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IS IT ONLY A PINCH OF SKIN?

This is a review of a documentary on FGM practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra Community in India. The piece examines together various elements of exploitation ranging from hypocrisy to generational brainwashing in a review that appreciates the sensitive and informed politics of filmmaking employed by the maker.


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A camera has a mind of its own. The decision to let the lights enter its aperture at a chosen moment, the delay in turning the lenses left to eliminate the bokeh, the entitlement in holding it too far or too close, all of it, is an exercise in politics. Priya Goswami’s stirring documentary A PINCH OF SKIN (2012) is one of the most compassionate uses of this pliant but essential tool of filmmaking. The film starts with a female voice narrating her experience of genital mutilation where the innocence of a seven-year-old life was purloined by her dogmatic mother and a violating blade. The rage and the faith that envelopes Female Genital Mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra Community of India is heard by the audience through many such female voices in the film. The whole 27 minutes is a dialogue between the women sitting at opposite ends of the camera, like any other documentary, only that it is not. We don’t see the women of the films, we see a pair of hands or when the film feels too confident, a silhouette that accompanies the voice. The audience feels as if they are sitting face to face with the person but the gaze is buoyed down to their hands or obstructed by low light. The lowered gaze is the gaze of shame or dismay that is left to the audience to decide. Goswami’s camera is sure that it is not shame, women are seen, just not shown, unlike in society. Whatever appears on the screen is so fresh in its intuition, that the curiosity of the audience to see the rest of the body is not piqued when the hands appear, rather we find ourselves dwelling on the messages their irregular depth of voices are putting across. It is the sensitive gaze of a brown female looking at a brown female. Here, the camera accepts and respects the emotive weight provided to it and a patronizing narration in an accentuated English by the creator doesn’t happen. 


One of the conversations chosen in the film, under the broad theme of this abominable humiliation of bodily autonomy, is about the celebration of men’s Khatna but the surreptitious performance of women’s. To unravel structural gender inequality is an attempt to unfold a soaking wet crumpled paper. Layered and mingled to eternity. It is known by all the members of the community that a girl will be cut, but nobody talks about it. A girl is taken to a midwife without her knowledge, given an unsupervised cut, and told that the ‘hot ghee’ will satiate the mental and the physical scar. This is private. A boy’s circumcision, however, is a day of gaiety and pride. A boy turns a man in public. The women of the film, also smell suspicion when this brushing under the carpet of the blood happens. “At some level, the community does have an idea that it is doing something wrong,” says a voice. 


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At one juncture the stories also become a poignant lesson in motherhood and resistance. There is a singular story of hope and clarity in the otherwise dim and hazy palette of the screen, where a mother reveals her decision to not let her daughters go through this or any other tradition she didn’t find the reasoning behind. She said she would not pass on the pain, she bequeathed from her mother. Cut to the next scene is a girl seated behind a curtain saying the reason for the practice “is to control the urges of women so that extramarital affairs don’t happen”. Rusted by the generational waters of brainwashing, there is another croaky voice and pair of worn-out hands, animatedly describing the story of her daughter’s ‘Khatna’. The voice recurs throughout the film spewing similar comments about the ‘sin’ inhabiting a woman’s clitoris and reminds me of this poem by the feminist Urdu poet Ishrat Afrin-

Hamara Alamiya Yeh Hai 

Ki Apni Raah Ki Diwaaar 

Hum Khud Hai

Ye Aurat Hai 

Ki Jo Aurat Ke Haq Mein

Ab Bhi Goongi Hai

Ye Aurat Hai

Ki Jo Aurat Ki Umeedoon Ki

Qatil Hai


Filmmaking like any other art is a persuasive practice, every artist preaches something, that, if the art is successful in laying out, sticks with the audience. Goswami’s documentary clenches. On the conscience and the skin-if you are a female watcher. It didn’t need the traditional blood and body to make us retch with disgust, instead, it uses the most underrepresented of all aspects of women, their voice. Voices from both ends. Oppressor and oppressed are in the same frame. The girl out of focus in the camera by the misty yellow light claims with a heavy voice that she never wants to see the woman who committed her mutilation, cut to, the female MBBS doctor who brazenly accepts that she uses her medically educated hands to perform this structural abuse of young girls and the victims wave to her whenever she meets them after that. Obliviousness and oppression are synonyms after all. It is in this amnesia of pain that the film makes you uncomfortable. How does one save those who have become comfortable with the pain, so much so, that the painlessness sounds new and threatening? 


A pinch of skin, a bundle of dowry notes, a week of impurity. Women have been disoriented into such seemingly minuscule labyrinths of gender-based violence by walls of cultural and religious indoctrination. What’s unfortunate is that the same women have been both, the wanderers and the creators of the labyrinth. As a speaker in the film mentions “The whole gameplan here is that the woman herself is convinced”.


 

By: Jigeesha Bhargavi

Jigeesha Bhargavi is a second-year student pursuing a Political Science major. An erudite person she met recently said that “sanity and not happiness is the goal of life”. So, when she talks about her sanity and purpose, she talks about how she found both of them in her fiendish urge to write and her malformed appetite to read. She writes that she was made for her friends, food and films, everything except them is similar to UNGA actions for relief in Gaza, minuscule and unfulfilling.

 

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