Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: The Day I Became a Woman (Marziyeh Meshkini, 2000)

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman
- Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's words come to mind when viewing The Day I Became a Woman. Their philosophies are inherently linked, and while de Beauvoir's words can mean different things to different women, especially in regards to trans women, I think the root of it's radicalism is in how it analyzes socialization in a world driven by patriarchy. Meshkini's film The Day I Became a Woman is also about expectations brought upon women by simply being, and it lies in the intersection of women living in the middle east, which is a narrative that isn't as common in wider feminist film discussion.

The film is broken up into three vignettes, following three different women, and chronicling all three at varying ages. It's within this linear storytelling that you get a sense for how women in the middle east have to navigate the seas of patriarchy through different stages of life, and it begins from the onset of birth, because simply being a girl you're expected to live life in a very specific way. The beauty of this film is that these girls and women have to live within these expectations, but they strive and fight for what they want. What's even greater about this is that Meshkini never loses grasp of the complexities of Iranian Women's lives in her realist lens. It's her narratives of how these women negotiate agency through oppression that truly make the film's feminist intentions important, because the film never forgoes their struggles for an easier happy ending, but it does show how they live through these difficulties.

The first vignette is about a young girl named Hava. She spends most of her days playing with a local boy her same age, eating ice cream, and digging through sand on the seaside, but upon her ninth birthday she must give all of this up. Her mother and grandmother profess that she is a woman and she must put those things aside. She must cover herself and stop interacting with boys, because she's too old for these things now. Hava understands the complicated situation she is about to enter into, but she uses the last hour before her birthday to do what she always does. This segment of the picture is minimalist realism as it's subdued tone, nature and imagery are showing just how regular Hava's life is at this point. The moment she shares a final piece of candy with her best friend while they make goofy faces at each other is especially joyful. Both of them carry a childlike innocence, and for Hava that's about to end simply because she is a girl. The image of Hava being framed around what look like prison bars is the only moment where this vignette goes beyond it's subtleties into something more blatantly political, and it's one of the stronger images in the film. The stories final moments of her ditching her chador so other boys can build a sail for their homemade ship is perhaps an allegory for her rejecting the kind of role she's expected to engage in, but it's all just vague enough that Hava could have simply done this because she's good natured and willing to help out her friends, and by making it vague Meshkini implies that those women who do accept the chador are not inferior.

The next woman (Ahoo) featured in this movie is in much more dire straits as she's being followed by the men in her family on horseback. She has entered into a bicycle race with other women, and her husband forbids it. He follows her (filmed in Meshkini's dazzling tracking shots) and shouts back at her that the devil has control of her. Meshkini frames Ahoo's determined face as she ignores her husband, and actress Shabnam Toloui's stoic, exhausted expressions spell a narrative of draining sexism. This bicycle race is allegorical to her running away from those constrictions of her marriage and family, and it's even more striking that this is specifically a woman's race so while she snakes in and out of competitors the image is framed by these women in chador's barreling forward towards something. Maybe freedom. Maybe just a sense of having completed the race. This story is the most accomplished of the three from a visual standpoint as Meshkini works in long shots, longer takes, aerial work, close ups and tracking shots to get as much as she can both out of this race and the movement of this multitude of cycling women. The segment ends with the men of her family running her down and taking her bicycle from her as shouting can be hard in the distance. The image moves further and further away from them and the question of whether she finished the race is left completely up in the air. 

The final entry focuses on an elderly woman and her desires to finally acquire the material possessions she always wanted in her life. It is in this narrative that the film lets go of it's burdening realism and goes into the fantastical, and for this woman it's a kind of happy ending she always desired. Once she purchases all of her items (a fridge, a dresser, a bed, a television) she settles on a beach and treats the sand as home. The boys who helped carry all of her items there play with everything she purchased including makeup and dresses, and it's all very rogue in the face of middle eastern gender roles. If anything the films mission statement would see those freedoms to be of utmost priority, and the focus of happiness those lessening burdens of gendered law have on these people. The film eventually wraps around back to the first girl. Hava sees this older woman getting what she wants and as she sets off for see Hava, cloaked, stares at her. It's a beautiful moment of realization for one girl who has just become a woman in the eyes of the society she is growing up in, and the freedoms expressed by this older woman, even if they are simply material, are something she can gravitate towards. 

The notion of the feminist film is often bastardized to mean anything featuring women in significant roles, and while I agree that representation matters I think for a film to be feminist it has to have the intentions of unsettling something in culture through art. The Day I Became a Woman is truly feminist in these regards. Meshkini never damns the women in her picture for the sake of saying one way of life is better than another, and her lens simply exists to give these three women's stories a place to be told. The film is expressly political in it's intentions, but more than just being about a woman's place in society it's about life as a woman. Often the film veers off from this trajectory to linger on a moment. Hava shares candy, Ahoo looks into the eyes of another competitor in the bicycle race and shares an understanding, the elderly woman talks about the twist ties on her hands. The film is fiercely political and stridently feminist, but it's also an empathetic, and marvelous look at women. That's the film's greatest achievement.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Female FIlmmaker Project: No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990)

Denis creates a cinema of either utmost beauty or total effecting horror, and often these modes are interchangeable in her visual language. In Beau Travail the male body is a canvas, but the film becomes increasingly suffocating as characters go further and further down a rabbit hole of increasingly difficult regimens in the sculpting of those bodies. In Bastards the sensual style that she created around lingering bodies, and intimacy was turned inward into something horrifying as it dealt specifically with sexual assault. Denis is no doubt a filmmaker of bodies, but her films often explore themes around how those bodies navigate a world that isn't exactly fair to them. In No Fear, No Die she goes back to the well of established ideas in her debut Chocolat in oppression through colonialism. While Chocolat's ideas are presented in an autobiographical narrative (Denis grew up in South Africa), No Fear, No Die places the camera distinctly on the lives of those most intensely effected by a white supremacist world.
Dah (Isaach De Bankole') and Jocelyn (Alex Descas) are trying to make their way in France as cockfighters. It's a quick way to earn a buck, and they are skilled at training their birds in combat. Jocelyn struggles with this task as he shows saturating love for the birds he is sending to their deaths, and as the film goes on he has a harder time adhering to his superior's requests to up the violence of the cockfights by including weaponry not natural to a chicken. They are struggling for cash so they succumb to their bosses demands, and this seems to send Jocelyn into a depression.

What's so remarkable about Denis' work in No Fear, No Die is how effortlessly she seems to navigate through these ideas of being owned while still capturing an eerie beauty of the process of loving & raising one of these rooster's in the art of combat. Jocelyn sincerely cares about the fate of his birds, and while it's silly of him to care this much about these animals & be in this profession he gives them love and care. Denis shoots these scenes similarly with compassion. Jocelyn will hold his birds close to his chest and pet them for significant amounts of time while Denis gives us close up of his hands. These scenes are also often presented in a softer, richer light than the dingy underground of the cock fighting world. It isn't a leap to think the metaphor of the cockfighting can be seen as pitting black men against one another while white men profit from their work. The metaphor for this is backed up by how she shoots the cockfighting. It's almost as if these chickens know they are tangled metaphors. She shoots in extreme close up on their bodies, emphasizing their quick jumping movements as well as the claws they use to destroy each other (no animals were hurt in the making of this movie, but it's still extremely difficult to watch). At the end of the day these chickens are sentenced to death before they even entered this arena, and one can't help but feel Denis feels a similar empathy to those who enter life with the deck stacked against them, much like Jocelyn and Dah.

There's a sense of fatigue in this movie. Denis shoots these grimy underworlds in constricted spaces. Ceilings hang low, hallways are tight, and small rooms are filled to the brim with men smoking, drinking, and cheering on this destruction. Bankole's eyes speak volumes in the films final moments as he watches his friend stumble further into the destruction of this sickening profession. He stands with his back next to a red painted wall, it's intensely foreboding to his friends fate, and the blood on their hands for the creatures they raised to die for a quick buck. It's an incredible moment of acting and direction coinciding for a brilliant visual moment sold by an actor's face.

No Fear, No Die is a mournful picture, coloured by past history & shrouded in death. The world is broken for these men, and Denis captures this in her emotional painting. Chickens spill blood, Humans spill blood. In this film the cost is all the same. Money stands in the way of peacefulness. It always has.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Waitress (Adrienne Shelly, 2007)

Waitress came into my life a few years ago when I became fast friends with Sara Freeman. I discussed very lightly with her some of my favourite movies over an email once and she brought this movie up. I was curious to view it someday, and I finally got around to that recently. I couldn't have fallen more head over heels in love. There are a lot of reasons why I adore this movie, but the signature reason is it's unbridled love for women, their struggles, the place they carve out in the world, and the reliance and support they give one another in times of need while still loving each other enough to disagree. The centrality of women in this picture is more than just refreshing, it's invigoratingly pure in what it can represent for women in cinema. 
The film is framed around the struggles of one normal, American woman in the deep South whose one true passion is making pies. Jenna (Keri Russell) deals with an abusive husband and an unexpected pregnancy, and while her life seems to be in a rut she's always reaching towards breaking free from her bad marriage and constricting day to day existence. She dreams of romance, as we all do, and shortly after becoming pregnant she meets a doctor (Nathan Fillion) who she gives her something resembling compassion and love. On paper this seems like a typical cliche romantic comedy, but director Adrienne Shelly isn't interested in men in this picture, and she doesn't give you the ending of a prince charming running away and saving Jena's life. That would be far too rote for a picture of this magnitude in the place of Women's Cinema. 

Waitress is about one woman above all else, and the choices she makes along the way to save her own life. She's an artist first and foremost, and she has modest dreams of opening her own pie shop. The film beautifully gives Jenna a "happy place" of imagining the creation of pies whenever she is dealing with her oftentimes difficult life. She's friendly with everyone around her by making them unique pies to suit the specific situation, and overall she just seems like a genuinely good person. When Jenna becomes pregnant it actually gives her life the push she needed to break way from her husband who is anything, but loving in the way she is. He is destructive, smothering, and needy above all else. Her friends are with her along the way as they guide her and give her emotional support even with their own life problems. The back and forth they have is rich, and filled with compassion towards one another, and feels accurate to the back and forth in day to day friendships between women. 

Jenna has no connection with the fetus inside of her, but she begins to formulate plans to get away. In the triumphant final moments of the picture she finally takes complete control of her life, and flatly tells her husband she's leaving him. She's taking her daughter and going very far away, and if he ever comes back into her life there would be consequences. Fuck yeah. Importantly though, Jenna also doesn't want anything else to do with the man she had been sleeping with during the pregnancy as both of these men are blurred out in one of the best images in the film with a clear focus on Jenna and her newborn daughter Lulu. She eventually rides out of the hospital with her two best girlfriends beside her, and her newborn daughter. 

The epilogue is what cements the movie as a personal favourite though, as it showed the type of love she had for her piemaking with her daughter. When Jenna discussed her childhood earlier in the film she talked about making pies with her mother, and remarked on it being the happiest times of her life. She wanted to do the same for her daughter, and there's a wonderful callback that shows Lulu and Jenna creating pies in her kitchen in the new restaurant she opened. Which she lovlingly dubbed "Lulu's Pies". Jenna did it, she carved out a place for the life she wanted. It's meager, and modest, but it's hers. She's an artist with a venue, she has all the people in her life she needed, and all the love in her life was filled up by a daughter. It's a feel good ending for sure, but it feels completely earned, because of Jenna's struggles. Good things should happen to good people.

Waitress more than anything else represents the kind of optimism that should be able to be found in Cinema. It's pleasant cinema, but it completely accomplishes it's goals of creating investment around Jenna's journey to self realization by showing just how hard she fought to get where she is at today. It also subverts a few of the romantic comedy trappings that befall the genre by having her choose herself in what feels closer to a Broadcast News kind of ending rather than your run of the mill love triangle narrative. There needs to be more movies like this, and there needs to be more of a place in cinema for women to hone their craft, because the world needs more films like Waitress. Cinema needs films with this much humanity. We need an Adrienne Shelly. 

I'd like to take a moment now to bring up the Adrienne Shelly foundation. Before this movie was released in cinema Shelly was tragically murdered, and cinema lost a vibrant, important young voice. That tragedy will never be erased, but you can honour her memory by donating or supporting the foundation that was created in the aftermath of that senseless crime. The foundation's goal of supporting Women in film is one that I greatly agree with, as this blogs entire goal this year is to bring to light films directed by women. So please check out the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, her movies, and more films directed by women.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

January 2015 in Cinema

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
In 2015 I shifted my cinematic focus to women. I wanted to make this year a conscious goal to watch movies that were either directed by or about women. I kept to this goal all throughout the month, and while I rewatched a lot of films with men at the center and behind the camera my newest viewings were aligned with women in one way or another. Most notably I began the Female Filmmaker Project on this blog, and reviewed Sally Potter's The Gold Diggers, Catherine Breillat's Romance, Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, and Karen Gehres' Begging Naked. All of these films were worthwhile in different ways, and I was especially drawn towards Breillat's deconstructive picture of sex and love. Outside of those films I officially reviewed for this blog I fell in love with Whisper of the Heart and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. In lieu of Blackhat I rewatched my favourite Michael Mann pictures (Collateral and Miami Vice), and my hype for Blackhat was completely warranted as it proved to be a total realization of Michael Mann's aesthetic qualities he had been building towards ever since he started working with digital. Adam Cook summarizes it as a picture whose innovations are equal to or more expansive than Godard's Goodbye to Language 3D, and I'd have to agree with him. The lukewarm at best reception by critics at large is baffling to me. I would close the month with rewatches of Blade Runner & Darkman at the digital cinema festival being held in St. John's. I appreciate Darkman more than I did years ago, as I now understand both comic books and cinema much better than on that initial viewing. My happiest cinematic moment happened in the middle of the month though as I introduced my boyfriend to Broadcast News. I would fall asleep with his arms wrapped around me with about 20 minutes left in the picture, and I have a feeling it's a movie that just became even more special to me.

Best of January
1. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)
2. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
3. Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)
4. Hookers on Davie (Holly Dale, Janis Cole, 1984)
5. Barton Fink (Coens, 1991)
6. Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)
7. The Gold Diggers (Sally Potter, 1983)
8. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014)
9. The Floorwalker (Charlie Chaplin, 1916)
10. Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)

Favourite rewatches

Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)
Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)

Tally: (Before I started this year I wanted to keep all my new to me viewings balanced on a gender spectrum. I do realize it's ridiculous to note gender as a binary, but I currently do not know any non-binary filmmakers. Drop a line in the comments to alert me of some if you know of any. Thank you. I'll be keeping this tally as I watch movies this year. Rewatches do not count towards this number.)

Women: 9
Men: 12

So you can see I'm already failing. However, Women already have the lead 1-0 this month. Let's hope they can pull back to the front in February.