by Gretchen Elsner-Sommer
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, p. 51
THE POWER OF MEN IS THE PATIENCE OF WOMEN, directed by German feminist filmmaker Christina Perincioli, relates the story of a street market vendor, Addi, who for years has been mentally and physically abused by her husband. Addi has tried to take her child and leave, but she has felt powerless in a culture which considers violence in marriage a private affair. After one particularly brutal beating, she seeks refuge with friends. As she experiences the exhilaration of independence, she also faces social brutality. Addi seeks help from lawyers, health organizations and social agencies, but they all fail her. Without a job and without an apartment, Addi has to return to her husband.
One day Addi hears a television program about a women's shelter. She immediately takes her son and goes there to live. In the women's shelter she gets support and encouragement. In a collective way, the women there guide each other through the insensitive institutions they must pass to gain legal marital separation. Later Addi, two other women from the shelter, and their children move into their own apartment and live collectively.
The film conveys a message of strength and possibilities. Although it shows battered wives' despair, paralyzing terror, and isolation, finally the film shows an alternative. In the women's shelter, women join together — sharing fears, pooling resources, gaining strength and security, and finding collective solutions to their domestic situations.
The film's first shot sets up a hopeful tone. The camera glides slowly among three women vendors in an open market place. The women are talking and laughing together as they pass garments between them. Although the audience doesn't know the reason for their laughter, it is plain to see that friendship exists between the women. They have made themselves a niche in this public place. The visual style strengthens our sense of their personal bond. The sequence is shot in two long, uninterrupted shots, which give an impression of the three women's togetherness as well as a sense of movement and vitality.
Following this, we see a woman's hand, writing in longhand the film title and credits. We hear a woman's voice explaining the films origin. This voice returns frequently in the film to give the audience information. It reminds the audience that it is the women themselves telling their story. The handwritten credits visually express the closeness between battered women's actual experience and the very making of the film. For example, films usually only show a woman's hand writing diaries or grocery lists or other personal documents. Titles usually get presented in technically brilliant manipulations of cameras and lighting (such as in the awesome title sequence in STAR WARS). To mix these two filmic styles, to let a woman's hand announce a complete film, conveys a whole new sense of power and possibility invested in those hands. Furthermore, this feminist visual tactic also gives a greater recognition to women's hands writing diaries and grocery lists.
The hopeful tone disappears quickly in the brutal shots which follow, and that initial hope gets re-echoed midway only briefly in another long shot. Then the only long tracking shot in the film follows Addi on a long bicycle ride after she has just left her husband. The free camera reflects Addi's spirit as she attempts to make her first real break from her husband. Almost immediately after that long flowing shot, the hopeful tone is ruptured, as Addi, unable to find work, must return to her husband.
Finally, Addi makes a definitive break from her husband and goes to live at the women's shelter. Here the camera is again light as it delineates the women's living quarters. This space is small and confining, but the women share it easily, giving support to each other while reorganizing their lives. In depicting a typical day at the shelter, the camera moves among several women, letting us see how they interact. One woman shows pictures of her home and describes how she decorated it. Another woman cuts and sets a friend's hair, assuring the friend that she will feel much better with a new hairdo. Another woman talks to Addi about how to get food and aid from government agencies. As all these conversations take place in the same room, some women join in more than one conversation at a time, and some sit quiet, listening. The women share a unity as they share the same space. The same fears and courage brought them all here to live.
The last two scenes push into the future the sense of possibility and strength that the initial scenes visualized. We now see Addi and the two women she lives with in their own apartment drinking coffee. One of the women is being threatened by her ex-husband. Together, they decide the best way to protect themselves and their children from his taunts. The camera glides gently among them, as it did in the market place, recording in long takes their conversation and their closeness. The next sequence is of a woman's hand writing the final credits for the film. The women's conversation continues over the titles as they talk about what they plan to do after the making of this film. They all have plans and are no longer talking about their pasts, as they did for the making of this film. For the sharing of their fears and the naming of their power has exorcised the fear. They are free now, as the hand signifies, to write their own futures.
The women we see at the end of the film are the same women we saw at the market place. We recognize them now in depth, as we could not before. We also understand the reasons for their laughter. These women have shed a burden of violence, guilt and solitude. By leaving their “traditional" marriage, homes and husbands, they have collectively found new strength in themselves that has enabled them to create new lives and to survive.
The scenes of hope and potential described above are interrupted throughout the film by scenes which depict the burden and constriction of Addi's life with her husband. In these scenes, the camera does not move at all. It lays a heavy gaze on the space it films. The camera's heaviness and immutability echo Addi's spirit. There seem no possibilities, nowhere to move to, no way for her to escape the guilt and violence that have become part of her life. The immutable camera describes Addi's seemingly immutable life.
This confined and weighty tone can be seen in the long shot of Addi and her friend Ulli in Addi's kitchen. Ulli knows that Addi has a miserable life with Max. Yet an unspoken socially imposed law between these friends demands that they not discuss the problem. Ulli comes to visit and brings Addi flowers. As they stand together in the kitchen, the camera is fixed in a distant framing which allows them both to be seen at the same time. Ulli arranges flowers; Addi clears away the dinner dishes. After they finish, they stand facing each other. For the entire sequence, the friends do not speak. A woman's voice over describes the agreement between these two women to avoid talking about the violence in Addi's life. The unmoving
When Addi first leaves her husband, she goes to her friend Ulli's house. We see a static long shot of Ulli and her husband in bed discussing how uncomfortable it is for everyone to have to have Addi living with them. Immediately following this shot, we see Addi, pensive and uncomfortable, sitting on a low chair smoking a cigarette. The camera does not move, but focuses down on Addi in a very confined space. As ashes from her cigarette fall to the floor, Addi bends immediately to pick them up, not wanting to heighten the inconvenience she is causing her friends by being sloppy. The static camera in both of these shots contrasts dramatically with the tracking shot following Addi on her bicycle, which introduced her stay with these friends.
Again, in the hospital after her husband has beaten Addi, the camera focuses in a long take down on the hospital corridor, busy with the lights and noise of an emergency room. Nurses and doctors hustle in every direction, but none comes to Addi's aid. Addi is lying on a stretcher off to the side of the frame. Her husband sits next to her with his head bowed repentantly. The camera, like everyone else in the room, stays distanced from Addi's distress. Just like society in general, the camera does not move in close to help her or examine her wounds. Rather, Addi remains alone, with her repentant but brutal husband, pushed off to the side. Her wounds are made known to the audience only through the cold words of a doctor's report in a voice over.
Christina Perincioli was very much involved with the three women who told their story in this film and also with the thousands of women whose story this film represents. In 1974, Perincioli visited women's shelters in England, where she became very interested in the subject of battered wives. As she began thinking and talking to other women about it, she was amazed to assess the degree of violence in women's lives. When she returned to Germany, she began working with other women to publicize the subject. Her interviews became part of a book entitled Marriage and Violence, published in 1975. Because of these women's collective actions, the first women's shelter was opened in Berlin in 1976.
As a filmmaker, Perincioli hardly stands at a distance from her work. Rather, she is intimately involved with it. She still continues to involve the women who made THE POWER OF MEN IS THE PATIENCE OF WOMEN in the ongoing process of the film's presentation. The film is always shown with a discussion afterwards. If Perincioli herself cannot attend, she often suggests that one of the women in the film accompany the film. They can always use the lecture fee, and in a sense they know as much about the film as Perincioli does.
In this film, Perincioli has used a narrative form to get her message across. She spices this form with the realism of interviews and the popular melodramatic theme of a woman’s struggling to keep herself and her family together. With such a mixture of traditional, popular storytelling techniques, she can hold an audience's attention and lead them to accept Addi's radical solution to her problem. By the end of the film, Perincioli has described a unique physical and emotional space that women can occupy-both the battered women who are the subject of the film and women's filmmaking itself. It is a space which is outside and beyond the private sphere of the home, which has traditionally been woman's sole domain.
In "The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film," Julia Lesage finds the politicized description of domestic space emblematic of the feminist documentaries of the seventies. Lesage shows, how a close and intimate collaboration between woman filmmaker and woman subject has led to a new representation of women in film. Such film images are necessary for women to see and relate to, to find power and possibility in, as they strive to move out of the private, domestic sphere and take up a place in the public world. Through her close collaboration with the subjects of her film, Christina Perincioli has created a film which is vibrant in its presentation of new images and possibilities for women.