Friday, 21 December 2012

On Women and Turkish Cinema


Earlier in November my book Women and Turkish Cinema was published by Routledge. Here, I would like to share some thoughts on the volume for those who may have an interest on the topic. Every book is and offers a journey, and so, here is a part of mine... 

Following a decade of increased and violent polarisation between Left and Right in Turkish politics, the army decided to intervene to put an end to what appeared to be incipient civil war. The military intervention of September 12th 1980 aimed towards a period of depoliticisation in society as it crushed all political parties and particularly leftist organisations, while temporarily suspending democracy and thereby bringing normal political life to a complete halt. I, Atıl Eylem, was born a year after the coup. My name is an extremely politically resonant name which literally means ‘go for action’ and has an overt link with the leftist political activism that both my parents were involved in. As I explain in detail in the Introduction of the book:
“The story behind my name does not only refer to the name of one of the left wing journals (Atılım) which had to be published clandestinely, but also assigns me the role and pride of carrying the keywords of the left wing activists who fought, and at times were either killed or went through serious physical and mental torture, for their ideas. I was born a year after my father lost his comrade (arkadaş) who was shot while being carried wounded in his arms (still trying to voice his ideas); and after my mother and father had cried for their books which died in the cold damp cellar of a friend’s house, while being hidden from the police, who were inspecting every house to find censored books. Whoever had a copy of Das Kapital, was to be stamped as leftist, and hence needed to be under strict scrutiny by the police. These books full of ‘dangerous’ ideas should be burnt. Those who had managed to read them did so by covering them with gazette papers or hiding them behind the covers of other non-dangerous books. I was born on a day when no newspapers were published, because it was a religious holiday.”
This personal background informs my initial interest in analysing this decade’s political, social and cultural environment from a critical perspective. In the repressive and depoliticised atmosphere of the post-coup period, the first social movement that emerged and articulated its demands was the women’s movement. It expanded the scope of pluralism and democracy in Turkey through different concerns communicated by women in the public realm. Although feminist ideology is overtly political, in this period of depoliticisation the movement was only able to exist because its activists sought to free themselves from both the Right and the Left and any other clearly partisan political label and they did not found any institutions seeking to increase women’s political representation. Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 women had been given rights by the state through what is often termed state feminism. In the 1980s women were, for the first time, raising their own independent voices through campaigns, festivals, demonstrations, publications of journals and the forming of consciousness-raising groups.

Profoundly affected by the social and political milieu, Turkish cinema went through a period of change in the 1980s. Overtly political or social realist films were censored, banned or destroyed as a result of the forcible depoliticisation in the aftermath of the coup. Women’s lives and issues (perceived as neither Left wing nor Right wing and hence apolitical) became prominent in Turkish cinema and this led to the production of an extensive body of women’s films.
This brings me to the central proposition of this book, that is: the enforced depoliticisation introduced after the coup is responsible for uniting feminism and film in 1980s Turkey. The feminist movement was able to flourish precisely because it was not perceived as political or politically significant. In a parallel move in the films of the 1980s there was an increased tendency to focus on the individual, on women’s issues and lives, in order to avoid the overtly political.

The key questions that frame my analysis here are: What is the link between the women’s movement and representation of women in Turkish cinema in the 1980s? Were cinema and the women’s movement both affected in the same way in the post-coup political milieu? Were films affected by the movement or were they simply marginalising political issues by focusing on women’s lives?

In the book, I also focus on contemporary women filmmakers in Turkey who tend to concentrate on a range of issues around political, cultural and ethnic identity as well as memory. It is also in this section that I offer a further study into the representation of women of Turkey in several documentaries made by women directors who live outside Turkey, which has the relationship between religion and women’s place in Turkey in the centre of their narratives. Olga Nakkas’ 2006 film Women of Turkey: Between Islam and Secularism, for instance, draws on interviews with women and examines the individual and political resonance of the headscarf and veiling. Binnur Karaevli’s 2009 film Voices Unveiled: Turkish Women Who Dare provides a critique of the ban on wearing headscarves at the same time as touching upon issues including female officers in mosques; violence in the name of Islam; lack of education and economic dependence of women; women and Turkey’s EU candidacy and the tensions inherent between Muslim and Western cultures.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Why 'Mamma Mia!' matters


Since this week sees the publication of my co-edited (with Louise FitzGerald) volume on the much maligned, but also much loved and highly successful Mamma Mia! The Movie, it seems like a good time for Auteuse Theory to revisit the film with specific reference to female authorship. This was a film, after all, which boasted not only a female director in Phyllida Lloyd but also a female screenwriter (Catherine Johnson) and female producer (Judy Craymer), keeping together the all-female team which had collaborated on the original stage musical. This made the film, according to one of its stars Colin Firth, ‘the most thoroughly brought-to-you-by-women package’, and indeed, its female authorship has frequently been seen as the key to the film's subsequent success with female audiences. Its central narrative placement of an older female protagonist (Meryl Streep's Donna) who is not demonised for her racy past, and its evocation of close female friendship between Donna and her two ex bandmates (played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski) have certainly been read as symptomatic of a uniquely feminine perspective not often permitted in contemporary Hollywood film. For novelist Naomi Alderman, the film offered a rare instance of a female gaze in operation, citing the costuming of Amanda Seyfried in a one-piece swimsuit rather than a skimpy bikini as evidence: ‘She looks like a young girl really would look on a beach in Greece. It makes you feel relaxed, as a woman watching.’ Phyllida Lloyd’s DVD director’s commentary would seem to concur with this idea of the female director possessing special intimate female knowledge to which a male director might not necessarily be party, which can then be conveyed onto the screen. She says of the moment when Sophie cuts her leg shaving during ‘Slipping Through my Fingers’ that ‘girls would understand the trauma of that on their wedding day’. Although it’s not the same, there does seem to be a kinship with an anecdote Samantha Morton recounted about the filming of Morvern Callar (2002) directed by Lynne Ramsay: ‘I was doing that sex scene and I was on my period, and me and Lynne were both like, well, what are we going to do, because my Tampax string was showing. And in the end she just stopped the camera, leaned over and cut it off. And for all sorts of reasons, I can't imagine a man doing that.’ Both suggest the special interior embodied knowledge of female experience in the woman director that enables them to approach their work in a different way from a male director.
That female authorship might actually be a marketable commodity is suggested in certain aspects of Mamma Mia!'s publicity campaign which made canny use of the parallels between the three female friends onscreen and the three female friends behind its making, as Judy Craymer suggests: ‘The studio was promoting the three of us as this trio. They saw us as the women.’ (It would be interesting to explore how these ideas have figured in the trio's subsequent, separate, work, such as Craymer's Spice Girls musical Viva Forever! premiered last week, or Lloyd's current all-female production of Julius Caesar or her controversial 2011 collaboration with Streep, The Iron Lady).
But there's a complicating factor in assigning authorship of Mamma Mia! to Craymer, Lloyd or Johnson, of course, and that is the fact that Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical, heavily dependent on the pre-existing songs of ABBA, sung by Frida and Agnetha but composed by Benny and Bjorn. Given the already prominent position of ABBA in popular culture, it is not surprising that the musical's female creative team have often conceptualised themselves less as original creators and more as self-effacing ‘handmaidens’ to Benny and Bjorn’s vision, facilitating something that was already latent in the songs and just needed bringing out: ‘This was the musical Benny and Bjorn didn’t realise they’d written’, says Lloyd in the film's production notes. Both men also enjoy a ‘Hitchcockian cameo’ in the film, an authorial privilege not extended (to my knowledge) to any of the trio of women.
But in the end, authorship is perhaps less important than audience reception when thinking about gender in relation to this film. Mamma Mia! The Movie, like its theatrical antecedent, offered a wonderful platform for audience participation, especially singing and sometimes dancing along with the ABBA hits liberally sprinkled throughout. As Jane Fryer noted, in her jokily quasi-anthropological investigation into the film's success, screenings of this film flouted the usual decorum of ‘going to the cinema to sit quietly and “Shush!” loudly at anyone rattling sweet wrappers too noisily’ and replaced it with the unusual but ‘incredibly moving’ situation of ‘belting out Abba songs with a bunch of strange women and the occasional startled man’. As one 38-year-old female cinemagoer ‘almost buried under two great vats of popcorn’ testified, joining in was ‘the whole point. You become part of it — you’re in the chorus, you’re on the island, you’re at the wedding, you’re finding true love…but most of all, you’re having a great time’. And this could be expanded into participatory events as vast as the series of ‘epic screenings’ at the O2 Arena, marketed asone of the most uplifting experiences you can imagine’. As I.Q. Hunter notes in our book, repeat viewings and audience participation are hallmarks of cult film appreciation and so Mamma Mia! presents an interesting challenge to ‘the masculinity of cult’, enforcing a broadening of its horizons in order to take account of a film that in many ways is absolute anathema to its macho maverick ethos.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Revisiting Ealing's women


In connection with the publication of a new book Ealing Revisited, it seems like a good moment to look back at this most famous and - dread word but accurate in this instance - iconic of British film studios, and to think about Ealing's women (for more on this, see my chapter in the aforementioned collection). Ealing was not noted for its 'feminine touch'; the critic Kenneth Tynan summarised its output as focussing on 'men at work, men engrossed in a crisis, men who communicate with their women mostly by postcard'. It had Audrey Hepburn at its disposal for a while but failed to recognise the star potential in her which would soon be so triumphantly realised by Hollywood. But its head, Michael Balcon, was slightly touchy about the accusation that his company didn't 'know how to handle women', a criticism he deemed 'a little unjust'. He had a point: after all, it was at Ealing that Googie Withers had carved out a highly distinctive niche  playing passionate, strong-willed heroines who might be flawed but who were also the most dominant figures in the narratives in which they were featured, from the femme fatale of Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) to the feminist farmer of The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) and the tight-lipped Bethnal Green housewife with a dark secret in It Always Rains on Sundays (1947). The director Robert Hamer had a hand in all three of those films, and for Diana Morgan (pictured above), the only female contract scriptwriter at the studio, Hamer was one of the few men working at Ealing whose films 'give such parts to women. He was the only one who liked women, really.' Morgan enjoyed working at Ealing a great deal but described it as 'a very male studio', a place where her colleagues' distinctly unchivalrous nickname for her was 'the Welsh bitch'. The final film she worked on at Ealing, Dance Hall (1950), is one of the studio's most interesting 'women's pictures', centred on the intertwined lives of four female friends (Natasha Parry, Jane Hylton, Diana Dors, Petula Clark) who work at the same factory and frequent the same Palais de Danse in their time off.
Although Balcon was a great encourager and nurturer of new talent, this didn't extend to aspiring women directors who Balcon seems to have thought lacked the necessary authority to control a crew. Kay Mander tried and failed to get in and later Jill Craigie was similarly rebuffed. She wrote to Balcon in 1958 about trying to replicate the 'fantastic circulation' of women's magazines by making films appealing to the same demographic: 'young girls at work before they're married... our films are made as though we're completely unaware of this new generation.' But her offer was not taken up. Balcon's response to Craigie's letter ('there seems to be no immediate possibility of our working together on a picture. I mean, of course, in your capacity as a director') has been read by film historian Sue Harper as 'testament to his deafness to the female voice', and this sadly rings true, as well as ironically echoing Ealing's supremely moving drama about deafness and a female finding her voice, Mandy (1952). But there's also the question of bad timing. By 1958, when Craigie wrote to Balcon, Ealing was on its last legs anyway. Even back in 1956 one critic had suggested that the studio's film about student nurses, The Feminine Touch, represented Ealing's 'dying gasp'. But in its postwar heyday, it had offered some more interesting and diverse representations of women than its reputation sometimes suggests. And some of them even had the 'feminine touch' of their sole woman writer Diana Morgan.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

‘Imagine someone who lives with a secret her entire life’: Violence, ‘Honour’, Rape and Women in Duma (Abeer Zeibak Haddad, 2011)

EYLEM ATAKAV (@eylematakav) 

Duma is an extremely powerful documentary by Abeer Zeibak Haddad. It is regarded as the first ever film to focus on and shed light to violence against and sexual assault of women in Palestine.

Haddad’s first attempt to expose this issue is a puppet theatre show she created (‘Chocolate’), which deals with silencing of sexual abuse. The film opens up with a scene from the puppet show: we see a little girl in the playground; a stranger approaches her; we do not see what he does to her, but we can see him turning her forcefully on the carousel as she pleads: ‘Enough! I don’t want the carousel! I want to get off!’

Failing to attract audiences for the act, Haddad decides to make a film and directs her camera towards the lives and realities of five Arab women who were sexually harassed or raped by their family members or friends at an earlier age.

What bring these women together is not only the violence they endured in different ways, but also their silence imposed upon them by their families or society. The film creates a space for women to break the barrier of silence and fear and speak overtly about their experiences of rape and abuse.

One of the women interviewed talks about how she chose to hide it from her parents in order to not hurt them. She is not seen but heard in the scene when she talks about rape: ‘‘We sat on the promenade, my friend’s cousin and I. I was drinking coke and felt something strange, felt dizzy. We entered the room, he shut the door. Picture yourself suddenly waking up in great fear.. that’s how I felt. I suddenly woke up. I went to open the door but he didn’t let me. He shut the door. I tried to escape but he suddenly pushed me forcefully like an animal that captured its prey. He took of my pants. He took them off and I pulled them up. ‘I beg you, please! Please don’t force yourself on me!’ Suddenly I felt a terrible pain. Terrible. I cried and cried. When I saw the blood my fears boiled down to: ‘what is they find out, what if he tells…’ I am forced to have sexual intercourse. I am no longer a virgin. That’s it.. it was like something died, something was crushed.’ Another woman tells us that she lives with the images and nightmares as she says: ‘I picture him as a monster.’

In an interview Haddad talks about the challenges she faced in making the film: ‘People told me that it would be impossible to find women who were willing to come forward and talk about these issues in front of a camera. This is because these women fear negative retributions from the community, and bringing shame to their family. Some women have lived with the secret of being sexually abused for years, they are even afraid to tell their own mothers. Even though I spoke with many women who had suffered from sexual abuse, only five of the women agreed to be filmed. Out of those five only one agreed to have her face shown. It took months to find these women. Additionally I was afraid that society would not accept the film, I am finding that now people are very open to seeing the film.’

Haddad sees the main mission of her film ‘to be able to make women who are victims of sexual abuse feel that they are not alone. I want this film to give women the courage to come forward with their secrets. My mission is to show this film to as many audiences as possible, it does not matter what country a person is from or what religion they associate themselves with, I just want to show it to as many people as possible.’

In the film one of the women decides to face her abuser and tries to come to terms with her fears about re-living the experience when he sees him. Yet, he does not turn up to the meeting.  Another woman seeks legal advice from a woman lawyer to file a complaint against her rapist/uncle, but she decides not to proceed with it because she is scared:  ‘I’ll have to hide from everyone when they find out my uncle’s arrested because I filed a rape charge against him…. In the meantime he is alive and I am dead. In the future he’ll be in prison and I’ll be dead outside, jailed outside.’

One of the most powerful talks in the film is from a man who gives a public speech (about the death of her daughter) at a demonstration about violence against women in Palestine: ‘I was informed of the murder of my daughter… Some tried to ‘silence’ the crime and people came up with false allegations to prove the innocence of the killer. They said a closet collapsed on her. Then they said she slipped and fell and so forth… Then the report… stated that her ribs were broken, that she was strangled and prevented from breathing…. Where did we go wrong? Where did we fail that we couldn’t protect…all those who were murdered?’

These questions remain unanswered. Around the world as women are continuously murdered in the name of ‘honour’; the practice of female genital mutilation in the name tradition takes lives; attempts to ban abortion continue; women’s bodies are sold and women are abused, we need more films that scream the pain women go through while their identities and bodies are violated. Haddad’s film does so brilliantly as it is brutally realistic; revealingly provocative, and exceedingly enthralling.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Lucy Lumsden: A New Television Auteur?


Who is the auteur of a TV series? Is it the director? The writer? The producer?  A show might use a number of directors during the course of a series, and it is even more common for there to be a change of director if a show is recommissioned for many seasons. Solo-authored shows are becoming less common; some writers might pen multiple episodes, others just one, or there may be a writing duo or team scripting the series. Television auteurism has tended to favour producers, but contemporary series often have a host of them. Where is the singular creative vision to be located in television production?

I’m well aware that these aren’t new questions, they’ve been asked frequently by media commentators and academics. Yet a talk given by Lucy Lumsden at the BFI this month prompted me to revisit - and reconsider - the notion of the TV Auteur, particularly in British television comedy. Lumsden joined Sky as its first Head of Comedy in the Autumn of 2009, after leaving her post as the BBC’s controller of comedy commissioning earlier that year, and has since commissioned the broadcaster’s entire comedy slate. Lumsden has become the Poster Woman for not only Sky’s assertive push into the genre, but for a broader revival of scripted comedy on British television. (The choice of title for the BFI event, ‘TV’s Comedy Renaissance: Lucy Lumsden in Conversation’, underscoring this).

Sky’s comedies, such as Trollied (which debuted with 1.2 million viewers, Sky1’s biggest overnight rating of 2011), Mount Pleasant, Stella, The Café and Spy (for which Darren Boyd won a 2012 BAFTA for Best Comedy Performance), have generated a lot of industry and press buzz. However there’s more than just a sense of novelty unifying Lumsden’s commissions to date. These shows seem to have a distinct tone, a particular flavour which brings them together as a body of work in spite of the range of producers, directors, writers and on-screen talent involved. When talking about the development of Sky’s comedy program, there were three characteristics that Lumsden indicated were common to all the shows: place, family, and love.

When Lumsden’s role was created Sky was best known for its American acquisitions and so an important rationale behind new commissions was that they reflected modern Britain; ‘that it was about us’ as she puts it. To do that she focused on precinct shows, with which came ‘a strong sense of place’: Trollied in a Warrington supermarket, The Café set in Weston-super-Mare, Stella in the Welsh valleys. However she swiftly adds that there was a more pragmatic reason for the emphasis on regionality in the shows’ settings, in that ‘it’s a bit of a shortcut to having strong characters with a very strong identity’.

Media observers have been quick to suggest that TV comedy’s revitalization is linked to the economic recession, but Lumsden denies this: ‘When I started that wasn’t the mantra of the time. What is that about? I think it was about a return to family maybe; sort of values that felt very important.’ This seems to connect significantly with the quality she suggests is central to all Sky’s comedy crop so far, something which may have been lacking in the genre in the preceding years. ‘The other thing is love is at the heart of pretty much all of our shows’, she says, ‘I’m not obsessed with this, and there will be other sorts of comedy, but I just felt we needed it. We needed it in our comedy.’ Love also seems to be at the heart of Lumsden’s relationship with the comedies themselves. She claims she has been able to work more closely with producers, writers and directors than in her BBC role, and so has felt much more connected to her commissions: ‘I’ve enjoyed a bit more of a personal relationship with each of the shows, it’s really creatively rewarding to feel you’re at the beginning of each journey’.

Lumsden’s motivations, sensibility and approach to comedy production – the atmosphere of creative freedom she has sought to create – have given Sky’s comedy output a clear sense of brand. There’s certainly a strong argument for presenting her as a contemporary television auteur. She, however, is uneasy about the mantle that has been placed upon her and speaks self-deprecatingly about being ‘just thrilled’ to be involved during such a great time for comedy. ‘I mean, look at that’ she says, indicating the projection of the BFI talk’s title, ‘it feels a bit ridiculous, a bit surreal!’

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The discreet harm of the bourgeoisie: Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010)


The director who seems to best understand the English bourgeoisie at this moment in time is Joanna Hogg. Her films Unrelated (2008) and Archipelago (2010) both deal with the exquisite tortures of middle-class holidays which descend from conviviality into confrontation and conflict. In her debut feature, Unrelated, it was an Italian villa somewhere in ‘Chianti-shire’ which provided the setting, and the focus was on the midlife crisis of Anna (Kathryn Worth) as she wondered with which generational grouping in the holiday party she should align herself. In Archipelago, Hogg’s second feature, the focus is more diffuse, stretching across a number of family members gathered together for a holiday on the Scilly Islands, including grown-up brother and sister Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), their mother Patricia (Kate Fahy), their hired cook Rose (Amy Lloyd) and their painting instructor Christopher (Christopher Baker). The occasion for the gathering is the son’s last family holiday before he embarks for voluntary work in Africa, an updated version of the ‘white man’s burden’ for upstanding young Englishmen. The film is careful not to play this for obvious satire, instead imbuing his social concern with sincerity and a sense of vocation, even if it is slightly wavering and uncertain (Hiddleston plays a quite different character from the cruel cocksure boy he portrayed in Hogg’s Unrelated). ‘Africa’ figures in Archipelago was a different kind of world beyond the confines of the middle-class family, the possibility of a less hampered existence but also a more dangerous one. Not that the Tresco holiday home is a quiet but dull pastoral idyll – anything but. Edward’s missionary impulses seem to bring out the worst in Cynthia who accuses him of self-important self-righteousness cloaked by false modesty. Tom’s immanent departure and the awkward friendship he strikes up with Rose, asking her about her life and wanting to invite her to dine with the family, seem to act as twin flashpoints for Cynthia’s anger, manifesting first in behind-the-back sniping and second in outright argument. The film’s outstanding set-piece is undoubtedly the fraught group outing to a restaurant which goes from bad (not being able to settle on the best place to sit and moving tables several time) to worse (Cynthia’s passive-aggressive response to what she perceives to be an undercooked guinea fowl; Lydia Leonard’s performance is brilliantly excruciating here). As the holiday goes increasingly awry, the mother attempts to intervene, albeit ineffectually, and Hogg punctuates the drama with a series of phone calls to the absent patriarch (who is meant to be there but keeps being unaccountably delayed) which begin with expressions of maternal contentment, and how wonderful it is to be gathered together like old times, but soon deteriorate into desperate pleading with him to come and help and finally furious accusations of neglect. In less coolly assured hands, it could be a cliché but Hogg’s directorial control and her sympathetic immersion in the milieu of her characters insures that Archipelago presents with verve and astringent originality the old truism that the comfortably-off family can be anything but comfortable at times.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

It goes without saying that Auteuse Theory was very sad to hear of the passing of Nora Ephron, one of the most distinctive female authorial voices in Hollywood over the last 30-odd years. Despite her light-hearted statement of antipathy towards 'panels on women in film' (one of the things she said she wouldn't miss after her death:, her work demonstrated the significant difference that a female point-of-view could make in the treatment of women on the screen.
Here are some of the tribute pieces we particularly enjoyed on Ephron:

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Whip It! (Drew Barrymore, 2009)

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It! has been described as an ‘emo chick coming of age drama’. The film follows Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a conflicted 17 year old girl from the fictional town of Bodeen, Texas who attempts to negotiate the expectations of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), a beauty pageant enthusiast, and her own desires. On a shopping trip to Austin with her mother and younger sister, Bliss encounters some roller derby players and her fascination with the sport leads her to sneak off to a game. After lying about her age and trying out in secret, Bliss – now Babe Ruthless (her derby name) - earns a spot on the Hurl Scouts; a underachieving group of misfit women headed by team captain, Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig). The film, then details her experiences of love, friendship and family, as she pursues her passion.
 Barrymore has, of course, enjoyed a lengthy career in front of the camera (which is somewhat exceptional given the oft-discussed short lifespan of female actresses/celebrities) before adopting a role behind the scenes. In 1995 Barrymore began the production company, Flower Films and in 2004 she directed a television documentary on youth voting in the US election process. When asked about her career as a filmmaker, she replied: ‘I try to make movies that I would want to go see rather than ones I would just want to do as an actor. I want people to have movies full of romance and hope and empowerment, something they can escape into and feel good about. I love happy endings’.
Whip It! certainly falls into this category and can be situated within a tradition of female sports films (A League of their Own; Girlfight; Bend it Like Beckham)  which use sport as a lens through which to examine those themes of the melodrama  often coded as ‘feminine’ (namely romance and familial obligation). Whip It! is no exception. The main narrative focus is Bliss and her turbulent relationship with her mother. In many ways, Whip It! taps into the cultural fascination with mothers and daughters as exemplified in Kathleen Rowe Karyln’s Unruly Girls and Unrepentant Mothers, which valorises ‘unruly femininities’. Following her first sexual encounter with Oliver (Landon Pigg), Bliss is confronted by her mother who has since learned of her participation in roller derby. During the heated exchange, it becomes clear that her mother’s real displeasure originates from a concern that derby puts Bliss’ femininity at risk (‘What do you think the world thinks about those girls with all their tattoos? Do you think they have an easy time finding a job or getting a loan application or going to college, or finding a husband’). In response, Bliss simply replies; ‘I’m in love with this’ and in so doing reminds the audience that, despite her obvious attraction to Oliver, Bliss remains committed to an activity which fulfils her in ways that romance cannot. The film ends with Bliss and her mother learning a mutual respect for one another without fully understanding each other’s life choices.
There are some weaknesses in execution, for example, the heavy handed revelation that Maggie Mayhem, (despite her tattoos and passion for derby) is a mother. However, for the most part Whip It! offers a sentimental, but not ‘schmaltzy’ examination of contemporary girlhood which manages to avoid problematic stereotypes of ‘bitchy’, ‘irrational’ and/or ‘passive’ women. Since popular culture fosters an ambiguous relationship with feminist politics, it is often futile to claim that a film is either progressive or regressive in its representation of women. However, refreshingly Barrymore has made no secret of her feminist agenda, which underpins Whip It!. She claims: ‘I love women who have fought to the change the world and made a difference. I want to be one of them myself.’

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Emanuela Piovano's "Le stelle inquiete/ Simone and Gustave"

Flavia Laviosa

The publication of Off Screen: Women and Film in Italy in 1988 and The Women’s Companion to International Film in 1990 (marked the beginning of an international interest in Italian women filmmakers. Ten years later, Dizionario delle registe: L’altra metà del cinema, the first and laudable attempt to produce a comprehensive and detailed volume on Italian women directors, informed international academia of the remarkable number of women operating in the film industry and the impressive quality of their work. More recently, three additional publications--Glass Ceiling. Oltre il soffitto di vetro. Professionalità femminili nel cinema italiano; Lost Diva Found Woman. Female Representations in New Italian Cinema and National Television from 1995 to 2005; and I Morandini delle donne. 60 anni di cinema italiano al femminile – further document and recognise the vast contribution made by women (actresses, directors, screen writers, producers and costume designers) to the history of Italian cinema.
The complex and variegated galaxy of contemporary Italian cinema includes multiple generations of women filmmakers all engaged in exploring new genres and hybridised aesthetics. Although working in a hostile climate of economic austerity, talented, energetic, innovative voices and creative forces take various directions and continue to gain international recognition. There is great need for research that evaluates the continued and rising visibility of women directors whose works provide a multifaceted definition of Italian cinema and who represent a rich and vital artistic make-up within the obstacles and contradictions that regulate the Italian national context. These directors interweave private spheres and public events, explore contemporary realities, re-examine intellectual figures, and revisit historical wounds, while producing a montage of artistic documents and provocative testimonies. The range and quality of their diverse works offer great promise for the future of women behind the camera in twenty-first century Italy.
Director and producer Emanuela Piovano’s most recent film Le stelle inquiete/Simone and Gustave (2010) is the first feature film made about the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-43). Simone and Gustave is not a bio-picture, but it is specifically about an unknown fragment of Weil’s life, the summer months that she spent in 1941, when in July she was forced to leave German-occupied Paris to avoid anti-Semitic prosecution. She moved to St. Marcel, near Marseille, in the Ardèche region of southern France, where she was a guest at the vineyard owned by the philosopher-farmer Gustave Thibon and his wife Yvette. Piovano gives an intimate portrait of Weil, choosing to present her feminine side and private relations, in the broad context of her social activism, political theories and philosophical thought. The film conjugates the art of cinema with history, poetry, mysticism, philosophy and social militancy. As Weil familiarizes herself with working conditions on the farm, she engages in extended philosophical conversations and exchanges of views with the Catholic, royalist and spiritualist Gustave. Inevitably a burning intellectual passion for new ideas ignites their encounters.

Monday, 28 May 2012

More Andrea Arnold: Fish Tank (2009)


Fish Tank focuses its attention on fifteen year old Mia who lives in a flat in Essex with her mother and her younger sister. Mia is a rebellious loner whose relationship with her mother is antagonistic and mutually verbally abusive. But Mia has a secret passion: dancing, which she practices in an abandoned flat. Her mother’s charming handsome new boyfriend Connor encourages and praises her dancing and Mia is obviously drawn to him. As their relationship develops, it shifts from paternal to sexual. Connor leaves but Mia tracks him down and discovers he already has a wife and child. Mia is tempted to take a terrible vengeance but finally relents and returns home. She attends her audition but leaves without dancing, put off by the sexualised atmosphere. Offered a road trip to Cardiff with her on/off traveller boyfriend Billy, she leaves home, after a tentative but unsentimental reconciliation with her mother.
Writer-director Andrea Arnold is highly distinctive in contemporary British film culture in her yoking of a social realist aesthetic to a focus on the lives of girls and women in working-class communities. Her settings have ranged from her native Dartford for her Oscar-winning short film Wasp (2003) to Glasgow for the surveillance drama Red Road (2006) and finally to the high-rise estates of Essex for Fish Tank, but all three films are connected through their focus on female experience. Although the most obvious points of contextualisation for Arnold’s films are current work by the likes of Shane Meadows and veteran Ken Loach, there are also noticeable links with British cinema of the past. For instance, Fish Tank’s study of an awkward teenager’s sexual awakening and her antagonistic relationship with her sexually active mother echoes the exploration of a similar family dynamic nearly fifty years previously in the British New Wave milestone A Taste of Honey (1961).
Akin to the casting methods deployed by Loach and Meadows, Arnold wanted a non-professional actor for the central role in Fish Tank, someone who would not merely play the character of combative teenager Mia but understand her intimately through her own life experience. When Katie Jarvis was spotted arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury railway station, she was hastily signed up and Jarvis exceeds all expectations of a complete newcomer to acting with a riveting debut performance which oscillates between sullen anger and heart-breaking vulnerability. Ambiguity is the keynote of Michael Fassbender’s performance as Mia's mother’s amiably sexy Irish boyfriend Connor, initially behaving towards Mia in ways that could be simultaneously interpreted as warmly avuncular or sexually loaded. Arnold, in this film as in her previous ones, evokes her heroine’s sexual desire through an aesthetic suggestive of a female gaze: examples include the close-up of Danny Dyer’s mouth from Nathalie Press’s lustful perspective in Wasp, the heroine’s tracking of her future lover via CCTV in Red Road, and Mia’s use of the video camera to record and play back a bare-chested Connor as he dresses, as well as her covert voyeuristic observation of her mother and Connor’s lovemaking in Fish Tank. However, the film also communicates sexual attraction in more sensual terms with slow-motion close-ups of Mia enjoying the physical closeness of a piggy-back ride or breathing in Connor’s freshly-spritzed aftershave when he bends over her.
Fish Tank refuses gushing sentimentality: Mia does not forge a triumphant career in dance, mother and daughter are not reconciled in a tearful embrace (a brisk smile when they spontaneously dance together in the flat is as warm as it gets) and although we empathise with her, Mia is also capable of cruelty, foregrounded in one stomach-churning sequence where we fear she may commit a terrible act of revenge. And lest we assume that Fish Tank is directly autobiographical, given Andrea Arnold’s own Thames Estuary upbringing and her early career as a dancer, the director provides an important corrective: ‘Those things have never directly happened to me. My mind goes places, I have an imagination.’

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Open Hearts (Susanne Bier, 2002)


Open Hearts is Susanne Bier's take on the Dogme 95 movement coming at a time in her career when she had already established her name as a noteworthy director within Danish cinema. The film deals with a young woman's effort to come to terms with her fiancé's quadriplegia and the relationship that develops between her and a doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) whose wife (Paprika Steen) is coincidentally the one responsible for the tragic accident. In this theme the film is slightly reminiscent of Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) in which the main character, Bess McNeill, finds herself in a similar situation, struggling to come to terms with her husband's paralysis. Yet unlike von Trier's film, Open Hearts presents the viewer with a rather more realistic situation not only due to the aesthetic aspect, which owes its realism to the Dogme rules, but also in terms of the story itself and the way the characters are presented and developed.
The film starts with a sequence of the streets in the city, presumably Copenhagen, shot with an infrared camera, an aesthetic choice that according to the director depicts people's body temperature – having a warm interior and a cold exterior. Bier seems to follow this aesthetic in developing her characters and thus not only depicts their superficial actions but delves deeper into their inner core in order to find this 'warmth' that motivates them. Immediately after this external sequence, the characters are introduced sitting at a restaurant having a nice romantic dinner at the end of which Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) proposes to Cecilie (Sonja Richter). Cecilie is a 25-year-old woman who works as a cook at a restaurant and Joachim is a university student of geography. The first few scenes are very idyllic, depicting the couple's cheerful and affectionate relationship as they are about to embark on their common life. This situation is quickly and violently disrupted when one morning as Joachim is stepping out of his car and leans in to kiss Cecilie is knocked over by another car passing by at a frenetic speed. The contrast between the earlier blissful scenes and this tragic accident is quite shocking and it immediately changes the tone of the film. From that point onwards it becomes rather dark and oppressive yet with several lighthearted sequences scattered within the narrative, a typical characteristic of Danish films in which tragedy and comedy are inextricably combined.
The focus of the film remains on Cecilie and her effort to support a rather aggressive Joachim who tries to push her away rather cruelly. Cecilie is deeply traumatised by the abrupt derailment of her life but remains devoted to Joachim who tries to drive her away by being cruel but also explains to her that she still has the potential of a normal life without him. Unlike von Trier's film in which Bess ends up being exploited and sacrificed on the altar of love and marital devotion, Bier constructs a rather more realistic and believable narrative in which the different stages of emotional turmoil the characters go through are sufficiently elaborated and by the end they all reach a life-affirming conclusion. Cecilie having interrupted her affair with Neils to run to Joachim's side finally manages to get closure when Joachim releases her from any obligation towards him explaining again to her the impossibility of their situation but this time in a peaceful and tender manner saying “We were unlucky. That's no reason for you to suffer. Sweet, widefingered Cecilie...”. Niels and Marie who have been through a painful break-up that tore their family apart manage to overcome their problems; Marie accepts her new state as a divorced mother of three and achieves emotional independence which is shown in her gesture to pack the last of Niels' stuff, while Niels although he has been left by Cecilie sticks by his decision and does not go back to Marie, a gesture of respect for his own and his ex-wife's feelings. At the very end of the film Cecilie goes to Niels to tell him about her final separation from Joachim, telling him that she has to figure things out and asking him whether she can call him sometime. Although there is not a stereotypical happy-ending, in the way the relationships between the different characters are resolved, there is an overall sense of tranquility and optimism in the film's conclusion as it finishes in a cyclical pattern repeating the infrared camera shots motif. In this way Susanne Bier manages to use the Dogme 95 rules to create an intensely emotional film that is grounded in realism and even though it tackles a very melodramatic subject-matter, involving ordinary people in extra-ordinary circumstances, it avoids sensationalism through the gradual development of all the four main characters.