If nothing else, the first afternoon of the TIFF Docs conference gave off a heavenly smell. At the end of Up the Yangtze director Yung Chang’s sneak preview of his forthcoming documentary, The Fruit Hunters, a table spilling over with exotic fruit was presented to the audience, who fell on it with glad cries. The table included a few miracle fruit berries, which alter the taste buds to somewhat psychedelic effect, and a few pieces of durian, the Asian delicacy likened in The Fruit Hunters to eating vanilla ice cream…in a toilet.
Chang was on hand to introduce the 20-minute clip we were shown and answer questions about it afterwards. The Fruit Hunters is adapted from Adam Leith Gollner’s 2008 nonfiction book of the same name, though it seemed clear Chang had made the subject very much his own. “Fruit wants to be devoured,” Chang says in opening narration accompanied by pornographic close-ups of glistening fruit flesh, “like we’re meant to be together.”
This rather sweaty sexual metaphor gives way to that of fruit as a metaphor for life. It would appear that Chang has crossed the globe, much as Gollner did, seeking out those people who have made growing and eating exotic fruit their calling. He is also concerned with illuminating the gap that has grown in our relationship to nature’s sweetest gift, where nature’s sweetest gift is experienced most often as genetically modified piles of waxy supermarket produce.
One questioner asked Chang (whose film introduced me both to my new favourite verb—fruiting—and the secret fruit-growing passion of actor Bill Pullman) how to find the story while crafting an essay film. The distinction between a more standard documentary and the essay film is subtle but major: one tends to be more story-driven, bound to conveying information clearly and persuasively, and the other has room for more creative energy and lyrical meditation (Chang created a gorgeous animated sequence for his opening credits). But even in an essay film, Chang told us, the way to the story is still through the people involved, the subjects who ground the heady ideas that might otherwise amount to bunch of fruity figure-eights up in the ether with human weight.
The title of Rafea: Solar Mamas, the film presented in its entirety later that afternoon as part of the conference’s sneak previews, testified to the importance of finding that human element. Back in January of this year, co-directors Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief were still calling the film Solar Mamas when they showed a short clip—then still in progress—to a Park City audience as part of Sundance’s Stories of Change funding program. What we saw then suggested a film focused on the experience of the group of women from countries like Kenya, Colombia, and Jordan at the Barefoot College, an Indian institution designed to educate impoverished women in solar engineering, giving them skills they can share with their communities back home.
At Sundance, Noujaim said she’d had to beat out a handful of fellow documentarians eager to tell the story of Barefoot College and its founder, Bunker Roy. In writing about their project I had worried that Roy, and not the women he helps, would become the centre of the film. Rafea: Solar Mamas was screening for the first time ever at TIFF, in the same slot where Lucy Walker’s The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom was screened last year before that film went on to receive an Academy Award nomination. As the title suggests, one of their subjects did emerge as the heart of the story Noujaim and Eldaief were trying to tell, and it was not Bunker Roy.
In fact he hardly appears; instead we focus on a Bedouin woman named Rafea living in the Jordanian desert. The second wife of a deadbeat husband, Rafea has four children and the will to live a better life. Unhappy with her near-primitive living conditions, Rafea is desperate to accept the invitation to study at the Barefoot College. Though it means leaving her children for a time, the return far outweighs the cost, especially for her three daughters who like her, have suffered from the attitude that educating women is shameful.
The focus on Rafea’s plight (her husbands threats force her to come home early; she later returns to India in defiance) comes at the expense of a larger understanding of how the Barefoot College works, not to mention the mini United Nations that forms there (though we are shown many lovely moments of communication and miscommunication). And it gives the film a more focused and personal shape than it might have otherwise had. After the screening the filmmakers said their hope was to provoke a discussion in the Middle East especially about women, poverty, and education. With Rafea: Solar Mamas they have given that discussion an unforgettable face.
About this writer
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