Documentary channel

‘Velvet Revolution’ documentary maps the hard but necessary journey of female journalists

A collective project profiles journalists working across the media in five countries, including India.

Syrian reporter and activist Zaina Erhaim was exiled to southern Turkey for her coverage of the civil war in Aleppo.

Malini Subramaniam (who contributes to Scroll.in) was driven away from her hometown in Bastar for reporting on human rights violations committed by armed forces against tribals in Chattisgarh.

US-based Bangladeshi journalist and blogger Rafida Bonya Ahmed was attacked by a group of religious fundamentalists wielding machetes. In the assault, she lost her husband Avijit Roy, who had founded a Bangladeshi website for free-thinkers and rationalists titled Mukto-mona.

Velvet Revolution, a collaborative documentary produced by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television, chronicles the personal narratives of these and several other female journalists, most of whom have paid large personal costs in their pursuit of making under-reported facts public. Helmed by executive producer and project director Nupur Basu, the 57-minute documentary will be premieres on March 3 at the 13th edition of IAWRT’s Asian Women’s Film Festival.

The festival, which takes place at India International Centre in Delhi from March 2-4, features 55 other documentaries, shorts, animation films and features, including Ananya Kasaravalli’s Kannada film Harikatha Prasanga which chronicles the struggles of a male artist who plays women on stage, and Shiva Sanjari’s Here The Seats Are Vacant, which documents the story of Shahrzad, Iran’s first female film director. The festival will also feature audio works by Indian and Iranian artists.

Filmmakers from 17 different countries, including China, Malaysia, Iran and Indonesia, have contributed to the festival. Velvet Revolution alone features the work of six female journalists from five countries, as well as reporters from other places, including Philippines, Cameroon, and India.

Velvet Revolution. Courtesy IAWRT.
Velvet Revolution. Courtesy IAWRT.

When she was tasked with the responsibility of helming Velvet Revolution, Basu decided that she wanted to feature narratives that went beyond retellings of editors barring women from newsrooms. “Perhaps that might have made sense 20 years ago, but now women are out there in the field, and facing many challenges,” she said. “World politics being the way it is today, it made sense to tell stories about women reporting out of conflict zones, and being challenged by state and non-state actors.”

The collaborative nature of the project made it possible for Basu to include a range of female voices. She also made special efforts to ensure the participation of journalists working in diverse mediums, ranging from radio to digital spaces. Although the differences in the aesthetics of the contributing directors are evident, the documentary is sutured together with compelling music and a cohesive narration.

Buoyed by its emphasis on recording the stories of women hailing from diverse social, cultural and religious backgrounds, Velvet Revolution winds up with personal experiences that are representative of several levels of discrimination. Afghani journalist Najiba Aiyubi, for instance, speaks eloquently about a thinly veiled threat from a police officer, while Kimberlie Quitasol is almost nonchalant as she talks about the frequent threats that she receives from the Philippines government.

Even as it dissects the problems faced by female journalists, Velvet Revolution doesn’t lump them into a conveniently monolithic group. Instead, it highlights how race and caste complicate the difficulties these women endure. E Bharathi Yendapalli, who reports for Navoday, a Telugu paper produced entirely by Dalit women, is vocal about the discrimination that her community endures. While a British journalist recounts being treated with respect while reporting from conflict zones in the Middle East, Cameroon’s radio journalist Moussa Marandata says that she continues to be challenged and belittled by men in her country.

The documentary focuses almost exclusively on female narratives. Apart from a husband who expresses solidarity with his wife, the film largely eschews male voices. “With most of the journalists, we didn’t even get into their personal lives,” says Basu. “We don’t know whether they are married, or even if they have kids, because that was not the focus of the film.”

Velvet Revolution portrays women navigating through a host of different spaces, ranging from their kitchens and living rooms to the locations from where they report. As a result, it captures these women in unguarded moments – like Erhaim crooning a song about defiance and persistence to her infant daughter – that constitute the film’s compelling images.

Velvet Revolution. Courtesy IAWRT.
Velvet Revolution. Courtesy IAWRT.

Although the documentary details the adversities faced by female reporters, it does not valourise their voices. Basu didn’t want to wind up portraying female journalists as “heroines”, but she doesn’t minimise the dangers they face while they are on the field. “In conflict zones, all journalists are under fire, regardless of gender. But the danger gets accentuated for women because of the threat of rape. We are exposed to this additional act of violence that haunts us,” said Basu, who has been a journalist for three decades.

The filmmaker hopes that Velvet Revolution inspires more women to become journalists. “I want to restore the faith of people in journalists. I want them to know that there are women like these on the field, writing stories that are difficult to work on, because we need society to own and support our women journalists,” she said.

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