A Year With Women – Identity in 4 Films

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.

Enjoy!

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.

Female Directors: Documentaries You Should See

Disclaimer: I really, really hate that I still need to put ‘female directors’ at the top of this post, because the default for a director is overwhelmingly male. Okay, that said…

Though the film industry is notorious for being male dominated, female directors tend to fare ever so slightly better in the documentary industry. Since 1967, at least 12 women have won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, in comparison to just Kathryn Bigalowe for the Drama Best Director award. There are a few probable reasons for this – one being that a vast many documentaries are made independently and out of sight of large studios, who may otherwise be very unlikely to put their money into a film directed by a woman. Documentaries are, on average, cheaper to produce. This means less capital needs to be provided by investors and larger distribution companies – giving the director more freedom.

Though all is not yet equal in love and documentary film-making, this does mean that there are more documentary films directed by women than there are fictional films. Documentaries do tend to be a bit of a niche, though Netflix’s expansive catalogue of docs has made the genre kind of ‘cool’ again. I’ve compiled a little list below of the female directed documentaries that everyone should see; political, social, impact and biographical.

BIOGRAPHICAL

What Happened Miss Simone (dir. Liz Garbus)

Opening the 2015 Sundance film festival, What Happened Miss Simone is a emotional roller-coaster ride through the life of Nina Simone – icon, activist and performer. Traditionally biographical, Miss Simone searches through Nina Simone’s life, the ups and the downs, and slowly uncovers a phenomenal person. A true activist, and wise beyond her years, Simone was plagued with mental illness and depression – informing her work throughout her life. Liz Garbus’ documentary is engaging, beautiful and heart-breaking. She expertly peices together archive footage with Simone’s performances and interviews with thsoe who knew her.

Dreams of a Life (dir. Carol Morley)

Carol Morley’s docu-drama telling the story of the haunting fate of Joyce Carol Vincent is a film which will top documentary lists for years to come. The true story of Vincent’s death in a small London flat in 2003 was unremarkable, except for the fact that she was undiscovered until 2006 – and only then by the local authorities when it became apparent she was no longer paying her utility bills. Morley saw the story in a newspaper and was inspired to discover how a seemingly friendly, outgoing young woman could die so painfully alone in that way. As expected, Dreams of a Life is tragically sad, but a fantastic watch from beginning to end.

The Arbor (dir. Clio Barnard)

The Arbor has frequently been described as an experimental documentary, masterfully directed by Clio Barnard. The film takes us through the life of Andrea Dunbar, working class Bradford play-wight, and the issues that plagued both herself and her family. Though the interviews are all recorded by Dunbar’s mother, father, daughters, friends and acquaintances – Barnard cast actors, who lip-sync the dialogue on-screen. It makes for a really unique experience, as well as critiquing the entire documentary genre in itself. Again, it isn’t a cheerful watch but it’s revealing about the nature of the media, of success and of film-making in general.

SOCIETY

Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)

The Siegal family are, at the beginning of Queen of Versailles, one of the richest families in America. Before the economic crash of 2008, they had just embarked on building what was to be the largest house in the States and director Lauren Greenfield had begun filming the family and their day to day routines. What happened next was unprecedented. The 2008 crash engulfed the Siegal family business (timeshare apartments), and Greenfield manages to capture the anguish, tension and breakdown of a family unit. What begins as a look inside ‘how the other half live’, Queen of Versailles speaks volume about family, greed, wealth and what it means to be happy.

Lioness (dir. Meg McLagen and Daria Sommers)

Lioness follows a group of five female veterans, part of the first women to be permitted to fight in direct ground conflict. Directors Meg McLagen and Daria Sommer’s explore the difficulties the women have faced, mostly due to the lack of support and training given to the group post and pre-conflict. Though Lioness uses archive, news excerpts and observational footage, it is the intimate and revealing interviews with the women themselves that sets this film apart. Pulled together, it creates a haunting and desperate account of those forgotten in war, the Lionesses.

POLITICAL

The Lords Tale (dir. Molly Dineen)

The UK has some pretty weird traditions surrounding politics, and the House of Lords is one of them. Filmed over a crucial ‘reconstructing’ of the House of Lords, Molly Dineen’s documentary observes the results of the House of Lords Act of 1999 as the hereditary peers are whittled down from 800 to 93. For those interested in politics, The Lords Tale gives an unbiased view of the act and raises some very interesting questions about the idea of democracy. For those uninterested in politics, it is the characters within the film that are truly engaging. From the typical old, white toffs who seem to have no understanding of the real world to those who seem to be doing some genuine good in the world – it is the absolute honesty of the interviews that makes the film so special. Though you do have to wonder why some of them are allowed to make significant decisions for the country – especially when they can’t list names from 1 – 42 in order of preference…

The Square (dir. Jehane Noujaim)

Premiering at Sundance Festival, and receiving universal accalaim – Jehane Noujaim’s The Square depicts the day to day lives of those struggling against a political regime poised to destroy everything they stand for. In stark contrast to the Western media’s portrayal of the conflict in Egypt, Noujaim brings us close to the reality of activism and the fight for freedom. It’s a truly inspiring film, lifting a lid off one of the biggest conflicts in our world today. Expertly shot and directed, The Square is a film that everyone should see.

IMPACT

Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

When Blackfish came out in 2013, it completely changed the face of impact documentaries. Since it’s release, Seaworld has suffered financial losses, and has subsequently stated that it will phase out it’s orca programme over the next few years. Blackfish focused primarily on Tilikum, an orca who had been captured and raised at Seaworld Orlando, and had been responsible for several human deaths in his time there. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a relative newcomer to the documentary industry, unveiled the horrific treatment of the orcas and shocking statistics about orcas lives in captivity vs in the wild. It’s a tough watch, but a fantastic documentary that has prompted real change.

The Divide (dir. Katharine Round)

Katharine Round’s 2016 documentary about the levels of inequality in the Western world could not come at a better time. For most of us, we have heard the statistics and seen the figures, but The Divide turns those (essentially) meaningless figures into actual, real human beings. We meet people who live at both ends of the spectrum and many who live somewhere in the middle – what becomes immediately clear is that everyone is striving for a better life. The unfairness of the economic system, the causes and effects of the 2008 crash and the struggle just to get through the day are all realised in Round’s documentary. Sit up, pay attention and see for yourself.

LFF Round-up: The Levelling

In 2014, intense rainfall flooded the farmlands of Somerset, UK. Land became waterlogged, crops were destroyed – buildings, bridges and homes were washed away in the flooding. In true British form, we ‘kept calm and carried on’, but the effects of the floods can still be seen in the landscape today. Hope Dickson Leach’s first feature film The Levelling sets its narrative around this disastrous period – and investigates the connection between nature and humanity, with breathtaking results.

Clover (Game of Thrones‘s Ellie Kendrick) returns home to the family farm after the sudden death of her brother, Harry. As she re-connects with her father, it is clear that there is a huge fracture within their family – bought to light by Harry’s suicide. Both Clover and her father, Aubrey (David Troughton) battle with their grief, and inability to communicate with each other. It becomes clear to Clover that life on the farm for her brother was not what it seemed and although Aubrey insists that Harry’s death was an accident, Clover starts to realise the issues run deeper than she could have imagined. Both father and daughter, inept at dealing with their own emotions, struggle through the aftermath of his death – eventually learning that they both must accept their own feelings of guilt before they can move on.

The Levelling is a film of little dialogue. What is said between Clover and Aubrey holds great meaning and is deliberate. There is little room for small talk or chatter, there are no wasted words or ‘filler’. It is also within the silences between dialogue (of which there are many) that The Levelling is at it’s most captivating. From the very outset, the lead-up to Harry’s death, we are engaged by images. The stark contrast between the lucid party sequence (colourful fire, costume and frantic camera movements) and the following scene as Clover arrives at the farm, explains everything we need to know without words. As Clover arrives, the farm is dull, grey and washed out. There is something wrong here. The interluding shots between scenes of animals swimming in water remind us of the flooding, and consequently of Clover’s feelings of guilt.

The vast majority of the shots are handheld, following Clover around the farm, watching her as a bystander as she tries to make sense of her brothers death. The Levelling is shot simply but with great conviction. The lighting and set design makes the most of what is already there, giving the film a sense of absolute realism, as is so often the style with British indie films. It undermines the hard work of director Hope Dickson Leach and the crew to say that it’s ‘no frills’ filmmaking, but the style is uncomplicated and modest, and all the better to immerse us into the narrative. Dickson Leach has talked about the films tight budget and shooting schedule, and whilst that might have produced a lesser film for some – in this case it has made the film pretty remarkable. Working with what was already available, shooting in natural light, using pre-existing farm buildings yet focusing on the two main characters relationships to each other sincerely pays off.

Ellie Kendrick’s performance is also a real highlight of the film. We watch her unravel in  front of our eyes, and Kendrick is superb at portraying the emotions pulling Clover in two different directions. She wants to be angry at Aubrey for kicking her out, angry at Harry for killing himself but she is too preoccupied with her own sense of guilt for not returning during the floods, that she can’t make sense of anything. Kendrick delivers an incredible performance throughout.

Under the surface, The Levelling also explores the relationship between humans and nature. Life and death are constant themes throughout the film. The catalyst for the film’s events is the death of Harry, and Clover constantly encounters death throughout the film. She discovers the badgers, which have been killed, and in one traumatic scene, Aubrey orders her to shoot a baby calf. Despite desperately not wanting to, Clover obliges – shooting the calf with a shotgun (similar to the one which Harry killed himself with). Clover’s job (a trainee vet) means that she is constantly in contact with the circle of life – bringing new life into the world, and watching animals die. It’s cyclical – much like Aubrey and Clover’s relationship in the film. As soon as it seems that the two of them see eye to eye, their relationship deteriorates again.

The idea of nature going on regardless of whether or not we are here to see it is very prevalent within The Levelling. The farm must carry on, the work will never stop and if the rain is going to come, it will. Nature doesn’t care for Clover and Aubrey’s grief or guilt. As Aubrey says, ‘we move on…’ The cows still have to be milked, nature will not stop for the death of one human.

This message, though seemingly very distressing, becomes one of hope by the very end of the film. It is only as the heavens open and it finally begins to rain, that Aubrey allows himself to grieve. He breaks down crying in Clover’s arms – reiterating that cyclical bond with nature yet again. The rain mimics Aubrey’s tears whilst Aubrey and Clover’s roles are reversed – Clover is comforting her father.

The Levelling is a small film, with a lot of heart, and a lot to say about grief, humanity and nature.

 

As I Open My Eyes: Not Your ‘Average’ Coming of Age Film

Farah, a curious and bright eyed eighteen year old on the cliff edge of adulthood, wants to be a singer. Her mother, worldweary Hayett, wants her to study and become a doctor. Whilst the two of them battle it out in an age old story between mother and daughter, the country they love is being ripped apart around them. As I Open My Eyes paints a portrait of Tunisia, months before the Arab Spring, and Farah’s love of singing could lead her into places that she doesn’t want to go…

 

Read my full review of Leyla Bouzid’s fantastic film here at Film Inquiry.

 

50 Films of the 21st Century (an alternative list)

BBC Culture released a list of the (alleged) top 100 films of the 21st Century yesterday, and it wasn’t terrifically received by most people. Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that only 9 of the 100 films were directed by women, or that it placed Inception higher than Finding Nemo, or that The Wolf of Wall Street was on there at all. Instead of complain about it on twitter (though I did do that too), two of my greatest cinephile friends and I set about compiling our own list. Due to time restraints (you know, full time jobs and all that), we have only 50 films on our list and they are only in a very rough order. Whilst all films are pretty much equal in our love for them, the ones are the top are ranked slightly higher than those at the bottom.

Let the list commence!

 

Girlhood – Celine Sciamma (2015)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Ana Lily Amirpour (2015)

The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos (2016)

Amelie – Jean Pierre Jeunet (2001)

Mean Girls – Mark Waters (2004)

A Ma Soeur – Catherine Breillat (2001)

Far From Heaven – Todd Haynes (2002)

Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller (2015)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Michael Gondry (2004)

Under The Skin – Jonathan Glazer (2013)

City of God – Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund (2002)

What We Do In The Shadows – Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement (2014)

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud (2007)

Little Miss Sunshine – Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris (2006)

Mustang – Deniz Gamze Erguven (2015)

The Look of Silence – Joshua Oppenheimer (2014)

Attenberg – Athina Rachel Tsangari (2010)

Chevalier – Athina Rachel Tsangari (2015)

Dogtooth – Yorgos Lanthimos (2009)

Alps – Yorgos Lanthimos (2011)

Pans Labyrinth – Guillermo del Toro (2006)

Her – Spike Jonze (2013)

Fish Tank – Andrea Arnold (2009)

Room – Lenny Abrahamson (2015)

The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino (2013)

Il Divo – Paolo Sorrentino (2008)

Donnie Darko – Richard Kelly (2001)

Spirited Away – Hayao Miyazaki (2001)

Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski (2013)

This is England – Shane Meadows (2006)

There Will Be Blood – Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)

Brokeback Mountain – Ang Lee (2005)

Wild Tales – Damian Szifron (2014)

Whiplash – Damien Chazelle (2014)

In The Mood For Love – Wong Kar-Wai (2000)

Dreams of a Life – Carol Morley (2011)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Cristian Mungiu (2007)

Senna – Asif Kapadia (2010)

Irreversible – Gaspar Noe (2002)

Love Trilogy – Ulrich Seidl (2012)

Bend it Like Beckham – Gurinder Chadha (2002)

Carol – Todd Haynes (2015)

Sexy Beast – Jonathan Glazer (2000)

Shaun of the Dead – Edgar Wright (2004)

The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

Let the Right One In – Tomas Alfredson (2008)

What Happened Miss Simone – Liz Garbus (2015)

Y Tu Mama Tambien – Alfonso Cuaron (2001)

Inglorious Bastards – Quentin Tarantino (2009)

 

 

(Due to our lack of mathematical skills, this list is only 49… We studied film, not maths so give us a break…) Also I’d like to point out that one of our (unnamed and un-shamed) contributors wanted to put Gladiator on this list. That decision was overruled.

Any films you’d like to see in this list, or think we should have included? What did you think of the BBC list? Let us know in the comments!

 

The Closer We Get (Karen Guthrie, 2015): Unflinchingly Honest

Five minutes into The Closer We Get, you’ll feel fairly confident that you know where this story is going. Continue reading “The Closer We Get (Karen Guthrie, 2015): Unflinchingly Honest”

Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015): Real Talk

Writer/Director Marielle Heller’s debut feature film Diary of a Teenage Girl will, I hope, be regarded as a significant coming of age film for girls everywhere for a very long time. It also happens to be the first in a long list of 52 films, one a week, by women directors that I watched. I could not have picked a better film to begin with. Continue reading “Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015): Real Talk”

The Falling: Being a Teenage Girl Sucks

1. Do you want to watch a film that deals with the inherent emotional and physical issues of being a teenage girl, suppression of emotion, feminism and female friendship whilst simultaneously channeling David Lynch, Nicholas Roeg and Carrie in terms of aesthetic, atmosphere and creepiness. Continue reading “The Falling: Being a Teenage Girl Sucks”