Friday, August 10, 2012

Three Pacifist Women Warriors

We Women Warriors is Playing in Theaters

Three Pacifist Women Warriors

(from 8/11/12)

'The beauty of exceptional documentaries that are set outside the United States is that we can catch a glimpse of people's lives that are entirely different from our own. An extreme example can be found in Nicole Karsin's eye-opening We Women Warriors, which opened Friday at the IFC in New York City and will have its Los Angeles premiere on August 24. The gallant human rights activist and print journalist turned filmmaker put herself in harm's way to tell the story of three Colombian women whose lives we can barely comprehend. Flor Ilva Trochez (on right, in march photo), Doris Puchana (on left), and Ludis Rodriguez (in center) are three courageous native women who have long been, as the films notes state, "caught in the crossfire of Colombia's warfare and who use nonviolent resistance to defend their people's survival." (Ludis, whose husband was murdered, even spent a year in jail on trumped up charges during the three years of filming.) They have assumed leadership roles in their respective tribes (the Nasa, the Awa, the Kankuamo), which, like many of the 102 indigenous tribes, face extinction because of the never-ending internal conflict between government forces, paramilitary groups, and insurgents. The conflict is spurred by the drug trade. Below is an interview I did this week with the personable Karsin about her exceptional debut documentary:
Danny Peary: Tell me your background.
Nicole Karsin: I was born and raised in Los Angeles but went to college in New York. I went to Sarah Lawrence and then grad school at Columbia. Prior to getting my masters in journalism at Columbia, I had lived in southern Mexico and done human rights work. I went to Chiapas in 1995, a year after the Zapatista uprising, through a non-governmental organization, Global Exchange, to support the human rights movement and be an observer in the Zapatista communities that were being threatened by the Mexican army. Through that work I became involved with and became an adviser to various artisan cooperatives in the Mayan women's communities. That inspired me to go to journalism school because I saw how poorly that whole conflict was being covered. I saw that being on the ground was oh so different from what was being reported. So when I went to journalism school I knew I wanted to cover conflicts in Latin America.
DP: What's your ethnicity?
NK: I'm half Ukranian Jewish, a quarter Irish, and a quarter Sicilian.
DP: So how did you initially become interested in Latino human rights issues?
NK: Los Angeles has a large Latino culture. Because of my looks--Sicilian is what comes out most I believe--people in Los Angeles just assumed I spoke Spanish, but I didn't till years later. But I always cared about women's rights and human rights. When I was coming of age, civil wars in Central America were taking place and Los Angeles received a huge influx of people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. I watched the Iran-Contra scandal unfold but I was just a little too young to fully understand it. I knew there were injustices occurring but I didnt fully understand the dynamics, the how and why. When I was at Sarah Lawrence, I had a bit of an existential crisis my sophomore year and wanted to be out in the world and to see what was happening. So I took a semester off and went to Nicaragua because I had this curiosity to learn what was really going on there. I was nineteen and that's when I started to learn to speak Spanish. This was 1992. My first week in Managua was the five hundredth anniversary of the Spanish conquest. I was fortunate to be there at such a historic moment and I'm sure that affected me. When I went there were no college programs, no credits to be received. I was a volunteer through a program run by Father Miguel d'Escoto, who also went to Colombia Journalism School and was a Maryknoll missionary involved with the Sandinista government. He had an organization that helped support people in Nicaragua. I lived in the home of a very poor family in what was then called Barrio Carlos Marx. It was very post-Revolutionary--Violeta Chamorro had been in power for two years--and it was a real eye-opener.
DP: You were a journalist but you ended up telling this story in your documentary.
NK: It was a natural progression. I was doing print, radio, and photography and felt digital filmmaking is a combination of those. I bought a camera in 2004 and took it with me when I did interviews. I never had any formal training, I just had some colleagues give me pointers here and there. Film was more visceral and while it's true that Colombia is so complex it's also beautiful. The people are beautiful, the culture is beautiful and film was a more impactful way of conveying a story.
DP: From the beginning, were you thinking you'd do a story about these three women?
NK: No. At the beginning I wanted to do a film about how the indigenous people are caught in the crossfire, and how mostly their stance is nonviolent. But when I set out on my first pre-production, investigative trips to Colombia to find my stories and characters, it was immediately the women I was drawn to--I'm sure it was because I'm a woman.
DP: Did you meet Flor, Doris, and Ludis separately where they live?
NK: Yes.
DP: An emotional moment for me was seeing the three women together late in the film. Was that emotional for you?
NK: It was emotional. Logistically, it was a difficult shoot. There was a march that moved from Cauca to Bogata. Because the three women are leaders they have commitments and there are a lot of situations that are unfolding all the time. It didn't work out that they could start the march together. Landmines had exploded and people were killed in Doris's region and she had to leave early, and Flor was having a crisis in her region and had to come late. So I had those three women together for only 24 hours.
DP: Did they know each other before then?
NK: No.
wewomenwarriorsmarch.jpg (L-R) Doris, Ludis, and Flor
DP: Did you think that it would be great if you got them together?
NK: Kind of. I had applied for a grant with ITVF. When you didn't receive funding, they would give you a feedback session if you requested one. I had a feedback session, and one of their head people asked me, "Do your three stories intersect?" In all honesty, I hadnt even thought of it. Then I thought it would be something they could do of their own accord if they had the resources. I definitely invited them on the march. I thought about putting in a card saying that I had invited them, because I wanted to be totally transparent, but that would have thrown me into the narrative when I really didn't want to be there. That was something I grappled with most in terms of the narrative.
DP: Did they bond naturally and not need to tell each other what they'd experienced because they knew they all experienced the same awful things?
NK: No, actually they had experienced similar things but not the same things. They could understand each other, and each other's suffering and pain, but they had experienced different manifestations of the conflict.
DP: One of the women expresses one of your film's major themes: When you suffer, you feel the suffering of others.
NK: That was Doris, who mother was killed in a car accident when she was young. Yeah, they can feel the others suffering for sure.
DP: Were they proud of being women who are leaders or do they just take it for granted?
NK: Definitely they dont take it for granted. It's hard work and it's still taboo in the native community. There aren't many women leaders. Flor was elected and during the elections the indigenous radio stations would make jokes about there being a female candidate. These women are obviously very self-assured and have conviction of what they want to do, but it's still not easy.
DP: Everybody in America knows something about what's going on in Colombia, but what don't we know because, as you say, our journalism hasn't been good enough at telling the story?
NK: There's a lot. There's a very complicated, convoluted conflict, which is why newspaper editors shy away from it. The most important things for U.S. citizens to know is that our tax dollars are supporting military and paramilitary forces that are responsible for widespread and systematic human rights violations; and the amount of military aid that we give to Colombia far exceeds any social aid. Inadvertently, our tax dollars are responsible for the severity of the human rights crisis in Colombia, and we can change that.
DP: In your movie, Doris says that the people would be happy with the United States if it were giving money to the right causes. Is most of our money supposedly going to fight the drug trade?
NK: Until 2002, U.S. aid to Colombia was only under the guise of fighting the war on drugs, but that year it expanded to include an anti-insurgent mission. That changed things. Unfortunately, it hasn't mattered what administration we've had.
DP: And what about the effect on Colombia of Free Trade?
DK: The Free Trade Agreement was finally passed but multinational corporations have been for a very long time and have historically paid off whatever armed fighters are in the region at that time. The way it usually plays out is that the paramilitary organizations are supported by Coca Cola or all the different multinational corporations so that they can either clear out the Compatinos, which is by massacres and displacements, or protect their interests in other ways. It usually has to do with the land.
DP: Your film takes place in rural areas, where the livelihood of the poor indigenous people is tied to growing coca. Is it an issue that the people would like the government to support their growing other crops?
wewomenwarriorsnicolecamera.jpg Nicole Karsin films in Cauca
NK: Yes. They can only support themselves now by growing coca. There are no alternatives. There is no infrastructure whatsoever. The centerpiece of Plan Colombia, which began in 2000 under Bill Clinton, is fumigations with herbicides and thats been in effect for twelve years and hasnt much affected the cocaine trade. But it kills the environment and harms your health. I got very sick while reporting in those regions. Plan Colombia was 80% military aid, which included the fumigations, and 20% social aid. The social aid was kind of a joke. They'd give the Compatinos cows in the hope they'd stop growing coca, but the cows would die from the fumigation. There was no thought put into it and no real desire to help the people. It was all very superficial.
DP: Most of your filming was done between 2006 and 2009 so people might say, that's three years ago, a long time ago.
NK: I was back there a year ago to do pickups and nothing had changed. In fact the story that enfolds in Flor's region with the police barracks and the military occupation actually just flared up. In early July there was major combat between the army and the FARC and entire communities were displaced. And the Nasa people you see in the film have in their self-autonomous process made resolution stating that they want their territories free of armed combatants. That includes all sides--the paramilitary, the guerilla, and the state forces. So in the past few weeks they went around trying to remove army posts and find FARC fighters and destroy their weapons and flogthem in public assemblies.
DP: Flogging?
NK: They have constitutional rights to self-governance, and that is why they have the right to punish the FARC fighters who are part of the Nasa tribe. It's part of the culture.
DP: The Colombia media is portrayed in your film as presenting the company line. In terms of the indigenous people, are they more sympathetic today?
NK: The mainstream media, not so much. Two weeks ago the Nasa people went to an army post that was put up on a sacred, ceremonial site. Flor told me that they told the soldiers to leave their land. They were very cordial in negotiations with the army and as a sign of good will removed all their encampments. Colombian news was there but never showed this nonviolent actions. The army still refused to leave and the indigenous people were fed up and started removing them physically. There were a few shots fired by the army and it got tense. That part was covered by national TV! I saw the national TV reports that said that removing the army posts could be against Colombian law. There was no mention of what the Constitution protects or of international humanitarian law. After this news coverage that further stigmatized the indigenous people, Flor went to the city where her daughter is going to college and the owner of her apartment told her daughter to move out in two days. That was the backlash of how the news was covered.
DP: We see Flor's tribe dismantle barracks in your film while soldiers look on. Were they part of the tribe?
NK: Maybe a couple here and there, but generally not.
DP: Did you know beforehand about the dismantling of the barracks by the people in Flor's town and decide to go film it?
NK: I had planned on going there to join a human rights verification mission as part of my pre-production, searching for characters and finding my angle to tell the story. I got there two or three days after the 11-year-old boy had been killed, so it just happened to coincide. The human rights mission was in the region for only two days and when it left I decided to stay on. I stayed for three weeks and filmed the process.
WeWomenWarriorsNicolephoto.jpg Nicole Karsin, photo by DP
DP: There's a scene where you're filming Flor relaxing on a hillside. A government soldier comes upon you. A scary moment?
NK: A scary moment. Definitely. It wasn't on camera but strangely enough it was diffused because one of the policemen in the group was staying in the same house we were in so he knew we were really journalists. I wonder what would have happened had he not been staying in that house with us.
DP: Nothing happens but you include that scene--perhaps to show how quickly and randomly there can be danger.
NK: Also I was trying to show that despite the Nasa's small victory in removing the barracks their land was still militarized and they were still in danger.
DP: You did know about the march in advance in order to invite your three subjects to participate.
NK: Yes.
DP: You say that Ludis traveled for the march for indigenous rights. What are these rights specifically?
NK: In 1991 there was a new Colombian constitution, and the groups in Flor's region in particular were very involved. They achieved that the Constitution recognize Colombia as a plural ethnic society, which is huge in the Americas, and basically granted the indigenous people autonomy. On paper it's probably the best indigenous rights in the Americas; but it's an issue is how it is in practice. Indigenous people in Flor's region were practicing self-governance when they made the resolution saying they wanted the region to be free of armed fighters. That's where autonomy and the rule of state law clash.
DP: Does autonomy by the people deal specifically with the control of land?
NK: It's more. It's self-governance, which includes land issues. It also is about having respect for their form of punishment, which includes flogging. That's their culture. The land and self-governance are probably the two biggest ways to define indigenous rights. But now the big issue is--and it's not just in Flor's region, though that,s the best example of it--having the right to not be part of the armed conflict. It's their right under Colombian law, international humanitarian law, and other international conventions. The way the Colombian armed forces have installed their barracks and posts throughout indigenous town and surrounding areas puts the indigenous peoples at risk; it makes them possible collateral damage. That's what they are protesting.
DP: In one segment you have what amounts to be a montage of widows. It's powerful.
NK (emotional): Yeah. I love all them. I tried to call Ludis this morning but she wasn't available but I spoke to her friend Suzana, who is one of the other widows in the film. In a way I wanted it to be like a choir. This is what happens when there is systematic violence. Getting them to share their stories and speak out like that wasn't easy. I had been filming for a very long time and had known them, but it was still very difficult for them to open up and share or speak about on camera. Or just speak about it, period.
DP: It is stated several times by women that the kids are still traumatized years after their fathers' deaths. But three years have past and these kids are three years older and approaching being young men. Are the women worrying about these kids eventually becoming targets too? It seems that men are in jeopardy in this environment. Is that a concern?
NK: There are a lot of civilians who are killed randomly because of the conflict. But hopefully if they don't join one of those groups then they won't have to be part of the violence. Ludis has made some hard decisions to withhold information from her sons so they wont try to avenge their father's death at a later date. wewomenwarriorsludis.jpgLudis spends a year in prison on trumped up charges.
DP: There doesn't seem to be any good options there for young men.
NK: No. One extreme example was Alvaro Uribe, who was president for two terms (2002-2010). He was the governor of Antioquia when his father was killed by the FARC and as a result his administration was very bloody. He was someone who was constantly seeking revenge and that brought about even more bloodshed.
DP: The widows in Ludis's group weave. Talk about the weaving metaphor regarding the bonding of these women and all tribes.
NK: It's also female solidarity. But in Ludis's case it's also about survival. They weave to feed their kids. It's also a native tradition--women have been weaving for five centuries so it's a way of maintaining the culture.
DP: Do they make any real money?
NK: There are intermediaries who exploit the women by selling what they weave and keeping most of the profits.
DP: What three things would you like to happen in Colombia?
NK: I would like the Colombian government to respect the indigenous peoples rights and remove the army from their territories as they have requested. I would like the insurgent forces to leave as well. I would like U.S. policy to drastically improve in regards to respecting human rights. And I hope that the women's groups in Colombia --those in the film and other ones--gain the support they need and the training of the skills they need to start businesses to be autonomous and provide for themselves and their families.
DP: What about the drug trade?
NK: I think drugs should be decriminalized because there's so much violence. The government, politicians, and members of the armed forces are all involved in the drug trade. It's a pretext for groups to keep pumping the herbicide and the military-industrial complex to keep selling arms.
DP: Talk about your film in terms of universality. This situatio can be happening in a lot of places.
NK: I think so. Peoples all over the world are caught between armed fighters. The situation in Colombia has gone on for so long. The fact that these women still have hope and still stand for nonviolence and still are working to improve the world is a positive message that I believe can inspire many people.


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