Hot Docs Review: ‘The School of Housewives’

Reykjavík school lets students pursue their ‘MRS. degree’ with a flicker of feminism

5 mins read

The School of Housewives
(Iceland, 75 min.)
Dir. Stefanía Thors
Programme: Persister

I always knew that women around the world, in previous generations, were given or expected to acquire an education in the domestic arts, whether via an institution or through their mothers and grandmothers. What I didn’t realise, is that a degree in domestic arts can still be attained today. The Reykjavík School of Housewives in Iceland has been teaching students the fading skills of cooking, cleaning, sewing and home economics since 1942. The School of Housewives, directed by Stefanía Thors, is a unique contemporary documentary about the school and its changing role over the years, as well as the shifting meaning of the housewife.

The film begins in the present day, introducing the school as it stands now and the women who are just starting there. One woman reveals that most people tell her different variations of the same sentence–you will become a good housewife—when they find out she’s starting at the school. Her reply? “And I say no! Sure, I’m going to the school, but I can still be a lousy wife…people are stuck on that. I’m not going there to become a housewife.” As more current students share their reasons for joining, it becomes clear that the image of the housewife has changed over the years, and that present-day students learn the handicrafts affiliated with the label without assuming the antiquated gender role.

As the women begin their semester, the film begins to smoothly segue from the present day-to-day to archival footage and to interviews with students, instructors and alumni, using lesson topics as clever transitions into the past. As alumni share their past experiences, learning cooking, sewing and etiquette among other things, current students are documented learning the very same skills. At one point, Aslaug, a former student in 1947, shares that for a woman at that time, this education was considered necessary; “to know how to be a housewife, to cook good food and manage the home.” In contrast, more recent alumni, including two men, and current students share very different motivations. From those excited to learn a specific skill like cooking, to those who want to learn about food waste management and mending clothes, the role of housewives has clearly changed in terms of gender and such basic values as conservation, efficiency and self-sufficiency. And yet, the lessons remain the same.

Though the film documents activities that can be considered mundane and quotidian, formal choices add a sense of wonder to the ordinary and keeps things interesting. Archival images are imbued with subtle animation, baking and rolling dough transforms into an interesting top-view time lapse, carefully curated sound effectively imbue emotion and manipulate time, ultimately leaving the viewer in a graceful quietness mimicking the expressed feelings of being in the school by its students, both present and former. This intermingling of the past and present that is maintained throughout the film also becomes a tool in which to reveal that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In a way, the school stands as an everlasting reminder that the domestic arts of the past remain pertinent to the present and, progressively, to times coming.

The School of Housewives is a tender shout-out that craftily reinvigorates “women’s work”, the making, sharing and caring for how things look and taste, with a flicker of feminism.

The School of Housewives screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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