Thursday 5 August 2010

On Demand: "Rough Aunties"

For Rough Aunties, the latest in her studies of the structures in which women around the world live and work, the documentarist Kim Longinotto has turned her gaze on South Africa - site of so much attention this year - and the day-to-day workings of the Operation Bobbi Bear HQ in Durban. This is an apparently all-female organisation dedicated to stamping out child abuse in all its myriad troubling forms; its goals are to aid the police and courts in bringing abusers to justice, and - more immediately - to help the victims of abuse get on with their lives, using (as shown in a startling opening scene) inflatable teddy bears to help children who may not have the vocabulary to describe their ordeals make clear exactly what they've been through. (The child is asked simply to stick a plaster over the relevant parts of the bear's anatomy, making literal and visible the healing processes the counsellors seek to bring about.)

It's clear this operation runs on empathy: team leader Eureka gives her troops (or "Aunties", as they're affectionately known) a motivational speech insisting the day they stop crying at their charges' stories is the day they should seek retirement. Rough Aunties is thus the polar opposite of all those fictional cop and medical dramas where grizzled, stoic old hands instruct rookies, in no uncertain terms, not to let their feelings get the better of them if they want to get on in the job. Longinotto observes - rather critically, as it happens - the marked difference in emotional response between the Aunties and the bluff male representatives of law and order they're obliged to interact with. "Fuck's sake," is all one cop can offer, upon hearing of a vulnerable young girl's rape at her grandfather's hands; the girl in question is standing not two metres away.

For the most part, though, we watch these women struggling to balance their vast reserves of compassion for the abused with the less constructive (if wholly understandable) desire to venge themselves upon the perpetrators. Bobbi Bear's task is evidently complicated by certain region-specific factors: still-shocking levels of poverty and ignorance, the continent's HIV epidemic, a shrugging acceptance of rape, and a generally ungallant attitude towards the fairer sex - although you'd be right to argue rape is fairly ungallant wherever in the world you go. The Aunties have come to accept small victories, and the limitations of what they can achieve: there's unbridled delight at the fact one abuser has been given a (surely lenient?) five-year custodial sentence for pushing a pipe up a child's vagina.

If you're taken aback by the extent of access Longinotto has been granted - to staff meetings, still-bloody crime scenes and deeply personal (not to mention, in the context of these children's development, crucial) counselling sessions - you're swiftly reassured by the methods employed that she's the ideal filmmaker for this particular milieu. A good, patient listener, holding her camera on her subjects' faces and never once letting herself (or us) get distracted, she's also every bit as empowering an optimist as the Aunties themselves prove to be, as the final ten minutes, a celluloid suffused with love, demonstrate beyond all doubt. It's a modestly miraculous documentary, both seeing and showing how, even in the most painful and unthinkable of circumstances, it is still possible to make a difference.

Rough Aunties screens for the final time at the ICA tonight (Thursday), and is available for the next month at the 4OD website.

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