Monday, 9 December 2013

'Women Without Men': Flowers in the Desert?

Siobhan Hoffmann-Heap 

When I was a teenager, malleable of mind, I watched The House of Sand and Fog. Echoes of that were stirred by this fim, and two themes from it lodged in my mind to be be fired up by Women without Men: the first was a problematic depiction of ‘The American Dream’ - how Americans struggled to make ends meet – coerced into an uncomfortable synergy with foreign interpretations of the same concept. It made me wonder whether all of humanity was perpetually undertaking a universal quest for happiness - or at least the creation of a personal utopia. Many of the characters in the film seemed to be desperately searching for a home, for contentment, for silence and a place to rest. This theme is revisited in Women Without Men; Munis wonders: “What is it about people, that their hunger, their desires seem to eat everything?”
The second piece of brain shrapnel was the story and the associated imagery, of Massoud’s (Ben Kingsley’s character) existence before he left Iran:
It was a wonderful idea to cut down the [cypress] trees at our house on the Caspian, to have the sea spread before us, to reach infinity with our eyes… Our lives went the way of the sea when the Ayatollahs ripped the soul out of our beautiful country.
I never fully understood the cultural allusions that the film made to Iran, since I had no understanding of the area, or the history, and even now my knowledge on it is still sketchy. The history curriculum in this country is limited, mentioning anything remotely related to the Middle East and the lasting impact British and American intervention had on that area, way before my generation were forcefully made aware of it in the 90s.
Women Without Men follows the metamorphoses of four women from various walks of life within that lost generation, in Tehran in 1953, using the CIA and M16 orchestrated coup that removed left-leaning Dr Mohammad Mossadegh from power, as a backdrop. Mossadegh’s Achilles Heel had been his government’s creation of a policy that nationalized the Iranian oil industry - an industry that had been under British control, via the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) now British Petroleum (BP), since 1913. You will have heard of BP, but Mossadegh? No?? It’s ok… Apparently even Tony Blair (as PM) didn’t know who Mossadegh was or why Iran hated the British so much… (he was obliged to rather sheepishly consult the font of all knowledge, Jon Snow). Apparently, bungled interventions and militarism spurred on by interest in oil provision isn’t, and never was, a new idea. Mossadegh claimed that “long years of negotiations with foreign countries... [had] yielded no results”, coming to the conclusion that “With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people.” Can’t argue with that.
The director of Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat’s stock in trade is photography, and it shows. She initially aimed to create a series of separate stories based on the 1989 novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, and present them as art installations across the globe, before her bright idea of editing them into the feature film occurred. This feature film (her first) deals with, amongst other things, arranged marriage, rape, prostitution, unrequited love, religion, and death (not to mention Communist and Fascist politics), but in a typically Persian poeticist way, and stretched over a robust historic framework. The film is studded with quotable lines, sparse but emphatic dialogue, features beautifully choreographed action sequences and camerawork that references classical art and literature: Zarin (the prostitute), is discovered floating, Ophelia-like in a pool in the orchard, surrounded by aquatic greenery, simultaneously wide-eyed and comatose; Munis finds a new life as a revolutionary after faking her own death to avoid an arranged marriage, reborn from the earth into which she is buried, Lazarine and determined, and her internal monologues punctuate much of the film, often alongside slow-motion scenes of watery submersion or falling. She falls to her death, petticoats fluttering in the breeze at the end of the film, with the words “Death isn’t so bad. You only think it is. All that we wanted was to find a new form, a new way.” Being a political radical is just as problematic as being a woman.
An elemental metamorphosis is constantly alluded to in the film whether through rebirth, epiphany, cleansing, or changes in dress. The theme of water is one that is visually referred to, in a callback to Islamic and Middle Eastern historical tradition. Islam, a religion born of the desert, understandably places huge importance on water and nature. The Gardens of Babylon, were, according to Dr Stephanie Dalley (Oxford) located near Ninevah, in northern Iraq. Huge feats of engineering prowess were executed by the Sassanians to bring water to pleasure palaces located in arid mountainous regions. In Islamic art, rock crystal holds huge material significance as representative of solidified water, a precious commodity. Unsurprising, then, that Farrokhlagha’s orchard is a place of sanctuary, or that the changes that take place in the female characters are signified, without exception, by them shedding their black shawls to reveal flowery dresses beneath. Faezeh is proposed to by Munis’ brother with the words, “A woman’s body is like a flower. Once it blossoms it soon withers away”; the fall of the regime that fosters growth in the tradition of art and culture, or the dashing of romantic hope, or gender emancipation linking with the sickness of the orchard, and the death of nature are not coincidental.
After the upheaval, and the catharsis experienced by individual characters (and by proxy, the viewer,) all that is left is society - the everyday. The music ends, the party is over, and we are given the impression that despite the finite nature of human life, these stories hold universal piquancy, and humanity is composed of individuals in a cyclical search for belonging, and the unerringly predictable failure of humanity to achieve it: "In this turbulence and noise, there was almost silence underneath. The sense that everything repeats itself over time. Hope. Betrayal, Fear. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Films directed by and/or written by women perform well at British box-office, BFI research suggests


"New BFI research indicates that films written and/or directed by women performed strongly at the UK box office between 2010 and 2012.

   Phyllida Lloyd and Abi Morgan attend the premiere of The Iron Lady (2011) at BFI Southbank.

Employing more women in writing and directing roles makes sound business sense for the film industry, according to new research from the BFI. Analysis of the performance of UK films between 2010-2012 shows that a high percentage of the most successful and profitable independent British films had a female screenwriter and/or director attached.

Women are under represented in writing and directing roles in the film industry. For all UK independent films released between 2010 and 2012, just 11.4% of the directors and 16.1% of the writers were women. However, for the top 20 UK independent films over the same period, 18.2% of the directors and 37% of the writers were female. And for profitable UK independent films, 30% of the writers were female.

The Rt Hon Maria Miller, Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities comments:

This is encouraging news and highlights the skill and talent of women working in the film industry today whose work both excites and inspires audiences. The creative industries underpin this country’s economic growth and are increasingly front and centre in representing Britain on the world stage. Of course, there is still a long way to go to address under-representation across the sector in general but with the number of women being employed within the creative industries growing year by year I know we can look forward to a future for film where the talent of women can shine.

Amanda Nevill, CEO of the BFI comments:

Women are creating stories and characters that resonate with audiences in the UK and around the world, and it’s encouraging, and absolutely no surprise, to see films from women writers in particular really making an impact. Frustratingly, overall the numbers of women in writing and directing roles remains low and there is still much work to do to ensure female voices can come through. It is pleasing to see that investment through BFI Lottery funding and also our partners at BBC Films and Film4 plays an important role in championing women, supporting them to develop and consolidate their writing and directing careers and long may this continue.

Successful women writers and directors working in the UK independent sector over the period included Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black and Kick-Ass), Phyllida Lloyd and Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), Debbie Isitt (Nativity 2), and Dania Pasquini and Jame English (StreetDance 3D and StreetDance 2 3D).

A number of women also saw success on UK films which were financed by major studios in the US, including Sarah Smith (Arthur Christmas), Susanna White and Emma Thompson (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang), Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class) and Lone Scherfig (One Day).

A key feature of the research is the number of successful female writers and directors attached to more than one project over the period, with many of the directors also having directing credits in other dramatic media including television and theatre. This indicates the development of a critical mass of women with consolidated writing and directing careers, developed through film and also television and theatre, and on-going relationships with producers and funders of films. The same factors are shown by research to be present in the careers of successful male screenwriters and directors.

The report also shows that films with female writers or directors were more likely to have female producers or executive producers, and have received financial support through BFI Lottery and BBC Films or Film4.

Today’s announcement comes hot on the heels of Creative Skillset’s 2012 Employment Census 2012, which showed that employment of women in the creative media industries has grown by almost 16,000 since 2009, with representation rising from 27% to 36% of the total workforce. This reverses the previous decline seen between 2006 and 2009, where the representation of women in the workforce reduced from 38% to 27%. Within that total, representation within film and TV is actually higher than the average across the wider creative media industries. In 2012 women made up 46% of the total film workforce (not including freelancers)."

Read the full report, Succès de plume? Female Screenwriters and Directors of UK Films, 2010-2012.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Song of the Shirt (Clayton&Curling, 1979)


At first glance, The Song of the Shirt is hard to enjoy. The opening consists of migraine-inducing overlapping texts; squawking free-form clarinets, and jumbled quick-fire quotes. It seems initially that this attempt to deconstruct the grand narratives of liberal history, and reform the component parts into a radical critique, lacks any kind of structural coherence. However, it soon emerges that this actually a brilliant foreshadowing of the structure of the film. Eventually, out of the chaos comes a brilliantly orchestrated profundity.

From a 21st century perspective, Sue Clayton and Jonathon Curling’s film grates at first, but when it comes together, it resembles a beautiful pointillist portrait – putting small particles together to construct a meaningful whole. It is a style that has since become common-place in mainstream cinema. From Pulp Fiction (1994) to Cloud Atlas (2012), this non-linear, scrap-book-narrative style is one many cinema goers will now be familiar with.

Were the film made today, with the benefit of other forebears laying groundwork, Clayton and Curling’s vision would be a great deal more polished, and probably better remembered. As it is, the film has lain dormant amongst a catalogue of similar forgotten pioneers. Fortunately, it was dusted off and revived this week by the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel, London, as a result of Sue Clayton’s new work for the Leydon Gallery, resurrecting the film’s character of the seamstress, placing her in modern London.

In the film, as the fragments of the past come together, we see through the plight of the penniless seamstresses, supposedly beneficiaries of the industrial revolution, how capitalism reduces millions of people to lives of exploitation, bereft of hope and dignity. However, whilst class is central to its message, the film makes as an important point when it then brings in a second strand of oppression that interplays with it; gender. We see how those critical of the suffering brought about by economic relations, and those who advocate the emancipation of the working man, can also conflictingly reinforce the subjugation of women. Clayton and Curling flag up crude, hypocritical domination of male trade unionists decrying how women are driving down their husband’s wages, and calling for women to withdraw to home-life; but we also see this coupled with a critique of the ideological objectification that women suffer in patriarchal literature. 
This is illustrated by a behind-the-scenes-style exchange between the authors of The Wrongs of a Woman, a Victorian newspaper serial, in which the impoverished female protagonist falls for a wealthy student. After part 3 leaves the couple in each others arms, a discussion takes place as to how it should end – the “inevitable” conclusion being that “she should commit suicide” to further illustrate the horrors of poverty. The male authors are displayed here as key to patriarchal ideology, as objectifying female characters like this perpetuates their domination – depriving women of agency, making them hapless tools of the fates, and dependent on men of power, and men more generally, to ensure their survival.

The film itself by contrast is unwilling to give us even this depressing closure in its conclusion. The women of the piece - exploited and desperate as they are - are neither driven to suicide or to revolution. Their fate remains ambiguous, as if to suggest that the struggle remains unresolved to this day. This is the genius of The Song of the Shirt though; it pulls apart the grand historical narrative of male-driven progress – found in ‘factual’ and fictional materials - and reconstructs the constituent parts into a call to arms against modern-day patriarchal capitalism.  The film’s revival should not stop here then – after all this time, it deserves greater recognition than a one off screening. This forgotten gem about ‘lowly’ seamstresses counters the grand historical fabrications that working class women’s fate is in anybody’s hands but their own – a lesson that still needs learning, over three decades later. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013



After reading the manifesto of French feminist collective La Barbe on regarding the inexistence of women directors in the 65th edition of Festival de Cannes, producer and director Catarina Neves Ricci decided to give  voice to female filmmakers. And so was born WOMEN ON WOMEN. The film, now in development and seeking more co-producers, is written, produced and directed by Catarina Neves Ricci and co-produced by the Istanbul based Ajans 21, an established art-house production company specialized in documentaries on a wide range of social and cultural issues.

“That day, after reading the manifesto and seeing its consequences, I questioned myself: how can we keep working when it is systematically proven that distribution and promotion are not equal inside the film industry?” This could be a whole subject for a film, however WOMEN ON WOMEN goes beyond that. The director explains the artistic process she has been through since that day “I started to wonder about femininity, that particular ability to transform and to resist as a big core of the film I was willing to make. One of the sides of femininity is an appeal for challenge boundaries, to understand and seduce the dangerous, the no-fear. And that's the answer to how can we keep working anyway and after all”

WOMEN ON WOMEN wants to takes us on an unexpected journey across the life and work of 5 female filmmakers around the world.  Although all the names have not yet been disclosed, two are already known: Handan Ipekçi, awarded Turkish director, known for her socio-critical films; and the Milano based Alina Marazzi, who’s cinema always speaks for herself: ironic, rigorous and bold, abolishing boundaries between documentary and fiction.With assumed influences from video art, experimental cinema, architecture and dance, WOMEN ON WOMEN fits in the perfect borderline between the poetic – providing a sophisticated visual language and sound - and the drama of what is narrated.

Due to its locations and characters this documentary touches directly on some of the hottest conflicts contemporary society is facing nowadays. The deep insights and questions these filmmakers and their films provoke on the audience are undeniable. As undeniable how important their presence is for a more creative film industry, and their roles as cultural agents on disclosure old taboos in their home territories.

“The methodologies are obviously multiple and diverse, but all the artists presented in this documentary are united in their use of cinema as a mean of intervention and attitude, taking on the role as outspoken and leading advocates for social and political matters “ stands Catarina Neves Ricci. 


Friday, 16 August 2013

Wadjda (Haifaa Al Mansour, 2013)


The first ever feature film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, where there are no cinemas and public spaces are segregated according to gender, is written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour. The film tells the story of Wadjda, a rebellious 10-year-old girl, who enters a Koran-reading competition at her madrasa, planning to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle, in a culture where women are not encouraged to cycle.

There is a lot to be praised about Wadjda. Indeed, there are so many powerful scenes in the film which delicately tell us about womanhood and women’s place in a culture dominated by religious values and rules. The camera travels between a house, a school, a playground, a little street with a bicycle shop, and a roof top. Wadjda, living within this limited and conservative space, is a witty, clever and, at the same time, powerful character whose imagination and ideas are limitless. It offers an interesting parallel with Al Mansour, who had to film Wadjda’s limitless world from within the very limited space of a little van. Indeed, she directed the exterior scenes in Riyadh from inside a van, watching the actors on monitors and communicating via walkie-talkie. As she explains in an interview, ‘Conservatives may have interrupted filming had they seen me or called the police. We had sandstorms to deal with, getting access to locations – we didn’t need to worry about people protesting, too,’ she laughs. ‘I didn’t want to go and fight with people, I’m not an activist, I’m an artist.’
The references to polygamy, loss of virginity, child brides, the implications of veiling, and religion’s place in education make the film thought-provoking. One scene in particular, however, is remarkable: Wadjda is secretly learning to cycle in the rooftop of her house, but she panics as her mother approaches, falls off the bicycle and hurts her knee. As she cries out ‘I’m bleeding!’ the mother covers her face with shame mistakenly thinking her daughter is bleeding for having ridden the bike and lost her virginity. The scene is astutely narrated, skillfully performed and brilliantly filmed.

In an interview with the BBC, Al Mansour discusses the importance of introducing change in Saudi society while acknowledging that ‘change is a painful process’, and that she wanted ‘to allow people to embrace change in their own pace’ as ‘change has to come from heart.’ Both Al Mansour and Wadjda present us with an idea of change around the perceptions of womanhood and women’s place in Saudi society that is not imposed upon people but one that is heartfelt and embraced by them. Change is embedded in the film in the image of a bicycle. The bicycle represents independence, mobility, freedom and imagination. At the end of the film when we see Wadjda cycling to the borders of the town and stopping by the motorway, we are assured that there are new worlds and possibilities she is now able to explore.

Al Mansour engages in self-expression through a subtle yet powerful focus on the social, the cultural and the political through the story of a little girl who dares. It is not surprising to learn that Wadjda’s character is very similar to Al Mansour’s in real life. Indeed, she states on the film’s website that she comes from a small town in Saudi Arabia ‘where there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will reshape and redefine our nation.’ This message of female solidarity also comes across in an interview with Al Mansour in which she emphasises that "women have to stick together and believe in themselves and push towards what makes them happy. We just need to push a little bit harder against tradition. We need to do things and make things and tell the stories that we want to tell. And I think the world is ready to listen." What Wadjda tells us is that there are no limits to how much women can push for change even from the limited space of a little town or while directing a film from within a little van. 

Thursday, 25 July 2013


Doing Women’s Film and Television History

The Second International Conference

of the

Women’s Film and Television History Network – UK/Ireland

 10th - 12th April 2014

The University of East Anglia, UK

Conference organisers: Laraine Porter (De Montfort University), Yvonne Tasker (University of East Anglia) and Melanie Williams (University of East Anglia)

Building on the success of the first ‘Doing Women’s Film History’ conference held in 2011, this three-day international conference will bring together researchers in women’s film and television history, archivists, curators and creative practitioners to explore and celebrate all aspects of women’s participation within the visual media industries across the globe and in all periods. The conference will provide a forum for the latest research into women’s work in film and television production (both on and off screen), in film distribution and exhibition, their roles in television ranging from presenters and personalities to commissioners and controllers, as well as women’s activities as film and television critics, consumers and fans.

We welcome papers on any topic related to women’s film, television and media history but we are also interested in hosting panels and strands on the following areas:

·         women and documentary: whose voices, which audiences, to whose benefit?

·         screenwriters and scriptwriting: the woman writer

·         women’s contributions to non-Anglophone film and television industries

·         feminist filmmakers and filmmaking collectives

·         female film and television fan cultures

·         teaching women’s film and television history

Proposals of 300 words for papers should be sent to 
no later than 31st October 2013



Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Continuity Grrl


Angela Allen doing continuity on The Misfits (1961). Picture courtesy of the excellent website  
Continuity Supervisor is one of those vital but somewhat mysterious jobs in film production, akin to the likes of key grip, foley artist or best boy, although thanks to the bloopers section on IMDb and various TV programmes gleefully pointing out continuity errors, there is at least some popular understanding of what overseeing continuity might entail, i.e. avoiding those kind of embarrassing inconsistencies that come back to haunt a film. But what is less well known is the sheer scale and scope of the job and how it requires near-omniscient levels of vigilance. As the experienced supervisor Angela Allen explained in an interview, her purpose on set was to function as a kind of  human ‘memory bank’, recording all the vital data about who was doing what as they said a particular line, how the set was dressed, what people were wearing, and so on. Another continuity supervisor, Phyllis Crocker, described her role in similar terms back in 1947:

The continuity girl is on the set for the whole time during rehearsal and shooting, making careful note of everything that is essential for the record, and being at hand to prompt both director and artists on dialogue, movement, position and effects. She has her own desk and typewriter on the set and while one scene is being set up, she is putting the previous one on permanent record. She is, in fact, the clerical repository of all the information that the director carries more or less vaguely in his head. (Collier 1947: 58)
Note Crocker's exclusive use of female pronouns here as well as the telling nomenclature of 'continuity girl': continuity supervision was an area of film labour overwhelmingly occupied by women, and to some extent continues to be - at least in the UK.
And despite its crucial role in successful film production, continuity supervisor isn’t a job with huge prestige attached, unlike other equally key roles which arguably enjoy a more elevated position. Could that have something to do with the particularly gendered status of overseeing continuity? Film historian Sue Harper certainly believes there’s a connection between the two, suggesting that its position in the industry as a ‘female prerogative’ is intimately connected to its ‘attendant lack of status’ (2000: 4).
Certainly, struggles for status and recognition resonate through many accounts of the job, whether in Kay Mander’s insistence that the continuity girl is ‘more than a “floor secretary’’ – she is indeed a technician’ and ‘one of only three people on the set who are expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the script’ along with the director and his assistant (1940: 89), or in Pamela Mann-Francis’ lengthy struggles to achieve Association of Cine Technicians (ACT) union membership, allowing her to put ‘film technician’ rather than ‘secretary’ as her profession on her passport. But as Sian Busby suggests, the continuity girl is also ‘often her own worst enemy’ when it comes to recognition of her hidden labour, ‘unobtrusively going about the task of making significant changes, corrections and improvements so that no incongruities remain; quietly curtailing production costs; acting unassumingly as aide memoire cast and crew; reassuringly sharing the burden of coverage with the director (1993: 18).
Continuity work often appears to supersede its official demarcation, as the continuity girl Martha Robinson once suggested, taking in ‘not only their own official job but, unofficially, that of First or Second assistant director, production manager, assistant cutting editor, dialogue writer and even co-director’. Robinson saw this in highly gendered terms: ‘Women are like that. If they see work neglected, they unobtrusively do it themselves and think nothing of it’ (1937: viii).
It may be a rhetorical step too far to claim 'auteuse' status for all continuity supervisors but it seems that the extent of their creative input into the filmmaking process may well have been vastly underestimated and worthy of a great deal more investigation.
Busby, S. (1993), ‘Continuity: a job for the girls’, In Sync (Journal of Women in Film and Television), 3:1, pp. 18 and 22.
Collier, J. W. (1947), A Film in the Making, Featuring It Always Rains on Sunday, London: World Film Publications.
Harper, S. (2000), Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, London: Continuum.
Mander, K. (1940), ‘Cutter’s fifth column’, Cine-Technician, October–December, p. 89.

Robinson, M. (1937), Continuity Girl, London: Robert Hale.
[For a more detailed discussion of continuity supervision, see my article, 'The Continuity Girl: Ice in the Middle of Fire', Journal of British Cinema and Television, 10:3, July 2013, pp. 603-617. ]