(Almost) All about the Women in Valladolid

in 60th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Živa Emeršič

The FIPRESCI prize went to the Turkish-French coproduction Mustang by first time director Deniz Gamze Erguven. We chose it not only because it is a daring little story told by a courageous young director, and not just for the beautiful camera work, but also (or above all) for sinking into the abyss of the inequality of women. Yes, today. Yes, today more then ever. The opening sequence of school adolescents bathing together in the river is all about hair and bodies, voices and movements, a wakening sexuality of bursting young women. Five orphaned sisters are taken under severe custody by their grandmother and their bachelor and ultraconservative uncle. He, above all other characters in this deeply emotional, yet harsh movie, is the very incarnation of the traditional, patriarchal and macho Turkish society. He behaves like the master of the game, even taking the liberty of exercising his male right to (ab)use one of his nieces for his pleasure. The pattern of the society where these young women are supposed to spend their lives is strongly set, not only within the social and family frames, but is de facto surrounded by walls which are being built and raised up higher and higher throughout the film. But this is not the 18th century, and the young women will not give up easily.Three of them would fail or just give up, but the youngest two – not a coincidence but a strong message – would eventually make it to Istanbul, a symbol of liberalization in Turkish society. It remains unclear, as it is in real life, what happens next, but at least they won a chance. The freedom for women is the chance to try to exercise their will regardless the consequences.

Beautifully put together and carefully dealing with a delicate topic to avoid Turkish censorship, Mustang examined the same grey matter explored in numerous films in this year SEMINCI selection. Boundaries exist in all forms around the world, but it is obvious that some are set to close on women in far more radical forms as one would expect.

In Andrew Haigh’s 45 years, Kate (the marvelous Charlotte Rampling) is working hard to keep her marriage above the water after the discovery of a tragedy in her husband’s past, which had influenced their whole life together. She is a modern woman of the western world, vulnerable and emotional, but also smart and witty. At the peak of her effort to deal with the past she gives up and chooses to walk away. No satisfaction is to be expected. But at least she tried, for 45 years.

The old woman in Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Red Bean Paste (An) is a quiet fighter, persistent in her own way.  A humble peasant, struck from early age by a disease that made her a social outcast, finds her chance of dignity at a local sweet shop. Preparing sweets from an old recipe she turns the shop and its miserable tenant into a success, which is to be abruptly cut off by a human inclination to evil. But at least she tried and left something behind – a strong message for young people that dignity and freedom of choice is worth fighting for.

The Persian beauty Nahid (by director Ida Panahandeh), a young divorcee, is yet another kind of a beast, or at least she is fighting like one, using all kinds of weapons, including lies, theft, manipulation and erratic behavior. However anti-sympathetic Nahid may be, the male dominated world she lives in is so cruel, unjust and rigid that only the extreme measures she takes provoke reaction from the men around her. This rule applies in accordance with the social class; it is obvious that poverty accumulates conservatism and brutality towards women to the extent that borders on crime. In the most tragic moment she realizes that her beloved teenage son is going to repeat the same male mentality that she has suffered so much from, the one of chauvinism, brutality, even misogyny. But she will keep trying; we could see that in her beautiful yet sad and tired eyes.

Carme in Invisible artery (L’Arteria Invisible by Catalan director Pere Vila Barcelo) is a childless wife of an ambitious politician. A young rascal struggling to meet ends appears to be the son whom she gave away for adoption prior to her career marriage. Together they devise a plot to extort a ransom from her husband. Carme is willingly killing the last emotions left in her to seek revenge that will leave her empty and abandoned. Another method of trying to solve life’s problems, yet clearly the wrong one.

In Aurora (by Chilean director Rodrigo Sepulveda) the childless protagonist is so obsessed with having a child, that she starts a painful journey through bureaucratic procedures to adopt one dead baby. And then another one and then another one. The story is not only of one troubled mind, but of a society that condemns women without children to the extreme, questioning the point of their existence.

Degraded (Degrade by Tarzan and Arab Nasser) shows the degradation of human values at the point of total madness and disorientation. While men are playing with machine guns and tanks and bombs, their women are playing along, pretending that all killing is just a way of life and will pass as quickly as it takes to dry their nails and dye their hair for the wedding. It’s a picture of a world at the peak of a civil war, but women are desperately trying to act normally by practicing useless, meaningless daily routine that serves no one anymore.

Strong stories, strong films, yet I picked only these few. If the movies are to mirror the world (and there is no reason whatsoever to question this important role of modern cinema), then the world we live in is indeed turned upside down for many political, racial and economic reasons. But under the surface of these “boys’ games” lays this perverse division between men and women, always on the behalf of the latest. We can talk Sweden or Turkey, Chile or China, the rule applies nevertheless. The films at this year’s official selection of Seminci outstandingly underlined this female sub-context of a modern world in all varieties, from bravery to madness.

Edited by Yael Shuv