Women and Violence: the Stereotypes Die Hard

in 29th Festroia International Film Festival

by Marie-Pauline Mollaret

Among the themes tackled by movies in the competition section of the 29th edition of Festroia, violence against women seems to have been the most recurrent: physical violence, often matched with sexual abuse, which evolves in the familial surroundings.

In 90 Minutes (90 minutter) directed by Eva Sørhaug (Norway), three different stories show a woman exposed to a specific form of domestic violence. The first woman (whose face we don’t really see) is poisoned by her husband. The second one is shot to death by her ex-husband, who can’t accept the fact that she met somebody else. The third one is beaten and raped by her hysterically violent partner.

Particularly in the third part, the director takes an unvarnished look at the abuses (blows, humiliation, rape) in scenes enhanced by meticulous photography and stylish structure. Almost unbearable sequences which implacably dissect the mechanism of maltreatment, in which the victim is accused of being responsible for what happens to her and the persecutor pretends he is just punishing her.

This has a point in common with Halima’s Path (Halimin put) by Arsen Anton Ostojic (Croatia), which takes place in the Yugoslavia of the late 70’s, and where a Muslim father beats his daughter, guilty of having an affair with a Christian. In the name of the sacrosanct tradition of patriarchy, he believes he is allowed to punish her, and even to kill her, without anyone having a word to say about it. But later in the movie, she, not the father, is the one who will need forgiveness (for having married a man of a different religion). In this way, she is restricted to the role of “voluntary” victim who deserves her fate and who eventually acknowledges her “faults”.

Three other movies in competition also take up the abuses of men against their partners: Circles (Krugovi) by Srdan Golubovic (Serbia), where a young Serbian woman tries to start a new life after her husband has beaten her. 8-Ball (8-pallo) by Aku Louhimies (Finland), in which a drug dealer lashes out violently against his girlfriend who dares defy him. The Girl and Death (Het meisje en de dood) by Jos Stelling (Netherlands), which shows the traditional figure of the jealous protector who don’t hesitate to give his mistress “a good hiding” when she falls in love with someone else.

It is a striking phenomenon that male characters often claim to love those they abuse. A “love” which, from their viewpoint, goes hand in hand with a strong feeling of property. As if those “beloved” women were objects a man could possess and treat as he wishes. Most of the directors have a pessimistic view of those amorous conflictual relationships in which women are always the victims, trapped inextricably in emotional blackmail and manipulation. For them, there is no means of escaping what is described as their destiny: either they quietly submit or they are compelled to run away and fend for themselves. In fact, a number of the films emphasise that their persecutors (somehow miraculously almighty) can find them anywhere.

It appears that true liberation from this unwholesome influence can only be achieved by resorting to violence. This inversion of the roles, turning victims into persecutors, condemns them, in a way, to becoming exactly like those they are fighting against. It is the final victory of individuals who know only the language of brutality, a particularly strange way of dividing society into victims and persecutors, without a possible third choice.

Curiously, when we compare these situations with male characters confronted with acts of violence, we see that they usually get through by means of cleverness and tricks, as in Viva Belarus! (Zywie Bielarus) by Krzysztof Lukaszewicz, where a young Byelorussian man ill-treated during his military service creates a blog to criticize the system, or in the Dutch film The Girl and Death, where a young doctor takes his revenge by winning at card games.

The role of the victim (especially in case of gratuitous violence) is indeed traditionally allotted to women. The directors who perpetuate this cliché are probably trying to reflect (and denounce) a certain reality. But for the most part they merely perpetuate the stereotype by continuing to associate women with violence in the audience’s mind.

Fortunately, Festroia 2013 also showed some (rare) examples of female characters who succeed in breaking out of the vicious circle: the heroine of Broken Circle Breakdown by Felix van Groeningen (Belgium), who is a tattoo artist and sings bluegrass; the heroine of Viva Belarus!, who is always in action, ready to take risks to fight for her opinions, and lastly the heroine of Baby Blues (Kasia Roslaniec, Poland), a true teenage girl of today, full of flaws and contradictions, who never stops surprising the audience.

Proof that, despite everything, it is possible (and above all rewarding) to depart from the never-ending clichés of what a woman is supposed to be like and to simply focus on human beings with their own special personality and destiny.

Edited by Stephen Locke