Women Are Heroes is a visual journey through womanhood in places such as Morro da Provincia favelas (Rio de Janeiro), the slums of Kenya (Kibera, Nairobi), Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Monrovia (Liberia) and Kashmir (India). The artist and director JR interviews women in these places about their lives and the tragedies that have shaped their existence. At the same time, JR recreates the place into public galleries with huge black and white photos depicting close-ups of the women on walls, roofs, bridges, ramps and travelling trains.
At first everything is black and white. Close-ups of a girl’s face twisted in pain and agony. Seconds later, details reveal that the girl in the picture is giving birth. Then the scene is set to join the director on a global journey exploring womanhood and the struggles women have to live through – most of them due to the existence of men. In many ways JR’s debut documentary is a celebration of women. It’s a film about the ongoing courage and diligence of women, about all the obstacles encountered by women who live in harsh and violent environments such as the favelas (shanty towns) of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of Kibera, Kenya and poor neighbourhoods in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The problems and challenges of the women are many and often related to social and economic issues. Most of all, however, men are the problem in JR’s film. If he does not die in their arms or in a random shoot-out in the streets outside their home he most likely abuses the women, is violent and even rapes them. It is difficult and somewhat devastating to listen to and observe all these painful and hard destinies but they are told with such courage and hope that most of the viewer’s bad conscience disappears.
The women that JR and his research crew have been able to find are just amazing. Take for instance an elderly lady in Kashmir, India. As a child she grew up on the streets, never went to school and used to build foundations of buildings with just her hands and a hammer. She even helped build the foundation of the local university where she now teaches sociology and gender studies. She retells her life with great passion and without remorse. Often a big smile and wonderful, life-affirming laughter pass across her face. Other women in the film are less lucky but all of them take a stand in their life and start to build from there. No matter how hard the reality is, there is always hope; you can see it in their eyes and mimicking expressions.
And expressive eyes and faces are exactly the point of not only the film but of the ongoing artistic project that JR creates. At first this is not very clear in the film, but after half an hour and near the end we become aware that his project is a huge part of this film. Basically JR’s artistic vision is to dress environments and surroundings with images of the women’s faces and eyes. To let the world know that they exist. And that they are looking right at you. In order to do this JR sees to the production of huge posters the size of buildings and dresses rooftops, walls and travelling trains with these largescale images. In a way he manages to blow life into dead objects and decaying buildings by adding emotional content to the raw structures in the harsh reality. The idea is simple but the effect is great. And even more so with the moving train which creates a stunning visual effect as the train wagons only contain images of the eyes; the rest of the face is displayed on the ground. When the train travels by the images on the ground, we see the changing expressions of the faces depending on which set of eyes they are displayed with. A mechanical mood change with a lot of empathy.
My only objection is that I would have liked the film to follow the process of this project more closely, and see more than just the final results. As it is depicted in the film, the project seems almost fictional. A closer look at the project and the obstacles the artist must have met on the way would have been an interesting addition to the documentary. Visually, women Are heroes is an astonishing film. The cinematography is extremely well done. The style is dynamic, expressive and playful. The camera is all over the place. It turns, circles and twists along narrow alleyways in Rio with a fast motion effect that is almost used too much. The pace is hectic and in many ways reminds me of the opening sequence in Slumdog Millionaire. In Women Are Heroes we also see the exploding colours of the poor neighbourhoods, which is almost turning into a visual cliché. With this in mind, one can also question the ethical dimensions of the project.
Does JR help these people by taking their picture, vastly enlarging the images and placing them on walls and rooftops or is he simply taking advantage of their situation in order to create a happening that first and foremost brings attention to him as an artist? The girl near the end of the film says that images cannot change anything – but they can create attention and dialogue which might lead to action and then to change.