We Women Warriors, like many documentaries about outrageous social ills, is a hard movie not to like. It’s meant to be a call to arms, in a sense, and it’s indeed galvanizing. The effect is a bit like having a travesty or tragedy explained to you in detail: You feel compelled to do something about it, even though in almost all cases you can’t. And insofar as social documentaries intend to inspire or incite some kind of action, they adopt a strictly functional dimension that comes to be unavoidable; aesthetic concerns seem somehow beside the point, or at least beneath it. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think this has the dual effect of dampening an audience’s critical faculties for the duration of the film and, maybe worse, of reducing a filmmaker’s desire to produce a film as formally impressive as it is socially or politically informed.
The “no gloss, just truth” approach, in short, produces quite a lot of drivel, though proponents of the form will argue that as long as the facts are presented and the case is made, the rest is irrelevant. Perhaps that’s true, but it doesn’t make for very interesting cinema. Really great social documentaries—from Hearts and Minds to Hoop Dreams and beyond—delve deeper in both content and form, because they understand that the most compelling arguments are the most eloquently articulated. Being well-composed isn’t a crutch; it doesn’t mitigate the truth in some ethically suspect manner. It can in fact make your argument more engaging and, when done well, more convincing. We Women Warriors, a documentary about displaced Colombian natives by first-time filmmaker and journalist Nicole Karsin, never quite transcends its roots as a simplistic social documentary, but it’s nevertheless an exceptionally well-crafted independent feature, which is enough to make it stand out among legions of politically like-minded works.
The story it relates—actually three stories, each of which follows a native woman struggling to survive their country’s brutal internal warfare—is devastating to hear in any detail, and it would have retained its raw power no matter how it was expressed, whether in the margins of a magazine article or in the hands of a filmmaking amateur. But We Women Warriors has the distinct advantage of being a rather surprisingly professional production consider its roots and means, delivering an enormous swath of varied coverage that’s edited together skillfully and seemingly with ease. The result is a documentary that looks and sounds considerably better than nearly every other independent documentary of its kind, forming an argument that’s clear and cogent and virtually free of obvious manipulation or pandering.
Of course, there’s an impulse that emerges whenever one sees a documentary with conspicuously high production values to assume it’s somehow more superficial and/or manipulative than one of its more “authentic” (read: shitty-looking) contemporaries, a knee-jerk critical reaction as unnecessary it is problematic. It’s fairly understandable, as no serious-minded documentarian wants to give their preferred social injustice the Morgan Spurlock treatment, lest they be dismissed as unserious and pandering. Better instead to keep style effaced, so that your audience can focus on your argument rather than how you made it. There are film societies and clubs all over the world which show these sorts of almost deliberately amateur-grade political documentaries on a sometimes weekly basis, and if you scoured the Internet long enough you could surely find a micro-budget doc on the subject of any pet issue you care to name; such films have so little in common aesthetically with something like Bowling for Columbine or even The Fog of War that it hardly seems appropriate to qualify both practices as “documentary.” We Women Warriors, to its credit, falls somewhere in between the two (its production values offer more in the way of the “Hollywood”-style practice, while its political content and low budget suggest it’s still of a piece with the cinema politica indies), and while it’s hardly the only film to be a bit of both, it still stands out among most simply by virtue of straddling that line.