Women in the Spotlight (On Both Sides of the Camera)

Fandor's Spotlight on Beyond Bechdel

For Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting stellar female directors from our FIX initiative and films that feature women-centric storylines. 

Every year, the fallout from major landmark awards shows like the Oscars seems to re-ignite the debate on the representation of women in the film industry, whether as recognized directors or as characters given appropriate depth and complexity in their own right. Here at Fandor, we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done towards righting the hugely lopsided gender representations on both sides of the camera, but we’re also taking a moment to celebrate the excellence that already exists with women on, and in, film — even if that work sometimes goes otherwise unsung. During the month of March, we’ve been presenting collections of films that are created by female directors, like our Spotlight on the Women of FIX, as well as re-visiting our efforts to designate films that pass the Bechdel Test in order to find films that really illuminate aspects of the female experience, especially women’s rich relationships to each other. Here’s a small taste of those many incredible movies:

If Bound had a sequel set a few decades after film’s end and in the Canadian wilderness, it still wouldn’t top the amazingly crafted, beautifully layered, frankly horrifying Vic and Flo Saw a Bear, directed by Denis Côté. The titular characters are two lesbian ex-convicts attempting to start a new, pastoral life after serving their time, but before too long, circumstances (and their own essential natures) begin to conspire against them. The film, which won the Alfred Bauer Prize for “new perspectives on cinematic art” at the 63rd Berlinale, is nothing short of a triumph for non-dominant narrative storytelling.

Josephine Decker was one of the most buzzed-about indie directors of 2014, and it’s easy to see why: her features Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely have been festival favorites, lauded for their risk-taking film grammar and unconventional subject matter. Both feature meditations on female subjectivity and sexuality that are as unexpected as they are well-drawn, and her depictions have struck a chord, causing Richard Brody of The New Yorker to gush,

I’m not saying that there’s only one way to make great and important films, but that Decker’s way (like Anderson’s, like Malick’s) is ecstatic, essential, invigorating, inspiring, and inimitable. Their images, texts, and moods are like no one else’s, which is why they can be only parodied, not copied. Their style is a worldview in itself; they recreate the cinema in their own image, which is a comprehensively lyrical vision of the world.

 

Where political and sexual empowerment meets the daily grind lies the fertile ground covered in Whipped, the 1998 documentary by filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer. Freyer is fearless in her pursuit of the truth behind an oft-sensationalized and still-misunderstood profession (and the lifestyles it serves), crafting a nuanced and straightforward portrait of sex workers on the (perceived) fringes of the erotic spectrum. Far from romanticizing or aestheticizing, instead, Freyer accomplishes a much more difficult feat: humanizing.

It’s not easy to make a film about another culture without over-moralizing or creating false equivalencies. But by focusing on a central relationship between two sisters struggling to define their identities in a moment of cultural transition, director Jeremy Teichner manages to treat his subjects with respect and the directness and immediacy of a documentary (although it is fiction), without oversimplifying the complexities of the issues at hand. Tall as the Baobab Tree is a story about the power of love, the frustration of powerlessness, the value of tradition and the clash of generations. When a family is threatened with economic ruin by an unplanned injury, selling their 11-year-old daughter into an arranged marriage seems to be their only option. But the older daughter, intent on preventing that fate, hatches a secret plan that will prevent the marriage without involving the authorities (thus bringing shame to her parents).

Can you name three women artists? What if Georgia O’Keeffe and Frieda Kahlo didn’t count? In this documentary, which was made through director Lynn Hershman Leeson‘s imperative to record a movement from nascence to retro-active recognition, you’ll be introduced to many, many artists who were left out of the art historical canon for decades, yet are responsible for some of the most galvanizing, interesting and powerful work of the last century. !Women Art Revolution is a rallying cry for Feminist Art. Prepare to confront the political melee that birthed a new mode of making, the discrimination, the hostility and erasure that met a generation of fierce female artists head-on and the deep reverberations that they pushed through the culture in spite of multifarious opposition and denial. Prepare, also, to meet a lot more women artists (and see their work).

Between both Spotlights, there are over thirty films to inspire and instigate the imagination. If all of these incredible works have whet your appetite for female-driven cinema and you want to support filmmakers on the grassroots level, check out the FIXshorts project over on Kickstarter — Lori Felker and Maya Erdelyi both have great projects (currently in the funding stage) that will debut on Fandor!

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