When it Comes to Honoring Women in Film

in 30th Fribourg International Filmfestival

by Djia Mambu

When a major cultural manifestation sets out to honor women, most people are thrilled- rather naively- as if it were something special to celebrate those who represent half of human kind. The very act of  classification degrades women to the level of animals, technology or any other object.

However, this viewpoint seems to fade when we discover the actual content of the selection in competition. Very interesting films indeed, but far from what one might call a tribute to women. Thirteen films with only three female directors : this amounts to a 25% representation.  Most of the films competing feature a female character in the leading role, unfortunately through clichés or classic stereotypes, ranging from prostitutes (Siti) or victims of rape (Madonna) to warrior or Rambo women (A Monster with a Thousand Heads, Alias Maria) or the little poor girl (Blancka). This leads us to wonder what happened to ordinary women? Those with whom most women can identify, just like men do with male characters. The closing movie Parched by Leena Yadav, introduced by the festival as a comedy, was a tragic comedy about three friends trying to escape from a reality where women in their society are abused. One of them is subjected to domestic violence, another one is the victim of multiple rape and the third friend is a lonely mother trying to raise her son who noticeably takes his father’s path via an arranged marriage. Are these characters so present in movies that we now qualify these stories as a norm and, in fact, comedy?

Besides the films, some very interesting conferences and stimulating debates took place with a focus on women under the following headings: “Place aux femmes”: Faut-il encore parler des femmes au cinéma? ; La construction d’un personnage féminin; and Être réalisatrice en Afrique. Fittingly, such platforms of discussion seem to be the right place where female directors have to be “objects of” instead of being the well-respected subject. Inviting female filmmakers to take part in the discussion is the right thing to do, but how about showing their own films in the official competition? We are honoring  women for what they are still going through as women in this patriarchal society, but without resolving the real issue: equality. Inequality still exists in film selection from festivals, script writing, admission of budget, salaries, choice of main characters, etc. Even if these problems are well beyond the concerns of this 30th edition of a film festival, everything is related in one way or another and this anniversary will not change anything. Major cultural events are honoring women just as literature, science, religion, dance, animals or any other theme are honored. Women are still categorized as a theme and with this anniversary we have failed to change that.

If the criterion was to award the prize to the film which honors women the most, Roundabout in My Head, by the young Algerian director Hassen Ferhani, would definitely be a preferred contender, paradoxically, it is  the only film with no female character at all. Showing the impact of the non-presence of women in a man’s world, this film makes it clear that this environment is desperately lacking in love, thanks to the omnipresence of women in minds and hearts. Rightfully so ; this is what it is all about.

Edited by Eithne O’Neill