Fiona Cochrane, an award-winning filmmaker, is studying the Kerala model of development to understand the link between female literacy, health and population

It was a question of answers to various social issues that turned Australian medical practitioner Fiona Cochrane into a self-taught filmmaker. Her films, she says, are made to make people reflect on those social issues. The doctor and filmmaker is confident that women have the answers and, in many cases, are the answer to the questions that have been on her mind for years.

She was in the city with Zbigniew (Peter) Friedrich, her cameraman, partner and sound editor to find out if (and how) women really are the answer to tackle issues such as empowerment, literacy, health, population and so on. She believes women’s literacy has a direct link to empowerment, health and reproduction and can make a real difference to the way we live and think. Her documentaries on various gender issues and subaltern themes have won her awards and accolades across the globe. Fiona worked with several directors and television producers to hone her skills as a director before she became an independent filmmaker.

Fiona has made films on teenage single mothers, child sexual abuse, music, various medical issues, indigenous themes pertaining to Australia and so on. Her film Holidays On The River Yarra was selected for the Un Certain Regard Section of Cannes (1991).

“In the course of research for my films on gender and related subjects I happened to meet sociologist and author Dr. Robin Jeffrey, an authority on Kerala. He advised me to visit the state to learn more about how literacy, especially among women, had changed the sociological and demographic profile of the State,” says Fiona, taking a break from her talk with a domestic help in the city.

Fiona’s says Kerala’s literate women have made it possible to bring down birth rates in the densely populated State. She believes it would be of interest for countries reeling under overpopulation to understand how female literacy is important in promoting contraception and reproductive health. “Examining the Kerala model of development and how aspects of it might be used in other developing countries could contribute to the discussion on global population growth and how it might be slowed down in developing countries,” she explains. She also met Noble Prize winning economist Dr. Amartya Sen for his insights on the same issues.

Having visited Delhi and Kerala, she says there is a definite difference in the way the women behave in these places. “Women that I met in Kerala were much more sure about themselves and they were visible in public spaces. In many cases, they were more articulate too,” she says.

Kerala’s development model and its enviable success in the fields of health and literacy have been achieved with a per capita income that is lower than some of the states in India. “It would also help us to understand how to improve the lives of Aborigines in Australia as the literacy rates are quite low in certain regions. Moreover, many countries also have to decide how a population can be sustainable without stretching the natural resources and economic growth in that country. I feel that studying the example of Kerala’s women could be of substantial help in improving our understanding of all that,” says Fiona. “What is it about Kerala that makes it look like an entirely different country rather than a state of India? The answer is simple – the education of its women,” she states.

Quest for answers

Cinematographer Zbigniew (Peter) Friedrich has edited and shot countless documentaries and dramas such as Music of the Brain, Nurses and so on.

A trained filmmaker, Peter met Fiona during the making of a documentary and then they began working together. Although they have visited Kerala on a holiday, it is the second time they were visiting Kerala for their work on Women Are the Answer.

The soft-spoken, camera shy Peter says they were warned by an Australian documentary filmmaker who had worked in Tamil Nadu that Indian women were touchy about being photographed.

“The first time we came to Kerala, we were very careful not to photograph any women although we were completely charmed by the positive attitude of the women. One day, I saw schoolgirls dressed in clean white blouse and green skirts emerge from small shack-like houses near our hotel. I could not resist clicking a photo. To my surprise, they were quite comfortable before the camera. They smiled and were friendly. That completely changed our picture of the State,” he says.