Thursday, December 07, 2006

Women Filmmakers: Voices From the Dark

A quick glance at the titles playing at the local megaplex reveals a lot about the modern Hollywood machine. Often the titles are sequels to previous box office hits with filmmakers hoping to ride the successes of “chapter one” to another mega box office hit. Others are based on novels and the few “original” ideas are only loosely reworked variations of other films. The films tend to feature work from a relatively small pool of actors (both men and women) and tell stories that the studios hope will bring the biggest box office receipts.

Looking at the names behind the titles on the marquees exposes the reality that the already limited stories are being told by an even more limited body of professionals, mostly white men. The films tend to have large budgets and are expected to be neutral enough to draw a large audience and as such, don’t tend to feature voices from cultural minorities seeking to challenge anglo-western patriarchal dominated cultural norms. These films speak to and reinforce imperialistic ideologies by relying on cultural stereotypes and prejudices to marginalize minority voices while reinforcing the superiority of the ideas expressed (McCabe 77). The films produced within the Hollywood machine are seen by millions of people worldwide and by default become our most familiar ambassadors to other lands.

The films in this vein combine to create billions of dollars a year in profits for the studios that produce them. The box office success of these films results in a form of economic democracy, with the pop culture audience voting for the films they enjoy by paying $10 and the industry makes more films like it, further perpetuating the cycle of films that fail to challenge the spectators and creators imperialistic ideals.

Instead, the films from subjugated and minority voices exist into the realm of film festivals and independent theatrical release. Very few of these films are given the attention, marketing and wide distribution that their more culturally neutral counterparts take for granted largely because it is just assumed that the audiences won’t be there to support the films financially. Of course there are exceptions (Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Lost in Translation grossed $106,454,000 in worldwide receipts ) but the vast majority of the films fail to gain the box office success of the other films.

Recently, I had the opportunity to screen three documentary films sharing a common theme, made by women directors. The films all centered on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, specifically how the women in the two warring nations are working to bring an end to the violence. Each from its own perspective, the films approach the issue with passion and conviction, but not with the intent to provide answers. Instead, the filmmakers work to raise a dialogue between the two sides of the issue.

First, Lilly Rivlin’s film Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace (2006), documents the women working on both sides of the conflict, trying to win peace not through violence, but through dialogue. The film is by and about the women in the movement. Second, Donia Mili’s Uprooted (2006), expresses the internal struggle between violent and non-violent activism in the quest for Palestinian liberation. The film ultimately asks which form of activism is most effecive in bringing about a solution.

Last, Samira Goetschel’s Our Own Private Bin Laden (2005) documented her journey to better understand the myth behind the world’s most notorious terrorist Osama Bin Laden. As an Iranian immigrant to New York City, she was forced to examine her own Middle Eastern identity after the events of September 11th, 2001. Her film challenges the audience to look inside themselves and find their own fears, hatred and prejudices, something she sees as each person’s own private Bin Laden.

Each of these films was produced outside of the Hollywood system and will most likely only screen in the film festival or art house environment, in part because they don’t fit the typical pop culture standards that viewers tend to want to watch. The perception is that films like these will only attract a limited audience and as such, don’t deserve a wide theatrical release. While this may be true, is the lack of mass appeal of films like these the fault of the spectator or the creators?

Take for example North Country (Niki Caro, 2005) a film driven by a female cast chronicling the first class action sexual harassment suit. This film places female characters in a central role and given the lack of films with strong female leads, the story should have brought out the female audience.

However, what seemed to have happed with North Country is what McCabe refers to as the separation between the spectator and the text writing: “Soon revealed in this investigation into cinematic identification and socio-cultural was a gap between feminism and real women, between political ideology and personal experience, between how feminist theory interpreted texts and how actual audiences made use of them” (38). Essentially, feminist films were being made but they couldn’t break through the popular cultural barrier of the dominant ideology of the spectator and get them to watch.

The struggle to overcome the cultural barriers doesn’t only exist in the context of feminist films. Other independent films llike Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room (2004) challenge the anglo-American audience to see the world from a different perspective. By following the media coverage of the beginning of the Iraq war through the lens of the Al Jazeera news network, it provides a perspective that would otherwise be denied to the American audience. The film comes to a head when correspondent Hassan Ibrahim challenges Lt. Josh Rushing to see the war from the point of view of Arab population.

Rushing doesn’t need to agree with the point of view but he has to understand it before he can realize that there is another valid side to the conflict. Lt. Rushing’s epiphany is seen by many to be dangerous because, by seeking to understand the “enemy” they become human, clouding the relationship between combatants. When the issues surrounding war become clouded, then the systems of domination and power that perpetuate the war are threatened. Noujaim asks us, the spectators, to follow Lt. Rushing’s example and begin to break down the barrier between “us” and “them”. The idea of hearing the point of view of the marginalized is undesirable for most of the population and thus films, which express the minority point of view, aren’t popularly received. It is far easier for the mass population to write off the film as radical or unimportant than to actually engage the film in the dialogue it hopes to begin.

The ability of minority or marginalized voices to express themselves isn’t limited to documentary or fact based films. Fictional narrative films can also challenge our worldview when we are asked to step into the perspective of a protagonist, which may not fit the profile we are accustom to. With her film The Woodsman (2004) Nicole Kassell brought to screen the story of Walter (Kevin Bacon) a man convicted of child molestation readjusting to life outside of prison. Few crimes carry an emotional response equal to child molestation and putting the narrative focus on a sympathetic character guilty of the crime is incredibly courageous.

Like the other films mentioned, The Woodsman seeks to challenge our generally accepted worldview and was produced outside the studio system. Also like the other films, its box office receipts were modest, not even reaching $2,000,000. In fact, if you consider the success of the film in box office receipts, the film failed to bring in even the independent viewing audience. Of course box office receipts aren’t the only way to judge the success of a film, but they do seem to indicate something about our modern culture.

It would appear that mass audiences don’t want their ideologies challenged and that even minority voices for some reason fail to come to their own stories. The films which seem to simply entertain or reinforce current ideologies gain popular support and generate millions of dollars in box office receipts. Consider Jackass: Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006) with its near $76 million box office total with $72 million made here in the United State. If the measure of success is coming to the point of drawing mass audience, I for one am glad that the filmmakers discussed in this essay chose instead to break outside of the system and tell stories that challenge our ideologies.

The women filmmakers responsible for these films took risks to bring the stories to life and the distributors echoed the risk by bringing the films to audiences. Perhaps our culture will eventually come to the point where women filmmakers are allowed to tell their stories and be seen by mass audiences without having to sacrifice artistic and cultural integrity. For now, regardless of box office success, courageous women filmmakers will continue to express themselves and bringing their voice to light from darkened theatres.

Works Cited

McCabe, Janet. Femist Film Studies Writing the Woman Into Cinema. Wallflower: Great Britain


At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would just like to say something regarding Sofia Coppola: Please, anyone out there, please don't identify Sofia Coppola as a female film maker or as an independant film maker. Let me explain something about 'Lost in Translation,'you didn't actually like it, you just liked the soundtrack and are vaguely aware that Japan is pretty cool, and this confused you into thinking you liked it. The only underlying ideology in SC's films is that of identifying with young, vapid, priviledged blond women and a sense of the aesthetic of the hip. Sorry to rant, but there are real, talented, female film makers with IDEAS and SKILL, and you mention many of them, I just had to give my two cents worth regarding SC. Very interesting, though, certainly got me thinking.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Shayachern said...

I have to admit I haven't seen any of SC's films including Lost in Translation, so I can't specifically talk about her skills as a director. If they are as you describe them, then I am sure I would agree whole-heartedly with your assessment. I know that when she premiered Marie Antoinette (2006) at Cannes, it was booed. Then again, the French have a specific opinion of Marie Antoinette and her film (as near as I can tell) doesn’t fit into that ideal.

I had originally written this essay for a class on contemporary womyn director’s class so I had to stick within the scope of the class. However, the same could easily be said about many minority filmmakers who end up falling into the realm of shallow Hollywood style filmmaking that draws the box office receipts.

Thank you for your response and I hope you check back from time to time as we try and take this Blog in a different direction.



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