"The Little Jerusalem" Female Gaze By Maja Bogojevic

in 9th Ankara Flying Broom International Women's Film Festival

by Maja Bogojević

Rare are film festivals that, still, have that special magic — the magic of the unexpected. Ankara’s Flying Broom Women’s Festival is one of them. It wonderfully combines the high quality selection of films with the unique ambiance of long enthusiastic discussions on cinema art. It provides constant interactions with the audiences who have immediate access to film authors, which all results in a general positive, feel good cinema atmosphere, rarely found at mainstream festivals. With a highly devoted audience and without official stardom or formally privileged journalists, the spectator becomes the main festival star.

Defining Women’s Cinema

The films screened ask directly or indirectly the question of possible ways of defining the women’s cinema. How is it possible to locate and define a female voice or a feminine text – especially if we take into account refusals of many mainstream-acclaimed female authors to be associated with the cinematic écriture feminine, perhaps for fear of being ghettoized? In other words, if the feminine can be considered a principle of textual organization, an attribute of the text itself, what is the connection between such a principle and womanhood?

These questions became the central issues to the feminist film theory, according to which cinema is a cultural practice with (hidden) masculine means of production, representing myths about women and femininity as well as about men and masculinity. The analysis of classical Hollywood films concluded that these films give only stereotypical repeated images of women which distort female reality. Cinema is not, in Claire Johnston’s words, a “reflection of reality, but a construction of a particular, ideological, view of reality”. As both Freud’s and Lacan’s theories of the unconscious establish the fact that sexuality is never a given, can never be automatically assumed, then both masculinity and femininity are constituted in symbolic and discursive processes. In the mainstream narrative, with underlying structures of patriarchal imagery, sexual difference is encoded, i.e. woman is (re)presented as the “unnamable”, the “unsaid” and is only defined in relation to men. Hence a certain – at least statistical – ghettoization of female authors seems imminent, as women film directors make only 7 percent of the world film industry, the fact which becomes even more striking when compared to the high female presence on the screen. Although it is evident that not all women are consciously feminist, and not everyone consciously feminist is a woman and that more women filmmakers do not guarantee more feminist films. Some important feminist theorists made a call for opening new cinematic spaces which would show positive images of women, i.e. a call for creating a counter cinema. This is not an easy task (for female or male director, feminist or non feminist) as this new cinema should deconstruct the underlying film structures, destabilize the voyeuristic (male) gaze and speak a new language of desire and gaze.

First Steps Towards a New Cinematic Language

It was, therefore, refreshing to see in Ankara’s Film Festival new attempts made by women film-makers at speaking and constructing thisnew cinematic language. Women’s films offered views on multiple identities and perspectives, with a significant focus on questions of female gaze and desire, masculinity, ethnicity and hybrid sexualities. By constituting a disturbance to the dominant modes of representation (and hence to the dominant cultural order), these feminine film texts represent a subversion and challenge to mainstream text and masculine discourse.

Most films shown (divided in different sections of shorts, documentary, animation, auteur women and “each has a different color” being the only competitive section) represented rather successful reinterpretations of the canonized (predominantly Western) traditions: Doris Dörrie’s Fisherman and his Wife (Der Fischer und Frau) positions, with great humor and through playful metaphors of amoeba and sheep. She shows the new silenced man against his ultra-successful nouvelle arrivée wife. The latter turns into a capitalist manic money making machine, perhaps to compensate for her husband’s passivity and indifference to their marriage and love. She changes the classical psychoanalytic question into a “what do men want” question giving a more complex perspective of love within a relationship and a new nuance to men’s expression of their own needs. In Going Private (Nachbeben), Stina Werenfels offers a bleak drama of sex, lies and videos, set in the heart of wealth accumulated Switzerland. The film brutally exposes the impossibility of communication of alienated, tension ridden and hide-and-seek playing by rich couples and by revisiting the stereotype story line of a “rich banker going bankrupt with best friend committing suicide after sleeping with his wife”.

Another angle of the difficulties in the intimate life of a casting director is given by the hilarious and well balanced Jeanne Biras’ feature directorial comedy debut Next (Au suivant). Angelina Maccarone’s Unveiled (Fremde Haut) is a gentle and moving cross dressing identity story of double moral standards both in the West and the East. The film portrays the absurd situation and irremediable position of an Iranian woman who is the unwanted and punished female other in her homeland because she loves a woman and unveiled, flees her country for Germany. From Germany she is thrown out again in spite of assuming male identity as the unwanted legal/administrative other. The end offers no solution for Fariba’s otherness — for her unwanted authenticity (ethnic, cultural or sexual) — as she boards the plane with the veil covering her head and masking her true self. Remarkable achievements of rewriting history and of a new cynical look at festival(s) are made by, respectively, Jutta Brückner’s Hitler Cantata (Hitlerkantate)and by Annie Griffin’s perfectly controlled feature debut Festival.

The Litte Jerusalem

Besides the films mentioned and a series of brilliant short films with an overtly feminist discourse, The Little Jerusalem (La petite Jerusalem) is a subtle, candid and moving story on the lives of three generations of women in Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, home to Orthodox Jewish immigrants. Laura (brilliantly played by Fanny Valette), a young skeptical philosophy student, lives together with her extended family consisting of her widowed mother, her sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein) and the latter’s husband and four children. The writer/director, Karin Albou, focuses on conflicting, and sometimes contradictory, feelings and thoughts of the 18-year-old Laura, interweaving her evolving womanhood with that of her older sister’s, through reflection on their religious, sexual and love dilemmas, fears and anxieties. With excellent cinematography and fluid camera movements, Albou invites us into the intimate spaces of the two women’s sexual (re)awakening. The result is a gentle and sympathetic picture of their (re)discovering of femininity. Their ways of defining the female desire is different and this process is permeated by themes of rebirth, renewal and self discovery for both, through religious rituals for Mathilde and through a more secular, philosophical acquisition of knowledge for Laura. The gaze that objectifies the female character is always feminine, speaking of the other, about the other and to the other; all three levels of cinematic gaze – camera, character and spectator – make Laura and Mathilde into a spectacle, outside the conventional gender positions. The film text is thus seen as a space through which various languages (social, cultural, political, religious, esthetic) circulate and interact.

Aboul’s first feature succeeds in deconstructing patriarchal images and representations of women, but establishes its female subjectivity at the same time. It discovers, redefines, reinterprets and rewrites what it means to be a woman. Women become subjects of knowledge, vision, self discovery and pleasure. Sexual desire is bound up with the desire for knowledge, the quest for truth. By studying philosophy and earning money by giving philosophy lessons, Laura rebels against her orthodox religious upbringing, all to the discontent of her mother and sister, devout religion followers, under constant vigilance of Mathilde’s husband, Ariel (Bruno Todeschini).

Laura’s desire is put to test when she falls in love with an Algerian man, called Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnere) and this is opposed to by the whole family, who favor another nicer man for Laura, a Jewish medicine student, Eric. Eric embodies typical male desire to “solve the riddle of Laura”, because the female subject is always a mystery. By rejecting his traditional romantic love and her own religious background, Laura eroticizes the mind and the power of knowledge, implying a subtle process of the eroticization of the spectator’s identification.

The subtle and controlled script speaks the discourse of theory, spirituality, ethnicity and sexuality through the foreign female voice. Although, at one of the most critical moments of the narrative, Laura writes a letter to Djemal, in which she explains that they could never be a couple due do to their religious differences, she soon acknowledges the intensity of her passion for Djemal and makes her choice — to give their love a chance. At the same time that she is torn by her inner conflicts — her devotion and loyalty to the family religion and tradition, on the one hand and her passionate love for Djemal, on the other — Mathilde is going through a major crisis in her (religious) marriage when she discovers that her husband is unfaithful to her. Whereas Laura dares continue her quest for truth and knowledge and lets her sexual desire run free, Mathilde needs a subtle process of transformation. She goes to see a mikva woman for her ritual of sexual awakening and rebirth. Fortunately, the mikva woman is a liberated, self conscious woman who helps Mathilde to resolve her conflicts between religion and sexuality, through her own reinterpretation of religion, assuring her that having sexual desire and wanting to please her husband is not in contradiction with the book of Thora. Shyly and hesitantly at the beginning, Mathilde gradually and with confidence assumes her new role in life — that of a lover. In beautifully shot scenes, Mathilde and her mother speak of their marriages, children, love expectations and hopes. It is only during these conversations that Mathilde realizes that, like her mother, she served her husband for the reproductive purposes only (concluding, somewhat masochistically, that his sexual frustration may have been the result of her own puritan blindness). Thanks to the purifying rituals of the mikva woman, Mathilde’s semi liberation becomes obvious and she can finally enjoy sexual intercourse.

The film explores the erotic in an unconventional way and casts a new gaze on the body. Repeated shots of Laura and Djemal standing back to back while silently changing clothes in front of their lockers are the most visually powerful moments of their sexual desire, the moments in which the language of camera makes any words superfluous. This is the cinematic territory that mainstream cinema rarely steps into. Aboul’s unexpected editing, suggestive close ups and refined sound design defy the conventional filming style of love making scenes. Avoiding editing fragmentation of bodies, her camera flows, glides, stays on the protagonists’ faces, lingers, as if by accident, on their eyes, lips, arms and lets the lighting show their laughter of happiness. The camera seems to flow like a Marguerite Duras poem. Passive desire (to be the desired object) is turned into the active desire of both the female character and female spectator. This active desire is strengthened by the difference between (and opposition of) the two women.

All three female characters undergo a significant transformation. For the widowed mother, as the representative of the first generation of women, the change is the most challenging one, as she stops playing the appropriated patriarchal authority role and consents to Laura’s life of independence. While women are capable of more powerful and even radical changes, men seem to be entrapped in their religious and traditional labyrinth. Laura offers Djemal not only pleasure, satisfaction of his desire (through her own desire fulfillment), but offers him the possibility of liberation — setting him free of his religious and traditional imprisonment. While the husband welcomes and is respectful of Mathilde’s change (we hope), Djemal is not ready to accept his girlfriend’s invitation for their independent life together, he does not hear her plea for freedom from the religious and patriarchal tradition confines.

Laura’s subsequent suffering and suicide attempt are the most problematic and weakest film moments, as the narrative dangerously slackens, losing its strength. The end, however, offers multiple readings. One possible interpretation is that the woman becomes a victim to her love for the man. But I would like to choose a different reading the narrative end might provide, that of the woman succeeding in conquering her self destructive, victimizing impulses and resolves her inner conflicts, imposed by the patriarchal tradition. Djemal’s final cries of despair “I am so alone, so alone” suggest his own possibility of change and liberation, through catharsis of his own suffering.

As the women succeed in turning their (female) victimization into their own salvation, the film offers a more promising form of female subjectivity. Laura’s political statement is made overt through her rejection of traditional romance, patriarchal and religious discourse and her quest for knowledge and self discovery, thus destabilizing the male gaze. The last close-up of Laura standing alone in a crowd – multitude of individuals passing her by – may be suggestive of her renewal, rebirth and a new start of life – on her own. Woman might emerge not as a lack, but as a whole woman. But this is only one possible reading amongst many.