Review: ‘Five Feminist Minutes’

Hot Docs 2019

4 mins read

When the five-minute concept was first embraced by cultural activists, its theory was simple: multiple performances of that length by diverse creators was guaranteed to keep an audience interested. And if you didn’t like something, the next act started before you knew it.

Montreal’s Tangent Performance Gallery and later Toronto’s Women’s Cultural Building made it work in the early ‘80s and before the decade was out, Nightwood Theatre had established the Five-Minute Feminist Cabaret as a major annual fundraiser.

Rina Fraticelli, who came to the National Film Board’s famous women’s Studio D as Executive Producer in 1987, had seen first-hand the success of the programming strategy and in 1990 put it into cinematic action via Five Feminist Minutes, a series of 16 short films. To honour the NFB”S 80th anniversary and the 45th anniversary of Studio D, the NFB and Hot Docs has collaborated to produce four new five-minute shorts, inspired by four of the original 16. The eight films screen together in a fascinating series.

Sometimes the connecting threads between the two films are obvious. Catherine Martin’s Minquon, Minquon…, focuses on the Indigenous painter Shirley Bear, who reveals her personal inspiration, her frustration with colonial assumptions about the role of First Nations women and her determination to redress these imbalanced views. Lake, by Alexandra Lazarowich, does this last, beginning with an exquisite long shot of a swath of ice and zooming in on women ice fishing.

Deanne Foley spins off of Mary Lewis’s clever tribute to her spinster Aunt Helen to create the kick-ass Radical, featuring a hilarious Mary Walsh doing stand-up on the virtues of getting old. Both shorts promote wildly alternative views of what can empower women in a culture that restricts female social roles and sets ludicrous standards of beauty.

The link between New Shoes and Question Period is the director herself, Ann Marie Fleming, but the films themselves are very different. New Shoes dramatizes a five-minute interview: a woman looks straight into the camera and recounts how she was almost murdered by the boyfriend she had left. It’s simple and harrowing. The beautiful Question Period is much more experimental, but no less powerful, as Syrian immigrants briefly comment on home, displacement, racism and safety as their images fade in and out to reflect their anxiety.

But like just about every Five-Minute collection this one does have a weak spot. Joyce Wong’s Camera Test satirizes the ridiculous demands male producers place on female directors that leach women’s work of their power and authenticity. The film lacks the charm of its 1990 inspiration, The Untilled Story, which mocks the efforts to keep women in their career place. Wong, who made the excellent feature Wexford Plaza, is way too on the nose here.

But it’s hardly a disaster – it has its fun moments – and does not at all diminish the impact of the program as a whole.

Five Feminist Minutes screens:
-Wed, May 1 at 3:30 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox

The films will also be on at a later date.

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

Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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