For the first time in Tribeca Film Festival history, both the World Narrative and World Documentary competition sections enjoyed gala openings, and the premiere of The World Before Her (which ultimately won the 2012 World Documentary Competition Award) was truly a night to remember. The evening began as TFF co-Founder Jane Rosenthal took the stage to introduce director Nisha Pahuja and her film, and to prepare the audience for the hard truth that the documentary so adeptly reveals—that, in Rosenthal’s words, “It’s so hard to grow up female, no matter where you are in the world.”
While The World Before Her intertwines seemingly opposing stories—one about contestants in the Miss India pageant and the other about a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls—the documentary draws unexpected parallels between the two. The supposedly “modern” contestants in the pageant are in many ways as constricted as the young women who are still rooted in the traditional culture. Rosenthal added a rallying cry to the audience at the close of her introduction: “If we don’t educate our girls, we’re all screwed. I hope by watching this film, you all will want to get involved with women’s education all over the world.”
After the screening of this remarkable, TFI-supported documentary, the audience greeted Pahuja with a warm round of applause. Pahuja began with a simple statement: “After four years of working on THE WORLD BEFORE HER, it is very sweet to be ending up at Tribeca.” She immediately began fielding questions from her appreciative audience, many of which focused on the interplay of the two storylines. Pahuja explained, “India is in transition and in conflict. Part of that conflict is being played out on the bodies of women. They propagate two different ideas of Indian identity.” She added “We have bought this new, shiny image of India, which they (the pageant organizers) are selling.”
Audience members also questioned Pahuja about the surprising access she was given by the fundamentalists. Pahuja and her crew was the first camera crew to be invited inside a Durga Vahini camp for girls, and Pahuja reported that it took two years of calling the camp every day and forging relationships with powerful fundamentalist leaders and foot soldiers to finally be allowed in. Pahuja said, “That’s what documentary filmmakers do—we try to gain access. That’s our mission.”One surprising observation from Pahuja was that it was easier to continue to film inside these fundamentalist camps than at the Miss India pageant, although access to the pageant had been readily granted initially. Pahuja and her crew were removed several times during filming by suspicious and image-conscious pageant coordinators, but were eventually allowed back inside.
While there were many interesting characters in THE WORLD BEFORE HER, perhaps the most intriguing was Prachi, a fiery young woman who has dedicated her life to the fundamentalist cause. Her fanatical beliefs and difficult home life, mixed with her charisma, made her a compelling figure. Her desperate attempts to avoid an arranged marriage were particularly moving. When asked if any of the subjects from The World Before Her had seen the complete documentary, Pahuja responded that she was going to visit Prachi and bring a copy of the film for her to watch. Pajuha reported: “Pachi is still single and a believer. I’m hoping that she will gain more understanding of herself by watching the film.”
THE WORLD BEFORE HER has its Canadian Premiere at the Hot Docs International Film Festival this week. We wish Nisha and her team continued success!