Narrating women’s stories

JR's 'Women are Heroes', speaks through the voice of women, for the condition of women reflects the state of the society that they live in.

A woman in a ghetto in Cambodia who will not let her house be pulled down. Elsewhere, in Rio Janeiro, a mother mourns the death of a son killed amidst the rivalry between favelas. In India, another woman wows that her son will only marry a rape victim. In Kibera (Kenya), the largest slum in Africa, a mother still dares to dream of a better world for her children. These are some of the protagonists of director JR’s Women are Heroes, joined only by their gender and their undefeatable propensity to hope.

Pic courtesy: JR’s official website. The picture represents JR’s trademark style of photography that is also used in the film.

Women are Heroes came to India as part of a screening done by Alliance Francaise and the Bangalore Film Society on March 10 to mark Women’s Day.

French street artist JR’s debut film, and part of the official selection at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, Women are Heroes is the culmination of all JR’s previous endeavours. In the past, his work gained attention as he burnt the midnight oil plastering public urban spaces with his monument-size portrait photography, often reflecting the city’s underbelly. In doing this, he moved voices from the margins to the centre stage.

Yet initially much of this work on public spaces was illegal. It is a tribute to the power of JR’s lens that the French government chose to legalise his work. JR even won the TED prize for 2010. In their words, this was for his attempt at putting a "human face on some of the most critical social issues while redefining how we view, make and display art." But given the nebulous areas that JR’s lens continues to pry open, he still needs to maintain his anonymity. So most of his interviews have him under a dark shadow or with his back to the camera.

Women are Heroes is an interesting extension of JR’s work as we see the coming together of the film-maker, photographer and activist. His preoccupation with the play of light and portraits remains. But now his story is told by powerful visuals that also speak.

Yet even as his lens moves into uninhabited dark places to tell the stories of those on the fringes, the audience does not leave the hall defeated by the greyness of life. Instead they are inspired by the narratives many submerged colours because JR’s women truly are heroes.

Amongst the films greatest moments is the film’s climactic shot that moves over the gigantic slum of Kibera, set against a hill, with a railway track running high above. The roofs of the Kibera shanty town are transformed with the gigantic portraits of three women. The images both protect their houses from water damage and can also be viewed by Google Earth.

A train that runs on the overhead railway track twice a day has the top portions of the portraits. The train aligns with the shacks below to create the completed portraits of three women. As the train lurches forward, the eyes of the three separate portraits are interchanged. One woman is every woman. The community at Kibera is also noticed by the rest of the world.

It is triumph for his protagonists. But it is also a celebration of the craft of JR the photographer and the filmmaker.

But why did the film choose to speak only through the voices of women protagonists? JR himself is asked the question in the course of making the film. He replies that often the condition of women reflects the state of the society that they live in.

The film was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Madhu Reddy, Hyderabad based photographer and India Producer for the Open Show forum for photographers, filmmakers and multimedia producers. The panel included Bangalore photographers Jyothy Karat, Mayur Channagere, Nishant Ratnakar and Shamshad Khan who introspected on the role of photography and women in photography.

Both Jyothy and Shamshad shared the opinion that their gender had not been a barrier restricting them from telling the stories that they wanted to narrate. It had in fact sometimes given them access to otherwise closed spaces, even helping them win their subject’s trust.

On a more general note, Mayur spoke about the role of photography as an agent of change and Nishant pointed to the huge potential of the Internet as medium that photographers could use to distribute their work.

In fact, even JR’s growing reputation has built on the power of the Internet to share ideas and capture the imagination of widespread audiences across the globe. In more ways than one, this reflects the reality of the global village. Information is the commodity travelling on this superhighway.

As the voice of the protagonists of Women are Heroes travels across the globe, via both cyberspace and in the real world, it puts forward the hope that more voices from the margins could use this conduit to finally find mainstream resonance.

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