JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

Women refocusing

by Angelica Fenner

Women Filmmakers Refocusing. Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis, Valerie Raoul, eds. New York: Routledge, 2003. 496 pp.

The new anthology Women Filmmakers Refocusing represents the culmination of a series of projects, including an interdisciplinary film conference and festival held in Vancouver in March 1999, on women’s productions in Canada, Europe, and nations as diverse as Kenya, Argentina, Cuba, and China. Representing research primarily by Canadian scholars, the volume is valuable for its decentering perspective and for establishing new pathways for border crossings and dialogue between film practitioners, theorists, and critics. The synergy which the conference and festival events generated for its participants is palpable in the editors’ introduction and is evinced in the rich mixture of interviews, critical essays, and close readings of individual films. However, one need look no further than the table of contents to recognize the challenges facing those who limn changing paradigms at the interstices of women’s studies, film theory and criticism, and production. The eight topical rubrics exhibit a degree of internal coherence yet also seem to compete or conflict with one another, exemplifying how increasingly differentiated identity politics make it difficult to encompass women as a singular category or to privilege the axis of gender over other vectors of identity.

Essays in the first section, “Refocusing History and Theory,” redefine film historiography from the point of view of women’s film production. E. Ann Kaplan’s essay embodies the challenges that surface when film history gets rewritten by formulating new identity labels rather than by rethinking generic, epochal, and discursive markers, which also play a central role in consolidating film history. She delineates a history ultimately grounded in U.S. cinema, while genuflecting to postcolonial discourse with a section on recent postcolonial women filmmakers in her chronology of changing paradigms. The effect is to imply that film history in the developing world is not temporally coeval with that of industrialized nations when, in fact, women in many corners of the world have been involved in film production since the early twentieth century. Kaplan's tendency to organize women’s cultural production into that of “White” and "minority" filmmakers further inscribes an essentialism already at work in the concomitant phrasing, “women and minorities,” which renders women deethnicized while degendering minorities.

Donia Mounsef focuses on women filmmakers in the French avant-garde from surrealism to the New Wave. She revisits a discussion initiated in the early 1980s by Sandy Flitterman regarding Dulac’s filmic rendering of Artaud’s screenplay for La Coquille et le Clergyman: she deduces that Dulac may have been the victim of internal feuding among surrealists, who ultimately played filmmaker and screenwriter off one another, resulting in the historical marginalization of both. One of the most experimental of silent films, La Coquille deconstructs the representation of power based upon gender hierarchies and does so by subordinating narrative concerns and psychological exploration of character to studies in rhythm, structure, and movement. Five decades later, Marguerite Duras fulfilled a similar role in relation to the Nouvelle Vague, disrupting illusionism through self-reflexivity and deconstruction of realist conventions. By constructing multiple temporalities at the level of sound and image disjunction, Mounsef moreover maintains, films such as India Song surpassed the New Wave preoccupation with constructing new contents via new forms.

Catherine Fowler’s essay assesses cinefeminism in its "middle age," using Yvonne Rainer, Chantal Akerman and Sally Potter as case studies for changing strategies of visual pleasure in representing the female body. In the 1970s feminist filmmaking seemed intent upon dismantling the female body from its over-visibility as erotic object for an imputed male gaze, producing in its stead a female aesthetic operating outside patriarchal definitions of either narrative or visual pleasure. In contrast, in the 1980s, Fowler observes, many women succumbed to mainstream pressure for greater realism and limited themselves to creating "positive" female figures of identification. However, as evinced in Privilege, Nuit et jour, and The Tango Lesson, more recent productions have abandoned prudery towards women’s bodies and moved through a kind of conceptual menopause to "the other side" of visual pleasure. Rather than simply destroying conventions of visual pleasure, the post-reproductive body is no longer circumscribed by either the male gaze or male desire, refusing the signifier of "woman" and functioning "uncinematically." In their "postmenopausal" phase Fowler maintains these filmmakers exhibit greater ease and comfort with representing the female body and do not regard “to-be-looked-at-ness” as threatening to the female self. Menopause may indeed create a degree of disidentificiation with extant social constructions of the sexed body, but I can’t help feeling that Fowler’s line of reasoning itself consents heavily to the prevailing societal assertion that menopause signals the end of femininity and the commencement of asexuality. The likelihood that a woman’s filmmaking grows more self-assured and liberated of inhibitions as her style matures is certainly worthy of investigation. Yet there remains the danger of biologizing filmmakers by bringing meaning to their work on the basis of what stage they may be in their reproductive lifecycle.

In the rubric “Close-up on the Life and Works of Auteures from Europe,” filmmakers Helma Sanders-Brahms, Margarethe von Trotta, and Sally Potter are treated as European auteures for their personal engagement behind and before the camera, while in the ensuing rubric “Women in the Mainstream: Using Popular Genres in Europe,” Lina Wertmuller and Doris Dörrie are discussed in the context of popular genre cinema, possibly also due to their industrial production conditions and because they do not inscribe themselves autobiographically into their work. The distinction, however, remains ambiguous, for Margarethe von Trotta could also be read as popularizing German history and has reached a wide viewership beyond Germany, as evinced in the numerous international prizes awarded Rosenstrasse (2003). Simultaneously, Lina Werthmuller’s uncommon use of the grotesque challenges popular genres and the limits of bourgeois taste, and it invites auteurist readings of her signature style. This distinction between popular and auteurist cinema seems precisely a point of refutation for Angela Martin, in her essay “Refocusing Authorship in Women’s Filmmaking.” She invokes Agnes Varda’s term cinécriture to identify a distinctive filmic writing as a stylistic marker that enables the theorization of female authorship to expand beyond its inherited historical parameters.

Particularly valuable are interviews with Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms, since few interviews with these two German filmmakers are available in English and those available date back to the mid-1990s. Sien Jin Ooi’s close analysis of von Trotta’s The Second Awakening of Christa Klages sheds new light upon the filmmaker’s recurring motifs of the character double and the spaces and circumstances of self-induced confinement. B. Amarillis Lugo de Fabritz’ essay on Agnieszka Holland focuses primarily on Provincial Actors and Europa, Europa to reveal stylistic continuities as well as ruptures between her early films and those produced following her move to the West in 1981. Holland’s interest in how individuals construct identity in the face of cultural constraints enabled her to negotiate between prescriptive codes of representation and narration in both eras. Whereas her earlier films may exemplify some of the allegorical qualities endemic to socialist realism, a later film such as Europa, Europa struggles with inherited conventions of representing the Holocaust as the collective experience of a passive community. The author’s discussion of the relations between the bodies of the main characters in these two films and the political regimes and cultural spaces within which they must operate, anticipates Corinn Columpar’s analytical approach to the dancing body in Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson. Columpar takes as her point of departure Potter’s early background as a professional dancer and explores how Potter placed her own body in the narrative role of a filmmaker who becomes enamoured of the tango and of a particular teacher in Buenos Aires. The author delves into emerging scholarship on the way the body in motion becomes engendered through socially structured movements.

Authors in Part Three further rework the dichotomy between auteurism and popular genre films among women filmmakers working in the European "mainstream." Brigitte Rollet begins her essay by arguing that genre films have historically focused upon male protagonists, whether in the road movie, the polar (French crime story), or the thriller. Even comedy, she maintains, generates entertainment through mocking women. All the more revolutionary, then, is the capacity of certain French women directors (Coline Serreau and Josiane Balasko) to produce successful comedies whose humor is not generated out of misogyny. Rollet argues that while many contemporary French women directors have produced conventional films whose only innovation is to utilize women in lead roles, others have proven it is possible to subvert conventional expectations within the generic framework by offering an open ending or a fusion of different genres. While I am uncomfortable with Rollet’s use of the term "hybridity" to describe the blending of different genre conventions, which implies that genres also exist in uncontaminated or "pure" forms, I laud her invocation of a veritable "auteur genre cinema" to describe the way women have appropriated genres to get to the heart of their own authorial concerns.

The essay on Dorris Dorrie’s Nobody Loves Me is a welcome contribution to sparse existing scholarship. Although Dorrie’s problematic invocation of multicultural discourse is addressed, it invites further auteurist contextualization amidst other films by Dorrie that also broach multicultural topics. Here, as in some other essays, an astute close reading of the film in question could benefit from greater engagement with extant critical scholarship and theory - in this case, on multiculturalism. Meager bibliographies among some contributors belie the prevalent academic understanding of scholarship as participation in a dialogue, acknowledging what has already been said and situating oneself in relation to what can or should still be said. Exemplary for that mandate is Josette Déléas’ discussion of the grotesque in Lina Werthmuller’s Seven Beauties, which uses Bakhtin and the carnivalesque to read the macabre elements of this controversial film as a continuation of the commedia dell’arte; Déléas reads the figure of Concettina as a grotesque figure who interrogates the feminine ideal but also perpetuates existing social structures through her aggressive methods of resistance.

Part Four addresses challenges women face in training, funding, and distribution. Essays on Agnieszka Holland in Poland and Helke Misselwitz in East Germany describe the constraints posed by East-bloc political ideologies, which denied institutional distinctions between men and women while implicitly expecting women to produce certain types of films (women’s pictures, children’s films) and, moreover, institutional ideologies suppressed the possibility for feminist perspectives that would give truth to prevailing gender biases and inequalities in the private sphere. Both directors depict social outcasts – abandoned children, impoverished women, Gypsies, ethnic minorities – to draw attention to human subjects who fall outside of the master narratives of state ideology. Elsewhere, Suzanne Bucha’s interview with Patricia Plattner reveals similarities in Canadian and Swiss conditions of production, as the multilingual regions of both nations create challenges further exacerbated by a relatively small domestic market. Women filmmakers in Switzerland have been underrepresented in the past, necessitating the cinema des copines, whereby women formed collectives to assist each other. The rise in co-productions with other countries has made available funding opportunities beyond Swiss borders and offers new outlets for a growing number of film school graduates.

Particularly fascinating in two ensuing panel discussions on feature and documentary production is the synergy generated among women filmmakers from different continents sharing their experiences. Despite different individual circumstances, Anne Wheeler, Helma Sanders-Brahms and Caroline Eades all faced similar challenges in their respective countries when funding opportunities changed in response to political tides; yet none were willing to give up on their art or their visions for future projects. Canadian documentary filmmakers Nicole Giguère, Brenda Longfellow, Loretta Todd, and Aerlyn Weissman concurred that the topics they pursued were always of deep personal importance rather than simply neutral objects of study, and that studying the intersection of the private and the public was central to their investigations. Also discussed were the venues for getting their work broadcast, comparing the CBC with Channel Four in the UK, children’s film projects on the internet, and the development of an Aboriginal channel.

The second half of Women Filmmakers Refocusing looks beyond North America and Europe to Asian, African, and Latin American cultural contexts. Inclusion in this section of filmmakers who are minorities within Canada or Europe again exemplifies some of the perhaps unavoidable contradictions in the volume’s organization, as Carrie Tarr’s article on Maghrebi filmmakers is situated not in the European production context but rather in the section on “Representations of and by Minority Women.” The rubric “Women through a Postcolonial Lens” addresses women filmmakers from Kenya, Argentina, Malaysia, Cuba, and China. Beatrice Mukora rehearses a central thematic of scholarship on African cinema when she focuses upon women characters caught between tradition and modernity. Her point is well taken that African feminist theory may be more applicable than external western feminism, but given the diverse religious and cultural traditions and customs encompassed by that vast continent, African feminism is presented as a possibly too singular counterpoint to an equally monolithic western feminism. Gaik Cheng Koo discusses two New Wave Malaysian women filmmakers, whose protagonists seek emancipation from patriarchal structures while also resisting homogenizing cultural trends under globalization. Elsewhere, an interview with Chinese filmmaker Yue-Qing Yang offers cultural contextualization for her documentary on the secret language of Nu Shu, spoken and passed down for centuries among women in the Hunan province. Another essay discusses María Luisa Bemberg’s films, which portray how the institutionalized stratification of Argentine society has ossified gender relations among the bourgeoisie. Interesting and ambitious is Susan Lord’s discussion of temporality in the work of Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez, whose One Way or Another (1979) was foundational for not only new Cuban cinema but also for feminist film culture. In revisiting Gómez lesser known documentaries, Lord interrogates the possibilities for immediate and direct understanding of Gómez’ articulation of revolution, nation, and colonialism across the passage of time and cultural difference. The chronotope of documentary spectatorship, Lord argues, is situated between nostalgia and present tense consciousness, embodying the "contact zone" (Pratt 1992) as a place of spatial and temporal co-presence of subjects previously separated. She argues that the mestizaje or mixed-race discourse in Gómez’ films portray Cuban culture as predicated upon fusion and integration, while mestizaje in her films also signifies what separates Latin America from other colonial ventures, namely its radical fragementation, i.e. the presence of difference rather than merely diversity.

Part Six, “National and Cultural Montages: Crossing Boundaries” uses India as geographical and cultural nexus for interviews with filmmakers either of South Asian heritage or making films in India on topics relevant to its people. Deepa Mehta reframes debates about national cinemas by asserting the right to pursue film subjects of personal relevance to her, rather than those evincing either Indian or Canadian national fealty. Both Mehta and Pratibha Parmar frankly discuss the specificity of their experience as women negotiating between cultures and emphasize the importance of not compromising their artistic goals for ephemeral gains and an elusive foothold in the film industry. In material collated from interviews with respectively Raman Mann and Patricia Plattner, who have both made successful documentaries about women’s welfare in India, it is worth considering how they have intervened differently into women’s lives and reached distinct audiences. Plattner’s Made in India is beautiful to look at, effectively performing the labor of mediation, of rendering a foreign cultural and economic context legible for western audiences, whereas Mann’s educational films for women in India constitute direct social intervention on behalf of the population under portrayal. The coupling of such disparate agendas around the signifier “India” establishes valid points of contact while sometimes eliding critical differences.

Elena Feder’s outstanding overview of Latino-Canadian filmmaking is articulate, comprehensive, and assiduous in its nuanced explication of the advantages and shortcomings of panethnic, subnational, national, and hemispheric labels. Tucked into Part Seven, “Representations of and by Minority Women,” her essay cohabits with two indisputably interesting but thematically disparate essays: Carrie Tarr’s discussion of Franco-Maghrebi women filmmakers and Lesley Marx’ elaboration of Afrikaans filmmaker Katinka Heyns. However, the archivist in me worries that these essays will not receive the widespread scholarly attention they deserve, as valuable anthologized scholarship surrenders to the vagaries of electronic catalogue systems, which can cause individual chapters to be overlooked by even the most exhaustive search engines.

Some of the most interesting questions of the day are raised in the final rubric on Canadian filmmaking, which encompasses First Nations women, quebecoise women, and the 22-year history of Studio D, the only government-funded feminist film unit in the world. In contrast to the United States, nearly 80% of indigenous filmmakers in Canada are women; readers will enjoy the profiles on Loretta Todd, Dana Claxton, Arlene Bowman, and Thirza Cuthand. Their work, which has gained support through IMAG (Indigenous Media Arts Group), clearly unsettles inherited popular media stereotypes, affirms and remaps the relationship of human cultures to the earth, and redefines gender roles and explores sexual identity in the context of existing colonization. Diane Burgess’ thoughtfully articulated discussion of Studio D reveals how previous scholarly assessments have failed to fully grasp the complex contradictions which underpin government funded film agencies. This unit was founded out of a "seperationist" mandate, in the belief that segregated production funds would foster women’s creative contributions while also achieving equity within a field where men consistently advance more quickly than women. Yet it remains under contention to what extent the diversity of ideas and styles fostered via Studio D, as well the ten year stint of the Quebecois Regards de Femmes, ultimately served to pigeonhole difference rather than result in integration across the NFB’s overall institutional structure. To conclude, the complex and courageous mandate of this anthology will richly reward those readers prepared to comb carefully for topics relevant to their specific research agendas and willing to succumb to illumination in unexpected places. It represents a worthy investment both for institutional collections and the personal library.


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