Women & Cinema Day, Film@CultureLab, #IWD2017

At the end of February, I resigned from my lecturing post at University of Salford where my job and life had been made impossible largely by two senior women colleagues. In early March, I moved back to Newcastle upon Tyne, a city which has become home since I moved there from Belfast in August 2014. In a later post, I will reflect on my academic experiences and how my fraught relationship with the academy – but not research – has come to an end. For now, I am focusing on recovery and looking onwards. Spending International Women’s Day (8th March) in a positive, safe and supportive space celebrating women and cinema was an ideal beginning to the healing process.

The day was facilitated and hosted by Newcastle University’s Research Centre for Film (full schedule on its website here). It involved an impressive breadth and diversity of film work and practitioners, sparking discussions on the women working on the periphery of industrial production, and inventive approaches to presenting collapses between objective, subjective and created realities in documentary film. In addition to such areas, my own research concerns marginalized social issues emerging in lesser-privileged art forms, often made by practitioners of cultural production who may themselves lack visibility. It was as if the day was designed to remind me about these issues that matter to me. 

The morning session showcased the respective first films of Newcastle lecturers Tina Gharavi (Closer, UK, 2000) and Geetha J (Woman with a Video Camera, India, 2005), both exploring themes of identity, social im/mobility, perception, women’s subjective experience, mediation and culture which were discussed with Rebecca Shatwell, director of the North East’s AV Festival. Special guest Kim Longinotto then established the main issues in her documentary work by screening indicative sequences from Shinjuku Boys (Japan/UK, 1995) and Hidden Faces (Egypt/France/UK, 1991). In conversation with Sheffield Doc/Fest deputy director, Melanie Iredale, and Deborah Chambers, professor of media & cultural studies at Newcastle, many more complexities of gender and/in cinema came to light, as outlined below.

After a lovely free lunch – including my own three-bean salad for requesting vegan options – Longinotto’s most recent feature, Dreamcatcher (USA, 2015 - trailer below) was screened, and a more captivated audience I have not been part of for some time. Dreamcatcher spends time with Brenda Myers-Powell, co-founder and executive director of the Dreamcatcher Foundation based in Chicago, USA, which battles human trafficking and helps and empowers survivors of and youths at risk of sexual exploitation. Brenda’s own harrowing experiences and inspiring story of survival are revealed throughout the film. This was discussed further with contributions from activist Hannabiell Sanders and professor of gender & media, Karen Ross, before the day was rounded off with a jovial wine reception.

Documentary practice

All three practitioners gave insight into their approaches to practice. Longinotto stressed the significance of revealing through the medium rather than telling, and of conversing rather than interviewing. Instead of over-planning, over-researching and leading from a story she wants to tell, she takes a spontaneous approach that excavates the real.

An early sequence in Dreamcatcher shows the girls enrolled in Brenda Myers-Powell’s prevention classes sharing their experiences of rape and sexual abuse suffered from as young as four years old. According to Longinotto, their unexpected revelations were shocking to Brenda in that moment. Longinotto explained during the post-screening Q&A that for weeks Brenda had been advising these underprivileged black teenagers on ways of avoiding becoming trapped by the kind of survival mechanisms she succumbed to for 25 years. It was only with that initial presence of the camera that they took ownership of the space to vocalize their experiences; the camera indicated to them that someone wanted to listen, it made them visible.

Longinotto distinguished her mode of working from what would conventionally be labelled as observational or fly-on-the-wall recording. In being engaged in the scene as it happens and adapting to shifts, real feelings and truths are revealed. When asked about building trust with participants, Longinotto said that she has never encountered a problem because she offers a platform to people who are marginalized and silenced by a society that exerts control over them, often through shame and/or gendered forms of othering. The participants speak because they are given the opportunity to find their voice and an audience. They become equal collaborators who co-own the projects. There is no extensive pre-planning and events are followed as they happen.

Longinotto demonstrated such emerging collaborations in the clips of her earlier work she screened. Hidden Faces had initially set out to document the life and work of feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi from the point of view of Safaa Fathay, an Egyptian friend of Longinotto’s living in Paris. Safaa’s return to Egypt raises many issues around the repressed lives of women. The clip showed Safaa’s mother describing to camera – because she’s being listened to – the abuses she suffered from her husband whom she met moments before marrying. This was followed by an observational sequence showing her passively allowing her son to become the bullish new master of the home and family after her husband’s death. In simply watching as he ridicules his young son for being upset at the dinner table and his derogatory treatment of the women and girls in the home, the film provides an account of patriarchal control exerted over women, and the gender distinctions imposed in early childhood.

As well as also collaborating with their participants, further parallels became evident in Gharavi’s and J’s approaches to practice in their early work. Gharavi’s Closer filmed a process of not knowing, searching and acts of discovery. Her work is centred around people and place – which could be said of all three practitioners. Closer features Annelise, a 17-year-old lesbian in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. The film is a dual examination of identity; that of a young woman entering adulthood, and that of documentary film practice, itself part of a young, fluid medium. In a similar way to how we replay memories over in our minds, often with alterations along the way, some of Annelise’s recollections are re-enacted and repeated. Her main act of recall, retelling and re-enacting is her experience of coming out to her mother at the age of 13. She describes it, they both reperform it, it was re-filmed with different proximities and exposures, and slightly different versions of it are repeated in the film. In addition to this splintering of identity and memory in a young woman growing sure in her sexual identity, as Gharavi pointed out, Closer (trailer below) also captures the confidence of late adolescence that is often lost in adulthood, particularly in women.

In contrast to Longinotto’s and Gharavi’s unplanned approaches, J is clear about what she wants to make at the beginning of the process. She explicitly juxtaposes fiction and non-fiction in Woman with a Video Camera, inspired by the montage techniques and inventive cinematography in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (USSR, 1929) and subjective experience in Maya Deren’s ‘psychodramas’ Meshes of the Afternoon (USA, 1943) and At Land (USA, 1944). The drums of Kerala on the soundtrack woven into the tapestry of visual markers of India under international influence (with colonial remnants) sets a backdrop for the film’s dance-like exploration of women’s experiences in contemporary India. The film also reclaims representations of women, and those featured tend to meet the camera’s gaze. It urges us to rethink how and what we see and do not see, that is, to consider psychic inner realities. J asks, is this a kind of subjective realism shown/discerned from a feminist perspective? This probing is part of the film’s process rather than being its object or subject.

Women’s labour

J explained that even in Kerala, a progressive South Indian state, women as recently as the early 2000s were not allowed near cameras. Accessing digital video technology made personal projects possible, but came with financial and technological limitations. J collaborated with the main ‘actresses’ in the film, many of whom play versions of themselves, or represent experiences (for example, being a lone woman on a train). Notably, Woman with a Video Camera heavily features women’s (often unpaid, domestic) labour. Shots of J filming alongside images women cooking, weaving, filming and learning to perform laparoscopic surgery with a pumpkin show the increasing technologization of women’s work and the continued fight to access skilled work. Women shown digitally editing footage echoes the shots of Elizaveta Svilova editing her husband’s work by hand in Man with a Movie Camera (below), while also contributing to the film’s overall response to dominant white/western experiments and culture. On this, the recreation of the Spice Girls video for their debut single ‘Wannabe’ (1996) is a particularly pleasing moment. 

As a film-maker who makes documentaries about women from everywhere living all kinds of lives, her work sits in tension with trends in depictions of women in film more generally which she identifies as often being framed around what men think women ought to be and presenting false images of women. She spoke strongly of gender being much more fluid than that. For example, the Shinjuku boys in Japan who are women living and working as male escorts for heterosexual women at once queer notions of gender performance and labour and disrupt boundaries between socializing and earning a living. They even queer trans and drag identities by falling somewhere between them. 

On women’s work in film, Iredale explained that Sheffield Doc/Fest was striving towards gender parity, and that funding bodies were going in a positive direction, as equality across production will filter into distribution and exhibition. This, admittedly, is not moving fast enough in the sector, and inequality remains the status quo. (For more detail on this in the UK, it is worth following the ‘Calling the Shots’ research project underway at University of Southampton.) In India, there is no access to funding for J. To complete her work, she calls in favours from friends and has no distribution. She explained that documentaries seldom attain distribution in India anyway and must rely on the festival circuit. J continued that men are paid for their film production labour, but women must do it for free as it is considered a privilege or hobby for them in a not dissimilar way to homemaking. There is a long way to go everywhere.

Health and gender

Had I felt able to project my voice (and not too fatigued and faint to try) I would have asked Longinotto during the Dreamcatcher Q&A if there were any talks with boys and young men about not engaging in cultures of rape, sexual violence and pimping/prostitution. The film shows early on boys trying to access the girls’ classes with Brenda, but it is unclear why, with perhaps a vague implication that is it in fact the girls they feel a right to access. The school’s colour/white segregation was mentioned in the discussion, and I was sorry not to have felt physically able to call out and probe these instances of gender segregation in addition to the racial.

Importantly, respondent Hannabiell Sanders asked the audience if the mental health issues arising in the film resonated with anyone. I wanted to call out, ‘yes, me!’, but my own problems in this area left me too faint. The pain in the mind expressed by the women in the film spoke to me. The damage for me was coming from a different source this time, and years ago, when it was a similar source, it was in no way comparable to the extent experienced in this area and community in Chicago. We need to see the human, to recognize and feel compassionate empathy for the pain of others without judgement and without hierarchy. I came away from Dreamcatcher believing more strongly that recognizing the human will be the saviour of humanity.

This was a day of inspirational films and insightful, inspiring conversations that I am grateful to have witnessed. More of this sort of thing.


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