Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories

Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories opens today at the Metrograph and runs through February 15. “Programmer Nellie Killian’s selections, which span more than three decades and a wide range of documentary styles, include fascinating titles by directors with a palpable personal stake in their subjects,” writes Johanna Fateman for 4Columns. “These filmmakers excavate family histories and individual traumas; amplify calls for justice; and defy conventional cinematic representations of women’s bodies, labor, and relationships. But it’s the blazing early works here, which are so closely aligned, in both subject matter and formal strategy, with the heady days of feminism’s second-wave, that seem essential viewing now—as startling documents from an era of momentous, hard-won gains, and as bold precursors to the weaponized candor moving mountains today.”

Some time back, Killian roomed with Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) at college and Interview’s got them talking about the program. “Three or four years ago there was a restoration of Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction [1979], which is the movie that’s opening the series,” Killian tells Slate. “And then this fall, reading all these accounts of women talking about trauma, especially those articles in the New Yorker—just one after another—it was horrifying to read. I remembered when I saw Soft Fiction and thought these women telling these really intimate stories on camera—for other women to feel they’re not alone in experiences that they have—is such an incredible gesture.”

“There are no feminist manifestos or statements of anger or resilience in Strand’s film to link it to the current #MeToo movement, yet there can be no doubt that her film is a part of feminist media histories, one that doesn’t shy from probing emotional anguish,” writes Ela Bittencourt, previewing the series at Hyperallergic. “Strand’s approach, which she called ‘ethnographies of women,’ emphasizes the experiential, showing voice and memory as inseparable from the body, and the body as a sensual bearer of truth.”

Introducing his interview with Killian, Stephen Saito notes that, while she’s “put together a rare opportunity to see a big-screen presentation of shorts from Agnès Varda (Réponse De Femmes: Notre Corps, Notre Sexe [1975]), Chantal Akerman (Dis-Moi [1980]), Lourdes Portillo (Conversations with Intellectuals About Selena [1999]) and Barbara Hammer (Audience [1981]), rarer still is the chance to see films such as Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite [1978] and Julia Reichert and Jim Klein’s Growing Up Female [1971] given a platform that can elevate distinctly personal testimonies about seemingly ordinary lives and personal travails to the realm of the profound. The series doesn’t only celebrate the diversity of female experience but of expression, veering from invigorating experimentalism to the transfixing intimacy of simply sitting across from someone with a camera, allowing the voices of the films’ subjects to come through loud and clear.”

This week opened with a pointer to Richard Brody’s preview of the series in the New Yorker, wherein he writes about Dis-Moi, Geri Ashur’s Janie’s Janie (1971), and Claire Simon’s Mimi (2003). Then: “The movie industry’s failure of women, in the substance of films and in work practices, is the subject of the revelatory 1976 documentary Sois Belle et Tais-Toi (Be Beautiful and Shut Up), directed by Delphine Seyrig, one of the great modern French actresses (and the star of Akerman’s 1975 masterwork, Jeanne Dielman). Seyrig interviews twenty-three actresses—including Jane Fonda, Viva, and Maria Schneider—about their work experiences. Her incisive questions, and the free-flowing dialogue that results, yield vital observations regarding one prime idea: the cinema, run by men, produces movies that embody male fantasies.”

One last related note for now. Experimental Cinema alerts us to the publication—just yesterday—of Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies. The image at the top of this entry is from Audience, which Light Industry presented in 2013.

Updates, 2/3: Writing for frieze,Corina Copp suggests that the series “repositions the history of women filmmakers as one of ‘startling intimacy,’ as Killian writes, between filmmaker and her subject—an implicit (but marked) divergence from the position such ‘personal films’ have occupied in the feminist-film theorist's canon, where cinema made in the male-dominated lineages of Structural, materialist and avant-garde film of the past seventy years received the bulk of critical attention. In Tell Me, Killian presents an array of practices and strategies that have defined the under-known aspects of women’s cinema, including the newsreel and the intimate portrait, cinema-vérité and realism, formal experimentation and autobiography.”

Soft Fiction is a testament to female power and resiliency, a perfect centerpiece for a series about actually listening to women,” writes Dana Reinoos at Screen Slate. “Playing alongside Soft Fiction is Peggy Ahwesh’s From Performance to Ritual, an excellent companion piece that also allows women to tell their stories about sexual experiences directly to the camera, and uses footage of girls growing up to tie learned experiences of womanhood with lived ones. Ahwesh describes the film as ‘the home movie without the father.’”

Updates, 2/4: At Screen Slate, Brittany Stigler writes that “the double-billed Third World Newsreel documentaries To Love, Honor and Obey [Christine Choy and Marlene Dann, 1980] and Inside Women Inside [Christine Choy and Cynthia Maurizio, 1978] give voice and body to the systemic injustices that to this day affect women across all ethnic and economic circumstances. Taken together, the films demonstrate the absolute necessity of exploring not only the trauma and lasting effects of abuse, but the conditions that allow for such a thing to persist at all.”

Dis Moi and [Su Friedrich’s] The Ties That Bind [1985] both address World War II and the Holocaust, some of the weightiest and most painful subject matter there is, but they do so in a way that is inextricably linked to everyday existence, and women’s lives in particular,” writes Daniel Witkin for Forward. “For those already invested in Akerman’s work, Dis Moi takes on an extra poignancy from the way it resonates with her other films, particularly her final work, No Home Movie, which deals with the death of her mother. . . . The Ties That Bind also focuses on a filmmaker’s mother and her experiences of the war, but with a crucial difference: Su Friedrich’s mother, Lore, was German.”

Update, 2/6: Susan Aikin and Carlos Aparicio’s The Salt Mines (1990) focuses on “the tenuous lives of trans women, drag queens, and gender rebels struggling to obtain a self-actualized existence in a society fixated to their destruction,” writes Caroline Golum at Screen Slate. “But where [Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning] emphasizes the glamor and escapism that provide lifeblood to a people that refuse to be trod upon, The Salt Mines is every bit a darker, through-the-looking-glass counterpart.”

Update, 2/9: “Many of the selections share an unfiltered vérité look that lends the subjects’ memories and recollections an increased intimacy, as if a close friend were sharing her problems,” writes Monica Castillo in the Village Voice. “The speakers, by and large, feel comfortable enough to ruminate frankly on marriage, motherhood, and other prescribed gender expectations, without sugarcoating or watering-down any of the details.”

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

You have no items in your shopping cart