Over the past year watching one film a week by women (52 films by women), I watched a bigger range of diverse, progressive and interesting films than I have done previously in my life. So much so, I am doing the 52 Films challenge for a second year in a row.
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2017 – I’ve pulled together four of my favourite films that celebrate female identity, and explore what that means in a wider context.
Movern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
Movern Callar is Lynne Ramsay’s second feature, after Ratcatcher. Based on the Alan Warner novel of the same name – the film opens on a tragic scene, a dead body. The body in question belongs to Morvern’s boyfriend, an aspiring novelist, who has killed himself on Christmas eve. It emerges that he has left Morvern his completed manuscript to send to publishers.
I remember that opening scene more vividly than any other film I’ve ever watched. The persistent changing of the coloured lights, constantly flashing is perfectly juxtapositioned with the pool of blood around the body in the foreground. Morvern, silent in her grief and anger, holds his hand. Morvern Callar is never loud, rather it’s strength comes from it’s moments of quiet. Morvern grieves inwardly, never expressing what has happened – even to her best friend. Her actions after the death prompt questioning, yet at the same time they make perfect sense. The anger, frustration and deep pain at her boyfriend’s death (and consequential abandonment) are all bought into play.
There is a really interesting discussion of class throughout Morvern Callar. Morvern is working class and she works at a supermarket. There is an implication that her boyfriend was not working in order to write his novel and his comfortable Glaswegian flat suggests that he was far better off than Morvern. Her decision to sell the manuscript with her name on it seems like a callous one, but is also contextualised by this exploration of class. He has no use for the money, but it would fundamentally change Morvern’s life.
Ramsay’s control of the design, camera and sound make for a truly unique film. Understated but with so much to pick apart, Morvern Callar is a film that changes and evolves with each viewing.
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, 2000)
A masterpiece in animation, Marjane Satrapi’s auto-biographical film Persepolis is both funny, entertaining, political and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Closely following Satrapi’s own story, Persepolis focuses on events which happened in Iran during the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s/early 1980s. The films protagonist, Marjane, is reflecting on her life as a child and teenager, and the devastating effects that the Iranian government, the uprising and destabilisation had on her and her family.
Persepolis is a bold film and, by its very nature, a political one. From a relatively peaceful childhood, to becoming separated from her family, to homelessness and clinical depression – Marji’s story is riddled with sadness and horror. Through the eyes of a child and then a teenager, the injustice and inhumanity of the Iranian government can be witnessed. Satrapi’s voice is strong and clear throughout, guiding us to identify with Marji on her journey. As Marji’s identity becomes fraught and confused, Satrapi’s directorial voice shines through. Persepolis combines the political with the personal, essentially threading together complex social issues with a coming of age story. Marji also explores how she feels that has lost parts of who she is – she is trans-national as opposed to her parents who have never left Iran.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the darkness of Persepolis, it is also a charmingly funny film. Young Marji ‘s love of communism is adorable, and her interactions with adults provide wonderful opportunities for humour – which Satrapi makes the most of.
Persepolis is engaging, thought provoking and stunning. With the refugee crisis, and the recent rejection of the Dubs amendment in UK parliament, it is also perhaps more relevant today than ever before.
Paraíso (Mariana Chellino, 2016)
Representing fatness in cinema has traditionally, always been an issue. Representations of fat women in cinema specifically has always been downright awful. The only fat female characters in cinema that I remember growing up were Ursula from The Little Mermaid (who was kick-ass but also incredibly evil), and Rosemary from Shallow Hal (who was imagined to be skinny because Jack Black’s character wouldn’t date fat women). Not ideal.
Mariana Chellino’s Paraíso is one of the first films I have seen which doesn’t depict fatness as a sin. Carmen, our protagonist, is a fat woman. Her partner, Alfredo, is also fat. The opening sequence depicts the two engaging in sex. It’s sensual, soft, loving and sexual – what we see is a loving environment between two people. Their size is irrelevant.
The film focuses on the couple starting on a ‘weightwatchers’ style diet, complete with group weigh ins and diet plans. It is Carmen who initially wants to lose weight, after hearing two women talking about her in a bathroom at Alfredo’s company party. Before this, Carmen seems happy with herself, or at least does not seem insecure about her size. And why should she? This is the tipping point – and important to realise that it is not Carmen’s own insecurity that is the catalyst to lose weight, but judgement from others who don’t even know her.
Naturally, the dieting sparks confusion and misery in Carmen and Alfredo’s relationship – but Carmen remains a strong and convicted character. Though the diet is the catalyst for the conflict in the film, Carmen’s journey of rediscovering herself, food and cooking is the main event. Paraíso raises a lot of questions about food, size and identity, especially in relationships.
Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)
A runaway success of 2014, Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood was released cinemas globally after a phenomenal run in France. It has often been praised as the ‘female equivalent’ to La Haine, but this is a complete oversimplification. Though it’s true that both films explore the ideas of poverty, racism and growing up – Girlhood explores uniquely female experiences and handles its characters completely differently to La Haine, which results in two almost oppositional films.
Marieme wants to be someone other than a punching bag for her brother or a carer for her sister. She sees the gang as the only real opportunity to escape her own life, the life which is full of disappointment and lacking in any kind of support. Marieme sees the girls as a symbol of hope, of happiness. The ‘diamonds’ bedroom scene is beautifully staged to explore this idea. The authenticity of the scene is breathtaking. You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary.
Rather than portraying the girl gang (incidentally, ‘Girl Gang’ is what ‘Bande des Filles’ directly translates to) as a bad decision on Marieme’s part, the embrace of friendship is shown as something to celebrate. Marieme feels happy, secure and wanted when she is with her friends – which is hugely important in the transition from child to adult.
Marieme’s gender is also huge part of her identity, and is also something which is constantly being reaffirmed throughout the film. We open on a shot of a group playing American football, and at the end of the scene,it is revealed they are a women’s team. Likewise, the last few scenes of the film see Marieme sporting male clothing and a typically male hairstyle – leading to confusion about her gender. Pitched somewhere between childhood and adulthood, Marieme flows between ideas of femininity and masculinity throughout and her visual style is a huge part of her identity.