Filmmaking by women in the Arab-speaking world has been a relatively new phenomenon, given various social forces that have slowed the cause of women’s rights — many of which are fairly forthrightly confronted in the films which have been made by women in this region — such as Wadjda, a 2012 film by a Saudi Arabian woman. Like Lebanon (and unlike Saudi Arabia), Tunisia has been one of the more progressive countries, and a number of the earliest works by women come from here.
Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.
Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular.
Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society.
Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts.
Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold.
This Dutch film, the first by director Marleen Gorris (who would go on to win an Oscar for Antonia’s Line in 1995, as well as making a fine English-language adaptation of Mrs Dalloway a few years after that), is generally hailed as feminist classic of the 1980s. It deals with the murder of a shopkeeper by Christine (Edda Barends) — helped by two bystanders, housewife Annie (Nelly Frijda) and secretary Andrea (Henriëtte Tol) — and their subsequent legal defence, led by the evidence of a court-appointed psychiatrist (Cox Habbema). The film still retains a lot of power in its dissection of sexist attitudes, as it depicts scenes from the lives of each of the three women, as well as the psychiatrist, which illustrate the societal attitudes which have contributed to their actions. The title’s “silence around Christine M.” refers to the silent witnesses to the women’s crime, whose invisibility within this context is a riposte to imbalances in ‘justice’ as applied to the crimes of men against women. And although it retains a number of dated characteristics from the decade — the hair and fashions most obviously — seeing it on the small screen doesn’t diminish the stark simplicity of the set design as well as the elegant camera movements which tie these characters together visually. It remains a fine film, whose central thesis isn’t greatly changed even 35 years on.
Director/Writer Marleen Gorris; Cinematographer Frans Bromet; Starring Cox Habbema, Nelly Frijda, Henriëtte Tol, Edda Barends; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 28 January 2016.
It’s been over 35 years since the start of the peace camp at Greenham Common, which suggests that memories of the event in popular culture have faded somewhat, but at the time it was a pretty big deal. At its height around 1982-83, there were up to 50-70,000 women at the site protesting the presence of nuclear cruise missile weaponry in the UK, and the camp itself was maintained for well over a decade. Feminist activism arguably hasn’t really had quite the same reach since, but it’s worthwhile to reconsider the legacy of the protest and the ways it can inform current activities, hence this event organised by London-based collective Club des Femmes, which included an afternoon the next day involving practical discussion and zine-making (I didn’t attend the latter). Current protest activity may focus more on social justice issues and anti-capitalist struggle, but even now nuclear armament is still widely discussed (most notably the Trident programme), so there’s plenty still relevant in the documentaries presented, quite aside from the interest generated by contemporary documentation of important historical events.
The key work screened was the 1983 documentary Carry Greenham Home, the first film by director Beeban Kidron, who went on to make a Bridget Jones film, no less, and is now a Baroness, though still involved with activist causes. Rather than focusing on the big media-grabbing events, it documents day-to-day reality at the camp — discussions amongst organisers about strategy and finances, frequent breaks through the chain-link fence surrounding the military base, the appearances of heavy-handed law enforcement and the scenes outside courtroom hearings for the protestors. The film is also, surprisingly, almost a musical, given the frequency with which the participants break into song, whether a snatched chorus from a contemporary protest song like Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” (written about the 17th century Diggers, forerunners of every anarchist socialist anti-capitalist dissenter since), to chants like “Which side are you on?” which take on musical quality when thrown into the faces of the police. Indeed the film’s title is taken from a song by Peggy Seeger written upon her visit to the site. Another quality that comes through well is the humour with which many confronted the inevitable political and bureaucratic obstacles, including staging protests like a ‘teddy bears’ picnic’ inside the fence. The film turns bleakly amusing, too, in scenes of the police (their faces uncovered, unlike their counterparts at modern protests), who are seen squirming awkwardly when confronted with the women’s protest or incompetently trying to break a bike lock placed on the base’s gates.
Accompanying this was a screening of a medium-length documentary about Nell Logan, the most elderly of 36 protesters arrested in 1982 for climbing the fence of the military base and dancing on top of the nuclear silos, and who was jailed for a time as a result. The director focuses on Nell for her long history of dissent, which stretches back to a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and shows her daily life in the small English town where she lived. It’s a gentle introduction to a turbulent period of protest, focusing on a single participant in a way that I suppose you could call heart-warming and certainly would have made for canny TV counter-programming at the time.
The screening ended with a discussion chaired by So Mayer, a Club des Femmes member and published author (whose Political Animals I can recommend). Her guest was academic Anna Reading, who led the audience in a singalong, though there were plenty of other testimonies from the audience as to their experiences of the camp and of modern protest actions.
Carry Greenham Home (1983)
Directors Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson; Cinematographer Richardson; Length 69 minutes.
Greenham Granny (1986)
Director Caroline Goldie; Length 46 minutes.
I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films.
Alongside the name and street address which forms the film’s title, anchoring it in a very specific place, Babette Mangolte’s camera provides the utter piercing clarity of this film, the stark images indelible in the celluloid. There’s very little camera movement, just frontal shots of the title character preparing her home in meticulous detail. When she leaves the frame, often the shot lingers on the environment she’s left, suggesting a permanency, an unchanging constant.
The film starts on Jeanne’s back as she works over the kitchen stove. There’s a doorbell, and she slowly and carefully folds away her apron before answering. The caller is a gentleman whom she ushers away into her room, and there is a cut to later, when it is darker, as he leaves the room and pays her by the doorway. This quickly creates a tension within the narrative, which is otherwise focused on a mother and homemaker. This initial rift soon gets wider, threatening the very stability of Jeanne’s life.
The minuscule focus allows the viewer to notice small details accrete, as tasks which are repeated over the three days diverge ever so slightly. That Jeanne eats the dinner she has prepared for her son with only one hand. The fumbles she makes with some of the dishes during her repeated actions on day two (the days are not consecutive, but they do follow closely upon one another). The lack of focus she shows towards some tasks. Within this dicourse, an act as otherwise mundane as peeling a potato becomes central to the viewer’s understanding of her character. The first potato is lazily done, with little energy; the second she attacks fiercely. The build-up of details seems to augur something, and when that happens on the third day, it’s not entirely unexpected.
Dielman is a progression of sorts from Akerman’s previous films. The black-and-white intensity of Je tu il elle (1974), the fixed camera positions of Hôtel Monterey (1972) observing hotel guests from afar, the monomaniacal and self-destructive short film Saute ma ville (her first film, 1968), along with a dextrous sinuous camera tracking the female protagonist that she’d develop further in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna, 1978). All of them are focused and brilliant in their own ways, but Jeanne Dielman seems to synthesise these disparate tactics and use them to elucidate one woman’s liberation.
There’s no doubt in me as to the greatness of this work; the surprise is just how watchable and compulsive it is. No doubt this is due in great part to the lead actress, Delphine Seyrig. But the camera of Mangolte and the unerring narrative sense of Akerman are marvellous co-conspirators.
ARCHIVAL FILM REVIEW: French Film Week
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman | Cinematographer Babette Mangolte | Starring Delphine Seyrig | Length 201 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 | Originally posted on 22 March 2007 (with slight amendments)
My Rating masterpiece