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Documentary as Feminist Art Form; or, Let’s All Move to Sweden

Still from Filming Desire: A Journey Through Women’s Film (dir. Marie Mandy, 2000)
Courtesy IDFA.


The first feminist gesture is to say: “OK, they’re looking at me. But I’m looking at them.” The act of deciding to look, of deciding that the world is not defined by how people see me, but how I see them.
— Agnès Varda in Filming Desire

1975, International Year of the Woman. In Paris, the French philosopher Hélène Cixous publishes “Le rire de la méduse” (“The Laugh of the Medusa”), and British writer Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” hits the scene in the film journal Screen. Three years earlier in 1972, John Berger publishes Ways of Seeing, which gets turned into a BBC mini-series and then travels on to become a cultural studies, feminist/film theory and semiotic staple. That same year, Women Make Movies (WMM) is created in New York to tackle the widespread mis- and under-representation of women in media. (WMM continues to champion the production, promotion, distribution and exhibition of documentaries by and about women.) Two years later in 1974, in conjunction with the upcoming International Women’s Year, the National Film Board of Canada spearheads Studio D, a pioneering initiative with a mandate to also make films by, for and about women. In the span of three years, in four countries, the ideological foundation is laid for what will become known as The Gaze: “the male gaze” and the female gaze. Capitalized, in quotes or italics—take your pick. Whichever way, the core concept is intrinsically linked to documentary.

Art critic and novelist John Berger has often written about objectification, the Other, and power dynamics between the sexes. The following quote from Ways of Seeing illustrates a key skill of a good documentarian: “A woman must continually watch herself… From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the survey and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.” Within that schism, an unforeseen gift.

Decades of this internalized “watching herself being watched” at first wounds, and then, with the invisible scar tissue of self-awareness, fortifies a doc-maker’s inclination toward greater connection with her subject matter. The line separating objective and subjective blurs. Empathy leads. Being keenly aware of what it feels like to have been rendered silent and invisible has a valuable flipside: an appreciation of what it’s like to be seen, really seen. A documentary that recognizes otherness (be it gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, class) from both sides of the camera has far-reaching potential to impact and influence an audience and the collective consciousness.

2014, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Amsterdam is chilly and damp. IDFA is teeming, synaptic. The highly anticipated Female Gaze programme, my compass. Fifteen filmmakers, 28 films, an afternoon panel, a smaller follow-up session and discussions throughout. A weave of interconnections and a ton to think about. This focus on women and representation at the world’s largest and most prestigious documentary film festival is timely. The gaze is all the rage. Once considered incendiary or stuffy rhetoric, the term’s now bandied about with carefree authority: “_The Bachelor_, Shirtless Men, and the Dawn of the Female Gaze” (The Huffington Post), and from Ms. Magazine, “Transparent’s Soloway On Inventing the Female Gaze.” Oh, really?

The festival kicks off with a whopper. “Should IDFA be pulling out stops to make it 50/50?” No disrespect from the bleachers, but the question is preposterous. Surprisingly, the response isn’t unanimous among the majority-female, packed audience. The statistics are dismal, which only makes it worse. In the main competition, women directors make up 26 per cent and only three films were about women. But wait, there’s more. In 11 years, there’s been almost no fluctuation—the numbers hover around one-third. Ouch.

Doc doyenne Debbie Zimmerman of Women Make Movies cuts to the chase: “IDFA is in the middle of the pack. Sundance is slightly better only because it’s been working on it for longer. Toronto [TIFF] is appalling, Berlin’s pretty bad, and Cannes is absolutely appalling.” A stale and complicated impasse. Dapper in a light pink suit, Jess Search, the moderator and chief executive at BRITDOC, circles back to the opening question: “Is there a need to strive for more gender diversity within film?” Surrounded by the foremost femmes of the worldwide documentary sisterhood, I start to wonder, Is that the sound of wheels spinning?

Personally, I’m partial to the Scandinavian dialect. As in, “I’m totally a 50/50 person, and I think everything else is rubbish,” declares Anna Serner, a beacon of bluntness and CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. Serner confirms that the Institute “shall fund equally between the sexes. 50/50 over time. That is very important to emphasize. Over time, it should be 50/50.” She stresses the importance of “schooling women on how to get financing, and how to get through the Forum at IDFA. It’s the structure that is discriminating. We are stuck, and we need to think.” Domitilla Olivieri thinks about these issues a lot. A lecturer on media and cultural studies at Utrecht University, she’s the representative progeny of the heady triumvirate of Berger, Mulvey and Cixous. “In the moment we ask if there is a female gaze, we’re asking a lot of things at once. Who is representing whom, for whom and in what context? What kind of stories are being told and in what kind of circumstances?

We Are Half of Iran’s Population (dir. Rakshan Bain-Eternad, 2009)
Courtesy IDFA.


A whole array of other questions comes up about diversity, power, privilege. Documentaries by women tend to provoke and facilitate new ways of seeing, to see the world anew—to see differently.” Olivieri presents the opening montage of Rakhshan Bani-E’temad’s We Are Half of Iran’s Population (2009), about women’s disadvantaged position in society, made in the lead-up to 2009’s national election, explaining that “[M]any of the questions we should be asking are asked in the first minute and a half: What should I say? Where should I look? Not just ‘Do I look in the camera?’ but ‘Who am I looking at?’ Who is going to see me speaking? What kind of story am I supposed to tell, and to whom?” Nishtha Jain, director of Gulabi Gang (2012), echoes the need to bring the concept of intersectionality into the dialogue: “I’m surprised at the lack of discussion of a post-colonial perspective. When we talk about affirmative action, we’re creating an elite. The important question here is what female? All females are not equal. What female is making a film about which female—from which caste, class, gender, country and culture? That’s where dominance and power lie. Who’s wielding the camera?” So many questions.

WWDZD: What Would Debbie Zimmerman Do? “I want to propose a new Bechdel Test for documentary.” Coined in 1985 by Alison Bechdel (recipient of the 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant”) in her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” the test is dated. Essentially, a film must have two female characters that talk to each other about something other than a man. Not to discredit what was a landmark step toward parity in fiction film, but it low-balled. Thankfully, however, it made a dent: since 2013, an initiative of the Swedish Film Institute helped cinemas in Sweden rate narrative films for gender bias. Now it’s finally entering the non-fiction arena. “The Bechdel Test (for doc) should be that 50 per cent of subjects are women. If there are experts in the film, 50 per cent should be women,” contends Zimmerman. “Or 51 per cent, because we are 51 per cent of the population. Women’s perspectives on these quote-unquote ‘male subjects’ have to be represented. Women’s perspectives on war, the economy, on every single issue in the world…. What I do is not just support women filmmakers because I want there to be more female bodies behind the camera, it’s because of what gets onto the camera. And because of the perspectives missing in mainstream media.”

In college in the late ’80s, I asked my French Lit professor why there weren’t more female authors in the syllabus and more female profs in the department. His response echoes the endemic challenges the doc world continues to face: more female students must become professors (read: directors, crew, executive producers, festival heads, policy makers) to then rehabilitate academia (the industry).

Addressing disparity in film school, Marie Mandy, director of Filming Desire (2000), believes that “we need to identify some kind of specificity of woman cinema. I don’t remember seeing one film by a woman. Why not propose an entire year where the students only watch films made by women? Study their narrative structure in terms of image system, framing and style. How will it change the way male and female students perceive film history, and how would it inform their work?” This year, the Swedish Film Institute created Nordic Women in Film, a portal of cinematographers, screenwriters, editors, producers and directors. “History has erased women. There are female filmmakers that have been forgotten,” asserts Anna Serner. “Anytime someone says there aren’t competent female filmmakers, they can look to this archive.”

Female, feminine, feminist gaze. A mélange of meanings and ample room for confusion. One must remain vigilant against generalization and avoid ivory tower clichés. “Instead of thinking of the female gaze as only one thing, multiply the perspectives, multiply the gazes,” reminds Olivieri. Paradox and co-existing contradictions are par for the course. Not all women documentary directors create from a feminist viewpoint, and there are many male doc-makers who identify as feminist. Albert Maysles, arguably one of the greatest documentarians, possessed a giant female/feminist gaze. His insistence on looking for—and celebrating—the good in others was pure humanism.

Gulabi Gang (dir. Nishtha Jain, 2012)
Courtesy IDFA.


The rooster crows but the hen delivers the goods.
—Old English proverb

In PoV #60, I correlated the work of British documentarian Kim Longinotto to Deepak Chopra’s idea of a “new intelligence. A female intelligence (that) is non-linear, holistic, intuitive, creative, nourishing and wise. It’s non-predatory, not always about winning or losing, and needs to be embraced by both men and women.” This new intelligence necessitates a new gaze: change the way you think, change the way you see the world.

Sweden has officially recognized hen, a gender-neutral pronoun evolved from han (“he”) and hon (“she”). First introduced in 1966, it’s taken almost 50 years for hen to be accepted into the Swedish language, entered in the 2015 Svenska Akademiens ordlista. Now part of the vernacular, hen is three letters of a social revolution: tolerance, inclusion and positive social change. Used when the gender of a person is unknown or irrelevant, the word/concept is gaining momentum and starting to be adopted in schools. One vociferous opponent, Jan Guillou, a popular Swedish author, blames “feminists who want to destroy our language.” Funny how the word “language” is synonymous with “mother tongue.”

Inspired by the trailblazing Swedes, I propose an upgraded version of the gaze: “the hen gaze.” A post-male, post-female, post-thirdwave-feminist gaze that ventures into the limitless terrain beyond the realm of the binary. “This tool [the gaze] was an important concept,” maintains Jain. “We have to bring in a [new] concept that incorporates all the other problematics, and power relationships as well.” This nascent, gender-free “hen gaze” is innately feminist (consider that a hen is a female fowl). Equality, plurality and intersectionality are primary, encompassing race, age, class, religious and sexual orientation. And picture the permutations for doc: henhouse, nest eggs, hen party, mother hens (I can think of quite a few contenders). Chicken & Egg Pictures, advocates of innovative social activist docs by women, is an apt forerunner. Free from gendered conditioning, the gaze that is one, the gaze that is many.

It’s high time to de-eroticize the gaze. Strip it of its objectifying maleness, objectified femaleness and sexualized framing. The genus that is doc continually reimagines itself into new shapes and contours. Elders always have trouble adapting to the young’uns, but it’s an inevitable evolutionary process. At heart, a documentary seeks to convey a particular representation of reality. And a good doc challenges the language, style and method of how to go about doing that. The scholar Michael Renov describes “the documentary gaze as constitutively multi-form, embroiled with conscious motives and unconscious desires…driven by curiosity no more than by terror and fascination.” There’s hybrid documentary and docufiction, tone-poems, new media interactive, virtual reality and, more recently, “unruly documentary artivism.” The margins are where the rebels and catalytic artists dwell. And Hélène Cixous’s Medusian battle cry from 40 years ago continues to spur on: “Women must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes.” A splintering genre is a healthy sign. Like feminism, doc mutates, fecund and boundless.

It could very well be that documentary is the feminist art form. Its nature is changeable, resistant to being boxed in and strictly defined. It’s responsive to context, receptive to nuance, and does not shy away from complexity or ambiguity. Finnish documentarian Pirjo Honkasalo claims that “a ‘story’ is an evil invention of men. The interesting things are elsewhere.” Before there’s a film, there is a motivation and impetus. A sense of duty to fulfill, a higher purpose to communicate, or simply to figure out the answer to a complicated question. Speaking of female directors, Sally Potter suggests in Filming Desire that “as a general rule, there’s more of an interest in the realm of subtle experience, subtle feeling. The hidden life of a character, the hidden reality of a situation…changes the scale of things.” The hen gaze filtered through a documentary lens is myriad: self-reflexive, fragmented, process-oriented, multi-layered, relational, and often focusing on the interior life of the story/subject. Always aware of positioning: “Am I pushing myself in front, or am I looking at it from the back, or the side? In general, you will find that women have a tendency to meander,” says Marie Mandy. To paraphrase Cixous, a self-seeking documentary.

This sensibility is gaining traction with the higher-ups. Referring to documentary as an “empathy machine,” Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, proposed during a 2014 DOC NYC keynote address that “if we come together as a community—financially, collegially, communally, experimentally—then we can trust the artist to lead us creatively, morally and socially. If we let them.”

I arrived at documentary through art and feminism, nudged on by psychology and spirituality more so than activism or filmmaking. Weaned on Judy Blume and Judy Chicago, groomed by the Guerrilla Girls and “riot grrrls,” I deconstructed the Spice Girls and cheered on Pussy Riot. Born in May ’68, I’ve got second-wave feminism in my blood. My generation was raised on the feminist slogan “the personal is political,” which also happens to be that magic ingredient found in exceptional documentaries. The idea has assumed different forms over the years (“Take Back the Night” and “Love Sees No Color”) and, thanks in large part to social media, millions are now collectively self-identifying against injustice and taking up space. Unlike the insidious narcissism of the “selfie” craze, this simultaneously lived-documented-broadcasted reality is the hen gaze in action. Personalizing the plight of others and exploding it online. “I can’t breathe” morphed into “Je suis Charlie” in a matter of weeks. The once Other is no longer.

Perhaps for some, IDFA marked that alchemical moment foretold in the 1999 book Feminism and Documentary when “documentary and feminist film studies…converse and collide.” Or maybe it’s just one more step forward that took 15 years. The title of a 2014 article by writer Rebecca Solnit, “Listen up, women are telling their story now,” is misleading. Women have been telling their story since time immemorial; the distinction now is that “someone” is starting to listen, that someone being the still male-dominated media machine. Progress may seem patchy, as evidenced by Flatgate at this year’s Cannes Film Festival: walk a mile in my shoes, as long as they’re high heels. But the backlash resounded. Paradigmatic growth spurts are a kind of collision, and we have to be willing to stick it out for the long haul, over time. Stand sure, keep going, and cling to the convictions that got us here in the first place.

Additional note from author (added 22/12/2015)
A sampling from The Female Gaze, IDFA 2014

Highlighting women in documentary, fifteen filmmakers from around the world comprised The Female Gaze special programme. Each was asked to select a documentary she made, a classic that inspired her, and another from a promising up-and-comer. One film leapfrogs to another, creating an inter-generational mesh of docs on disparate subjects. In total, forty films and forty-five directors. Looking for connections between the docs, Dutch film critic Dana Linssen described the films as being “mostly observational, patient, empathetic, curious, sensitive, poetic, and lyrical. Yes, they are by female filmmakers and often about female protagonists, but they differ widely in style, approach, in look and feel.”

Exploring how female directors depict and shoot sexuality, Marie Mandy’s Filming Desire – A Journey Through Women’s Film (2000) echoes Linssen’s current appraisal: “There are as many kinds of cinema as there are women filmmakers. Finally women can feed on other views, fantasize and dream of a new image of themselves.” That documentary was selected by Safi Faye, the first female director from Sub-Saharan Africa, who presented her ethnographic docufiction classic, Peasant Letter (1975), banned for over a decade for its critique of post-colonial Senegal.

Forough Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black (1962), a black and white poetic snapshot of life in a leper colony in Iran, was chosen by Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, as well as Pirjo Honkasalo. Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo picked Honkasalo’s haunting Tanushka and the 7 Devils (1993). An exceptional cinematographer, Honkasalo holds her lens on young Tanushka for extended periods of time and then, ever so subtly, shifts to catch a moment unaware in the periphery. Ambo attended with her latest film, Good Things Await (2014), a touching portrait of an impassioned Swedish biodynamic farmer; and she selected Romanian newcomer Teodora Mihai’s Waiting For August (2014), which won the Best International Documentary Award at last year’s Hot Docs.

Widely known as “The First Lady of Iranian Cinema,” Rakhshan Bani-E’temad’s documentaries and fiction films deal with cultural taboos: politics, family life, and the complex pressures faced by women in modern Iran. With We Are Half Of Iran’s Population (2009), she asserts that, “there is hope because there are lots of women with the same point of view; they know their rights and they’re fighting for them. I’m more concentrated on women because I know women’s problems better. For me, it’s more important how you look at problems. My gaze is to human beings.” Her current documentary is on the oldest living female environmental activist in Iran. “All my films show the social problems in Iran; but at the same time they show hope. The most important point for change is hope,” she insists. “I show how people try to change, to find a better life. I believe it’s my responsibility as a filmmaker.”

Bani-E’temad selected Profession: Documentarist (2013), a collection of short autobiographical essays dealing with complex issues faced by the filmmakers such as immigration, war, cultural identity before and after the revolution, relationships, career, and self-determination. This non-fiction “Iranian Group of Seven” is Nahid Rezaei, Shirin Barghnavard, Firouzeh Khosrovani, Farahnaz Sharifi, Mina Keshavarz, Sepideh Abtahi, and Sahar Salahshoor. They support each other’s commitment to filmmaking in a restrictive society such as Iran, where threats of censorship and imprisonment are real. For them, making socially conscious films is an act of personal and political necessity. Barghnavard believes that, “it was brave of IDFA to bring up these issues that we have to think and talk about. The problem in my country is that we never raise such questions; we have so many other questions to think about.” Rezaei adds that, “even though we are in different situations in each country, it was interesting for me because I thought it was just in Iran where there’s such a big difference between men and women. I would like to organise a similar seminar in my country. That could really help.”

The collaborative project was a demanding experience for them: zero budget, no outside assistance save for friends and family; and no one could know about the making of Profession: Documentarist until its first screening. “The important thing is that we could stay together over two years,” says Khosrovani. “We didn’t know if we could finish it because of political or personal problems. And now we are here. It is very important for all of us to be here together.” This camaraderie informs their working process: discussions, arguments, long working sessions, cooking and sharing meals-–like a family. Khosrovani also had a long-form doc in the main competition about the dawn of puberty and subsequent donning of the hijab by Muslim girls. Made with support from the IDFA Bertha Fund, Fest of Duty (2014) won the Oxfam Global Justice Award, presented by Gulabi Gang’s Nishtha Jain.
Among the chosen, octogenarian and undisputed grand-mère spirituelle de documentaire, Agnès Varda was the favorite. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, directors of 12th & Delaware (2010), selected Les Plages d’Agnès (2008) while doc “living legend” Heddy Honigmann (Good Husband, Good Son, 2001) and Jasmila Zbanic (Images from the Corner, 2003) both picked Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (2000). Jain considers Les Glaneurs a definitive classic, concluding that, “Agnès Varda really taught us to enjoy, and to delve into the details. By going away from the main narrative, she’s able to take little diversions. Break the rules. She is able to personalize, and shift the gaze to herself while she is looking at other things.”

Noelle Elia is an artist, writer and filmmaker whose politics are based in aesthetics and emotional connection. Interested in what makes us similar rather than different, she searches for common threads as a way to get inside this never-ending question.

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