Film

Female Filmmakers Intimately Tell Women’s Stories

A new series at Metrograph features documentaries made by women directors — from Chantal Akerman and Peggy Ahwesh to Yvonne Rainer and Claire Simon — about women’s lives.

A scene from Chick Strand’s <em>Soft Fiction</em> (courtesy of Canyon Cinema)
A scene from Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction (courtesy of Canyon Cinema)

The opening of Chick Strand’s experimental black-and-white film Soft Fiction (1979) evokes dizzying motion and ambiguity: in a rapidly moving landscape seen from a train, elements of nature blur into abstract lines. Then a raspy voice from off-camera intones, “Breathe in, breathe out.” This line, spoken as if we—or Strand’s female subjects — were about to be hypnotized by an invisible presence, hints at how mysterious, but also therapeutic, Strand’s film can be.

The expressive power of Soft Fiction inspired “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories,” a new series at Metrograph programmed by Nellie Killian, which features intimate documentaries about women made by women filmmakers. “I saw the film’s restoration several years ago at the New York Film Festival,” Killian told Hyperallergic via email. “Strand’s attentiveness to her subjects — their gestures, their digressions, their hesitations — is what makes it so powerful. There doesn’t seem to be any judgment or expectation, just space to talk about how events shaped the women who experienced them. Strand, as well as so many other women in the series, were making movies about women they knew and communities they belonged to.”

Killian’s statement underlines the overlap of private and political realms that characterizes most of the films presented in the series, even if very subtly at times. 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.

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. As women confess their wide-ranging secrets — from a tryst at a rodeo and memories of early sexual awakenings to incest, pedophilia, and destructive passion — Strand showers them with undivided attention. From a close-up emphasizing a speaker’s mouth and eyes, to a full-body shot of a naked woman cooking in her kitchen as she recalls being fondled as a child, the atmosphere of these scenes is both intensely domestic and performative (and never pornographic).

At times, Strand allows her camera to rove freely in domestic spaces, catching a play of shadows or light piercing dark interiors. At other times, she outlines bodies in sharp silhouette, revealing partial curves and angles reminiscent of Bill Brandt’s distorted photographic nudes. Slippery and elusive, she invites us to view the stories being told not as documentation of past experiences, but rather as a re-creation that dwells between memory and fantasy. The title’s “fiction” reminds us that the process of making meaning is necessarily partial, and that reality, like memory, is constantly being reconfigured.

A scene from Dis-Moi, directed by Chantal Akerman (courtesy of INA)
A scene from Dis-Moi, directed by Chantal Akerman (courtesy of INA)

The women in Soft Fiction assume double roles as both protagonists and storytellers, actively selecting, framing, and articulating their experiences. Strand’s film accentuates the deep urge to speak and the importance of having one’s story acknowledged as a meaningful instance of sensual or sexual experience.

Killian’s program radiates in various directions from Soft Fiction. Two 16mm shorts, for example — Janie’s Janie (1971) by Geri Ashur and Joyce at 34 (1972) by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill — are more straightforward, more narrowly glimpsed accounts of women trying to preserve balance and sanity amid the pressures and the social seclusion of domestic work. In the former, an unhappy housewife, Janie, recalls how she eventually left her oppressive marriage. Joyce at 34 follows a young documentary filmmaker and mother as she reclaims her professional life, all the while working out tensions with her husband and parents. Joyce ends up confessing to the camera that she realizes her decision not to have another baby will be deemed selfish, adding: “But I think if I have another baby, it will probably the end.” Joyce laughs, but a note of painful truth rings in this open-ended finale—a taciturn acknowledgment that women who attempt to balance high-pressure work against the demands of marriage and motherhood do so at great peril.

In Strand’s Soft Fiction, the final speaker is a Holocaust survivor who finds her memories mute and inaccessible — a thematic link to Chantal Akerman’s Dis-Moi (Tell Me, 1980), in which the filmmaker visits elderly women in Paris who survived the Holocaust. Like Strand, Akerman shoots mostly home interiors, but within different parameters: recounted from a perspective more than 30 years removed from the events discussed, the memories are more testimonial, less raw, matched by austere static shots and unvarying framing. Nevertheless, a powerful emotional thread runs through the film, as Akerman reveals to the women that, except for her mother, her own family has also been completely exterminated. Akerman is present onscreen, an attentive and shy listener, unobtrusive enough to be ignored by her last interviewee who eventually turns on the television as Akerman droops from sleep at her side.

A scene from ,Mimi directed by Claire Simon (courtesy of Doriane Films)
A scene from Mimi directed by Claire Simon (courtesy of Doriane Films)

A much deeper sense of communion permeates one of the series’ most recent films, Claire Simon’s wonderful documentary, Mimi (2003, 35mm). It opens with a wartime memory: Simon’s frail friend, Mimi, recalls a piece of meat carved from a donkey that her father killed in desperation while in hiding, an act that led his neighbors to betray him to the Gestapo. Where Strand is impressionistic and rapturous and Akerman intensely composed, Simon lets Mimi move and speak leisurely in front of the camera. The two retrace Mimi’s family history while perambulating around Nice and the village of Saorge in soft, Mediterranean light.

However, the tension between present and past remains palpable throughout Simon’s film. The sea’s glimmering water, the beauty of lush, green hills, and Mimi’s steady storytelling — her calm, reassuring presence — clash with the anguish of her childhood stories, suggesting psychological alienation. Every time Mimi says, “I see,” she seems transported to another time. But Mimi and Simon also fill their flânerie with imaginative leaps, such as songs (some of them by the Armenian musician who appears on film at Mimi’s side) and Mimi’s recollections of her first, bashful lesbian crushes and secret affairs. “I thought, they don’t know who I am, they mustn’t find out,” she recalls, smiling to the camera — the director and, by extension, the viewer have become her trusted confidantes. This gesture of generosity and strength is met without prejudice or judgment in Mimi and, as Killian points out, all of the films in “Tell Me.”

Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories” runs February 2–11 at Metrograph (7 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan). Soft Fiction and Mimi screen on Friday, February 2; Janie’s Janie and Dis-Moi play on Saturday, February 3; Joyce at 34 plays on Sunday, February 4.

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