Sari Soldiers: A Documentary that Every Conflict Resolution Professional and Every Student of Conflict Resolution Needs to See

According to the Butter Lamp Films, LLC website: “Filmed over three years during the most historic and pivotal time in Nepal’s modern history, The Sari Soldiers is an extraordinary story of six women’s courageous efforts to shape Nepal’s future in the midst of an escalating civil war against Maoist insurgents, and the King’s crackdown on civil liberties.” The website goes on to describe it in further detail, illustrating the complexities of the stories that were captured in this film. Yet there are ways in which writing about it cannot do this documentary justice. This is truly a film that needs to be seen – I’ve already seen it twice.

The first time I watched this documentary it was at an intimate screening that I attended with a filmmaker friend who is friends with the director and co-producer of The Sari Soldiers. I knew nothing about the film, had no expectations going into it, and just kept thinking while I was watching it this is huge for the field of conflict resolution. Unlike most documentaries -- particularly ones made by American directors -- I could find no hidden or outspoken agenda in this film. There were six interwoven stories seen through the eyes of six strong and unique women, all told with equal parts empathy. Combined, these stories revealed what conflict resolution professionals have known for years: there can be multiple truths to any conflict. My first viewing took place last fall and since then I have worked to bring this documentary into my graduate studies course in conflict resolution. With permission of the filmmaker and distributor, I will be showing this movie to my students in class next week.

The course I teach is essentially a survey of conflict resolution theory and application, yet I have pushed them toward learning some of the more complex concepts within the field. We began with some foundational learning and conflict resolution basics (win/win, integrative vs. distributive) but in recent weeks have moved on to discussions about culture and bias in conflict resolution, intractable conflict, and next week, international and religious conflict resolution. I believe that over the previous seven, pretty intense weeks, we have created a safe but challenging learning environment where each student has something valuable to contribute. I have warned them that The Sari Soldiers is intense and at times graphic but I am confident that together we can handle anything that comes up for them during and after the in-class screening.

I would not show this movie to every group of conflict resolution students in every possible context, yet I truly believe that every student of conflict resolution must see it. Therein lies a contradiction of sorts, but like with this documentary, seemingly opposite realities can be simultaneously true. Perhaps a documentary filmmaker and a conflict resolution professor or professional are not that different. Both must develop relationships and earn trust of participants, and both must know when to get out of their way. A project is oftentimes most successful when we create a space in which participants can safely speak for themselves. That is the gift that this documentary gives to the field of conflict resolution and it is something I hope to extend throughout the rest of this course.

The Sari Soldiers will be having its North American Premiere at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City in June, and is going to be the "Center Piece" Film for the festival. Go to www.hrw.org/iff/2008/ny for more information. The Sari Soldiers will soon be released on DVD through Women Make Movies.

I will post a follow-up after the in-class screening.

By Laura L. Noah
Posted on Pronoia Mediation 5/6/08

Screening The Sari Soldiers in the classroom

We had an interesting classroom discussion following the screening of The Sari Soldiers on Monday.

I'm going to attempt to discuss the classroom experience without giving away too much about the film. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is a film that really needs to be seen and I don't want to ruin that experience for anyone. At the same time, in the interest of exposing other teachers and conflict resolution professionals to this documentary, I think it's important to describe the ways in which the students interacted with it and how it informed other aspects of the course.

Immediately upon the conclusion of the film the students appeared as though they might burst from their seats with eagerness to express their thoughts about it. To put that into context, this was a group of graduate students from whom I had to pull words over and over again the first few weeks. Energy and enthusiasm increased over the course of the term, but this degree of engagement was on a whole other level all together. They had been moved by the film both as individuals and as a conflict resolution class and they were responding to it from a point of intersection between the two. The class discussion was more branched than linear, but I'll do my best to describe it.

One student said that "I kept waiting for the good guy to emerge ..." and later he explained that "people could see each perspective and decide for themselves." Essentially, to this student, the filmmaker had presented all sides equally. Others wholeheartedly agreed.

There were questions about what has since happened to the women who were featured in the movie. There were questions about the current state of Nepal, the country in which the documentary is filmed.

The students talked about the strong women who were highlighted in the movie, and wondered about the role of women in Nepal. One student referenced the readings we've been doing in the Handbook of Conflict Resolution edited by Deutsch and Coleman and explained: "it was interesting reading about different models of conflict resolution and particularly how the narrative model is about telling stories because that is what happens in this documentary. Even if it wasn’t part of the culture for women to have the strong role these women had, their stories have now been told and those stories are now part of the culture."

Many, if not all of the students agreed that the more violent scenes were filmed and edited with "tact" and "respect" for the people involved and to the conflict in general. A number of students were concerned that it might be hard to obtain justice for all the families whose loved ones were "disappeared."

Finally, they inquired as to when they might see the documentary become available to rent or buy. Many wanted to watch it again and to show it to friends, spouses, classmates and numerous others. They laughed when I explained that I had "negotiated" for an early copy of the documentary given that we had spent a good deal of class time developing their negotiating knowledge. I responded with well, you gotta use the skills you have.

This movie made real previous class discussions about negotiation, power, gender roles & conflict, justice, moral exclusion, caste and class based discrimination, revenge, forgiveness, human rights, oppression, intractable conflict and various other essential concepts for understanding conflict and conflict resolution.

This movie is important to the field of conflict resolution, but more importantly, perhaps, is that it's just a darn good film with relevancy across numerous contexts.

By Laura L. Noah
Published on pronoaimediation.blogspot.com
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