“Solar Mamas” is at the Elmwood on Nov. 14, part of Community Cinema which shows free documentaries on the second Wednesday of each month
“Solar Mamas” is at the Elmwood on Nov. 14, part of Community Cinema which shows free documentaries on the second Wednesday of each month

In late 2004, the Elmwood Theatre — owned at the time by San Carlos Cinemas — closed. I passed the theatre on the way to and from work each day, and, despite the somewhat hopeful message on the marquee (“Closed for Remodel”) I was convinced that the last bucket of spilled popcorn had been swept up there.

Victims of America’s love affair with the multiplex, over 500 single-screen movie theatres around the country had been shuttered over the preceding five years. How could Berkeley’s little neighborhood cinema resist the inexorable market forces working against it?

Of course, my gloomy prognostication (which I suspect was shared by many other locals) proved wrong, and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood is still with us. Thanks in part to a loan from the City of Berkeley, the theatre reopened in the summer of 2005, and its new owners have since developed a unique niche for the Elmwood, with repertory bookings of oldies such as Yellow Submarine rubbing shoulders with more recent art-house fare and even the occasional blockbuster.

The theatre’s Community Cinema program is one of its most worthwhile ventures, especially for non-fiction enthusiasts such as myself. Offering free screenings of new documentaries on the second Wednesday of each month (including last month’s As Goes Janesville), Community Cinema has a full slate of worthwhile films scheduled through June 2013.

Produced in collaboration with the PBS television series ‘Independent Lens,’ the next Community Cinema film, Solar Mamas, screens at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 14. Despite being saddled with an awful title that makes it sound like a movie about Grateful Dead groupies, Solar Mamas is actually a fascinating look at empowerment and education in the Third World. Happily, sugar cubes, patchouli oil, and 20-minute guitar solos are not on the menu.

Rafea Ehnad is a 32-year old Bedouin woman sharing a tent in the deserts of Jordan with her ne’er do well hubby Aliyan, their four daughters, and what appears to be a rotating assortment of extended family members. Held back by her fifth grade education (the film advises us that its considered shameful for Jordanian girls to remain in school after age 10), she spends her days smoking, cooking, washing, and drinking tea.

Sensing that there’s more to life than watching Aliyan lounge on a mattress, Rafea wants to improve living conditions for her family and village, and an opportunity arises in the form of Bunker Roy, director of an Indian school known as Barefoot College. Introduced to Rafea by the Jordanian Department of the Environment, Roy describes the school as the only place in the world where an illiterate woman can become an engineer in six months. It’s a chance of a lifetime, and Rafea signs up.

Once in India, Rafea – along with female classmates from Burkina Faso, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, and other countries – learns how to assemble solar power systems. At first, the challenge seems overwhelming – “we might as well be deaf”, says one student – but soon the ladies are assembling electronic components with the best of them. In six months, they’ll return to their homes with a cheap and renewable source of energy and the ability to pass their knowledge on to others.

There’s a dramatic development that occurs mid-way through the picture that I won’t spoil here, but the most interesting aspect of Solar Mamas is what we don’t see: rich First World philanthropists. Though no doubt lurking somewhere in the background, their absence from Solar Mamas is a refreshing change of pace from the standard documentary routine.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...