A Review of Sarah Vianney's Queens of Botswana
By Christina Schultz
When you think of Botswana, you probably wouldn’t associate the Southern African country with Heavy Metal music or rocker Kings and Queens clad in black leather. You might instead think of its independence from Britain in 1966, its vast desert landscapes (around 70% of Botswana is desert) and its peaceful stability compared to other African countries.
Yet female filmmaker Sarah Vianney took a crew to Botswana in 2017 to follow a group of such Heavy Metal rockers, known as the “Marok” in Setswana, for a week on their way to a festival in Gaborone near the border to South Africa. As we join them on their journey, we meet Queen Ludo, Queen Florah and Queen Gloria, as they call themselves in the scene, three hard working, amiable women, who happen to like the “wrong” kind of music and dress in a “non-Christian” way. It is important to note that in the mostly Christian country of Botswana, black leather is linked to Satanism.
Hearing this, you might think the Marok are a rowdy bunch of boozing, devil worshipping, trouble makers, but they are far from it. The group of young men and women tries to raise its profile in their community. They might headbang and listen to loud, unholy music but they also pick up garbage around town, they make their own creative outfits and some of them live with their parents and help out at home. So how bad can they really be? As it turns out, not at all.
In Queens of Botswana, Vianney reveals a beautiful story of women searching for freedom, liberation, excitement and even empowerment. However, it doesn’t get to their heads (as it might in the Western World, I might add). The Queens have found a tight-knit group of people who understand them and allow them an escape from their daily routines. The festival in Gaborone is the highlight of the Queens’ year and the 52-minute documentary closes with this happy occasion. We can’t help but smile as we watch the women enjoy themselves, but perhaps we also realize that we take such enjoyments for granted. It goes without saying that in a culture like the one in Botswana, women do not enjoy the same freedoms as we do, which is why Vianney telling this story is of the utmost importance. Not only could the positive exposure in Queens of Botswana potentially help the Marok’s reputation, the documentary reveals an ultimately feminist narrative. It is more than just an interesting story of heavy metal culture in an unlikely place, it is a story of women who love the music so much it becomes a driving force in their lives, which in turn empowers them to break out of their shells in a conservative culture and society.
Left: Sarah Vianney and her crew interviewing Queen Gloria. Right: Sarah Vianney talking to her crew.
I'd like to extend special thanks to Sarah Vianney for reaching out to us at Femfilmfans (we hope other filmmakers will do the same!) and for graciously sending us the images seen above.
RBG: Feminism, Activism and Jurisprudence
By Christian Berger
While The National Board of Review has chosen RBG as the Best Documentary Film of 2018, Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved once again that she actually is a real life hero. From her hospital bed, she participated in a recent U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision to prevent the Trump Administration from immediately enforcing its new policy of denying asylum to immigrants who illegally cross the Mexican border. The Justice is expected to make a full recovery and return to the bench “full steam.”
The documentary film RBG, directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, portrays Bader Ginsburg not only as a pop icon, but also as an iconic feminist legal scholar and activist. In a partisan yet – like Ginsburg herself – rather serious and dignified manner, the film tells Bader Ginsburg’s story through a collection of interviews, audio and archival material and recordings of public appearances, highlighting her quiet temperament, intellectual ambition and devotion to the law. It presents the ethos and idealism of first and second generation of Jewish immigrants, the many difficulties of being taken seriously as a woman in the academic and legal sphere and some of her more precious relationships. Especially to her late husband Martin Ginsburg, a tax lawyer who was the first boy she dated who cared that she “had a brain”; he supported and promoted her all her life.
Despite her public perception as a judge, the film not only chronicles her notorious dissents regarding voting, workers and reproductive rights, it also traces landmark cases like United States v. Virginia, where Ginsburg’s majority opinion struck down the last male-only admission policy of a university in the United States. Moreover, it throws light upon the legal reality of the 20th century, which reflected that men were meant to be breadwinners and were women meant to be caregivers. For example, women were not assigned to jury duty or not allowed to administer an estate and widowers who were caring for minors were denied special survivor benefits. In six such U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 1970s, Ginsburg successfully argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution applies to the status and rights of women (and men) and protects them from discrimination in situations where there is no rational basis for discrimination. The basic idea was that women are equal citizens. She won five of these six cases and laid the foundation for gender equality legislation.
For feminist activists, especially legal activists and feminist lawyers, RBG, as a tribute to Ginsberg’s life, shows that it does not have to be a contradiction to be politically engaged and a legal professional. Quite the opposite: the subsumption of social situations and facts under legal norms is always a political activity, because norms cannot be interpreted from an ahistorical and neutral point of view simply because there is no such thing as an ahistorical and neutral point of view. There will always be a critical need for self-reflection, well-argued partisanship in jurisprudence. The more dynamic and concrete one interprets and applies constitutional principles such as equality, the more probable it becomes that social relations, which are based on inequalities - sexism, racism, economic dependencies, etc. - will be influenced by the law and related exclusions must be changed. To this extent, even the law can be an instrument for social change.
It’s winter time again: the scent of cinnamon wafting through the air, the decorating of gingerbread houses and Christmas movies hitting theaters in a jingle-bell-like staccato. Ready for some nauseatingly kitschy Christmas staples? Or something new?
For the fourth and final installment of our Cringe series, we are featuring the documentary The Black Candle.
The Black Candle (2008)
Are there any true film equivalents of Christmas in other religions? This was the question that was driving me when I was looking into Christmas movies recently. Most of those genre movies focus on the Christian and Western version of the holiday season featuring snow, pine trees, reindeers, a manger and religious songs. I wanted to find out whether there were any similarly important secular or religious holidays that inspired an entire movie genre. The only thing I could come up with was Hanukkah, which was celebrated from December 2 to 10 this year, by Jews all over the world, and upon searching I found some Hanukkah movies (An American Tail, The Hebrew Hammer). I moved deeper into the holiday movie jungle and stumbled over the trailer to the 2008 documentary called The Black Candle, a self-labeled “first feature film on Kwanzaa.” I had never heard this word before and I had to know: What is Kwanzaa?
For those of you unfamiliar with Kwanzaa, here are the basics: it is a 7-day secular celebration observed from December 26 to January 1. So date-wise it covers the Christian Christmas time and New Years, but its roots are very different. It is less a religious than a political and cultural holiday. And thanks to the documentary The Black Candle, which is available on Youtube, Vimeo I learned so much more about Kwanzaa.
The Black Candle was made by M.K. Asante, a Zimbabwe-born American author, hip hop artist, professor and filmmaker whose autobiographical novel Buck gained him praise and attention in literary circles and beyond. His documentary uses, as Asante states in an interview with NPR, “Kwanzaa as a vehicle to celebrate the African-American experience.” It shows how and why Kwanzaa emerged, what it is about and where it is headed. Asante does this by documenting the holiday celebrations in pictures and sound. This provides an informative starting point to get to know Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa started as a Black holiday which means it came out of and is celebrated by Black communities, especially in the U.S. It was literally invented by Maluana Karenga as a response to the search of the Black Movement in the 1960s for a genuine Black holiday which would celebrate Black culture and reconnect Black communities to their African roots. Hence, Kwanzaa was a politically and culturally motivated invention that was to provide an anchor for the African heritage that Black communities in the 1960s felt the urge to appreciate, and it was to help form an identity for POC in the U.S. Every community has some kind of Christmas, so why not the Black community as well?
The rituals of celebrating Kwanzaa - food, music, dance, readings - draw on a mix of what the founders defined as African and Afro-American traditions. There is also a candle holder called a Kinara with seven candles (sidenote #2: an idea borrowed from Judaism with its menorah?), one lit each day of Kwanzaa for the seven principles. It begins with a black candle in the middle, which symbolizes the African people. Then comes three red candles representing the struggles they have faced and finally three green candles for their future.
The documentary merges archival footage with interviews and scenes at families’ homes in the U.S. and mostly African countries shot by M.K. Asante. Among the interviewees, we find famous artists/activists like rapper Chuck D, the founder of Kwanzaa Maulana Karenga and former NFL star player Jim Brown, as well as researchers, Black Movement activists and everyday people from the streets. For the film’s narration, M.K. Asante teamed up with poet/activist and “Hollywood’s first female black director” Maya Angelou, an icon of Afro-American literature and culture. Hence, the formal aspects of the film, the montage of its footage and choice of protagonists, clearly underline its afro-centric focus tracing lines from the U.S. and African countries back and forth.
Of course, this review is by no means comprehensive. There is much more to know about the context of Kwanzaa’s emergence in the 1960s, about the influence it had back then and it has now. I personally would be interested in learning more about its importance in the U.S., and even more in other (African) countries, and finding out who exactly celebrates Kwanzaa nowadays. Also, I find it remarkable that the film is available on three main online video platforms for free. Therefore, I would appreciate a critical approach (in film, book, or other) towards Kwanzaa’s concepts, e.g. of “Africa,” and the figures behind its invention, which the movie is lacking. Which Black communities do not celebrate it and why? Is it still “just” for POC or can other ethnic groups participate in it as well? What’s the relation between other (religious) traditions and beliefs and Kwanzaa (since it seems to borrow symbols from them)?
Information in German by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.
Critical article by the Center of Pan African Thought: The Case for Kwanzaa. A Pan African attempt to guide us back to ancient African roots. By Vistra Greenaway-Harvey, published on December 23, 2016.
Mayes, Keith A.: Kwanzaa. Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition. New York 2009: Routledge.
Find a review of the Maye’s book here (in German).
Elizabeth Pleck: Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition, 1966-1990. In: Journal of American Ethnic History. Vol. 20, No. 4 (Summer, 2001), pp. 3-28.
The self-labeled “Official Kwanzaa Website” run by the founder’s organization “Us”.
It’s winter time again: the scent of cinnamon wafting through the air, the decorating of gingerbread houses and Christmas movies hitting theaters in a jingle-bell-like staccato. Ready for some nauseatingly kitschy Christmas staples? Or something new?
For the second third installment of our Cringe series, we are featuring the film Happy Christmas.
Happy Christmas (2014)
Why does the film’s title use the word “happy” instead of the more common “merry”? Considering the amount of alcohol flowing around, “merry” would certainly have been an appropriate choice. But this movie is less concerned with what makes a “merry” Christmas time and instead focuses on the emotional state of being “happy” and what this means especially for women nowadays.
The story begins in December so the holiday is right around the corner; a colorfully decorated Christmas tree dominates the living room, under it a pile of presents. It is set up in the house of Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) who live in a quiet Chicago neighborhood with their son Jude. Kelly is a stay-at-home-mom while her husband is works in the film production business. A few days before Christmas, Jeff’s 27-year-old sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) shows up. She has just broken up with her boyfriend and soon it becomes apparent that she has a hard time being responsible and not being selfish. One night after getting wasted (again) she forgets a pizza in the oven and nearly burns down the house. In Hollywood-style movies, this scene would have been blown up and dramatized. Fortunately (and realistically) there are fire detectors and the house does NOT burn down to the ground. Problem solved. What is more interesting is Jenny’s reaction when confronted with her irresponsible behavior. She doesn’t want to bear the blame but rather accuses her relatives of overreacting. Director and scriptwriter Joe Swanberg (who plays Jeff) could have focused on and exploited the fire/burning-house-aspect of the scene like a Hollywood-style movie probably would have done (imagine brave firefighters, all family members die but one etc). Instead he uses the scene to highlight the interpersonal conflict that comes with it, namely between Kelly, Jeff and Jenny. This might be less exciting for your eyes but more so for your brain.
The fire incident is one of the reasons why Kelly has a hard time leaving her son with her sister-in-law. Viewers slowly realize that Jeff had not revealed Jenny’s problematic character to his wife prior to Jenny’s arrival. The other reason for Kelly’s mistrust is more self-centered: She became used to being a stay-at-home-mom. In a conversation between Jenny, Carson (her best friend played by Lena Dunham) and Kelly, the latter admits that she wanted to work again after giving birth but that real life was different than expected so she gave up the idea and decided to take care of the child. And, she adds, “I am not complaining, I love Jude so much” - as if she had to apologize for something. The talk between the three women is one of the best scenes in the movie because they explicitly touch upon the question of female self-fulfillment in today’s society in a very concrete way, connected to their individual situations.
Jenny is the prototypical 20-something woman floating through life, in and out of relationships and doing what she wants – the character’s development does not get much deeper, unfortunately. Her friend Carson (proto-feminist Lena Dunham, famed for her TV show Girls) is giving the women’s conversations a “feminist spin”. Real-life-Dunham’s vast knowledge and experience in this field is reflected in her role. She is the one asking Kelly if she is happy(!) with the way her life goes. However, and this is important to point out, she never says the word “feminism” or anything related. Kelly immediately answers “I am not not a feminist…” and Carsons replies “I am not...” She does not finish her sentence but we can by imagination: “...saying that you are/are not a feminist”. Kelly’s and Carson’s reactions shows that in 21st century Western societies some women (and men) take a mental shortcut to feminist ideas when they are talking about certain topics like childcare. But feminism is just one point of view (a very important one though) for talking about what women go through at home, in the office, at university, school, on the streets and so on. Feminism ought to be a means of (self-)reflection and not an automated reaction.
Kelly is the secret star of the movie. While Jenny’s development is predictable and Carson just pops up when the story needs a good friend or intellectual input, Kelly undergoes a subtle change. After talking to Jenny and Carson she reconsiders writing and gets out of the house physically and mentally. The office becomes a meeting point where the three women come up with ideas for an erotic novel. Like their first conversation about what it means to be a happy woman, the dialogues about what makes a good-selling erotic novel are witty. The three reflect on what women think other women (and society in general) wants them to read in such books: The language should be salacious and simple, the plot gets reduced to the formula submissive woman meets handsome, potent man. A satirical hint on existing books and films might be intended.
The end of the Happy Christmas comes abruptly. No big happy ending (although it would fit title-wise perfectly, wouldn’t it?) but more of a “life goes on” kind of end. So, is everyone happy now? Shouldn’t that be the aim of every Christmas movie? Classic ones, yes. However, I like that Happy Christmas is not that simple. It presents the holiday as it is for so many people: a coming together of family members and/or friends, a gift-marathon, an abundance of food and drink and having a good time - and a day on which you have to deal with the flaws and faults of your family and friends.
What makes the movie a long stretch to watch though is its wrong focus. It seems like Jenny and her story were supposed to be the core of the film but her development is clichéd and predictable. On the other hand, Kelly’s story would have had potential since her character tries to change but the conditions surrounding her stifle any of her ambitions. There lies “conflicting gold” that could have been dug up by the author. Still, if you are looking for a Christmas treat without an old white-bearded man popping out of the chimney this one will do it. Plus: The movie’s soundtrack is nice (playlist on Youtube)!
It’s winter time again: the scent of cinnamon wafting through the air, the decorating of gingerbread houses and Christmas movies hitting theaters in a jingle-bell-like staccato. Ready for some nauseatingly kitschy Christmas staples? Or something new?
For the second installment of our Cringe series, we are featuring the film Carol.
Most viewers would not think of Carol as a Christmas movie, despite the title. Its unconventional love story breaks the mould of genre conventions. Instead of a girl-meets-boy plot with a happy ending on Christmas Eve, we see two women, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), falling in love with each other. Christmas, the loveliest time of the year and family fest par excellence, makes their special relationship and the problems that come with it abundantly apparent. A woman is supposed to be with her family on Christmas, but what happens when the family is falling apart? Carol is divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and fighting for the custody of her daughter; Therese has a boyfriend with whom she is not in love. However, both Carol’s husband and Therese’s boyfriend ignore the reality of the situation, grinning and bearing it. For them, Christmas is still the time to be together as a family. Haunted by Christmas conventions and traditions, Carol and Therese escape on a road trip to explore their feelings for each other. The two of them manage to get away from their families, but they cannot flee the times in which they live. It’s 1950s America and love between women is not only a taboo but unheard of (at least to those who won’t listen). Carol and Therese take a break from society’s expectations but they will be waiting for them at home.
The two very different female characters uphold the adage that opposites attract. As the title states, we get to know Carol in depth, an ethereal woman with bright blond bombshell hair and garishly red shiny lips. She is in her 40s, married to a sleek businessman, yet she loves women. It’s a secret that everyone knows but no one dares talk about. On a December day, Carol ends up in a department store to find a Christmas gift for her daughter. That’s where she meets Therese. She is younger than Carol, with short brown hair and coy pink lip gloss. Her big innocent eyes follow Carol through the department store, not knowing what to make of this woman who had stared and smiled at her. It’s the beginning of a seductive love – and an unequal relationship between Carol and Therese.
Cate Blanchett plays Carol as a woman who took all steps on the path that 1950s society considered normal for women. Now, she is going against “normalcy,” which makes her both vulnerable and strong. In contrast, Rooney Mara gives Therese the aspect of an insecure woman at the very beginning of her social life. She is unsure about marrying her boyfriend and hates her job at the department store, wishing to be a photographer for The New York Times instead. Carol approaches her, Carol invites her for dinner, Carol takes her on a road trip. The whole story is primarily showing how Carol “helps” Therese discover her homosexuality. At one point, Carol leaves Therese. A turning point in their relation? No. Therese does start a new job but her thoughts are with Carol. While staring at the pictures she took of her, she mourns her loss. In the end, Carol reconnects with Therese, confesses her love and - after a short moment of withdrawal - Therese happily returns. In the last scene, we see Therese staring at Carol, the camera moves from Therese’s point of view toward Carol, capturing her half-closed eyes. Just like at the beginning at the department store.
The film’s plot line is not really intricate. However, the feelings it tries to convey are, and they need time to develop. Director Todd Haynes (who is known for transcending and questioning conventional gender roles and racial stereotypes in his films) turns the movie’s screenplay by Phyllis Nagy into a two-hour epic. The slow-paced cinematography and reduced dialogue reflect the slow and cautious unfolding of emotions. Gestures and facial expressions – their eyes, their hands, their lips! – are more important than what the characters say. In one scene, Therese is at the cinema with some friends. One of them is “charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they really feel.” That’s Carol in a nutshell.
The film should be applauded because it shows lesbian love (and the fight for its acknowledgement) on the big screen. The situation of homosexual women is still complicated in many societies worldwide but awareness is rising. Films such as Carol are part of this development. It is both the result of the mere fact that it could be made and fuel for a rising acceptance of female homosexuality. Because let’s face the truth: Cinemagoers are more used to seeing two men kissing each other than two women. Carol not only shows female friendship (one might think of Thelma and Louise) or subtly hints at something more than friendship, but rather presents female love explicitly. Don’t get me wrong: In 2018, a plethora of films exist about it, but how many of them have found their way into cineplex programs, thus reaching a larger audience beyond queer cinema?
Reading suggestion: Carol’s screenplay is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt.
It’s winter time again: the scent of cinnamon wafting through the air, the decorating of gingerbread houses and Christmas movies hitting theaters in a jingle-bell-like staccato. Ready for some nauseating kitschy Christmas staples? Each Sunday we will post a review with that special FemFilmFans twist for your unholy delight.
Today's featured film is Love, Actually.
Love, Actually (2003)
On a gray and lonely Sunday at the end of the November, I suddenly feel a deep desire that is tucked away in my brain for most of the year. I go on Youtube and type “All I Want for Christmas + Love Actually” and listen to the song at least three times in a row. The video is the perfect Christmas overkill: a poisonous combination of Mariah Carey’s evergreen hit belted out by 10-year-old Joanna (played by Olivia Olsen) during the Christmas concert scene from director Richard Curtis’s Christmas classic. Since its release in 2003, Love, Actually has quickly made its way into our hearts and into the Christmas movie canon. This year the movie celebrates its 15th anniversary. We take this opportunity to re-watch it with more critical eyes.
The film was written and directed by Richard Curtis (the man behind British romcoms such as Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary) and stars many famous actresses and actors like Keira Knightly, Emma Thompson, the late Alan Rickman and Liam Neeson. The movie title bluntly states what the film is all about: love - the universal value that everyone can agree on, right? Wrong. Especially not after watching Love, Actually. Curtis transforms love into a heteronormative, misogynist ideology. Ten (!) intersected plotlines deal with specific romantic issues, presenting his ideas of love. The outcome is a love potpourri that draws on questionable gender roles. Let’s take a closer look at the movie’s representation of women.
Applies to all: Curtis seems like he has never heard of the Bechdel test before. Most of the time women talk about men and/or romantic encounters and related problems. In the end, we are always presented with any of the three options for what I would call a male-positive ending:  the man gets the woman he loves or  he has learned a “life lesson” (on the back of a woman) that makes him stronger or  a woman is suffering because of a man.
Juliet, Peter and Mark or The Classic Love Triangle: Man loves his best friend’s wife, or rather is creepily obsessed with her (during their wedding, he only films her so he can re-watch this footage at home alone). Mark finally confesses his love to Juliet on Christmas Eve, to which she responds with giggles and even bestows him with a kiss (since he has been soooo brave). She then returns to her husband leaving Mark with his unfulfilled desire that he can easily continue to project on her.
Jamie and Aurélia or Love Transcends Borders: A sensitive author, Jamie, is left by his bitchy partner because he is too nice (note: men have to be “strong” to be desirable). He withdraws to a French cottage. Luckily, his good-looking Portuguese household help, Aurélia, understands his delicate soul without even being able to talk to him since she cannot speak English. But who cares? Returning to Britain for Christmas Eve, Jamie understands that he loves Aurélia (obviously). He flies to Portugal and publicly proposes to her in broken Portuguese (cute, right?). She accepts, because any other answer would have been mean and injurious to his ego.
Harry, Karen and Mia or Save The Nuclear Family: Man is “threatened” at work by a femme fatale - his sexy young employee. Eventually, he gives in because, well, she’s sexy and his wife at home will understand if she finds out. Of course she does find out and of course she takes him back because family is so important. At least she is a bit mad at him.
David and Natalie or The Power of Love: We see a variation of the motive “workplace-relationship”. In contrast to the above mentioned Harry, Karen, Mia-story this time the relationship is a totally innocent one though. Natalie falls in love with a man who is her superior. But just being hierarchically higher is not enough: David is prime minister(!) of the UK and Natalie is his intern (any associations to real politicians and interns are naturally unintended…). Government officials are blamed to be cold and unromantic - not so David. He is depicted as heartwarmingly insecure when speaking to Natalie. Oh, so maybe that’s the reason he constantly body-shames her (as do others), turning the focus away from his insecurity onto Natalie’s “chubby body shape”. Merry Christmas…
Daniel, Sam, Joanna and Carol or Only Dead Women Are Good Women: A boy has lost his mother. Yet he cries because he is unhappily in love with a girl from his school. How can he make her notice him? Talking to her is no option for the shy guy. His grieving father tries to help him through this manhood-shaping life lesson. And because the father is so nice, his Christmas gift is a hot blonde model (Claudia Fischer in one of her rare roles).
Sarah, Karl and Michael or The Ugly Duckling: A shy woman pines away for a coworker’s love. Finally, the office Christmas party provides an opportunity to mingle. The man, who has not expressed a meaningful sentence to this point, readily goes home with her. His name is Karl and even his nerdy glasses cannot make him bad-looking. You might think: Sure, the lead up might have been strange but finally she isg etting her fair share of the Christmas pudding! Nope. Another man, her mentally disturbed brother, calls her. Doing the right(?) thing,she leaves and spends Christmas with him. Family, as seen above, is so important. And she continues pining away for Karl. That’s what women are best at anyway.
John and Judy or There’s No Sex Without Love: What do we learn while watching two porn actors falling at love on set? That the work place is love spot no. 1! An incredible five out of ten plots are centered on or around work and power relations in the office! Oh, and even commodified sex needs love, at least on Christmas.
Colin, Tony and the American girls or Ok, Maybe There’s Sex Without Love As Long As I am a Horny Brit. That’s the whole plotline, actually.
Bill and Joe or Maybe Gay: Finally, a quirky relation between two men. But don’t get too excited. They are just friends, although attentive viewers might sense a homosexual subtext. If you dislike the idea you are welcome to stick with friendship. It never becomes explicit, so it is open to interpretation and everyone is happy. Sure enough, we see no female homosexuality.
It’s hard to give up habits. I used to like Love, Actually. Maybe I will continue to do so. Meanwhile I am looking for more complex movies. If you have any suggestions comment below or contact us on IG!
If you are interested in a more comprehensive (feminist) review of Love, Actually you should check out this article on The Independent.
By Marina Brafa
Do you need some energy, some inspiration or simply a musical track that kicks in and makes you feel empowered? Then you should watch MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A., the biopic about singer M.I.A. (best known for her hugely successful hit Paper Planes). We see her as a young girl, Matangi, her hair in braids, wearing a prissy white blouse and skirt, dancing at home with her family. We then see Maya, a flashily dressed young woman dancing in music videos. We finally see a grown woman, M.I.A., dressed as a cheerleader, dancing and singing along with Madonna and Nicki Minaj during the Super Bowl halftime show. She causes a scandal by flipping off the camera for a few seconds. That’s Matangi’s/Maya’s/M.I.A.’s life in a nutshell.
Director Steve Loveridge’s documentary MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. cracks open that nutshell, however, to showcase the life and work of an artist that now goes by the name of M.I.A. Personally, I only know the 43-year-old artist by that name. As I am writing this, I can hear her catchy lyrics in my head:
“All I wanna do is [bang] [bang] [bang]
And [click] [ka-ching]
And take your money…”
That would be the song Paper Planes, of course; her most successful hit to date and a perfect example of M.I.A.’s work. She combines various musical genres - rap, hip hop, electronic music - with her in your face style to get her political message across, which is that of equality and freedom. Sure those are two BIG words, but M.I.A. lives up to them through her art. How? Because she is telling her story the way she wants.
Mathangi Arulpragasam, Maya to her friends, was born in London on July 17, 1975 and is of Tamil origin. At the age of six months, she and her family moved to Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka. Tamils are an oppressed minority in the island country and have been facing violence for decades, which has gone mostly unnoticed by international media (sidenote: the civil war came to an “official” end in 2009 when state forces defeated the Tamil militia). Maya’s father was one of the founders of a revolutionary Tamil force that fought for independence. In 1986, after her father left and her family’s situation worsened due to the Sri Lankan civil war, Maya moved back to Britain. She lived in a poor neighborhood in West London where she would listen to mainstream radio and her neighbor’s hip hop music collection through the walls of their apartment.
Even though M.I.A. readily embraced British culture, life as a Tamil refugee in 1980s Britain proved difficult. M.I.A. had left the violence in Sri Lanka, only to face discrimination and to be confronted with her Tamil roots. She was supposed to remain in the shadows, to silently accept her marginalization. This is when she decided to raise her voice and create political art.
As a 21-year-old, M.I.A. went back to Sri Lanka to visit her family and to meet other 21-year-old women there. It was a way to regain and tell a story that could have been hers had she stayed in Sri Lanka. In Britain she worked with the British band Elastica and featured her graffiti art in exhibitions. In 2004 she started producing music and clips as means of political activist art. Throughout these years she was filming. Herself. Her family. Tamil relatives. Strangers.
The documentary is mostly based on this video footage that M.I.A. gave Loveridge in 2011, which he cut together with M.I.A.’s music videos and interviews. Viewers are thrown back and forth in time, crossing the borders between Britain, Sri Lanka and the U.S. and hear almost exclusively M.I.A.’s voice. There’s no voice-over commentary and new material shot by Loveridge. The finished product therefore shows young Maya’s transformation to M.I.A, which provides viewers with an immediate close-up of her life but is limited to her points of view. We witness her struggling with fame: Can an artist be politically relevant and commercially successful at the same time? Or is she just staging herself in a radical-chic manner (as NYT’s reporter Lynn Hirschberg claims in her 2010 profile of the artist)? Let’s review the Super Bowl scandal to answer that question.
During the Halftime Show it comes to a head. We see M.I.A. conflicted backstage. She followed her manager’s advice of teaming up with a more famous artist so she can gain exposure for her art. That’s how the music biz works, baby. Now she is about to perform in one of the most commercial events ever alongside her idol Madonna. As if that isn’t enough, M.I.A. shows her middle finger to the camera. Fox News cries. NFL sues her. M.I.A. (kind of) managed to stick to her activist principles. However, the following debates were about the act itself rather than its political impetus. Maybe at a certain point the question is no longer if a commercially successful artist can be politically relevant but how s/he can turn public attention away from the person to its message again.
M.I.A. has since done a 180°. She has returned to producing her own music and videos, such as the self-directed music clip Borders that thematizes the “refugee crisis.” Additionally, she is now engaging in activism outside the art sphere. She is active on social media using it as a channel to explain her opinions about what is going wrong in society. In a 2013 video statement responding to the NFL suit, she points out that she was only the scapegoat in a larger context: “What is offensive in America: Is my finger offensive or an underaged black girl with her legs wide open?” The scandalous “thing” was not her middle finger but that the NFL had a group of black under-16-year-old girls in tight dresses dance provocatively in the background. “Basically, the NFL want me to say that it's OK for me to promote being sexually exploited as a female, than to display empowerment, female empowerment, through being punk rock. That's what it boils down to, and I'm being sued for it.”
I’d meet ‘em, once you read ‘em
This one needs a brand new rhythm
We done the key.”
Compared to her former success she is not reaching as many people as she used to. But Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. has something to say and to advocate for. She is a refugee, a member of a jeopardized minority, a woman of color as well as an outspoken, talented and intelligent artist. The 97-minute full on M.I.A immersion is the ultimate tribute to her life so far. The biopic is also a huge middle finger to all of her critics and a way to say: Look where I came from and where I am now. You can do the same. Just focus what matters to you and stay true to it.
The film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival 2018 and at the Berlinale International Film Festival 2018.
A Review of Seasons One and Two of GLOW
By Marina Brafa
The moment I realized I had fallen in love with GLOW happened at the end of season one: the wrestling match between Liberty Belle and Zoya The Destroya. Usually all the moves are precisely choreographed and rehearsed, but this time Liberty Belle went off script and broke Zoya’s ankle. That terrible popping sound of her bone jolted me - not only could I feel her pain personally, I realized that I had not only followed the whole fight or even the episode, but rather the complete season enthusiastically. It turns out that from the very beginning, slowly but surely, the “Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling” (or GLOW for short) had put me under their spell. Here’s why.
Imagine Los Angeles in the 1980s. Women wear perms and shoulder pads; businessmen use clumsy mobile phones to negotiate their next deal on Wall Street. AIDS is a minor disease, unknown to most of the world and a wind of change is breezing through the Soviet Bloc. That’s the one side of reality. The other sits in a run-down Los Angeles gym waiting for an audition for an unspecified TV show on an insignificant local network. But hey, it’s a job and how else are you going to pay your rent?
A cast of about 15 women end up making the cut for the show - which to their surprise turns out to be a wrestling program - that is supposed to be different from all the others, mainly because the wrestlers are women. What sounds like women boldly evening out the playing field in a male-dominated sport is fake, however – much like the wrestling itself. The TV show’s concept is the brainchild of two men, producer Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell) and director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron). The target audience is officially families but we know it’s really more for men.
At this point I was irritated: What’s going on Netflix? The women are good-looking (*surprise*), the director is obviously a selfish, misogynist idiot, the producer a wannabe big shot living off his mother’s fortune. And yes, there is a certain appeal to making a TV show about a TV show (meta level, you get it…) that, again, presents a completely scripted sports and entertainment show (namely wrestling; meta-meta level, it’s getting complicated…). But is this enough? GLOW appeared to be lacking plot and interesting characters. I was close to switching it off when things started to develop (and Zoya’s ankle popped). For example, as the ladies start developing their characters, and by that I mean the roles they would play in the wrestling ring.
Even though the wrestling personas are totally cliché caricatures, the roles the female cast members had created for their work would soon start taking over in real life. And as the lines between truth and fiction blurred, GLOW became more like a reality TV show. Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens) becomes “The Welfare Queen,” a “bad” character because she is taking advantage of the welfare system (which still seems to be a deeply rooted fear in U.S. society). In “real” life, Tammé is indeed not rich but she is an honest and hard-working mother who’s proud of her son attending Stanford. The wrestling ring therefore is a small reflection of society, which is why the exaggerated characters set up for the show reflect the audience’s/society’s ugly face and the clichés with which they are familiar. Under the surface, however, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling have individual, far more complex lives.
These personal stories are revealed one after another, which include heated political and societal issues. While GLOW is in the 80s, the problems addressed do not - adding to the show a layer of critical comment on racism and sexism in 21st century-U.S. and societies worldwide. The diversity of U.S. society has not always been reflected in TV and cinema, fortunately the (nearly) all-female GLOW cast does a good job of cover all their bases. Let’s take a closer look at the characters. We have…
I could go on with this list (because GLOW also tells us something about friendships, about body images and female confidence, and so on...) and I am sure after watching GLOW some of you might agree or disagree with some of the points above. In that case: Let us know via IG or FB, or comment below!
Finally, the only two main male characters, Sam and Bash, are not as flat as they might seem. Sam treats women in a sexist way, no doubt. Often enough he reduces them to their appearance and sexual attraction and he is very opposed to Debbie becoming part of the production team. However, he supports women whom he considers talented and edgy. Well yes, this could be defined as a patriarchal way of female empowerment and I won’t argue against this objection. He does not take Debbie seriously as a producer and he is annoyed by Ruth’s suggestions to his script. Initially. When he finally realizes in Season Two that their ideas are innovative, we see Sam more open to collaborate with women (other than sexually...) and to fully include them in the production process of GLOW. Hence, Debbie and Ruth enter the male-dominated economic circle and can change the system from within because – let’s be honest – in the end, the question of female empowerment is also a question of money!
Bash, on the other hand, seems to feel attracted to men, especially his butler, but does not want to acknowledge or cope with his feelings. Basically, he is nice to everyone and tries to fulfill his dream of getting GLOW on TV. Women are part of his concept and as such he is trading them as goods. At the beginning he seems more concerned with crazy outfits and over-the-top wrestling stories rather than the women’s health. But Bash too gets more mature and realizes his responsibilities (he’s paying the cast’s salaries, after all).
According to Netflix’s official GLOW website the show is “a comedy by the team behind ‘Orange is the New Black.’” Yes, it is – but its comedy is funny to a point that it actually hurts watching. You have to get into the mood of GLOW but once you are in this universe of 80s synth-pop, glittery costumes and over-the-top makeup you can fully engage with and enjoy the two selling points of the Netflix series: GLOW’s witty revelation of a conservative world where women are struggling with emancipation and traditional roles of motherhood, and with stepping up while being pushed back by patriarchal structures and sexism; and its ingenious way to lay bare the ridiculousness of stereotypes and people who fall for them too easily (and not only back in the 80s).
Find trailer, episode lists and season recaps on the official GLOW website. So far, there are two seasons and GLOW got renewed for a third one in August 2018!
The creators behind GLOW are Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch. You can listen to them in the insightful podcast WTF with Marc Maron #827 - who plays Sam Sylvia, you remember? - where the three chit-chat about writing and creating GLOW.
The Power of Female Resilience
An entrancing tour de force, Vox Lux grips the viewer/listener from start to finish. From emerging director/writer, Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader), this film captures the power of female resilience in the form of a seemingly delicate young woman, Celeste, portrayed by the captivating Raffey Cassidy (young Celeste), and the ingenious Natalie Portman (adult Celeste). The illusion of delicacy doesn't last long, as Corbet takes us through each chapter of her journey, repeatedly using lingering, close-range shots to highlight the strength and resilience of both Celeste and the women around her.
As the protagonist begins her transformation from mundane teenager to striking pop star, the viewer/listener is consistently left with a feeling of disquiet--verging on discomfort--with the monstrous aspects of our society that she must endure, aided in no small part by the poignant score (Scott Walker and Sia). Yet at every juncture--whether dealing with violence, invasion of privacy, deception, or manipulation--Celeste carries herself with unapologetic hope and magnanimity. Her monologues (delivered with biting self-assurance by both Cassidy and Portman) serve to bring a voice to women who often feel victimized by male violence, dominance, and presumption. Even Celeste's manager, deftly portrayed by Jude Law, seems more easily derailed than his client. That's not to say that Celeste suppresses her emotions; there are several pivotal moments where she unleashes her fury and despair with the selfish, mean-spirited nature of our society. These reactions are shown to be justified, as they are in response to those who detract from her ultimate goal: to provide her audience and the world with a positive atmosphere, where pain is effortlessly eliminated, and all they have to do is focus on her voice.
From the Latin, meaning "light voice," Corbet's Vox Lux provides exactly that: a gritty, yet seamless look at the hope and triumph that arise when the dark underbelly of our society is struck with a beam of light in the shape of a woman's voice.
13 of Witchcraft Horror’s Most Iconic Heroines
Female occultism, in particular the concept of ‘witches’ appears to be having a bit of a resurgence in pop culture at the moment. From American Horror Story to I Am Not a Witch (click to read Christina's review) to Witches Of East End to Jenji Kohan’s series about the Salem Witch Trials, the magical woman is undergoing a renaissance cultural moment — and also gaining new respect as an enduring feminist symbol.
“Young women in particular are looking for an archetype outside the tired virgin/whore binary that we’re offered, and the witch can do just that,” Kristen Korvette, who created a new course at The New School called "The Legacy of the Witch."
Occultist women portrayed in films are inherently connected to the irrational fear of females and their biological bonds to the natural world. They can also be explicit critiques of the modern world — and a much needed form of assertion. Bearing this in mind, get ready to enrich your scary movie diet with some progressive feminism.
But first, get on with reading Natalie's list and watching these scenes of bad ass witchcraft feminism!
1. Thomasin, The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
This already cult status film takes us back to New England in the 1630s, a few decades before the Salem witch trials, unfolding the story of a teenage girl trapped somewhere between the ambiguity of religious fervor, the eventual relinquishment of religious shame, and eventual sexual abandonment… and above all else the certainty of true evil.
2. Carrie, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
‘’Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.’’
Stephen King’s Carrie focuses mainly on the male fear of powerful women that inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp signifying her death as the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s states that the inspiration for his 1973 book, is as much a realization of a feminist nightmare as it is a patriarchal one, with neither party winning.
The rise of Second Wave feminism in the seventies posed serious threats to the patriarchal order certainly, but even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, also disconcertingly taps into the shared universal fear of being victimized, something most of us can relate to at one point in our lives, and is one of the reasons Carrie still scares everyone.
3. Nancy, The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996)
The Craft is a teenage tale of witchcraft in the American high school. Sarah (Robin Tunney) is a troubled girl who just moved to Los Angeles. She meets three school outcasts rumored to dabble in witchcraft – Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Nancy (Fairuza Balk) and Rochelle (Rachel True). Sarah joins their coven and, as a result, four teenagers gain access to dark powers, and after Nancy is struck by lightening in the initiation, she lacks empathy and becomes power obsessed.
At first, they use them in a most teenage way possible, from unleashing revenge to attracting school hunk Chris (Skeet Ulrich). But things take a darker turn as people start dying, spells backfire and the coven’s leader, Nancy, becomes more and more of an unhinged bad girl as the film progresses.
4. Jay, It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
Forgetting the whole “teenagers who have sex die” exhausted tradition of the horror film for a second. In this film, the characters have to have sex in order to survive a deadly curse. Annie is a new kind of final girl, who has to break the rules of the genre and the adult world to stay alive. This is a refreshingly powerful depiction of adolescence, which culminates in an uplifting (literally) scene of personal fulfillment and ecstasy.
5. Rosemary, Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
This is one of those cases in which you want to separate the director from his work—I would never call Roman Polanski a feminist, but I would argue that this film is. Rosemary’s Baby is a surprisingly honest and intimate portrayal of the expectations, disappointments, and even horrors that can accompany pregnancy. And the lullaby that begins and ends the film will haunt you for a long time (it’s my ringtone).
6. 'The Girl,' A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
A mysterious female vampire stalks an Iranian town and, in the process, exposes its secrets. This dreamy, beautifully filmed Persian-American flick draws from both the horror and Spaghetti Western traditions, and immediately became an inspiration for independent horror filmmakers.
7. Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula's Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)
Dracula’s Daughter is an all too often overlooked Universal Studios monster gem. Gloria Holden stars as Countess Marya Zaleska, a hypnotic vampire who is forced to bear her father’s legacy. She also demonstrates a strong attraction to women, thereby initiating the cinematic trend of the lesbian vampire.
8. Asa Vajda, Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)
Black Sunday, also known as The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire, is a 1960 Italian gothic horror film directed by Mario Bava. Burned at the stake, a vampire witch princess (Barbara Steele) wakes up centuries later with her undead henchman.
To this Bava now added a direct approach to historical misogyny and warped religious concepts of femininity and virtue, subjects rarely tackled before except by Carl Dreyer, one of intelligent horror’s strongest influences, in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and Day of Wrath (1943).
9. Amelia, The Babadook (Jennifer Dent, 2014)
Six years after the violent death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is at a loss. The Babadook (2014) punctures this myth of the new feminized laborer — a perky, independent professional, free from housewifery and inequality. Instead, we are faced with Amelia, a clearly intelligent, capable woman, who lives in a careworn haze of fatigue and depletion, only emerging periodically to rally herself to tenderness or descend into demonic fury. An amazing depiction of the burdens of being a single mother, and a terrifying watch.
10. Willow, The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
When fervently Christian detective Sergeant Howie visits a remote island in the Hebrides to investigate a young girl’s disappearance, he finds a community celebrating May Day with pagan rituals. Whilst visiting, he stays at the local inn where he meets Willow, the innkeeper’s daughter, who attempts to sway him from his Christian path. Willow’s responsibility for demonstrating the loose morals of the Summerisle heathens (and testing Howie’s purity) is exhibited with a bizarre bawdiness – but Britt Ekland’s Bond-girl, pouting sexuality marked her (and her role as Willow) as an iconic figure of seduction within horror
11. Elaine, Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
Witches have been portrayed onscreen as evil, hideous hags (Hocus Pocus), as eccentric but kind neighbors (Practical Magic), as rebellious teens in Hot Topic clothing (The Craft). In The Love Witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) – despite being a homage to all these vintage vixens, is a different archetype from the ones we’re used to seeing — she’s a seductive woman whose primary goal in life is to find a man who adores her, which she attempts using methods of seduction and spellwork
12. Gwen, The Witches (Cyril Frankell, 1966)
Following a deeply disturbing experience with the occult in Africa, a schoolteacher moves to a small English village, only to discover that black magic resides there as well.
This film was a pet project of Joan Fontaine, based on a novel by Peter Curtis. It was her last feature film. Fontaine stars as the fearlessly strong teacher Gwen Mayfield, who is in charge of a missionary school in Africa. A witch doctor puts a curse on her, causing a nervous breakdown.
Returning to England, she takes a job running a small rural school. In the village, there is an active voodoo cult. They have targeted a young woman named Linda (Ingrid Brett), whom they plan to offer as a virgin sacrifice. The cult members are led by journalist Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), whom Mayfield discovers is the head witch. So much female sass for one movie, decades ahead!
13. Suzy, Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
Dario Argento’s avant-garde and beautifully shot giallo movie follows the journey of an American dancer, as she enrolls in a prestigious German dance school, only to find it’s run by masochistic witches. Argento’s technical stylings are always a wonder to behold and Suspiria, with its use of mind blowing colors, and a spectacular score by prog-rock band Goblin. Not to mention a bizarre mystery at the heart of it all, is one of his, and Italian cinema’s, most thrilling works. It is definitely a film critic’s film, and remains as influential as it does unnerving.
So what do you think about Natalie's list? Have you seen any of the films she included? Let us know in the comments!
You can follow Natalie on Instagram (@nataliemariawardle) and be sure to check out her site tarredandfeatheredofficial.com, where you can find the original version of the above list. It was slightly edited for Femfilmfans.
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