Out of the 13 films in the competition of the 39th Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF), just one is co-directed by a woman. Five have female leads, of which three look (and, in some cases, act) like your average calendar girl: skinny, young and perfectly tarted up on every occasion.
These are just numbers. Maybe. Maybe it is also a pure coincidence, and no offense, that festival director Nikita Mikhalkov, the acclaimed filmmaker and actor, is depicted on the first issue of the MIFF Daily newspaper on the red carpet looping his arms around jury member Ornella Muti: Beauty and the Boss. Because it seems to be particularly beauty (or what the average hetero-normative is expected to see as beauty) that the festival believes to be the most important redeeming quality in women.
It is beauty, naivety and youth that make Katya—the protagonist of Vadim Perelman’s drama Buy Me (Kupi menia)—prefer a job as hostess in the Arab Emirates to her philology scholarship in Paris. First she decides to stay at the sheik’s palace, even though she had until her arrival not understood that she would be a prostitute for Arab millionaires. Astonishingly the sheikh is good-looking, so Katya breaks into a spontaneous belly dance for him. Later, back in Russia, in a shared apartment with two equally breathtaking beauties who equally base their whole life on what men can and will buy for them, she quotes the Russian émigré poet Vladislav Khodasevich while being raped by an older man. But again she falls in love with the perpetrator. And maybe she wanted this, just a little bit? Being dressed up like that, tempting him?
Perelman does not allow his viewers any deviation from the male gaze. His film uses clichés until the bitter end: for him, the downward spiral of fallen angels can only result in one solution. On the way, we see shallow character traits, nude female bodies in compliant poses, and proofs for the old, somehow proudly presented prejudice, that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Even if it’s violent and contemptuous.
In Fenar Ahmad’s film Darkland (Denmark) men also can’t think of anything else than violence to push the unfair world back into its limits: the protagonist and second- generation Iraqi immigrant Zaid, a respected and well-off surgeon, whose younger brother is brutally murdered by drug-dealers, feels that he can’t rely on the police to find the killers. And since blood is thicker than water, he decides to muscle and weapon up before going on a savage revenge trip that will separate him forever from his pregnant Danish wife, who does not understand her husband’s behaviour—but after all she’s just a woman. And therefore she is not in the picture for acting, but for reacting.
There is a visible lack of complex female characters in the MIFF competition (and, talking of visibility—there is no black and no queer person for miles around, either). Films like the independent Bangladesh production No Bed of Roses (Doob, dir. Mostafa Sarwar Farooki) succeeds in painting an interesting setting of a man cheating his wife, his daughter and his mistress, but it therefore twists the whole plot around male desire. And, although we see a lot of convincing actresses (in full make-up), it fails the Bechdel test that was thought up by US-American cartoon artist Alison Bechdel in 1986 and that consists of three simple questions: 1/ are there two female characters with names in the film? 2/ who talk to each other? 3/ about something other than a man?
The remaining female lead characters—from the young political activist Ana in Ernesto Ardito and Virna Molina’s Symphony for Ana (Sinfonia para Ana, Argentina), over the shy teacher Hatsumi in Ryutaro Nakagawa’s Summer Blooms (Shigatso-no Nagai Yume, Japan) to the old teacher Elena Mikhailovna in Vladimir Kott’s Thawed Carp (Otmorozhennyi karp) therefore have trouble to make their claims. And this is a shame, because it should be possible for festival curators to be sensitive to subjects like gender and diversity quotas (even if they are dealing with a homophobic and male-dominated government). After all, women are not a minority. They are half of the world’s population.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2017