Cinema Seattle. Presenter of the Seattle International Film Festival

Feb 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 1

Written on the Body - WIC Docs

by Shannon Gee

In past years of Academy Award history, something of no small significance has happened. In the categories of Best Short Documentary and Best Documentary, over the last ten years, thirteen women filmmakers have won Oscars.

How is it there have been only two nominations (and no wins) named to women feature film directors (Italian director Lina Wertmuller and Jane Campion) while the documentary category is close to dominated by women filmmakers?

It has a lot to do with the (ahem) boob tube. You can see more documentaries on one evening of television than you will all year in the theaters, and the distribution fence the genre rides between the big and small screens gives documentaries a double venue. Face it folks, TV is a more accessible and widespread medium than film, and this helps the genre on the whole. There’s arguably a more level playing field at the TV station than at the film studio, too. In television, there are many, many women producers and directors creating documentary series and works, and there are a few executives who call the shots on nonfiction programming and content. Here are two: Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of PBS and Sheila Nevins, Head of Original Programming at HBO.

Even if there is more equality in the documentary field, it is natural to ask if there is something different about the way a woman approaches the visual medium. The answer seems to be no√Čand yes. One documentary at this year’s Women in Cinema festival disseminates the question with a full frontal examination about the subject that drives so much cinema (read: sex): Bad Girl, Marielle Nitoslawska’s wide-open look at women who produce and direct pornography. Having the puzzling but inspiring mark of government funding (it was produced with the financial participation of the Canadian Television Fund and the Government of Quebec) Bad Girl travels from Denmark to France to the production capital of porn, the San Fernando Valley, in order to meet the women who have gone behind the camera and the producer’s desk to create hard core porn by women and often for women.

Nitoslawska also interviews Catherine Breillat (whose critically acclaimed Fat Girl (A ma soeur!) has pissed off many and made a few top ten lists in 2001) and Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi (the co-directors of Baise Moi) about their films’ vicious yet knowing po-mo revisionist feminist subject matter. Bad Girl itself is X-rated in its images, but it is self-assertive in its inception and presentation. At its climax, a woman is documenting a sex scene between two women in a pornographic production run by a woman. While the image can be dissected as objects for the male gaze, the difference is that it was created wholly by women with their own set of perceptions.

Another subject that has traditionally had a male-specific POV is the war film. That combat soldier’s in-the-shit view of warfare is in theaters now as Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Yes, a woman’s perspective on war is inherently a different one. Veteran documentary editor Lillian Benson, A.C.E., who edited the upcoming Roots, Celebrating 25 Years, gives the example of that difference through a film she edited, the civil war documentary from The American Experience series, The Massachusetts 54th Colored Regiment.

"(It) was shown at some big conference of psychiatrists in Boston. The majority of the film’s crew was female and the subject matter, war, is generally considered a male topic. When the film was over, (the director) asked the moderator if there was any clue that there were so many women on the production team. The moderator said the only difference she could see was that men usually describe what happens, but women go further and tell you why."

Two documentary films showing in the WIC that examine the response to war (rather than events during wars) are Maia Wechsler’s Sisters in Resistance and Karin Jurschick’s It Should Have Been Nicer Than That. Sisters in Resistance tells the story of four French women who as teenagers joined the Resistance movement to fight the Nazi occupation of their country. Within two years they were all arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Survival, camaraderie and the women’s fighting spirit are at the forefront; their destinies come to show us that lives nearly destroyed by war can go on to continue good works. Now in their eighties, the women are still social activists.

It Should Have Been Nice After That also has a relation to war, but perhaps not as direct as the women of Sisters. Filmmaker Karin Jurschick reaches back into her past to uncover the reasons behind her mother’s suicide in 1974, at the age of forty-two. "Forty-two," laments Jurschick’s father, a man 23 years his wife’s senior and seemingly just as far away as a loving husband. ""One could start a second, third life."

Jurschick’s film paints a complex portrait of her father, a man who relates better to the machines he repaired as a WWII German Air Force engineer than people. Whenever Jurschick asks him about his past and more pointedly, about her mother, he waves it off with the indifference of a man who has divided his life into divergent sections. Gazing at pictures of himself in his military uniform replete with a swastika armband he says, "I look dashing." When asked if he was proud of the photos, he answers, "No. I was judging these pictures as if this man was a stranger."

Also at WIC 2002: Alix Lambert’s Mark of Cain, a remarkably filmed and intimate work that pushes into the significance of men’s dressings and roles. In this case, it is the signage of tattoos on the skin of convicts in today’s Russian prison system. Lambert enters the world of the penitentiary and disassembles the codes of the tattoos while revealing the politics of the men’s prison block and the politicking of the former Soviet Union.

The documentaries in WIC 2002 are an arresting bunch, some with personal points of view in a wide range of topics. In the context of the festival, one could ask if there is an overall female aesthetic in documentaries made by women. Since there’s no "romantic comedy", "three-hanky-weepie" or other equivalent "chick flick" section heading for docs (calling a film a "documentary" carries enough of its own burdensome stereotype), one way to figure out the effect of docs by women is by looking at the way the world responds to them.

The most extreme example is German filmmaker/photographer Leni Riefenstahl. A dancer who became a director, her film The Blue Light (also playing at the WIC festival) captured the interest of one Adolf Hitler, who then asked her to document the 6th Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Triumph of the Will, with its mythic-scale militancy and ultra-composed shots, was labeled a propaganda piece for the Nazis. Later, her film of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin (Olympiad) revolutionized how we film sports, but her impervious framing of the athletic body enforced the attitude that her imagery was as fascist as Triumph’s subject matter. Despite her protests, her association with the Nazi Party (in conjunction with her relentlessly beautified images, coldly chiseled perfectionism and one last film that allegedly used gypsies from a concentration camp as extras) has prevented Riefenstahl, unlike Nazi propagandist Veit Harlan, from working in the film industry ever again.

On the other hand, there’s Jennie Livingston’s popular, monetarily successful and almost universally loved 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning. Scratchy and loose, Livingston’s ode to gay street-gangs competing for trophies at Harlem drag balls helped kick-start the indie documentary model of the nineties. "Gender is a construction," Livingston once said in a 1991 interview about the film. "Much of it is learned."

With that in mind, could a straight man - outside of Billy Wilder, that is - have presented the subjects of Paris is Burning with the same emotional longing, dreams of acceptance, desire for success, and rapt attention to the family unit, tactical beauty pageants and the manipulation of cosmetic appearances?

Sure. Aside from the argument that the documentarian’s lens, no matter who is pointing it, is supposedly aimed with an objective focus, there’s the converse opinion that the phenomena of the personal P.O.V. documentary text and perhaps the mini digital video model are democratizing the genre in a different way. It’s not just the subjects who are on camera. It’s the filmmakers and their methodologies, too. J. Clements, an independent filmmaker and a former staffer at a leading documentary funding entity, has tracked enough documentaries from their proposals to airdates to see that the genre is moving towards an equal middle. "I think that there is less and less difference between women’s filmmaking and men’s filmmaking. It feels like both genders are moving closer together in style and content. This is a good thing."

Maureen Muldar, who has produced news and documentaries for twenty years and is soon to begin work on a documentary about television censorship, agrees that there are not huge dissimilarities along gender lines. "I’m not sure I’ve been able to distinguish much of a difference, to tell you the truth." Her approach to her work includes the basic rules that every filmmaker tries to employ. "I strive to make the story as compelling as possible. I am most interested in social issues, and that’s a tough interest to have these days."

Any documentarian will testify that the job is a difficult row to hoe, especially in a time when the documentary film distribution model is wavering and funding sources are drying up. Commercial-friendly reality programming currently rules the nonfiction roost. Big, episodic docs are nearly impossible to fund. Theatrical distribution and television premieres for smaller, intimate documentaries are harder to come by. "The marketplace doesn’t have much room for those stories," says Muldar.

And this affects the focus of all documentaries, no matter what their gender.

Shannon Gee is a freelance film critic as well as a documentary filmmaker and producer. She is a regular contributor to Reel News.

Programs Fund