Forbidden Voices


Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

Forbidden Voices
"Miller's documentary rightly allows these women to represent themselves in their own words."

The 'blogosphere' today is so vast - with a myriad of subjects and writing of distinctly variable quality - that it is easy to forget the potential power that the internet and the tools of social media can offer to the voiceless, the repressed, and the underrepresented. Forbidden Voices shines a light onto three female bloggers in different parts of the world - Yoani Sánchez (Cuba), Farnaz Seifi (exiled from Iran), and Zeng Jinyan (China) - whose respective governments have attempted to intimidate and silence them, and to curtail their access to the outside world.

The three women have been restricted in different ways - Sánchez cannot get a visa to travel outside of Cuba and has been beaten by the police, Seifi cannot return home to Iran since fleeing in 2007 after being arrested on several occasions, and Jinyan (whose husband has been jailed for his own activities) is under house arrest with her baby daughter. What they have in common - aside from their bravery - is that from within countries with strong State control of the media, they offer independent information as to what is transpiring (politically and socially) in the face of official narratives and mendacities. The tools of social media - in a recurring theme within the films showing at Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival - have allowed them to amplify their voices above those of officialdom (as Seifi phrases it, "You can be the media yourself"), and to connect with both compatriots and the wider world.

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All three admit to being afraid for their own safety but also hope that they can act as a spark for something larger than just themselves, and to inspire others to raise their heads above the parapet. Although Seifi now writes anonymously for fear of reprisals against her family (she left on her own), she still continues to write, and likewise Sánchez says that knowing that her phone is bugged will not change what she talks about on it. On the one hand, their writings protect them - they have garnered international attention and recognition, so their absence would be noted - but simultaneously act as the root cause of the State harassment.

The lengths to which the various authorities go to try to silence and isolate these women betray deep paranoia and a fear of independent thought. Both Sánchez and Seifi have been on the receiving end of government censorship - in relation to the latter's interest in women's rights and the organisation of a petition against discriminatory legislation, the Iranian government not only blocked the host website but also filtered the word for 'women' in Farsi, so that articles containing the word cannot be accessed within Iran. Despite Cuba having no domestic internet (Sánchez pays to access the internet in the island's plush hotels), the Cuban government still saw fit to block Sánchez's blog within the country - she responded with alternative means of distribution (files saved to disc or USBs, or printed out) passed around by hand. Jinyan is perhaps in the most precarious position - and there is an imbalance within the documentary in terms of screen time because of the difficulties of getting access to her and her own limited access to the outer world.

Miller's documentary rightly allows these women to represent themselves in their own words - they are all highly articulate about the topics that they respectively write about and their own predicaments. A recurring motif is a graphic that writes the women's journalism across the skylines of their homelands in their individual languages - Spanish, Farsi, Chinese - with the women reading the words aloud. This circumvents the problem of visually representing their habitual means of communication (the act of writing rarely being cinematic) but also emphasises that their words are uncontainable - like the sky, the internet is without boundaries, and ideas cannot be contained within borders or behind bars.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2014
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How to start a revolution with a laptop.

Director: Barbara Miller

Writer: Barbara Miller

Year: 2012

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Switzerland


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