces the devaluation of the Senegalese currency, one of the deleterious consequences of a global economy for a developing country, it is difficult to read La Petite Vendeuse outside the context of globalization.

The vicious economic competition that Mambety dramatizes in his narrative film La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil is documented in a number of excellent videos available for use in the classroom. A documentary one might start with is Terre Nash's Who's Counting?: Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics (1995), which serves as a primer on gender and global economics. The film focuses on Marilyn Waring, a feminist economist and former Minister of Parliament in New Zealand, who lucidly explains complicated theories of macroeconomics as she reveals the lie at the heart of global economics: "Economics has pretensions of being concerned with notions of value," she says. "The word value is defined from the Latin valere. It's a beautiful word. It means to be strong or to be worthy. It has nothing to do with capital or material gain" (emphasis added).

With brilliant juxtapositions of text and images, Who's Counting? exposes the perverse logic of macroeconomic theories that cannot account for the value of anything that does not generate revenue, including women's unpaid work, peace, and environmental preservation. Yet these economic formulas count war, pollution, and the sexual trafficking in children and women's bodies as "valuable" insofar as they generate revenue. Waring attacks the shortsighted approach of the United Nations, the IMF, and World Bank for their insistence on measuring the wealth of a country by its Gross Domestic Product. "GDP is utterly unrelated to the well-being of a community. It tells you nothing about levels of poverty. It tells you nothing about the distribution of poverty. It tells you nothing about primary health care, educational standards, environmental cleanliness, and folks have realized that this unidimensional economic fabrication just doesn't bear any relation to their lives."

Who's Counting? (which comes with an "action guide," to stimulate discussions of the film beyond the classroom in the living rooms, churches, and community centers) is an excellent example of why the documentary genre has served as an important tool for feminism in motivating political resistance and instigating social change. There are now scores of feminist documentaries available from several sources - Filmakers Library and Women Make Movies, among the best. Designed for use in the classroom and running less than an hour, many of these documentaries focus on the world's most oppressed, Third World women and children caught in the gears of a grinding global market.

Daughters of Ixchel: Maya Thread of Change (1993) explores how modern forces of globalization have forced Guatemalan Maya women to alter ancient weaving practices to accommodate the tastes of international tourists. The video exposes the dilemma the Mayan weavers face, poised between protecting the integrity of their weaving and succumbing to commercial necessity. "I have to change in order to sell," says one weaver, so she alters the colors of her threads to weave potholders, placemats, and backpacks attractive to tourists. The video succeeds in presenting a problem that nearly every developing nation confronts in drawing the line between self-preservation and exploitation.

Designed to celebrate the activism of women working across borders, Women of Change (1999) has a less complicated, more straightforward message than most of the videos reviewed here. It is the story of two activists, Josephine Gray in Toronto and Bertha Lujan in Mexico City, who work together to improve conditions in a Canadian-owned factory in Mexico where labor conditions have worsened under NAFTA. Through cross-border alliances between activists, ironically made necessary and possible by NAFTA, Mexican women travel to Canada for a course on activism, while a former GM factory worker - a Canadian expert on union organizing - is sent to Mexico to train activists there. One of the effects of globalization, the video implies, is that the trajectory of local activism must move outward toward a global target. Solutions to local problems must be sought in an international arena, as globalization increases the cross-border communication among workers who have a common cause.

As activist documentaries with a cause, Daughters of Ixchel and Women of Change both employ documentary techniques that undermine their claims to objective truth, particularly with use of the didactic narrator. Working Sister (1998), however, foregoes the intrusive narrator to let the subject speak for herself. Seventeen-year-old Xu Li Li is a da gong mei or "working sister," one of the millions of young Chinese girls who leave their homes, farms, and schools to travel over a thousand miles to earn money for their families by working in city factories. The video allows us to see Xu Li Li's dilemma for ourselves - how she gains emotional and financial independence by leaving her family at the same time that she misses them desperately.

Like Working Sister, Behind the Smile: The Human Cost of Thailand's Prosperity (1998) documents the migration of girls from the country to the city, where they work as "conscripts" in textile factories. In this case, families from poor regions of Northern Thailand send their daughters to Bangkok to "work hard and bring honor to their parents." As good Buddhist daughters, they accept their fate in this life and make merit for the next by working in the factories. Their working conditions are "like living in hell," says one girl. As the documentary states, the girls are like water buffalo carrying the Thai economic miracle on their backs. Perhaps the most shocking moment of the video is the brutal response of a Canadian diplomat who advises foreign investors in Thailand's economy: "Go back to the farm, if you have a problem. Someone has to pay the price of economic growth."

As Modern Heroes, Modern Slaves (1999) tells us, four to six Filipino women a day are returned home from the Middle East and Southeast Asia in coffins. They are Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs) who for all intents and purposes relinquish their basic human rights when they leave their country to work abroad. Because the money they send back to the Philippines is the largest contribution to the country's wealth, the government hesitates to insist on reforms that might jeopardize the financial success of the arrangement. Like all of the films reviewed here, Modern Heroes, Modern Slaves moves us with its images and interviews of the women themselves, women who have fled abusive employers and now wait, penniless, in a shelter in the Filipino embassy in the United Arab Emirates. The OCW, the film shows us, has helped build "the gleaming modern cities of the Middle East and Asia," while she helps her country pay off its debt to the IMF and World Bank. The video ends with a critique of globalization in general: "Globalization will increase difficulties for countries. Why? Because only those countries which are host to such large multinational corporations are going to profit from it. But countries like the Philippines, and to some degree Canada, are countries that will be controlled more by foreign corporations and foreign countries. We're going to have more unemployment as our companies close because they can't compete. More and more people will be unemployed. More and more will go abroad."

Sisters and Daughters Betrayed: The Trafficking of Women and Girls and the Fight to End It (1996) documents the trafficking in women's labor across national borders. We are told that hundreds of thousands of girls and women are forced into prostitution in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe, often with the tacit approval of their governments. This short video focuses on sexual trafficking from three countries - Thailand, Nepal, and the Philippines - and the efforts of various international feminist groups to end the practice. Interviews with prostitutes and activists detail how women and and activists detail how women and girls are lured not just from the country to the city, but from their own countries to foreign countries. The video shows how the efforts of the World Bank and IMF to encourage development have left some families landless and in debt. They have no choice but to send their daughters into the city as prostitutes. In Thailand, which is marketed as a sexual paradise, a three-billion-dollar international tourism industry brings in far more revenue than any export, including rice and textiles. The video shows how national feminist programs such as EMPOWER in Thailand have helped protect women in prostitution, while international activist groups such as Asia Watch have tried to prevent the trafficking in women.

These documentaries illustrate one of the consequences of a global economy, the migration of women whose labor has become a commodity. This migration is both national - girls and women leaving their homes in the country to work in the city (e.g. Working Sister and Behind the Smile) - and transnational - girls and women leaving their homeland to work in foreign countries (e.g., Modern Heroes, Modern Slaves and Sisters and Daughters Betrayed). The effect of that movement on the girl or woman is often devastating: her identity, her rights, and, too often, her life evaporate under the sign of "commodity." In all these films, the border is a significant, if unexamined, entity.

Performing the Border (1999) takes as its subject the border itself. Directed by Ursula Biemann, this video analyzes both the literal and figurative meanings of la frontera or "the border" in an age of globalization, in this instance, by focusing on the border where El Paso, Texas, meets Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Where there once was nothing, there are now maquiladoras, or foreign-owned factories with an infrastructure built to support the transnationals - whites - who own the maquiladoras, while workers create shacks out of the plants' waste, pallets on which materials are stored. Performing the Border is a video essay, not a documentary; a thoughtful voiceover explores the subject of the border as if it were as much a philosophical question as a political question, an approach that preserves the complexity of the problem. The video beautifully weaves the voices of activists, intellectuals, and workers. We are treated to the highly intellectual riffs of Berta Jotar: "There is nothing natural about [the border]," she tells us. "In fact, it's a highly constructed place that gets reconstituted and reproduced by the crossing of people. Because without the crossing, there is no border, right? It's just an imaginary line, or it's just a river, or it's a wall. So you need a crossing of bodies to produce a space of the nation state." We are given lyrical musings by an unnamed narrator who tells us, "The border is a metaphor for the artificial division between the productive and the reproductive, between the machine and the organic body, between the natural and the collective body, between the sexual and economic, between concepts of masculinity and femininity." Theory and practice converge in this compelling documentary, which gives us a theory through which we can interpret the realities of women's lives as they are represented.

Yet perhaps the most compelling genre remains the narrative film, which invites us to see ourselves as "the other," something a documentary cannot do. At the end of Mambety's La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil, Sili Laam's crutches have been stolen by the newspaper boys. Her friend asks her, "What shall we do?" Her answer is simple yet inspiring, "We continue." He lifts her onto his back and carries her into the sun as the film whites out. These documentaries record the indefatigable efforts of women to survive - women who carry the burdens of their families (and their countries) at great risk, all the while saying, "We continue."

[Terry Brown is Professor of English and Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls where she teaches women's literature and film.]


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Mounted February 8, 2001