review by Nazrin Huseinzade
Your average liberal Westerner has long developed a default reaction to the extreme cases of human rights violations elsewhere – a gasp of horror is followed by labels reading "barbaric" and "simply unacceptable". What sets Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan’s documentary Jaha’s Promise apart is its ability to get across a strong message devoid of any shallow condemnation.
The story follows a young Gambian woman, Jaha Dukureh, to whom the title refers, in her strife against FGM which has affected an estimated 200 million women alive. The opening scene of her little daughter frolicking in their backyard in Atlanta is interrupted with the mother’s raw and unembellished words. She was subjected to the most severe form of FGM (infibulation) as young as one week old. When she was 8, her father promised to marry her off to a much older man in New York. Only at 15, when she was brought to the US to her husband, did Jaha find out what FGM was.
Now a mother of three, she has managed to escape the relationship, remarry and rise to prominence as the campaigner of Equality Now where she successfully petitioned the Obama administration to conduct a new prevalence study to eliminate FGM in the US and pushed the issue further at the international fora no smaller than the UN.
Jaha is now back in her native Gambia to deliver on her promise she made to her daughter – that her generation would never have to face the same atrocities.
The film explains that the end goal of most FGM practices is to curb female sexual desire, to ensure chastity until marriage and loyalty to the husband afterwards; other reasons run the gamut from aesthetic societal preferences, medical ignorance in thinking an uncut woman will not be able to deliver a child, to religious misconceptions with the majority of the population equating it to male circumcision and considering it a part of Islam.
As is the case with tradition in any society, people stop questioning it. It becomes so ingrained that scooping it out may seem next to impossible. This is where individuals like Jaha come in, trying to carefully deconstruct this particular tradition. She does so at the risk of becoming a pariah confronting her own family and the passers-by in the city alike. It helps, of course, that she is someone from within as opposed to foreigners making a film in an African country. That is not to say that the filmmakers don’t deserve separate praise for making the local people open up to the camera without the fear that they will be judged for what they are about to say. These talking head shots coupled with the apt usage of B-roll footage add extra dimension and teleport the viewer to the streets of Banjul and other smaller towns.
In the end, you leave the theatre with the feeling that hers is a big vow and a bold one at that. However, if practices like Chinese footbinding persisted for a millennium and were successfully eradicated in a generation, there are no grounds to assume that with the right approach this promise can’t be kept. Jaha may be 25 but you can spot a case of an old head on young shoulders when she comes out of a meeting with the theological adviser to Gambia’s dictator president, victorious, with the words "in life you have to know your strategy", and she definitely seems to know hers.