Three humble Colombian women — each from an indigenous tribe whose origins pre-date Colombia’s Spanish colonization — have elbowed their way into their country’s politics and accomplished what appears, from the very believable narrative spun by director Nicole Karsin in her boldly partisan documentary We Women Warriors, to be a feat few male tribal leaders have ever done: They’ve taken a successful stand against the triumvirate of aggressors battling one another over traditionally tribal land. These aggressors are, firstly, the Colombian military, caught by Karsin’s cameras patrolling the lush countryside in what looks like an aimless formation, lugging automatic weapons, on the hunt for the guerrilla fighters who attack them. Claiming to fight for the indigenous peoples, the guerrillas are themselves aggressor number two, stripping what they need for survival from villages they come across while drawing the military closer to the noncombatants. Various paramilitary groups, hired by privately wealthy Colombians as extra insurance against the guerrillas (a practice so common that the para-militaries are more feared than the actual one) form aggressor number three. Colombia, Karsin has no trouble illustrating, is a three-way war zone, which has become a fact of life for its native villagers.
The country needs leaders who are free from the system and the three women who’ve stood up for the job are Ludis, a mother of four from Atanquez, a region in Colombia’s north east corner; Doris, a tribal governor from Altaquer, on the western coast; and Flor Ilva, an educator from Jambalo, in central Colombia. Ludis has seen her husband, a farmer, murdered by the military, who regularly execute native villagers accused of working with the guerrillas, simply to have bodies to trot in front of the media (the better to look like they’re anti-guerrilla missions are successful). Doris, campaigning for the removal of troops from her own village at a summit in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, happened to be away when troops attacked Altaquer in an apparent attempt to kill her, although several others were killed. Flor Ilva, the most publicly brazen of the three, speaks forcefully before crowds of her own villagers, rallying them to march on the local soldiers and dismantle their barracks.
Flor Ilva is also given the role of narrator, as she’s the least camera-shy of the women. Early on she makes the trenchant point that war is really about business (as opposed to the reason most war-makers give: ideology). She says it matter-of-factly, without a hint of didacticism. Colombia receives a staggering amount of monetary aid from the US, with the ostensible goal of eliminating the traffickers who supply the US with 90% of its cocaine. But none of the farmers being pushed around on their land by a US-backed Colombian military have any trouble identifying the real goal of the aid: supporting big business interests. America’s assistance comes partially in the form of Monsanto chemicals, which are poured over the forests by helicopters (Karsin captures them with quick shots that recall the newsreel footage of napalm falling on Vietnam) to wipe out coca plants. Coca, all three of the protagonists admit, is a crop commonly grown by Colombia’s indigenous population for the simple reason that it fetches a higher price than plantains (or anything else), making it the only means of survival in a country that has forced its indigenous tribes into a modernizing economy without caring whether they have any means to adapt. The Monsanto chemicals are, of course, effective. Many indigenous people are forced to move to cities, which accomplishes the government’s goal of clearing land for building.
For a documentary gaining attention in film festival rounds, We Women Warriors is as plain-looking as can be, which must be the best any film crew working under threat of gunfire could achieve. But the lo-fi look is helped by the fact that the subjects have very little need for the sharpness, flash, and graphics that most docs use for a crutch. Watching the film, which captures the close-to-nature vibrancy of Colombian tribal life — at least in the rare times when the people can simply work and be together — it’s difficult to imagine higher production values doing it anything but a disservice. The catch-as-catch-can aesthetic of handheld cameras and the saturated, streaky colors of commercial video seem right at home in mud huts and jungles, and in the back of crowded pickup trucks on dirt roads. Its technique lends this on-the-ground, as-it-happens document a believable earnestness, and it’s able to sympathize with the people who are in the midst of this ongoing conflict. We Women Warrior’s flaws come whenever Karsin emphasizes the dichotomy of the film’s two worlds — the armed militants (particularly the paramilitary leaders, who are eventually outed as drug lords) on one side, the peaceful farmers on the other — a little too hard.
The film lobbies hard for the expansion of Colombian politics to include women. But its last scenes, which unconvincingly posit fate as the thing brought its three protagonists together to form a collective of indigenous women, settles for a too-obvious rallying cry that isn’t as effective as the rest of the film’s sober documentation. Sitting outside of a mud house in Ludis’s village, Flor Ilva, Doris, and Ludis are fed questions about how women can rise up and take back their land. They respond with what sound like talking points, poorly attempting to seem conversational and off-the-cuff. The final few minutes of the film start to resemble a series of highly rehearsed scenes, which is unnecessary given that, for maximum impact, all Karsin had to do was put her head down and film the raw gravity of the women’s situation.
But the director can be forgiven if she’s made the case for her subjects a little too pat given the strength of their opposition. The only argument you can make against a simple, impassioned documentary like this is that it misses the chance to play devil’s advocate by entertaining the rhetoric of what the other side might say. By, for example, simply approaching anyone from the Colombian military or government for an interview, whether or not one was granted, Karsin would have provided a debate-worthy journalistic counterpoint to her three protagonists. But still, watch the film’s impressive footage of violence and pain, it’s clear that Karsin’s sympathies are with the right people: the oppressed.