Film fans in withdrawal for the screen presence of complex women, particularly older women, should line up to see Megan Doneman’s riveting Yes Madam, Sir, one of 18 new nonfiction features screening in the International Documentary Association’s 13th annual “DocuWeeks” showcase. In chronicling the life and groundbreaking achievements of Kiran Bedi, the first female police officer in India, Doneman thankfully pushes beyond the hagiography in which too many filmmakers engage when they want to illustrate a subject’s heroism. Her lumps-and-all portrait includes Bedi’s father breaking with tradition to educate his four daughters; Bedi joining the police force in 1972, setting the stage for her controversial, career-long battles with police and government bureaucrats; and the globally influential prison reforms that Bedi formulated. But Sir isn’t pure celebration; the egoism beneath Bedi’s altruism, and the self-absorption that costs Bedi’s daughter and husband dearly, are also shown. The result dazzles: a depiction of enviable heroism within a flawed and recognizably human persona.
Similarly tough, multilayered engagement with subject matter is the strength of Julie Bridgham’s Sari Soldiers and Lee Storey’s Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story. The first is set in Nepal, where the deadly battle between the Royal Army and Maoists is largely told through the story of one woman’s search for her missing daughter, who was arrested and “disappeared” as a way of punishing the mother for speaking to the press about a niece’s brutal rape and murder. Bridgham’s inspiring, infuriating, and sometimes hard-to-watch film underscores the old but still noteworthy point that the female body is one of the great casualties of war and political strife; the fact that both the Royal Army and the Maoists employ huge numbers of female soldiers to wage their battles adds irony, but not always real equality, to the situation.
Storey knows that the Up With People volunteer organization inspires giggles and derision in equal measure, so he opens with old footage of the troupe singing and dancing at the height of their late-’60s/early-’70s visibility and gets (most of) the chuckles out of the way early. What follows is a film that offers a withering critique of the organization’s religious cult roots, right-wing political subtext, and insipid music, while also being very respectful of the fact that, to a lot of the young folks who signed on, the group offered the chance to affect positive, even progressive, change in the world. Also recommended: Sweet Crude, Tapped, and Garbage Dreams.