Professor highlights global issues in documentaries

by Rosaura Wardsworth

I’ve walked into Arts and Letters 201 more than 100 times to listen to professors drone on about a subject that has no meaning to me. However, last Friday, AL-201 was transformed into a private concert hall filled with people eager to celebrate International Women’s Day at San Diego State.

The event began with the musical stylings of Chicana and Chicano studies professor Coral MacFarland-Thuet, who also makes beautiful music in her spare time. Her voice left the audience in awe and, although her songs were in Spanish, it seemed music was a language we could all understand. MacFarland-Thuet sang a plethora of songs, including “Las manos de mi madre,” “La bruja” and  “Alfosina y el mar.” Each song was very different, but they all had the same underlying message: Women are powerful and strong.  The final and most uplifting song was “Gracias a la vida,” which means “thanks to life,” Coral brought some audience members to their feet cheering for more.

But I doubt anyone was prepared for the speaker to come. Kum-Kum Bhavnani walked into the room with such authority and composure that it was hard to take your eyes off of her for even a second. Bhavnani made her presentation interactive and allowed the audience to engage in her research of transnational feminism. Through her research, Bhavnani discussed feminism from a social and global perspective which allows women across the world to perceive the struggles of their peers.

Bhavnani grew up in England, where she attended the University of Bristol and obtained her bachelor’s degree in social psychology. She then went on to Nottingham, England where she obtained her master’s degree and finished her doctorate in social and political sciences at Cambridge University. After many years in the U.K., Bhavnani was ready for a change of scenery and moved to Santa Barbara in 1991.

Soon after, Bhavnani began teaching at University of California, Santa Barbara. However, before she could start teaching her own classes, she had to study beneath another professor. Bhavnani was invited to sit in on a class about the progression of developing nations. The experience of learning about global issues in other countries sparked Bhavnani’s interest, and by the time she was allowed to teach her own classes, several of them were based around this very subject.

Bhavnani’s classes at UCSB range from Introduction to Women, Culture and Development to Critical Ethnography. But for our brief lecture at SDSU, Bhavnani focused on transnational feminism. She posed one question: “How do we communicate?” For Bhavnani, the answer was film.  While at UCSB, Bhavnani lectured about global feminism and how it affected the first world; but the examples were outdated and her students pushed her to find current examples they could all relate to and understand. That’s when Bhavnani decided to make “The Shape of Water,” her first documentary.

“The Shape of Water” is a film that “tells the stories of powerful, imaginative and visionary women confronting the destructive development of the Third World with new cultures and a passion for change,” Bhavnani said.

The film takes place in several countries including India, Israel, Senegal, Brazil and northern India. The film touches on issues such as female genital cutting in Senegal, the deforestation of the rain forest in Brazil and opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Not only does this documentary shed light on some of the battles women are facing worldwide, it empowers all women to start their own revolutions.

Bhavnani said she wanted to make a film instead of writing a book because “it allows you to see the look on peoples faces, to determine for yourself if they are being honest. It allows you to see what they see.”

She said that too often “we foolishly see our struggles as discrete and separate” when really, they are all connected.

Bhavnani’s 2012 film, “Nothing Like Chocolate,” covers the issues of the global chocolate industry. In the 2-minute trailer, the film states 40 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from the Ivory Coast, and nearly 100 percent of the chocolate being cultivated there is from enslaved child labor. Bhavnani’s documentary follows one man, Mott Green, who seeks to distribute chocolate ethically through paid labor and hard work. She documents the hardships Green faces trying to sell his company in the U.S. and U.K. while also following some of the unethical practices of cultivating chocolate

Bhavnani hopes to shift the global perspective so that people will see “first world” and “third world” problems simply as global problems after seeing her films. Bhavnani is a powerful woman with a strong heart and a compassionate soul who aims to inspire the people around her to be more empathetic and perceptive. We were fortunate to have her speak at SDSU.

To view either one of her award-nominated documentaries, visit and