'Rafea: Solar Mama' uplifting, not naive

The first film in the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, documentary 'Rafea: Solar Mama,' finds something close to the truth despite human tendency to act for a camera.

There’s a tendency for people to start performing as soon as they’re aware there’s a camera on them.

That can be a problematic situation for a documentary filmmaker, especially one trying to stay out of his/her film’s story, and it makes documentaries that try to capture unmediated reality feel awkward, if not suspect.

This problem applies to Rafea: Solar Mama, but what’s notable is that the film also shows people performing in a way that reveals their character.

The film follows Rafea, a Bedouin woman living in one of the poorest villages in Jordan. Rafea has an opportunity to attend the Barefoot College in India, which teaches women to be solar engineers and bring new energy and potential jobs to their villages. Rafea sees a way to support her four daughters and break out of the repressive expectations of her society, but her husband sees it as a threat to his dominance in their home.


The film’s co-director, Mona Eldaief, has noted that Rafea’s husband was better behaved during filming than he was off camera. It shows. The man demands that his wife stay at home and let him make the decisions (never mind that he doesn’t work and can’t provide for his children), and he threatens to take her children away, something that’s well within his power.

But while the film successfully posits him as the major antagonist in Rafea’s life, there’s an unmistakable sense that he’s holding back, and that he’s completely conscious of how Eldaief and co-director Jehane Noujaim view him. It says something about how he wants to control how he’s viewed in his home, but it also makes the film feel too tame.

That said, the film has a major asset in Rafea, a charismatic and often funny presence who’s clearly smarter and more capable than her husband. Rafea performs for the camera as well, to some degree, but it’s largely because she’s an intelligent woman who finally has a forum to express herself.

Credit also goes to Eldaief and Noujaim for not relying solely on traditional on-camera interviews for Rafea to express her feelings. Instead, the filmmakers asked Rafea to ask her parents or friends what they thought, and to debate with them. It makes for a more dynamic viewing experience than a normal talking-head interview, and it’s more inclusive of the varying degrees of opinion in the Middle East.

The film doesn’t exactly break new ground on women’s rights in the Middle East, and at 75 minutes it still feels somewhat padded by striking but often superfluous establishing and transition shots. But it’s no small feat for the film to be genuinely uplifting without gliding over remaining problems Rafea faces at home: Rafea successfully installs solar panels throughout much of Jordan, but she’s still trying to set up a solar engineering teaching program. The road to empowerment has many hurdles, but with education, there’s room for progress.

For more information on the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, check out this article from The NewsHouse.

Photo: Courtesy of Tula Goenka

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