I love film, and I love women. This post came about while I was starting to do research to write about Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle, and thinking about the famous phrase in feminist culture and history, “The personal is Political” coined by Carol Hanisch. In thinking about that phrase, and thinking about Akerman’s film, and my own filmmaking which has started to become very influenced by Akerman’s films, That I started getting excited, and full of ideas. When this happens, I take to social media (sorry I’m human) and post about the ideas. My way of connecting and talking to people I guess. But an idea that came out of posting on Facebook was the idea to talk about and show people some of the films that have changed my life–films that happen to be written and directed (and produced) by women. Since I don’t have many people to talk about film, and women filmmakers, and the effects on my life, and other people’s lives by women filmmakers– since I’m very much about sharing with people, I figured I would post this. This is an interesting time for women’s rights, in America, and as someone who loves women, and fights or women on a day to day basis whether personally or politically, or through my art, I wanted to give something back, and show people what they may be missing out on. So these are the Five Films by women, about women, that have changed my life. And I must say that even writing about them while working on this post has changed my life. Thanks for taking the time to read.
5. Circumstance (2011) Written and Directed by Maryam Keshavarz
Synopsis:Two women in conservative Iran enter into a relationship, but are policed by one of the women’s newly religious brother, while trying to maintain their relationship in the country.
What the film meant to me:
When I first saw Circumstance, it was one of my first introduction into a lesbian relationship and a further understanding of the Muslim world. For me, seeing the Muslim world in this film wasn’t so much about seeing how women were oppressed but also seeing how people come into religion (for their own reasons) and how fundamentalism and fanaticism can over take over people who have personal issues. But what mainly interested me about this movie was the fact that there were two people in love. And as a growing man, images of “lesbian” acts were put in front of me. But i’ve learned since then that usually in film, or tv, or photography, when they put a woman kissing another woman in front of you, it’s mostly for the male gaze, for the male pleasure, and I think, to further oppress women and render them “play things” for men’s desire. Since befriending a few queer, bi, and lesbian women in my time, I hardly think as well as look, at those relationships with that mind set. Having sisters, I really don’t think this way anymore. A women’s body is not mine. What a woman chooses to do with her body has nothing to do with me. And who they choose to do with their body with whomever they want to do it with has nothing to do with me either. Circumstance was one of the first films that made me re-think a lot of stuff. I think I must credit that to the amazing direction of Maryam Keshavarz, her choice in of loose way of story telling, and the openness, in terms of storytelling, the story itself, and the cinematography which at the time, for me, was so different from Hollywood (which initially drew me to independent cinema, as well as “foreign cinema”) This way of story telling, even though very linear, and now kind of the blueprint for what we call “indie film”, provides the ability for the audience to feel and understand the characters, and to question their own values, perspectives, and ideas about who’s on screen. Keshavaraz’s film doesn’t completely present the story, like “Here, this is it, what do you think about it. That’d be more like a Chantal Akerman film. But what Keshavaraz’s film does do is say or, I would say it say is, “Here, this it. Fuck what Hollywood says–what do you think?”
Aside from the formal choices in film, this all due to the amazing acting of Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy, the cinematography moves that brought this story to life, and the soundtrack. What I felt this story did well was talk about love, and how hard it is to love, and to have a relationship in a culture where it is so hard. Circumstance was also one of the films I saw where “love” how I think of it ( affectionate touches, laughter, distance, slowness, curiosity, respect for the other’s space, protection, adoration) be depicted in film. There are so many scenes where we see Atafeh and Shireen just being normal young ladies,loving time in each others company. It’s almost like how the love, like the film, is a direct opposition to Hollywood cinema’s depiction of love, the narrative of love, as a narrative! and is a direct assault on Hollywood, capitalist depictions and Atafeh’s brother, now a Muslim fundamentalist, of love. These women characters are real, and unapologetic as they can be, or as much as Keshavarz allows them to be. They are depicted with grace, honor, and daringness by a director who understands their struggle.
Either way, they are cinematic heroines, and cinematic shero’s of mine.
4. Orlando (1992) Directed by Sally Potter. Novel by Virginia Woolf, Screen Adaptation by Sally Potter.
Synopsis: A young prince is given the gift to never age by a queen, but throughout four centuries, he grows and transforms into what he was always meant to be–a woman.
What the film meant to me:
I thought this movie was brilliant the first time I saw it and I still think it’s brilliant. I read the book first–it was apart of watching the movie since it was in a fiction to film class–and I think out of any movie i’ve seen, adapted from a book (that I actually read) this has to be one of the best. In the film, Orlando, played by Tilda Swinton breaks the fourth wall to give the audience bits and pieces of what he and later on she is thinking or to correct the narrator. This allowed Potter to bring out the ideas of what Woolf was trying to get across in the book: ownership of ones body, gendering, classism, sexuality, true love–and how Woolf painted the picture of a very self conscious, explorative, truth seeking young man/woman. Much of this film Orlando is about gender, as much as it is about class. Potter creates this gigantic world with large lavish sets (castles, palaces, estates, towns, fields, cottages,) period costuming, often framed in medium wide shots to bring out their ridiculousness of such clothing like the 1600′s Byzanntian clothing, or the 1800′s French Baroque style clothing, to show the boundaries in ones heteronormativity and class–particularly the upper class, and by casting talented actors who have androgynous features and a history of disrupting heteronormativity in their careers in film, like Tilda Swinton and Qutinen Crisp, in order to place in Woolf’s concerns about gender and class distinctions in the 20′s, on screen. Potter offers them as objective as narrative film can be with similarities to films of Jean Luc Godard like Breathless or Pierre La Fou, where Godard deals in masks, and the unreal, to bring the truths about characters without necessarily saying this is the truth. Akira Kurosawa does this too, say, like in Throne of Blood.
Potters film is so good, for me, because of the demand for expression and at the same time being ok with sharing. Orlando never ages, and throughout his life becomes a woman, and Orlando is able to do this not because he, pursues the truth and allows himself, and later on a herself, to go through changes, but because other’s help him (/ her), to change by his/her interactions with them. From Orlando’s first love, a Russian Princess, to the last love Orlando as she, takes in film Shelmerdine played by Billy Zhan. All throughout, Orlando is growing because he/she is around people who bring out in him/her of what he/she must know as himself/herself and for himself/herself in order to be the person he/she wants to be. The interesting thing about the film, is that at the end it is unclear if she will keep growing, and that is left up to her son–or daughter (the actor playing her offspring is androgynous too) to see if what she has become and has come to learn will keep on. The passage of years documented in the movie serves as a way to show the oppression of the people in the film. Women are oppressed by the times and so are men (Shelmerdine is oppressed by the times in the late 1800′s which keeps him from continuing as Orlando as a woman’s lover) The only escape, Potter seems to believe is in the future, and in ownership of the self. The film maintains its objectivity by ending on Tilda Swinton’s face, in a close up as it seems that she slips back into her androgynous appearance. But there is a song playing during this scene with the lyrics “We are joined, we are one, with a human face”. Maybe for Potter there is hope. Maybe for Potter hope is in the next generation. A generation who can learn how to uphold other people, instead of bringing them down. Either way, Orlando challenges us to look at humanity, and the differences. I know watching this film helped me look at my own.
3. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) Directed by Maya Deren, Co-Directed by Alexander Hammond. Written by Maya Deren
Synopsis: In an afternoon, Maya Deren as herself goes into self exploration of the human psychology, and moves through different places throughout her house, encountering a figure of death, herself, and her husband.
What the film meant to me:
I just remember thinking this is the dopest film and it’s dope to see a woman express herself this way. This film is a huge inspiration on how I make films. Maya Deren was pioneer in trance film and avant garde films, and a legend in a women’s history in film. Trance films involved were seeking of understanding about the self and other things in the world. Deren films could bring you into the world of woman like no one else could or in my opinion has other than say Chantal Akerman, Julie Dash, Claire Denis, Kenji Mizoguhi, and probably other like Adnes Varda who I’ve yet to see but is on my list. I just felt you had to make cinema this way. I still feel this way. The experimental is just the way for me. Traditional filmmaking is dope too, i want to keep bring you into the world of the woman, and just kind let you know what was going on. For me, Meshes of the Afternoon isn’t neurotic, but, however, trance films at that time (1943) were dealing with Sigmund Freud’s theories about sex, and the mind, that maybe this film is a bit self conscious? It is hard to say because, I am not a woman. And even though I am a black man, I still don’t go through the the shit women do. And I know using the word neurotic to describe a woman wanting to know more about herself and maybe doing it in a non linear, non conformist ways has it’s problems–so I wont go there. But there’s so much beauty (and horror) in Deren’s films that to go there (talking about the neurotic) isn’t really necessary. By doing her films the way she did. She produced and directed her films, along with her husband who helped produce her films and starred in them like in Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land She was exploring insecurity, sex, her marriage, being alone, being trapped, agism, death, the self–and in a way, like how I’m writing this, showed me myself, and how I think about things as a man. Meshes was so expressive. She tried understanding the self, and wanted to explore the concepts in psycho- analysis. She was already ahead of her time while making this film, and while taking these risks, and exploring new ideas put forth by Freud and probably others, she challenged and enhanced the way we see film. She said that “she wanted people to look at what is going on rather than be passive (I think) She moved me. She opened my eyes up to how film could be and sometimes, in my opinion should be. She had no boundaries. She was a glorious woman.
2. Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1973) Written and Directed by Chantal Akerman
Synopsis: Chantal Akerman stars as a aimless woman, who has locked herself in her room, until journeying out and encountering a truck driver and an ex lover.
What the film meant to me:
This movie spoke to me instantly. When I first saw Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman, before seeing it, I thought it would be the shit. I think differently after the 3 hr long experience of watching that movie but I still love it. But on my second watch of, Je, Tu, Il, Elle, the film, for me, became a revelation. Like the film Daughters of the Dust, like Orlando, like Meshes of the Afternoon, and kind of like Circumstance, Je, Tu, Il Elle, was saying exactly what I wanted to say. That there is no story that can’t be told. There’s no story that can’t be explored. There is way to get to the near truth without going completely documentary style. After a few minutes in, you see this woman coming to grasps with something. In reality, we don’t know what it is! We just know that there is something. She is going along. That’s why, to me, the film is so brilliant. It’s about things exactly as they are in the now. And we, the audience, don’t know whats going to happen. That’s why, in my opinion, the first words Chantel Akerman, as the lead character utters are “And so I left”, while being filmed sitting in a chair, facing the wall, while the camera–while we the audience, face her.
Akerman is starting at a point, not THE point. Everything is in motion, just like the chaos of our world. Now that I’m writing and thinking about it, this film is a deconstruction of linear story telling, and possibly a critique of a Judeo Christian belief in determinism, linear thinking, a plan, stability, of dogma. In Je, Tu, Il Elle, there is no blueprint. Akerman says no…you’re going to sit here and watch these people do things and not get it. You’re not supposed to get it–there’s nothing to get! Only that which is there.The personal is political. All things matter, and everyone matters and what people do and what matters to them, makes them them, and makes them political entities. The same denial of story, of a “clear” story, and a satisfactory ending happens in Jeanne Dielman, and in her film Hotel Monterey which makes me think she’s usually trying to challenge our view of narrative and ideology, and at the same time further widen our scope on what it means to be human–what it means to exist in the world.
When I heard that l Akerman died–and for some reason, when i saw her picture, when I saw stills of her films, i just felt a connection. A former film professor had mentioned her in a few times in rants, but I had never seen her films. She was one of his favorite filmmakers other than Spike Lee and Jean Luc Godard, which he told us students whenever talking about living filmmakers. But finally seeing Akerman’s films for myself, adding in where and when, and at what point of my life I saw them–Akerman’s films were needed. I was at the Lincoln Film Society center, on a day off from school, and had been considering dropping out and thinking seriously about pursuing writing. For me seeing Jeanne Dielman was a life altering experience (my first time at the New York Film Festival, first time at the Lincoln Film Society Center, first time feeling the highfalutiness of film buffs and snobs, and the first time I fell in love with a filmmaker by just watching her films). But seeing Je, Tu, Il, Elle, thanks to a class taught by Chris Vitale at Pratt Institute, I felt like the filmmaker understood me, and I kind of understood the filmmaker. I rarely feel that way about filmmakers except for Spike Lee, Jean Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, and sometimes Derek Jarman, Pedro Almodovar, Fedrico Felini, and Haile Gerima. The rest happen to be women, which is interesting. Like, I don’t hear many men say, “yo, she’s speaking to me, and she not even trying to speak to me!” I dunno. Either way Je, Tu, Il, Elle added to my life.
1. Daughters of the Dust (1991) Written and Directed by Julie Dash
Synopsis: Two cousins journey back from the Northern United states to the Gullah Islands of South Carolina to see their family, the last of Ibo tribe Africans, for possibly the last time
What the film meant to me:
Blackness is what it is, and what it is not, and it’s up to you to define what it is as a black person. And I feel that I can say that now, because of watching Daughters of the Dust. For the longest time, I was different and considered myself different, or I should say different by white supremacist terms (not like THOSE black people) and sometimes I bought into it. Sometimes I took this identity, as truth, but it wasn’t and still isn’t. But I am different. And you still get looked at different, if you are my kind of different. You’re still sort of admonished, put down for you difference by whites who think you should be a black they believe is black, whatever that is, and blacks, especially if you’re a black male. You’re still considered an outsider. But my different, is not adhering to white supremacist and capitalist values, and that belief system. And because I’m like this, that is why Daughters of the Dust is so important to me.
Daughters of the Dust brings to us the some of the first visuals in cinema history, of black american life, and values, and of African values preserved and passed on from slave to slave, and freed african to african, and down the way to the film’s characters the Peazant family. Values of matriarchy, sisterhood, protection, religion (there ate least three that show up in this film) gender roles, family dynamics, marital arts, spiritualism, and maternalism, communal values of women, and of men, knowledge of their history, and their home. Daughters of the Dust is important to me because it allowed me to open up, to make myself open, allowed me to understand more than what I knew–to understand difference, and to understand myself and where I come from. I am not from the Ibo Tribe in South Carolina, I don’t think, but I am African, and I claim that, no matter what anyone says. An interesting thing about the film’s premise…Yellow Mary, a granddaughter of Nana, Peazant (the grandmother, and matriarch) comes back to Gullah Island from the North to visit her family one last time before they go back, and to hopefully take some family members with them. Yellow Mary is Americanized, and brings with her mixed raced friend Trula, who actually doesn’t speak, which some of us theorized in film class, that this is because she’s not comfortable around black people because she doesn’t know think she’ll fit in, most likely anywhere. And around the same time, Yellow Mary’s cousin Viola, a born again Christian who looks to “reform” Nana Peazant and the rest of the family, joins them on the island. What ensues after is a battle with words, story telling, and discussions between the women, the men, and the community at large, which shows the challenge for some of the Peazant family to leave, and for some to stay. But what happens to some of the characters, and possibly for the audience member, is a transformation of how the person looks at African Americans, African culture, black culture and women…black women.
You see so many different variants of the black woman in one movie, it’s amazing. From the young optimistic, but stressed wife, Eula, played with passion and honesty by Alva Rogers, the pious, hard working, hold everything down mother, Hagaar, played amazingly by Kaycee Moore, to the free spirit, but devoted, progressive minded Yellow Mary played by Barbra O, to the reserved, but self effacing, well-to do woman, Viola, played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce and of course the rock, the mother, the foundation, what these women strive to be, Nana Peazant played brilliantly by Cora Lee Day. There are other characters such as, Iona (played by Bahni Turpin) Haggar’s daughter, who is much like Yellow Mary, and is in love with a Native American man from the area, and of course the narrator of the film, the unborn child of Eula and her husband, Eli who shows up in different parts of the film, serving as the distressed but optimistic spirit of the island. These women’s lives are opened up, the culture is opened up, so that we may enter in, and question things about our own lives. The film opens up what goes on for these people, gives them to back to us as people, so that we could relate to them. Dash puts the open the wounds and pain, and truths of african people on display like never before. These people become friends, family members and stay with you for ever.The film is of legendary qualities, and should be taken seriously as art, and known as an independent cinema classic. That Dash renders this world to the viewer and brings it back so back so that you understand, that you don’t to fear or set yourself away from them, is a feet only few have done when presenting the black and african experience.
No film in cinema history has been able to handle and manage so much about african american culture, african culture, african people, and the desires, hopes, dreams, fear, and aspirations of african american people and put that on screen, and allow questions and knowledge about human existence to be drawn form their experience. Julie Dash, did an amazing job and if i may use the word, classic directing job on this. She handled so much material with intelligence, and talent, and made a lively film with monumental depth, movement, heart, and spirit. I’m not sure I’ve seen many filmmakers do this in a film, other than Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buneuel, Fedrico Felini and Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosoawa, and Ousmene Sembene. Julie Dash is one of the greatest directors of all time, period. And she is one of the greatest women directors of all time. And this was her first film!
Daughter of the Dust she deals life, death, overcoming issues, the pursuit of happiness, forgiveness, and renewal. Daughters of the Dust is so much about healing and so much about progressing, and progressing as a human and as a woman and a man. It is about going forward and being you. Always African, and, maybe American, but always human. It’s one of the greatest movies of all time.