Challenging deeply rooted patriarchal customs.
Rafea: Solar Mamas directed by Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim won the Oxfam Novib Award at IDFA last November.

Nita Bianca-Olivia

Bianca-Olivia is a regular critic for ModernTimes.review.

The film was also one of the most popular among the public, taking 6th place among the Top 20 films nominated for the Audience Award. It participated in the IDFA Competition for Feature-Length Documentary and was one of the features in the ‘Why Poverty?’ program.

Rafea: Solar Mamas directed by Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim won the Oxfam Novib Award at IDFA last November. The film was also one of the most popular among the public, taking 6th place among the Top 20 films nominated for the Audience Award. It participated in the IDFA Competition for Feature-Length Documentary and was one of the features in the ‘Why Poverty?’ program.

This is the story of Rafea, a Bedouin woman who lives in a small village in Jordan. She is the mother of four children, unable to read or write, and the second wife of a husband on whom she depends financially. But she has been given a once in a lifetime opportunity and she takes it immediately. When one of the two women from her community withdraws from going to the Barefoot College in India, Rafea volunteers to replace her. She packs her things and leaves the next day.

 The Barefoot College trains illiterate women from different continents to become solar engineers, electrify their villages and teach other people in their communities how to do this work. The thought behind teaching only women, grandmothers, to be more accurate, is that these women are unlikely to leave their communities for better opportunities in the cities. This way, the knowledge can be kept and spread within the community. Rafea seized the opportunity not only to give herself and her children a better life, but also to change her community, blighted by unemployment and a lack of perspective.

The two directors initially wanted to film four women from different places travelling to India to take part in the program. But one month into the program Rafea joined and took over the story. Her character and optimism make most of the film. In the months the camera follows her, we see her inner development, her eyes changing gradually from a hesitant mother of four with no perspective to a confident woman.

rafea-solar-mama-by-mona-eldaief-and-jehane-noujaim-syracuse-univeristy-human-rights-film-festival
Rafea: Solar Mama

She is a complex character. Her story is not simply an observation of the novel nature of transforming an illiterate woman into a solar engineer. Rafea becoming a solar engineer is also a statement. Her determination and initiative challenge the deeply rooted patriarchal customs in her community, among them that a woman should not leave her village and her children – nor should she work. By simply following the discussions as a silent witness, the camera non-judgmentally shows how irrational these customs are.

Rafea’s mother and especially her husband don’t agree with her going to India. After Rafea leaves for the College, he keeps calling her, threatening her and asking her to come back. After a lot of pressure she does come back to the village. At the peak of the conflict, Rafea has to choose between going back to the College to finish the program and losing her children (her husband threatens to leave her and take them), or stay in the village knowing she will have nothing to offer her children.
Her success injures her husband’s pride; his pride constitutes his worth and that’s all that matters to him. The way Rafea’s return to the College is negotiated by men shows something essential about a culture centered on men’s pride. In this negotiation, arguments matter much less than this husband’s need to be respected as a man, to be in charge. Ironically, at the end of the film we find out that her husband ended up in jail. His frustration at not being able to support his family and his desperation to retain his sense of manhood drive him to criminal activity.

One important thing to notice is that Rafea’s personal development is set not only against her home environment but also against the atmosphere at the College. This way we get to see the way these women, who all come from very different cultures, communicate and care for one another even though they have no common language. We see touching moments when they dance together, embrace each other and smile. We see how Rafea observes this different world. The Indian women seem happy because they work; they have independence and purpose. So when she goes back to her village she talks about this. The College environment feeds Rafea’s confidence.

The film leaves the viewer with a warm, optimistic feeling. This is new and fresh in a sea of documentaries that often exhaust the viewer’s emotions by only pointing out the problems and the suffering and not offering any solutions. Something important to notice is the fact that there is no Western intervention in this story’s success. The clichéd contrast between the poor and illiterate and the rich and resourceful who provide an opportunity for the former is completely absent.
Rafea: Solar Mamas is in an entertaining film with a universal message. Sometimes they have the courage to take charge of their own lives.

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