“There is no keener revelation of society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”
That Nelson Mandela quote introduces “Rough Aunties” – Kim Longinotto’s documentary about Operation BobbiBear, an organization of female advocates for child victims of rape and abuse in South Africa.
Taken on Mandela’s terms, there’s clearly a critical war going on for South Africa’s soul – tradition, silence and shame against progress, vocalism and candor.
Hopeful, horrifying and held together by the unwaveringly stoic determinism of these women, "Rough Aunties" is a film during which it’s impossible to not be moved. Its sheer emotional impact likely explains its win of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema-Documentary category.
That’s because, for a documentary topic so fraught with possibilities, Longinotto leans a tad too heavily toward sisterly camaraderie and personal tragedy among the mixed-race BobbiBear group. It plays out somewhat like a real-life “The Secret Life of Bees.” Too many insights into the sociological and financial hurdles that the women of Operation BobbiBear might face feel surface-level or are altogether absent.
Operating out of Durban, South Africa, Operation BobbiBear is composed of white Afrikaner and black Zulu women. Jackie and Eureka are the Afrikaners – Jackie the team leader and Eureka the take-charge phone-worker cutting through red tape.
Sbo, Thuli and Sdudla are the Zulu women – each one coping with the strife of black South African womanhood. Sbo is herself a victim of childhood rape. Thuli and Sdudla struggle with the single-mother challenge of raising boys into responsible men amid a culture where rape runs rampant. For each woman, the BobbiBear work can only subdue, not subside, pain.
Together, these women comfort child victims of rape and physical abuse using stuffed bears, coax out details about the crimes and collar suspected perpetrators.
BobbiBear’s battle is not just to curb abuse against children but also to circumvent the ineptitude of social services and bridge generational gaps of complacency.
Obviously, it’s great when they’re winning, but Longinotto wisely, and carefully, doesn’t diminish chilling violations against children when considering BobbiBear’s successes. At times, “Rough Aunties” takes on the raw investigative milieu of “Cops” – to the point where the worst scenario you can imagine is often the case (especially with a case involving a teenage girl who appears mentally handicapped).
Still, there are a lot of questions that “Rough Aunties” – its title derived from the “auntie” nicknames BobbiBear women give themselves – glosses over or ignores.
What’s the history of BobbiBear? Why do they use stuffed bears? How did they gain considerable leverage with, and access to, law-enforcement officers? From whom do they get funding (mentioned as having once been minimal)? Why would women outside of BobbiBear, who once fought against apartheid, now be so wary of protecting their daughters’ and granddaughters’ sexual rights? Credits point to a Web site for more information that could easily have been fit into a 103-minute film.
Also, it’s well documented as a causal factor for South African child rape that many males there believe intercourse with a virgin can cure AIDS. “Rough Aunties” never breaches that topic, nor does it hint at education efforts – successful or otherwise.
Instead, Longinotto hones in on personal tragedies that befall two of the BobbiBear women. One’s occupational resolve in the wake of what happens is admirable, and it’s in concert with the group’s compassionate mantra about the catharsis of crying. However, while “Rough Aunties” is a personally affecting story of perseverance, it’s not as culturally enlightening as it could be.