Julie Bridgham’s impressive “The Sari Soldiers,” shot in Nepal over the tumultuous three-year period following King Gyanendra’s dissolution of parliament and seizure of absolute power, profiles six women enmeshed in their country’s political and social struggle. One of several recent docus that give credence to the old feminist saw that if women were given power, they would speedily put an end to war, “Soldiers,” which won the Nestor Almendros Prize at New York’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Women Make Movies, could enjoy a limited theatrical run before wider exposure in niche markets.
Within a clearly established context of ongoing civil strife between Maoist guerrillas and repressive monarchist militia, Bridgham first centers her docu on the courageous call for justice of an “untouchable” single woman, Devi Sunuwar, who insistently comes forward to testify about her niece’s rape, torture and murder by Royal Nepalese troops. In retaliation, government forces, not finding Devi at home, instead “disappears” her 15-year-old daughter Marina.
Devi’s search for her daughter continues throughout the docu, becoming front-page New York Times news and a landmark court case, thanks to the continued support of Nepalese human-rights activist Mandira, the second of pic’s strong femme protagonists.
Meanwhile, out in the countryside, feisty, elderly matriarch and fervent monarchist Krishna mobilizes her village to successfully defend against occupying Maoists.
Among the Maoists, whose forces are 40% women, Bridgham singles out the equally dedicated Kranti, brigade commissar and mother of two, whose earnest analyses of the monarchy’s exploitation of the people are enlivened by a decidedly feminist slant.
Soon the government, imitating the Maoists’ successful incorporation of women into all cadres of the rebel army, begins accepting female officers. Rajani, whose room at home still sports stuffed animals, decides to swap her medical studies for military training, partly out of deference to her brother, who was killed in combat.
Finally, back in Kathmandu, pro-democracy student activist Ram Kumari watches hundreds, thousands and finally millions of civilian protestors fill the streets, as Maoists and political parties form a coalition against the monarchy.
Given the eminently sensible sextet of women Bridgham has chosen as a representative snapshot of the Nepalese people, the resulting armistice is hardly surprising — but one wonders how long the peace will last. Skeptics include Krishna, who, along with other village women, berates the male politicos who come out of the woodwork to rally once the serious fighting is over.
Pic is uniformly well shot, edited and scored.