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rafea300It’s wonderful when filmmakers produce documentaries about social actions that better peoples’ lives. Such is the case with filmmakers Jahane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief’s extraordinary Rafea Solar Mama, which chronicles the transformation of a woman who felt she had no future into a self-confident, independent citizen with the means to support herself and her family. The film doesn’t cure all the ills in Rafea’s life, nor does it resolve all the issues that she and other women in her community face, but it strongly suggests that there are proactive ways to make a difference for the better.

Rafea’s Opportunity

Rafea, an illiterate Bedouin woman who lives in a remote and impoverished village in Jordan, is the second wife of a very traditional man who feels that the only place she belongs at home, where she is to serve him. Rafea is completely dependent upon him for support, but he gives her barely enough to cover essentials for herself and her four daughters.

A local government official singles out Rafea to be the town’s representative at the Barefoot College, a nonprofit school in faraway India that teaches uneducated and impoverished grandmothers from third world countries the trade of making solar panels. The school educates grandmothers, in particular, because they will certainly return and remain in their villages with their families, while younger students — men, especially — would most likely use the educational opportunity as a way of getting away from their small towns. The Barefoot College’s excellent program provides the women with a means for self-support, and, eventually, puts electricity into their homes and those of other residents of the remote villages from which they’ve come.

The Transformation of Rafea

Rafea, who is desperate to find a way to support herself, is at first terrified at the prospect of going to India. Government officials have picked her, and her husband has agreed to her going — so, go, she must. But she’s never been to school, never left the confines of her remote town.

Filmmakers Jahane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief follow Rafea as she leaves her home, arrives in India, meets other women from different countries and cultures, settles in and begins to tackle learning the schematics and construction of solar panels. She’s timid at first, but gains confidence when she sees that she’s quite capable of learning and forming friendships with the other women. She blossoms!

Trouble At Home

About halfway through the course, Rafea’s husband decides to order her to come home, and threatens to take away her children if she doesn’t obey him. She leaves the Barefoot College and her studies, and returns to Jordan. The government official who’d picked Rafea for the solar panel course steps in to remind her husband that he had agreed to allow her to go to India to attend the Barefoot College. The discussion between the government official and Rafea’s husband is fascinating. The two men verbally jockey for positions of honor and authority — and it’s all about Rafea’s life, rights and future, although she’s not even really a party to the conversation that’s deciding her fate.

Changing Traditions

Eventually, Rafea’s husband agrees to let her return to India to finish the solar panel course at the Barefoot College.

When Rafea arrives at the school, there’s general rejoicing. The women classmates have bonded through their studies, and they are wonderfully supportive of each other. Rafea catches up with her classmates, and finishes the course with them.

A Life-Changing Experience

Rafea returns to her village in Jordan and sets up her solar panel business. She’s now able to support herself and her children and she’s illuminating her village and teaching others the technology she’s learned. She’s also determined to start a solar panel school for other women in the village — but they have to convince their husbands to allow them to attend, and in some cases the husbands would prefer to attend Rafea’s school themselves. Life in the village still isn’t perfect, but it’s ever so much better than it was before.

The Bottom Line

Happy endings in documentary films are rare, but this story of empowerment is certainly one of them. In fact, it’s pure inspiration. Rafea is a very engaging leading lady, and her personal story provides the perfect foil for penetrating the issues of women’s rights in the Middle East, and leading in to the larger story of how the solar panel school in India, and other such projects, are liberating women social and economic repression and servitude around the world. Jahane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief present the story with great compassion, and no editorial comment. They beautifully capture Rafea’s world in Jordan and her interactions with the women at the Barefoot College. The entertaining and enlightening film balances moments of poignancy and tremendous humour. It is a rare treat, and a must see!

Film Details:

Title: Rafea: Solar Mama
Director: Jahane Noujaim and Moma Eldaief
Festival Premiere Date: September 10, 2012 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Running Time: 75 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Location Countries: Jordan and India
Language: English, and Arabic with English subtitles
Official Website
Official Trailer

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