Feminist Documentary: Victim or Adventurer?

April 11, 2012

After my return from the Women, Social Justice, Documentary conference at Smith last weekend it took me awhile to name a certain disquiet that was raised for me there. Critically, my concerns had nothing to do with the strength of the presentations or the commitment of the community. It was reaffirmed for me there that:

  • women need documentaries that represent female experience from a feminist perspective
  • women hunger to make documentaries about their own worlds and experiences with their own voices.

However, Charlie Musser’s post about the same conference helped me to name some of my qualms through questioning how we know and frame this field of practice: are we women documentarians victims, adventurers, heroes, or champions? And if none of the above, what is or should be our trope or role of choice?

In other posts here, I have discussed how male documentarians (and fiction filmmakers in the documentary mode) often represent their documentary filmmaking about adventures as if they themselves were the hapless explorers, as if they were the rugged spelunker or fearless soldier; as if making a film was a war or a similarly endangering undertaking.  Keeping men’s fantasies about such rugged film roles in mind, it seems particularly noteworthy that many feminist documentarians, who are themselves making films about women’s oppression, voicelessness, and sometimes even physical or emotional danger and violence, cast themselves and particularly their filmmaking in this light: as if documentary making is a form of victimhood and suffering.

Thus, as often as we discussed documentary-making as achievement, I heard this feminist mode presented as an expression of oppression: in that the industry is patriarchal, funds are scarce, the nation is conservative, and infrastructure is capitalist. And of course, all that is true. Many of the battles of current feminist filmmakers are the same as those of the generations before us; and in some arenas, it seems we’ve seen as much backlash as we have growth. And certainly, many women have and still come to their filmmaking as a first stop after, or as a response to lived oppression. However, the disadvantages we might encounter as women in film are similar to but not the same as the human rights violations we might document, or even the voicelessness that may have brought us to the medium, and when we tell the story of our film practice only using the disempowered tropes and experiences that brought us there we end up failing to build upon, yet alone even acknowledge, the successes we have made: the many, many films, careers, awards, institutions, festivals, books, or classes in the field. For, the conference also confirmed that:

  • the history of earlier work, makers, and institutions are lost unless we reconstitute them
  • and harder to admit, we get something from this perpetual losing

Which is to say, that once we do have some (more) power than we did, when we do have foremothers (now across a few generations) and a robust, generative, diverse, and amazing body of film, now that we are feminist documentarians with a real history and future (evidenced at the conference through the fire power of the “new” generation: Sonali Gulati, Anayansi Prado, Michelle Medina), how might we enact our self-representation as a field through and with power?

What are the metaphors and practices for having and using an empowered feminist voice amongst many?

We don’t have look far! Here’s just a small sample of some of the inspiring models presented at the conference:

Cynthia Wade: links her power with responsibility.

Barbara Hammer: lusty adventurer with politics.

Su Friedrich: angry citizen challenging film and social norms

Rea Tajiri: loving daughter and respectful neighbor reaching out with poetry

Lourdes Portillo: mother-maker opening our hearts in service or memory, justice, and complexity

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