THE WORLD BEFORE HER directed by Nisha Pahuja. A KinoSmith release. 90 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (November 9). For venues and times, see Movies.
In one of The World Before Her's more spectacular sequences, Miss India pageant judges cover the contestants' faces while they assess their legs.
Shooting the scene, documentary director Nisha Pahuja felt deeply troubled.
"The India-born, Toronto-bred filmmaker in me says, ‘Oh my god, this is great footage,'" she allows while doing the interview rounds at Hot Docs last spring. "But then the woman in me is so deeply sad and conflicted and confused, not just because I know it's degrading, but because I felt badly for the pageant director, whom I liked. I knew that it would look poorly on him.
"He just didn't get it. He had a job to do, to judge the best pair of legs, and he didn't want to get distracted by the beauty of the women's faces. It was a dark sequence for all of us, including the crew."
That's just one tough moment in the life of a documentary filmmaker. But if, like Pahuja, you want to film backstage at a major beauty pageant or get inside a fundamentalist boot camp for women, the biggest challenge is gaining access.
"I got to know the fundamentalist women as human beings, and they began to trust me," she explains. "I started making inroads into the upper echelons of the movement and connecting with right-wing newspaper editors.
"As for the pageant, the Times Group runs it. They wanted information about me and had to see my other work. It took two years to get access."
Covering the competition shattered her stereotypical views of beauty contestants. These women are very sharp-minded. When asked if she has a problem with the pageant's westernizing influence, one shoots back, "Do you wonder if Americans are getting Indianized when they do yoga?"
"I had no idea that these women were going to be so smart," says Pahuja. "The biggest discovery was that the girls in the pageant were conservative and traditional themselves and were themselves conflicted about its values."