A review of I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story
By Christina Schultz
Throughout the course of the film, we meet four legit fangirls, each pining away for a different boyband:
As their stories unfold, we quickly learn there is so much more to their fangirl-ness than the stereotypical hysteria and open display of female sexuality, but we will come back to this. The boybands fill a void in these women’s lives. For Elif, it was a connection to her new home country and a rejection of her parents’ Turkish traditions (“there are no boybands in Turkey,” she tells us). Sadia found that The Backstreet Boys allowed her to freely express herself and go against the grain of her conservative Pakistani-Muslim family. Dora, a lesbian and former Olympian hopeful, didn’t just love Gary Barlow, she wanted to be Gary Barlow; her love of the group coincided with the time she sustained a career-ending injury. The Beatles accompanied Susan through the early, happier years and later provided her comfort through the later, more difficult years. The boybands therefore represent so much more than what meets the eye, which is no doubt aesthetically pleasing.
Each woman tells such a complex, multi-layered story and this film acknowledges them so lovingly and non-judgmentally. The women are able to tell their stories authentically so that by the end we have learned enough about them to make us feel like we are their friends or therapists, one of the two. The feelings of hurt, shame, guilt, inadequacy, longing, but also of love, desire, euphoria, even empowerment all come across, as they arguably would in any relationship. The fact that these women have struggled shows that the boybands mean so much more than the aforementioned stereotypes we associate with the fangirls, although they too are subtly dealt with in the film.
The first of the stereotypes, hysteria, seen mostly in montages (reminiscent of 1964 Beatles romp A Hard Day’s Night), reveals itself on a deeper level as a sense of belonging, a communal ecstatic response to the “perfect boys” and their uplifting music. Women gather together to enjoy the boybands, making them feel part of something much greater. And even though the four women in the film love different groups, they too have similar bonding experiences with other fans. So the love of a boyband is in essence a great unifier. Nothing hysterical about that at all, really.
The second of the stereotypes, the open expression of female sexuality, which is unfortunately still problematic for some, is falsely demonized. As we all know deep down, the boybands are (unfortunately) unattainable. If anything, the fans are so devoted to their boys, that they avoid “real men” altogether. This is a common theme throughout the film. Sadia, for example, admits that Nick Carter & Co. were “the five most consistent men in my life.” Elif thinks “real boys are jerks.” In their pursuit of their “perfect” boys, they actually reject the cultural norms the bands’ music plays into. While this might sound contradictory, it is in this rejection that they empower themselves. The women’s families, but especially Elif’s and Sadia’s, do not understand their daughters’ unrequited love, hoping their girls will find a man and settle down, just like they did. But the girls do not want to settle. It might seem as though they are unable to form healthy, romantic relationships and are wasting their time in the pursuit of their idols, but Dora found her soulmate and Susan was married and had two children. Yet their love of the boybands never waned. Elif and Sadia are still finding themselves and do not want to go the arranged marriage route. In all cases, the women were stripped of the power to see men simply as objects of desire and to make their desires public on such a grand scale. The double standard robs women of their freedom and is harmful and downright wrong (but I’m preaching to the choir here).
In the end, the film fights these stereotypes and features women who have found themselves through their love of the boybands. And while they “used to be normal” (Elif’s words quoted in the film’s title), normal is boring and certainly does not empower us quite as well as dancing to the beat of our own favorite Beatles/One Direction/Backstreet Boys/Take That song.
TriCoast Entertainment has released I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story onto the following digital platforms: Amazon, inDemand, DirecTV, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, AT&T, FlixFing, Vudu, FANDANGO, Sling/Dish.
All materials were graciously provided to FemFilmFans by TriCoast Entertainment.
The Act of Selling Drugs
By Guest Contributor Esther Louise
If you are looking for a coming-of-age series with lots of pop culture references and fast storytelling, How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast) might be your new favorite show. Another bonus: you can binge-watch it within one day. At least that’s what I did because the mixture of fun, tension and “relatable-moments” I experienced while watching as a woman in her mid 20s had me hooked.
How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast) has six episodes which are between 25-35 minutes long. The series has an easy feel to it, even though it is dealing with social issues and, of course, drug culture. Throughout the series, the multiple story arcs show how drugs are circulated, consumed and what effects they (can) have.
I would like to start by pointing out the following, which serves as the basis of my critique: the series was produced mainly by men, which is abundantly clear from the way the story is told. The plot focuses on the main male characters, what they are going through, their feelings and actions.
Moritz (Maximilian Mundt) is waiting for his girlfriend Lisa (Lena Klenke) to get back from her year abroad in the U.S. While he can’t wait to give her his welcome back present, she wants a break from their relationship. She feels like something inside her has changed after being away from home for so long. Moreover, Lisa started to experiment with drugs while studying abroad. Moritz, however, portrays the “classic nerd,” as in not too popular, being socially awkward and in contrast to almost all the other characters, he is not too enthusiastic about social media. But by trying to win Lisa back he gets out of his comfort zone and does a lot of things which do not seem like him. Long story short: Moritz gets into the drug business hoping to win his girlfriend back by supplying her with ecstasy. One could argue that he changes from being a nerd to being a drug lord, also because the first episode is called, “Nerd Today, Boss Tomorrow.” But since most of his classmates and family do not know about his double life, he is still the nerd he was before.
The male viewpoint becomes even clearer when looking at the way the relationship between Lisa and Moritz is portrayed. His reaction to their break results in selling drugs through an online shop. Moritz tries everything possible to win her back. We see him sitting in his room overthinking their relationship and looking at old pictures again and again. Meanwhile Lisa is partying and trying to avoid her parents, who are going through a divorce. We do not get to know much about her, but know exactly what is going on in Moritz’ mind.
Moritz wouldn't be able to do any of those things without his best friend Lenny (Danilo Kamperidis). They are both into computer science and wanted to start a business since they were kids. With “my Drugs”, their online shop through which Lenny and Moritz sell their goods, they finally seem to have found a successful enterprise.
A pivotal part of this success is their supplier Buba (Bjarne Mädel, of Der Tatortreiniger fame). The three men have a bizarre codependent vibe. Every conversation between them ping-pongs between laugh-out-loud jokes and the violence and seriousness of being involved in the drug business. For example, Buba hurls death threats at Moritz and Lenny right before giving them health advice on diabetes after he took a sip from Moritz’ energy drink. This unsettling way of communication confuses the viewer about what’s going to happen next.
This all-male threesome, which is one of the fundamental bases for the story, is definitely an important point of critique and also one of the reasons why I was not surprised by an almost all-male film crew. We get a lot of male perspectives and just a few female voices that are not as present compared to their male colleagues. Proof of this is shown especially at the moment when Moritz and Daniel (Damian Hardung), who both vie for Lisa’s attention, join forces to bring down their common enemy Buba. Meanwhile Lisa has no idea what’s going on and is expected to stay at home and leave it to the men.
Even though the series would fail the Bechdel Test, there is one positive: I would argue that Lisa portrays a young woman some teenagers might be able to relate and/or look up to. She takes some time figuring out who she is, without having a boyfriend and explaining or defending every decision that she makes. While choosing herself first, she is very mature about their breakup as well. Lisa still gets along with Moritz and treats him like a friend with respect and kindness - an equality with which her parents seem to struggle. Her parents are constantly fighting and finally decide to get divorced because of their poor communication skills. Lisa also shows that a woman can have casual intimate relationships without directly falling for the other person or being slutshamed for having those casual relationships. One could argue that her experimentation with drugs liberates her from adhering to cliché gender roles. Rather than reassuming the role of the good, loyal girlfriend, she follows her own path and breaks from the constraints of heteronormative, monogamous relationships.
Apart from the storyline, the special effects department came up with creative ways to outline the show’s intentions, namely to reveal the entanglement of violence and criminality that accompanies dealing drugs. Even though Moritz and Lenny might not be ready to use violence themselves and they are not aware of their own contribution to it, they are part of the issue. Furthermore one of Lisa’s best friends, Fritzi (Leonie Wesselow), argues that nothing they do really has an impact or consequences. That mindset combined with the consumption of drugs, but also other relevant life decisions, like where to go after high school, show another misconception concerning the power their decisions (can) actually have, which might not be too far away from teenagers’ realities.
Another bonus is Moritz breaking through the fourth wall and explaining to the audience how he got into selling drugs in the first place (FYI: the story is based on a true event). In addition, the series provides definitions and explanations of drugs and their consumption within its storytelling. What caught my attention as well were very briefly discussed social issues such as working conditions for letter carriers and responsible usage of social media platforms.
Since the first season ended with a cliffhanger I am crossing fingers to see more social issues discussed embedded in a comedy-series that will serve us a variety of complex female characters in the second season.
By Christina Schultz
Warning: This review contains spoilers of Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
“Netflix and chill” has long become routine for folks who shell out the dough for a monthly subscription. And with the vast array of shows and movies available on the VOD giant, you can binge-watch to your heart’s content.
And binge-watch I did when I first heard about Riverdale (The CW, 2017-)* and later on about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix, 2018). There’s something about sexy, angsty teenagers we just can’t resist. Add a feminist, LGBTQ+ discourse to the mix, and you’ve upgraded those old-fashioned Archie Comics to the 21st century.
That’s what makes these shows, loosely based on the comics, so refreshing: pleasantly “different” characters. Yet the shows are not without their flaws, although I have a clear feminist favorite. By that I mean one of the two shows features a more diverse cast of strong, independent female characters who have multiple scenes or plotlines not revolving around their lovelife and who are not overt sexual objects of lust (although they might use their womanly charms to get what they want on occasion). Here’s a FemFilmFans breakdown of Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS).
In the original Archie Comics, Betty and Veronica were frenemies par excellence, pettily and pathetically vying for Archie’s affections. Riverdale quickly overcomes the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle - after Betty reveals her feelings for Archie and he firmly places her in the friend zone - by pairing off Betty and Jughead (#bugheadforever), although this represents a totally disappointing departure from the asexual Jughead in the comics. A positive departure is that Betty does not pine away for Archie, plotting ways to get him back from Veronica. Boy problems solved. However, it seems as if the be all and end all of the show is to have an s.o. Can’t anyone be single for two seconds? Asexual, questioning, or just plain single viewers don’t have much to identify with. In any case, B and V become inseparable, sticking up for one another and for just about anyone needing help (they mercilessly took on Riverdale High’s slut-shaming jocks, for example). This is a positive, empowering female friendship much needed in today’s media landscape.
But all that female empowerment sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Cue Cheryl Blossom (played by Madelaine Petsch): rich, beautiful, egocentric, domineering, and hell, let’s call a spade a spade, bitchy to the core. Even though she winds up dating Toni Topaz later on in the show, a (generally) positive development for her character, she initially stirs things up with everyone. Let’s put it this way, you wouldn’t want to be on her bad side, because she could make your life hell. We have nothing against strong female characters who speak their mind and get what they want, but not only does her combative cattiness make her problematic, it’s her overall presentation, too. Call me old-fashioned, but Cheryl always looks as if she’s about to head to work at the strip club. Betty and Veronica dress more conservatively, but you see a lot of toned midriffs and cleavage in the show. Where are the nerdy kids, the average, chunky or even plus size characters, the kids with disabilities, even kids with glasses? There’s Ethel Muggs (played by Shannon Purser), but that’s about it. Even though we have gay, lesbian and bi characters, and Veronica, Josie (of Josie and the Pussycats) and their mothers Hermione and Sierra respectively as women of color, we’d still like to see more diversity, especially for people of all shapes and sizes.
Equally problematic is Riverdale’s very own cult “The Farm” with its male leader Edgar Evernever (played by Chad Michael Murray). The fact that mostly women, like Betty’s mom Alice Cooper, her sister Penny - and eventually Cheryl and Toni - join and offer themselves up body and soul to this man chills me to my feminist core. Betty is the only one who truly sees through The Farm (or does she?) but in the end she learns that her mother needs to heal and can only do so with her new family (and, with Betty’s suspicions confirmed, through some sort of “marriage” to Edgar). What happened to smashing the patriarchy? Or is the show trying to low-key undermine religious or cultish groups by showing how backwards they can be? I would need to do some more digging to get to bottom of this (or just keep watching), but The Farm plotline leaves me cold. We also have the return of the Black Hood, The Gargoyle King and Hiram Lodge on the loose, three more male figures wreaking havoc on and thus controlling the town, albeit in completely different ways.
Yet Riverdale gets kudos for directly referencing the Bechdel Test, featuring the musical number “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” (Season Two, Episode 16 - “Chapter Twenty-Nine: Primary Colors”), subverting the male gaze as Betty, and thus the viewers, watch Archie through her bedroom window and having Jughead’s mom, Gladys Jones (played by Gina Gershon), show up to town only to reveal she wore the pants in Riverdale’s criminal underworld all along. Shocker!
Riverdale thus receives a score of 2/3 Fs (Finely Feminist)
*Special thanks to Ji Strangeway for tipping me off to the show!
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS)
At first I was skeptical when I saw the ads for the Sabrina reboot. Even our FemFilmFam voted for Melissa Joan Hart as their favorite Sabrina in our Insta Story, so I know I’m not the only one pining away for our favorite witch of the 90s.
While Sabrina is an attractive petite blonde, sticking to the norms of “Western” beauty standards - the rest of the cast makes up for this lack of diversity - she is a modern feminist hero we can get behind. Sabrina Spellman (played by Kiernan Shipka), half-mortal, half-witch, has an uncanny knack for witchcraft, although she is not a full-time student at The Academy of Unseen Arts. She comes from a powerful Satan-worshipping family, headed by her Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda. Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) is cold, ambitious, strong-willed and clever. For example, she marries Father Blackwood not for love, but for the power and privilege with which such an alliance comes. Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) at first appears to be the exact opposite of her sister: meek, kind, motherly. However, Hilda reveals her true colors in Season Two - she is not to be trifled with. She also keeps Sabrina grounded and reminds her that the mortal world isn’t all so bad. Sabrina’s aunties thus provide the basis of one of the most badass witch matriarchies around and are great role models for Sabrina (and for female viewers).
Sabrina also receives (mis)guidance from someone whom she thinks to be her favorite teacher Ms. Wardwell. It turns out that she is actually Lilith, Madame Satan herself, the first wife of Adam (yes, that Adam from the Bible). Lilith is the ultimate OG Biblical, or rather Satanic feminist, having refused to submit to Adam, which led God to banish her from the Garden of Eden. Eventually Lilith meets Lucifer Morningstar, aka The Dark Lord, who was an archangel banished from Heaven by God. Lucifer gave Lilith power in return for her help, making her the first witch. But everything comes with a price: she was bound to him as his handmaiden. Throughout Season Two, we see two sides to Lilith/Ms. Wardwell. First, her vulnerability during her struggles to outsmart The Dark Lord and second, her lust for power as she uses Sabrina as a pawn to become Queen of Hell. Despite her life of servitude, the fact that she was finally able to beat The Dark Lord (at least for now) makes her a true feminist warrior. She simply would not accept her fate and bend to His will (and talk about long game).
Other strong (albeit problematic) female characters include The Weird Sisters, and especially Prudence, although they are more malicious than weird and are often at odds with Sabrina until the latter proves herself at The Academy. Prudence has some serious Daddy Issues, but it is a welcome change to see a strong, black, pansexual witch. But we can’t leave out the mortals when talking about strong female characters. Sabrina’s bespectacled black gal pal with beautiful natural hair, Ros(alind) Walker, finds out she has powers of her own (“the cunning”). Having inherited this gift from her grandmother, Ros has psychic visions, which helps Sabrina on numerous occasions. She is also outspoken about issues that matter to her and I was pleased when she founded a feminist book club at Baxter High.
It is important to mention that CAOS also includes a trans character. Susie in Season One becomes Theo in Season Two, played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, and the character has been a cause for debate among some viewers. Whether or not you like Theo, it is still important to see trans characters included in mainstream media. The show is creating space for characters like Theo and the ones mentioned above. In my book that’s a definite plus.
And now back to Sabrina - what makes her feminist as f*ck is her power, confidence, persistence and yes, even her arrogant hubris at times. Rather than pandering to the “damsel in distress” stereotype often attributed to women like her, she literally can’t wait to run off and try the most difficult magic (and when she succeeds at it, she amazes everyone) - she gets shit done, no matter what anyone tells her. She also sticks to her guns in her relationships, not allowing herself to be pressured into having sex. Her virginal, good girl vibe is refreshing, especially when compared to shows like Riverdale (although there are some steamy scenes with Nicolas Scratch). She, like Lilith, also fools The Dark Lord and plans on future deceit and trickery with her eclectic bunch of family members and friends by her side. Needless to say, we cannot wait for Seasons Three and Four!
With a multitude of strong, diverse female characters, CAOS receives a score of 3/3 Fs (Fabulously Feminist)
A Young Sisterhood
Though Em is the leading character of the film, D’Alessandro Hatt has crafted the narration to be told from the perspective of her new friends, a tool which the audience admired. Beginning as a seemingly classic mini-teen-drama, consisting of sleepovers, book clubs and struts down the school hallway, the film shortly twists into a fantasy mask for the family issues occuring in Em’s life. Her new-found friends reveal the bravery within Em and the driver for her independent characteristics. Brave Little Army proudly displays the gravitas of placing yourself in other’s shoes. Em becomes a symbol for personalised freedom and self-expression.
Brave Little Army screened amidst seven other powerful short films. With an intimate audience and films with heavy, albeit important, feminist messages, Brave Little Army provided a somewhat comic relief. All films in the “Coming of Age” category addressed significant loss, women’s roles in the home (across the world) and patriarchal dominance. D’Alessandro Hatt’s direction employed the joy of friendship to not only re-divert elements of pain in Em’s life but to illustrate the importance of sisterhood from a young age.
All films demonstrated a diversity in the strength of women, even in moments of defeat. D’Alessandro Hatt displayed this beautifully by the characterisation of Em’s mother, signifying the necessity of standing up for oneself in situations of weakness. Brave Little Army reflected the same message which was present in all of the BFFW short films; women are still bravely fighting elements of oppression, feminism is active across the globe, and the conversation must begin when one is coming of age.
Brave Little Army is part one of a trilogy of short films to come. Follow Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt on Instagram @michelledhatt or follow @blacklabfilmco for updates. You can also follow Jessica Philbrick on Instragram and Facebook @jphilbrickartist or check out her website j-philbrickartist.com.
by Ana-Marija Bilandzija
There's a little blood and a lot of bitch fight in Yorgos Lanthimos’ period drama The Favourite. It's his least cryptic film yet, which earned him ten Academy Award nominations (the Oscars are tonight), and still stands out between easily-consumable movies like A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody. Here's why you should watch it.
It's the early 18th century, England is at war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) lacks a clear strategy, but she does have a childhood friend who basically runs the business for her: Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), always in control and so irreplaceable that she can do whatever she pleases. At least until the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). A cousin of Sarah's who has fallen into poverty for family reasons, Abigail quickly succeeds in charming Sarah and in particular Anne, who soon grows extremely attached to Abigail, not only for cuddling her rabbits and telling her stories, but also as her object of desire. And here it starts getting messy – and amazingly interesting.
Women, as they are portrayed in Lanthimos' bizarre comedy, enact power very differently than men: soft in a way, with more empathy and less machismo, but also full of intrigue. Queen Anne being the weakest, but de facto most powerful woman of England, suffers gouty arthritis and terrible mood swings, if not a depression/borderline disorder. She goes from sweet and jiggling dancer to a pile of tears in just minutes, always relying on Sarah and Abigail for comfort, and obviously hating herself for it. She can't stand the choir's singing on a sunny day, screaming at them across the yard. She faints during a strategy announcement in front of her ministers and entourage. Anne is a mess. Olivia Colman offers a brilliant version of this mess. Her weepy voice, poor posture, the neediness oozing out of each of her pores. In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel, Colman said it “gives her great pleasure to bathe in feelings, if a role offers to do so.” It’s much harder for her, she continues, “to hide feelings.” She instantly fell in love with Yorgos Lanthimos' script: “It’s dirty, garish, a disrespectful approach. (...) I’d be crazy, had I rejected playing the part.” She put on some weight in order to resemble the Queen. It was worth it.
Queen Anne is hardly bearable at times, and still, both Sarah and Abigail fall for her. Or just for the power she holds? There's a lot of myth surrounding Queen Anne's love life, like having affairs with several women, as portrayed in this dreamy ménage-à-trois. What's factual, on the other hand, is her loss of 17 children. Lanthimos, who loves including animal references in his movies, placed 17 rabbits in golden cages right next to the Queen's four-poster-bed symbolizing each one of her tragic losses. In The Lobster (2015), his dark vision of love in times of expected togetherness, singles must choose which animal they will transform into if they don't find a mate in two weeks’ time. Dogtooth (2009) is a story of the horrors of family. The parents isolate their two teenage daughters from the outside world, teaching them cats are deadly creatures and that anything outside their yard is dangerous, driving emotional abuse to the extreme.
Social aberrations, mindless rituals and the loss of humanity run through all of Lanthimos' movies. He couldn't have chosen a better backdrop for this than the 18th-century-monarchy, it appears. Yet his first costume drama lacks some of the innocent pondering he dared to do in Alps or The Lobster. It's still dark, but the acting is more accessible, less Brecht and more Lynch.
Even though it's all about female power, making The Favourite was not per se a feminist act, the Greek director said in an interview with The Guardian: “I can’t pretend that I thought we need more women represented in a certain way, it was just an instinctive thing. I was interested in that which I hadn’t seen very often.”
The Favourite thrives off its strong female cast and witty dialogue. All characters experience a development, the only constant being Anne's unstableness. Thus the viewer's sympathies shift as the story moves on. Abigail doesn't turn out to be the innocent, well-educated and well-mannered girl in a maid's dress we meet in the beginning. Lady Sarah surprises by exhibiting humanly traits and sisterly love; her first impression as a cold and dominant quasi-regent in a striking black-and-white-gown thoroughly obscures this side of her.
It's not without reason this gem is nominated for Best Cinematography, Costume Design and Set Design, just to name three of the ten categories. Sandy Powell’s costumes hilariously mock court society:en wear gigantic wigs and pink rouge, the Queen and Lady Sarah discuss whether one could fix Anne's "badger" make up. She ends up crying – again. The choice of music deserves to be mentioned, too. The Classical music Lanthimos chose unfolds a horror no drones could ever create. Luc Ferrari’s Didascalies, for example, is a haunting heartbeat through the big halls of a lonely Queen – only one of the reasons why The Favourite should be watched in the theater. The other reason is Robbie Ryan's cinematography. It gives us plenty opportunity to dive into the scenery – his use of natural light, extreme-close-ups and moving camera – just to throw us back into the seat as spectators by using fisheye lenses, making it obvious that we're observing these bizarre happenings as flies on the wall. Or rabbits in a cage.
The Favorite has been nominated in ten categories at the Academy Awards 2019:
Best Original Screenplay
Best Achievement in Production Design
Best Achievement in Costume Design
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Achievement in Directing
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Best Achievement in Film Editing
Special Double Review of Recha Jungmann's Renate
By Christina Schultz and Romina Leiding
It’s been a few months since the fabulous Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage and I don’t know about you, but I certainly miss attending the film screenings, listening to the inspiring talks, meeting the incredible organizers, guests and attendees and, perhaps most importantly, being included in a supportive community of film scholars, feminists and human rights activists. So I thought it only right to post a review of one of the films I saw at the festival that made a lasting impression on me; but this time, in the true spirit of the feminist movement - solidarity, empowerment, encouragement - this is not only my review, but a double review with one of the festival assistants, Romina Leiding, who I had the pleasure of getting to know during the festival.
We watched the film together in the theater, discussed it quite passionately after the screening, expressed interest in writing a double review and voilà!
Before reading our reviews, meet Romina...
Romina Leiding is a board member of Kinophil [Cinephile], an organization dedicated to promoting and preserving film culture. Her main interests are the history of film and the societal aspect of film. Since receiving her degree in Germanic Studies and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen, she has been working freelance as an assistant director, for various film festivals (like Remake. Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage) and educational trips.
We would like to warmly welcome her to our FemFilmFam!
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.
by Marina Brafa
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”.
by Marina Brafa
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)!