Film in Female Hands

in 20th Haifa International Film Festival

by Branka Sömen

For decades now the public has been pining for “female films,” cramming into this ‘selection’ everything they can possibly lay their hands on, including films by female directors, films dealing with female issues but directed by male directors, or film plots portraying fictional heroines or actual superwomen from the past or present.

Offering sometimes more and sometimes less know-how and artistic sincerity, these films have opened windows into new worlds (extraordinary Iranian films about women or made by women come to mind), tearing down imposed walls and political boundaries, allowing us to equally enjoy the impertinent, sincere and convincing confessions from across the globe by Margarethe von Trotta, Martha Meszaros, Kira Muratova, Vera Chytilova, not to mention Jane Campion… How often were we mesmerized by countless belligerent American heroines who strove to accomplish on screen what thousands of women were not able to do in real life?

Still, even today it is a fact that the film industry is not controlled by women, although it is quite safe there in the rare and exceptional moments when it slips into female hands, regardless in which corner of the world they are or which issues they pursue.

So we return to Haifa in the year 2004 and join artistic director Pnina Blayer in celebrating part of the 20th International Film Festival’s program in which women play an important role, either as memorable film characters or inspired authors.

Let us begin with one of the best films screened at the Festival, which got the FIPRESCI prize. I am referring to Shizo, the feature debut by Kazakhstan director Guka Omarova (born in 1968) who tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy and by doing so portrays the entire society and interpersonal relations that exist within it. Omarova’s directing is precise and emotionally set. Although this is her first feature film, the author does not struggle with the dilemma whose side she should take; even while forcing a sugary end, she makes sure that feelings triumph over discrimination, corruption, injustice and frustrations of everyday life. Although not concealing the influence of her teacher Sergei Bodrov, Guka Omarova proves that she is quite ready to embark on her own independent journey into the unknown, prepared to go into battle, just like the heroes of her film.

Another very good film in this competition is Jingzhe by Wang Quan’an, a male director, whose lead character is a woman. Quan’an tells the story of Ermei, a young woman from a poor family who struggles to find her own path in life. The film depicts the stance of a backward society towards women as eternal servants and victims, who must remain humble although being full of mysteries and spite, women who win and lose at the same time, because they cannot help putting up a fight, no matter how short-lived or how senseless their battles appear to their surroundings. Chinese directors (led by the legendary Zhang Yimou) have always been exceptionally perceptive and have proven a deep understanding for the emotional nuances of women in different historic periods, and their films always send out universal messages. Wang Quan’an’s film draws a picture of toilsome subsistence and struggle for identity of women around the globe, from Kosovo to Chile, from Iraq to Mexico and Guinea, because regardless of where we are and how advanced we consider our civilization to be, there are still backward minds ‘in our midst’ and women being sacrificed for the sake of some macho world.

A number of interesting films on these subjects were screened as part of other programs of the Haifa Film Festival. Remarkably, most female directors were presented as part of the Panorama program, which showed a series of films by female directors dealing mostly with female issues from different parts of the globe, such as Lisa Ohlin (Sweden), Carole Laure (Canada), Solveig Anspach (Island), Michaela Pavlatova (Czech Republic), Li Shao-hong (China), Carol La Miu-suet (Hong Kong), Dominique de Rivaz (Switzerland), Margarethe von Trotta (Germany), Zornitsa Sofia (Bulgaria), Silvia Pacheva (Bulgaria).

If we add Francesca Comencini (Italy) and her film I Like to Work (Mobbing), which was part of the official program, and Iris Rubin (director of the documentary A Street for Sale ), whose film was presented as part of the Israeli selection, to this impressive number of female directors, we can rightly assert that female directors left their mark in Haifa. So did female characters in many films, the most remarkable of them being the character of an actress and woman who finds herself at a crossroads in Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia, brilliantly embodied by Annette Bening, or the dangerous and terrifying monster-mother in the The Manchurian Candidate with Meryl Streep. Two Brazilian actresses – Norma Aleandro and Natalia Oreiro — will also be remembered for their outstanding performances in Eduard Mignon’s Cleopatra, where they play Cleo and Sandra, two diametrically opposite characters.

In his film Promised Land, Israeli director Amos Gitai offers a completely different portrayal of women, immigrants from Eastern Europe who become victims and even slaves in the uncertainty of the Sinai Desert and the common precariousness of the region.

Branka Sömen