An inspiring docu about women’s empowerment, “Rafea: Solar Mama” shows how an illiterate Bedouin woman from a poverty-stricken community in the Jordanian desert learns to be a solar-energy engineer at India’s Barefoot College. But that is not the only challenge this spunky protagonist faces. In this intimate, observational pic, Egyptian-born, American-educated helmers Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief also reveal the complex gender dynamics in Rafea’s remote tribal village, where an educated, working woman is regarded as shameful. This fest-friendly item nabbed the audience award at Doc NYC.
A 60-minute version of the pic, titled “Solar Mamas,” aired on American public broadcasting stations on Nov. 4 as part of the Independent Lens series. In the U.K., the one-hour cut will be included in the eight-part series “Why Poverty?” airing Dec. 2.
Thirty-year-old Rafea lives with her four daughters in a drafty tent that is unable to keep out the cold of the desert nights. Her husband is an unemployed layabout whose lack of ambition stands in contrast to her practically palpable eagerness to achieve something.
Recognizing Rafea’s spark, Raouf Dabbas, Jordan’s minister of the environment, chooses her and her older cousin, Umm Badr, to be the first Jordanians to attend a six-month training session at Barefoot College, where they will learn to assemble and install solar panels. After their training, the women are expected to open a panel-installation center, and train others to do similar work.
College founder Bunker Roy explains that he prefers to teach women because they have the time and patience to learn slowly. And because they have families, their newfound knowledge and skills will improve life in their home villages, helping them to become self-reliant and sustainable.
In the supportive, mostly female atmosphere of the training center, the Jordanians, along with women from Kenya, Burkina Faso, Columbia and Guatemala, learn by doing. At first, the training seems overwhelming, but the helmers capture the students’ thrill as they realize how much they are capable of.
After a month, Rafea’s traditional family demands that she return home. Her manipulative husband threatens to divorce her and prevent her from seeing her children. Still reckoning that Rafea is a good bet, Dabbas pays for her flight, but reminds her of her promised commitment.
The friendly, outspoken Rafea makes an immensely sympathetic protagonist with whom the Arabic-speaking helmers obviously established a high level of trust. It’s lovely to see how she blossoms under the encouragement of her instructors and fellow students at the college, especially when compared with how she is treated in her village, where even her mother tells her, “A woman’s place is at home with her kids.”
Tech credits are strong, and Eldaief’s intimate camerawork captures the wild beauty of the Jordanian desert and the Indian village where the college is located. Expert cutting lends the story a dramatic structure, while a pleasing Middle Eastern-style score maintains momentum.