We’d like to think that something as dehumanising and morally reprehensible as slavery is dead, but unfortunately it’s not. The practice is still widespread in many parts of the planet. Worse still, many girls are being forced into slavery from a very young age, in a practice that is borderline institutionalised and often includes sex work. In Nepal, these people are known as kamalari.
Urmila was sold off as a kamalari by her parents at the age of just six, and she worked as a slave for 12 years. She is now aged 25 and a freedom activist, and she’s attempting to become a lawyer. Her purpose is to prevent young girls from encountering the same tragic fate as herself. She has the enthusiastic support of international human rights organisations and of German documentarist Susan Gluth.
Urmila: My Memory is My Power is a vital register of a highly contemptible and humiliating practice. Urmila questions her parents why they did this to her. The rice farmers explain that they were perpetually in debt with their bosses, who systematically cheated on them. This a remarkably common pattern for people working in conditions analogue to slavery. It seems that both parents and the girl were being exploited. So, who’s to blame?
There are other powerful moments in the movie, such as when activists force an old lady and a child off a bus suspecting that she’s about to sell the child into slavery. Or when Urmila visits the river that she crossed at the age of six: “I crossed this river as a kamalari and I returned a free person”. The river here is a watershed, in both the denotative and connotative sense..
Susan Gluth’s view of Urmila’s struggle is gentle and feminine, and never exploitative. The photography of the foggy and gloomy cities of Nepal is strangely soothing. However, the film is not without faults. The foreign investigative gaze often fails to get under Urmila’s skin, and the movie never feels like it’s a first person account (like the title suggests). It lacks verve and spontaneity, and sometimes feels a little rehearsed.
Still, Urmila’s courage and determination are remarkable. And perhaps more importantly, she has helped to free many kamalari. More than 13,000 girls had been freed by the end of 2015 when the movie was completed. They believe that there are only a further 150 kamalari, those being kept by very influential and rich people. There’s still some work to do, but a lot has already been achieved. It’s nice to see such a deplorable practice dying out.
Urmila’s struggle has remarkable similarities with Chinese human rights activist Ye Hayan, who also fights for women’s rights – she was the subject of the movie Hooligan Sparrow (Nanfu Wang, 2016). Or if you are interested in a fictionalised account of child trafficking in neighbouring India, we recommend that you watch Sold (Jeffrey D. Brown, 2016) – just click on the film titles in order to accede to the reviews.
Earlier this year, Urmila: My Memory is My Power has shown in film festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Berlin Film Festival and Hot Docs in Canada. You can find out more information about future screenings and distribution rights by clicking here.
Below is the film trailer: