Film Review: We Women Warriors

This debut documentary set in Colombia follows three indigenous women, all activists in their respective communities.

The “warriors” in We Women Warriors are three indigenous Colombian women, community leaders and grassroots organizers who challenge the authority of paramilitaries and government troops occupying their ancestral lands. They do so quietly and peacefully and, afterward, like Flore Ilva, the first female to head the Nasa tribe, credit their constituents with social and political changes forged under their stewardship. First-time documentary filmmaker Nicole Karsin lived in Colombia for six years before embarking on her film project. While her knowledge of the country and its people is clearly reflected in We Women Warriors, the film’s lack of historical detail often makes the contemporary conflicts she depicts difficult to grasp.

Karsin’s classic documentary approach is complemented by the unusual perspectives provided by Flor, Ludis and Doris, who are members of three different native groups. At one point, for instance, Ludis, a widow with children, recalls her meeting with her husband’s murderer, an army soldier; it is the Colombian government’s version of a trial where the accused and the victim’s survivors are reconciled. Ludis says she will not discuss the soldier’s responses with her son because she does not want him to die avenging her husband’s murder. As the scene unfolds, we understand how these women—and, by extension, other women like them—can radically reshape their communities.

We never learn why Ludis’ husband was mistaken for a guerrilla, which is the reason the soldier says he killed him—nor what a guerrilla means in this context since we have no details about Ludis’ village during the Colombian drug wars. Karsin points out that Colombian coca plants account for most of the cocaine smuggled into the United States, but not why native lands have long been flashpoints for producers and drug traders, and the armed men who protect them. Later, we discover that indigenous farmers grow coca, yet Karsin fails to make clear whether or not this contributes to the violent conditions indigenous people cope with now. In one compelling sequence, we see Flor leading hundreds of people, carrying only wooden sticks, to an army installation that they eventually dismantle. Why the army set up camp in the town, the nature of the crossfire that caused the death of an 11-year-old boy there and that sparked this dramatic resistance movement, is sketchy at best, as are the reasons for the soldiers’ seeming capitulation.

The same is true when Karsin addresses the thorny issue of coca farming from the perspective of the United States. As part of its global “war on drugs,” our government sends nearly a billion dollars a year in military aid to Colombia. In the documentary, farmers say that they need the money they receive from the sale of coca to supplement their meager earnings from other crops. One farmer points out that government-sponsored fumigation of coca plants also destroys maize, and poisons the water supply. The chemicals used are from American multinational Monsanto. The lack of farm-to-market roads, another campesino says, blaming his own government, makes ordinary commerce impossible. No historical context is provided for the United States’ misguided intervention into Colombia’s domestic policies, nor do Karsin’s intertitles explain the lack of political will in Colombia for building infrastructure.

Karsin’s three subjects are directly or indirectly involved in protecting coca farmers. Doris grows the stuff and advocates in the documentary for government protection, and Flor hints at the fact that if she spoke against coca farming, she would not have been elected tribal leader. Giving short shrift to these apparent contradictions, and laying blame on the U.S. rather than explaining all the exigencies of indigenous survival, Karsin works against her admirable effort to portray a more complex picture of Colombia’s drug wars—and of her subjects’ activism. The apparent struggle of these women within their communities, which we get only glimpses of, would have provided a complete picture of their heroism.

We Women Warriors is at its most effective when it simply trails the women as they perform mundane tasks, or in moments when they hug their children, or at any point when it is clear Karsin has caught them in an unguarded moment. It is then that we see the determination etched on the women’s faces, the spirit that obviously drew Karsin to them. Of course, the filmmaker is striving for much more than that—she wants her audience to see iconoclasts. Actually, the women’s sense of hope, given the circumstances of their existence, is nothing short of remarkable. If it is impossible to perceive the sweep of recent Colombian history through their lives, what Karsin does achieve is a strikingly original depiction of the role of women in a complicated struggle for human rights.