The Female Gaze
The Flying Broom International Film Festival not only screens female-directed movies, it also encourages women in the film industry to build networks and support each other. The roundtable “Women in Cinema and Gender” as well as numerous informal meetings during the days of the festival gave the participating women the opportunity to discuss their specific issues in the realm of cinema. Many interesting questions were asked and answers were not always easy to find. One of the controversies that became apparent throughout the discussions as well as the festival’s programme itself was the topic of female-directed movies. Since women today are still marginalized on screen as well as displayed as passive characters or shallow sex objects, a lot of female directors choose to make movies on female protagonists. But is this the only way to help the cause of female filmmaking?
The Female Gaze on the Female
Of the twelve movies competing for the FIPRESCI prize at Ankara in 2014, seven films focused on female protagonists of different sorts. The Blue Wave (Mavi dalga) delves into the topic of adolescence from a female point of view, telling a story about a group of teenage girls over the course of about one year. Another coming-of-age story is presented in What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (Yang tidak dibicarakan ketika membicarakan cinta), a film that shows teenage love in a boarding school for blind students. While this movie does have central male characters as well, the filmmaker strongly focuses on the experiences of their female counterparts. Bobo connects the story of two women — one coping with a loved one’s death, the other fighting against the threat of genital mutilation — strongly promoting female bonding and mutual support. Similarly For Those Who Can Tell No Tales presents the very personal journey of an Australian tourist through Serbia, who uncovers war crimes against women that have been collaboratively suppressed by a town community. The movie suggests that maybe only women are able to discover and tell these stories. The films Nagima and Talea focus on the issues of family and motherhood. While the first one shows the depressing downward spiral of an unbearably lonesome female orphan, the latter one tells the story of a teenage daughter reconnecting with her mother who has spent several years in prison. Papusza on the other hand is an almost epic biopic about a famous Roma poet in Poland and the struggle with her patriarchal and illiterate community. Finally Honey (Miele) follows a female mercy killer — a former medicine student who starts to doubt the concept of euthanasia. By treating more of a general than a decidedly female topic, Honey stands a small step apart from the other mentioned movies which show an obvious focus not only on female characters but also specifically female experiences and problems.
There is one film in this section that could be described as following just as much a female as a male protagonist. In Bends Flora Lau connects the fate of a well-to-do Hong Kong woman and an underclass Chinese by way of the latter’s husband who is also the rich woman’s driver. The screen time is equally divided between the male chauffeur and his female boss, while the Chinese woman’s pregnancy primarily provides a narrative motor.
The Female Gaze on the Male
This year the FIPRESCI section of the Festival, called “Each Has A Differenty Color”, only included three films focusing on male characters. Concrete Night (Beton), an almost apocalyptic tale of a teenager confronted with the evils of humankind, features a male hero who mostly interacts with other men, namely his older brother and a male neighbor. Grand Central also depicts a male dominated community, in this case the workforce of a nuclear power plant. Director Rebecca Zlotowski intentionally or unintentionally depicts the hero’s female love interest (portrayed by Léa Seydoux) as a quite shallow sex object. Even though Karole’s perspective is actually the most interesting, being torn between her sterile fiancé and the potent as well as handsome hero, the viewer never gets to fully understand her actions. While there is hardly any insight into her mindset, there is all the more display of her body, which is usually covered in sexy hot pants. Given these directorial choices it is downright questionable if one can talk about a distinctive female gaze in this film.
The most interesting of the three male-centered films of this year’s selection is Mira Fornay’s My Dog Killer (Môj pes Killer), which was awarded the FIPRESCI prize. Fornay’s hero looks almost androgynous but is clearly defined as masculine by the name Marek. His aggression and brutality seem essentially performative, a strategy employed to become a full member of the town’s skinhead gang. When Marek is once more confronted with his Roma half-brother, his feelings of shame, fear and vulnerability lead to anger and a fatal crime.
In an interview during the festival, Mira Fornay explained her choice of character: “For me, it’s important to make a film about the topic that makes you the most curious. And men are a curiosity to me.” She furthermore declared that making a movie focusing on the experiences of the other gender required deeper research and engagement with the character. And that she did. Mira Fornay did extensive research, talking to ex-convicts and male skinheads to understand their motivations and way of thinking. Maybe it is these insights that enabled her to portray the racist hero as a balanced character and to show the vulnerability of his environment. The best example for this sensitive approach to her protagonists is the shower scene of Marek and his pals after their boxing workout. “For me the scene was essential because of this kind of intimacy,” Fornay explained. “Men also have intimacy, they have their own fragility. It is very vulnerable for them all because they are naked. I also found there was some kind of purity in it.” Mira Fornay tells a story about men out of an honest interest in their matters, feelings and problems. Here the female gaze on the male hero is first of all a character study, an investigation, motivated by the curiosity of a director who is searching for intimacy and purity in a community known for tough if not violent behavior.
Should women make films about men even though there are plenty of them already? Yes, they should! There is no question about the value of female-centered films like the majority of the Ankara selection. Films that show all sorts of women: strong, weak, searching, struggling, triumphing. They provide the female audience with various identification figures and inspiration and enable the male audience to discover the kaleidoscope of femininity instead of showing the same passive/eroticized type over and over again. On the other hand, films like My Dog Killer choose an approach to male-centered topics that a male a director probably could never take. They provide a distinctive while never exploitative female view on men that can teach us just as much about the people on screen as about the female perspective on them. And it is this perspective that we need to see more of, in mainstream cinema as well as independent filmmaking!
Edited by Carmen Gray
© FIPRESCI 2014