Watching the documentary, Rafea: Solar Mama, one is struck once again by how limited the options still are for many millions of women and girls in the world. The film, which is being shown at the Family of Woman Film Festival in Sun Valley, was screened in Boise Wednesday night by Boise State University’s Arts and Humanities Institute, followed by a question-and-answer session with Meagan Fallone Carnahan of Barefoot College in India, featured in the film.
The documentary’s subject is Rafea, a 30-year old Bedouin woman living in a tent in a desolate, windswept area on the border of Jordan and Iraq. Rafea gets the chance to go to Barefoot College to learn how to build and operate solar-powered equipment, such as lanterns.
It’s an opportunity to not only electrify her village, but also to teach other women the same skills and form a cooperative that will give the group an income. But her husband doesn’t want her to go, and even after agreeing, threatens to take her children if she doesn’t leave India and come home.
The film, co-directed by Academy Award-nominated director Jehane Noujaim (The Square, Control Room), follows Rafea’s saga, one that should give any American girl pause when she next resists homework or a chore. Rafea’s life, by her own admission, is sheer drudgery. With four girls, no income, and a lazy husband, every day is circumscribed by the same household duties.
The delight of the film is not only seeing Rafea’s grit and determination, but also witnessing her humor. This is a woman who knows how dire her situation is, but who can also make fun of it. “We might as well be deaf!” she laughs as she and the other Jordanian woman at the college struggle to understand the instructors.
Underneath, though, is a will to succeed, not only for herself but for her daughters, and a deep sadness.
“Maybe I’m not meant to get an education,” she laments, as she’s forced to go home.
The film could have used more explanation of the philosophy behind Barefoot College, founded by Sanjit “Bunker” Roy in 1972, so the discussion afterwards with Fallone, director of global strategy and development for the school, was particularly enlightening.
Fallone described how Barefoot, which has an operating budget of $600,000 and 300 workers, doesn’t take funding from the U.S. government or many foundations because of the paperwork involved, preferring instead to have donations go directly to the program. Workers are paid less than the minimum wage in India, living instead by Gandhian concepts of austerity and equality. All the trainers are semi-literate or illiterate.
Barefoot has trained 764 illiterate female “solar engineers” in 68 countries, according to Fallone, leaders who’ve ultimately brought solar power to 500,000 people. The process by which she and Roy choose the women involves analyzing a woman’s “EQ” as much as anything else. They look at body language and a woman’s concentration and interest, particularly if she’s in the back of the room.
Despite all kinds of threats from men to deter them from going, Fallone says that not one woman has refused the opportunity. And when they return, the men often see them in a different light, so to speak.
“What starts as men being very disinterested ends up with a very different dynamic when they come back,” she says.
For the women, the change is permanent.
“It’s a transfiguration,” says Fallone. “And once that happens, there’s no going back. They’re a force.”
Fallone will give a free public presentation about Barefoot College today (March 6) at 6 p.m. at the Community Library in Ketchum, and will speak again after the film is screened on Sunday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at the Sun Valley Opera House.
For more information, see: familyofwomanfilmfestival.org