Category Archives: Documentary

Girlhood (Dir: Liz Garbus, 2003)

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Running Time: 88 min
The film's protagonists, Megan Jensen and Shanae Watkins

The film’s protagonists, Megan Jensen and Shanae Watkins

The documentary “Girlhood” follows the lives of two girls, Shanae and Megan, from 1999-2002, during and shortly after their release from Waxter Juvenile Facility in Maryland. At the beginning of the documentary, Shanae and Megan are 14 and 16, serving time for murder and assault, respectively. The title of the film is overly simple and, to an extent, revealing in its simplicity.

The documentary, indeed, treats “girlhood” as its subject – a phase of life distinct from womanhood, childhood or any other experience. In an interview with NPR, the film’s director, Liz Garbus, admits that “Girlhood” was originally a documentary about incarcerated boys, but the girls’ stories were more interesting to her. Garbus’ interest in and empathy for her subjects and, more importantly, the way in which she relays their girlhood, makes for an entertaining and emotional documentary, but perhaps an incomplete one. Throughout the film, we are sympathetic to the challenges of Shanae and Megan’s girlhoods, but cannot substantively grasp, through the documentary, the unresolved nature of their status, as girls in a system that seeks to destroy not just girlhood, but life beyond girlhood too.

“Girlhood” misses some of the nuance of the girlhoods that it seeks to document in a few ways. The girls’ crimes obviously color their experiences of girlhood, but they are humanized by Garbus’ editorial choices – through camera angles, the stories we hear, the presentation of various sympathetic or irresponsible adults that accessorize and control the girls’ lives. Humanizing those who have committed crimes– especially children – is a good thing to do, and certainly expands the viewer’s capacity to embrace complicated narratives and emotions. But Garbus’ way of humanizing, in some instances, obfuscates the complexity of struggle, survival and the “bad” from the girls’ girlhood. In Garbus’ film, Shanae and Megan’s girlhood set up a dichotomy: girlhood is good, everything else threatening, extraneous and intrusive, instead of part of the story of girlhood itself. That is not to say that traumatic experience, crime or drug abuse are “good,” but that in these stories they exist and persist, even when the girls triumph and go to prom or spend time with family. Treating the girls’ girlhoods as linear stories of “overcoming” erases the fullness, pain and challenge of all that comprises their girlhoods.

Garbus explains that she encountered the “contradictions” of Shanae and Megan’s girlhoods early on; she mentions that she was “struck by [Shanae’s] little girl-ness, her innocence,” but this was complicated by what she “learned about the violence of her crime.” That is to say, Garbus sees crime and girlhood as opposite experiences. This presumption is damaging because ultimately Garbus’ makes uncomplicated subjects of the girls. The girls’ tragic relationships with their mothers, their struggles with sexuality, their experiences with rape and sexual assault, drug use and poverty have shaped their lives in and out of jail. In Garbus’ version of their lives, these experiences do not “bring them down.” They emerge triumphant; their girlhood, we end up hoping, will be “salvaged.” LA Times reviewer Manohla Dargis notes, Garbus’ obsession with levity ultimately triumphs, leaving us with an unfinished picture: “ … [T]o turn complex and contradictory lives into palatable narratives, is one of the least-examined pitfalls in nonfiction filmmaking. But in [Garbus’] attempt to give their lives a shape that the girls themselves seem to resist, this talented filmmaker has done both herself and them a disservice.”

The field of Girlhood Studies continues to grow and perhaps offers guidance in understanding where Garbus erred. Mary Celeste Kearney writes that in approaching girlhood, sociological research, interestingly, often focused on “female juvenile delinquency.” In recent years, however, Girlhood Studies has grown to include and account for multiple narratives of girlhood, and actively attempts not to make girlhood inferior to womanhood, or take it less seriously. This documentary does look at the intersections of various identities and even struggles, but it fails to count them as essential facets of girlhood for Shanae and Megan. Garbus’ rigidity in framing the girls’ experiences does not allow for the expansiveness and complexity allowed by new theories of girlhood. Shanae and Megan’s girlhoods contain all that which other parts of life contain, and to think of Garbus’ idea of “girlhood” as “winning” at the end of the film is short-sighted and perhaps fails to move forward with Girlhood Studies’ attention to complexity and fullness (including pain) of this part of life for her subjects.

In the end, it seems the title “Girlhood” is both revealing and a misnomer: this film is about the liminal space of girlhoods colored by destabilizing events in their lives (and the larger systems and circumstances dictated by a society that easily discards the humanity of girls, people of color, queer people, differently abled people and poor people). The film, however, makes Shanae and Megan’s girlhoods into victory stories when, instead, they are something much more complex.

 

Sources:

http://articles.latimes.com/2003/nov/14/entertainment/et-girlhood14

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/263654/pdf

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1514431

Monday’s Girls

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Running Time: 50 min

 

Monday’s Girls, directed by the British-Nigerian filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah, opens by introducing the viewer to two young women from Ogoloma, a fishing town in the southern Rivers State of Nigeria as they prepare for Iria, a five-week ritual meant to prepare girls for marriage. Both girls are from prominent families in the town, but while Florence, who was raised in Ogoloma, is eager and proud to participate in the tradition, Asikiye, a music student who is returning from the city for the first time in 10 years, has only come at the persuasion of her parents, and is determined to only participate in the aspects of the ceremony that she is comfortable with.

The primary point of contention comes when Asikiye refuses to bare her breasts during a part of the ritual in which the iriabos (girls participating in Iria) are supposed to appear bare-chested before the entire town to have their bodies examined by a council of elder women (the leader of this council, Monday Moses, gives the film its title) to ensure that they have been chaste. In one particularly compelling scene, Florence, having passed the test, picks up a ticket certifying her chastity from the male council of chiefs to the sounds of drumming and the applause of the entire town, while Asikiye sits in a darkened room, her face painted with the elaborate designs of the other iriabos but having refused to be a part of the ritual, angrily venting her frustrations to an unseen woman.

Asikiye is sent home in disgrace but unrepentant, and the focus of the film temporarily shifts to Florence and the other iriabos during their time in the “fattening rooms,” where they undergo a month-long period of seclusion and relative immobility, aided by heavy bronze rings fitted on their legs, so that when they emerge from the rooms they will be plump and ready for marriage. The film offers a complex view of this ceremony – Florence describes enjoying her time eating and resting, and being made to feel attractive and appreciated, but also acknowledges that her legs are uncomfortable and she is tired of being in the rooms. She receives advice from the older women on how to breastfeed as well as how to please a husband by being submissive as we see shots of Asikiye dancing with a man in a nightclub. The division between tradition and modernity is also not clear cut — Asikiye clearly lives a more ‘modern’ life than those in Ogoloma, but Florence, who we learn identifies as a Christian, listens to hip hop and reggae on the radio while in the fattening rooms, and ultimately decides to finish her education before getting married.

Ultimately, Monday’s Girls provides an in-depth look at a multifaceted tradition, depicts the costs and benefits of different paths available to women in a changing society, and introduces us to two thoughtful and very distinct characters who are firm in the choices they make for themselves.

Subjects:

Initiation ceremony, marriage, Nigeria, women, tradition vs modernity, Iria

Bibliography:

Anderson, Melissa. Review of Becoming a Woman in Okrika by Judith Gleason, Elisa Mereghetti and Monday’s Girls by Ngozi Onwurah. African Arts vol. 29 no. 4, 1996, pp. 76-78, 96. Accessed 21 Jan 2016. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3337402?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

 

 

No Girls Allowed (dir. Darlene Craviotto, 2011)

Filmmaker: Darlene Craviotto
Year: 2011
Country of origin: United States
Running Time: 52 min.
Original Format: Digital Video, DVD
Tripod
Website

No Girls Allowed 

Up until 1983, Philadelphia’s Central High School enjoyed a longstanding and prestigious reputation as America’s last all-male public school. Darlene Craviotto’s 2011 documentary No Girls Allowed traces the steps taken by seven girls who changed its legacy forever.

The film begins with the court case between Central High and Susan Vorchheimer, who wanted to attend the school because of its superior academic opportunities. Despite a court-ordered mandate to let her in, the school was obstinate in its unisex tradition, and she was not allowed to attend Central. Vorchheimer remained at Girls High, the standard choice for girls in the area. A few years later, a group of six students from Girls High pushed even harder for admittance to the boys’ school and won what Vorchheimer couldn’t; it was not, however, won easily.

In interviews with the women who achieved desegregation at Central, they coolly recount the relentless name-calling, pranks, and the overall sense of heavy isolation inflicted upon them not only by their male classmates but by their male teachers as well. These stories, however, do not infuse the film with the gloominess that may be expected. They discuss the sadness they felt because of these events but seem more excited to recall inspiring moments of resistance: the press conference in which they boldly declared their right to equal education to the media, the astute sense that they were involved in a defining moment for women’s liberation, and the striking image of flowers planted in the urinals of the newly-instated girls’ bathroom (the building had no urinal-free bathrooms, for obvious reasons).

Craviotto’s clear narratorial voice and rigorous incorporation of local newspaper articles and news segments makes No Girls Allowed a valuable resource for anyone seeking a personalized collective account of what happened at Central High. The events that transpired when the Central Six refused to be shut out by the “traditions” so dearly clung to by an ivy-clad institution illuminate feminism’s intersections with educational policy and the patriarchal history of American public schooling.

“The story of the struggle to open Central High School to female students is vividly reconstructed by filmmaker Darlene Craviotto in her engaging documentary No Girls Allowed.”
–  Juliet A. Williams
The Separate Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality, pp. 167.

Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie)

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Running Time: 75 min

This documentary, directed by Mikaela Shwer, tells the story of Angy Rivera, a young undocumented woman living in New York City with her family. Rivera (who was born in Colombia) and her mother both are undocumented, but her two younger brothers are citizens, having been born in the United States.

This divide is just one of many featured in the film. Don’t Tell Anyone features a number of conflicts between generations, political philosophies, and internal dialogues. Although the film is mostly told from a third person perspective, with its subjects in front of the camera, the film occasionally pulls the viewer into a pseudo-first person perspective through the insertion of home videos and webcam clips of the documentary’s subjects.

The focus of the film ultimately is the immigration status of its main subject, Angy Rivera. Using creative media like the standard interview, amateur video, and animation, Shwer creates a retrospective, showing how being undocumented has affected the actions and the mindsets of the family. The first, and perhaps most obvious side effect of being undocumented is the stigmatization that being “illegal” carries. This is where the title comes from – growing up, Angy was told by her mother never to tell anyone that she was undocumented. But the presence of this stigma becomes the most inspiring rallying cry for Angy (and therefore the viewer). In order to break the stigma, the audience is shown how Angy has sought to reach out to her community and unite. She has an advice column, speaks at community events, and participates in rallies, in which she and others “come out” as undocumented. Naturally, this worries her mother.

The most compelling part of the movie, however, comes later, when the retrospective ends and a different mode of storytelling begins. We experience what Angy experiences, negotiating life as an undocumented student trying to afford college tuition. Then, when Angy learns she may be eligible for a special visa because of a sexual assault committed against her, we experience the same mixed emotions of celebrating a path to citizenship while also questioning a system that only treats undocumented immigrants as people if they are victims of a crime. As she waits, we wait, hoping that she gets her little slice of a government-sanctioned American Dream.

In spite of a happy ending for Angy—she gets her visa—a visit to a rally for undocumented immigrants ultimately reminds us that Angy Rivera is just one in a huge sea of undocumented people, making the ending bittersweet. More importantly, however, this marks a call for social awareness: undocumented immigrants are here and deserve fulfilling, safe lives.

 

Bibliographic items:

http://search.proquest.com/docview/748649441/fulltextPDF/ABFC4979E561432CPQ/1?accountid=14194

http://www.pbs.org/pov/donttellanyone/film-description/

Rate It X

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Running Time: 93 min

Related Subjects Sexism, documentary, pornography, advertising

Synopsis Rate It X is a provocative documentary on sexism in America (or at least America in the 80s). Both funny and disturbing, the documentary consists of dozens of interviews with various males who (often in a professional or business setting), discuss sexist or otherwise questionable practices. From the director of a funeral home (who insists “strong oak caskets” are only sold to men) to the creator of a comic called “Chester the Molester”, we see dozens of men espouse their beliefs on gender equality in the U.S. The interviews vary wildly not only in content but in form, from talking head-style in offices, to seemingly random encounters in rural backyards, to darkly-lit stores in NYC. Some men seem almost charmingly out-of-touch and others deeply disturbed. The directors navigate all this with incredible grace, managing to make a film both funny and surprisingly complex in its portrayal of chauvinism.

Controversial upon release, the film unflinchingly explores the adult entertainment industry. It features characters such as the star of “The Ugly George Hour of Sex, Truth and Convergence”, the chief editor of an African-American porn magazine, and surreally, a man who bakes cakes in the shape of headless, bikini-wearing women. We see the man cut out pieces of the cake for the woman’s waistline. Later, the same ripped pieces are piled on haphazardly for breasts. The film goes on to explore advertising at length, and we hear a variety of male advertising executives discuss—with varying levels of articulateness–their personal beliefs on what women find sexually appealing. But the film finds not only these usual suspects. In what are some of the film’s most enlightening moments, it goes out of its way to find unexpected pockets of sexism. No matter the subject, we see the modes through which sexism is rationalized.

The documentarians—Lucy Winer and Paula de Koenigsberg—are very occasionally heard speaking in the background. In one particularly lengthy interview, we hear the directors ask if the interviewee believes “women talk more than men”. The mechanic proceeds to speak for several minutes, justifying why he believes this to be true and citing several examples. We do not hear from the directors again. For the most part, the film lets the men and their beliefs “speak for themselves”. Midway through the documentary, we begin to loop back, revisiting men from earlier in the film. Such men are often more defensive, seemingly after being asked an off-screen question. One advertiser, for instance, is seemingly asked repeatedly why he uses “beautiful women” so extensively in his advertising. He manages to dodge the question for several minutes, before finally breaking out into a strangely child-like smile and declaring that men just “like that sort of thing”.

Rate It X attempts to offer a sweeping portrait of sexism in America. While it’s unclear if it manages to achieve this—the documentary is only 90 minutes long, and was filmed 30 years ago—it certainly does offer a poignant portrait of much of what is troubling about chauvinism in the American consciousness.

 

Additional Resources

NY Times original review – http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9A0DE2DC133EF931A15753C1A960948260

Trapped (Dir. Dawn Porter, 2016)

Trapped (Dir. Dawn Porter, 2016)

Director: Dawn Porter

Year: 2016

Initial Release Date: January 24

Country of origin: USA  

Running time: 81 minutes

 

Trapped narrowly presents the legal battle over a woman’s right to choice what they want to do with their body, whether that is to get an abortion or not. This is not a two sided story with commentary from both pro-lifers and pro-choice people. Trapped is direct in its powerful and informative documentary about why women’s health care is under attack from politicians; the analysis of the system that often traps women’s health care facilities to shut down is casual. The portrayal of both observational and participatory modes of film illustrates how doctors, patients, and staff of these clinics are innocent victims to the consequences of politics and the government that are “letting politics trump medicine”.

The documentary is indeed necessary to show that reproductive rights are a person’s decision and not the governments, but this film does not answer a question. It merely presents an answer. This is useless because Trapped will not change a pro-lifers mind about abortion; although it is persuasive for pro-choicers to continue the fight for women’s rights. The film is telling the story of the doctors and owners of women’s clinics in the south; a region that is toughest on abortion laws because of the amount of religious politicians and citizens. A reason why the documentary focused on the doctors and staff is to get the audience to understand that abortion is a human right and is, despite its reputation, safe; the CDC puts “a first trimester abortion as safer than a penicillin shot”.

At the beginning, there is a woman talking about her experience with trying to get an abortion in a state with strict policies. The footage is in a dark setting where the audience can barely see her face. This adds to the real dramatic effect that this woman probably did not want pro-life protesters finding out who she is and where she lives and thus harassing her. Throughout the middle duration, Porter interviews women who are getting an abortion and only shows their bodies from the neck down, usually the women’s fidgeting fingers.  At the end, the director interviews a woman who is getting an abortion, actually showing her face in the light. This is to almost exclaim that “the darkest nights bring the brightest tomorrow”; the transition from the beginning to the end is saying that women should not be shamed or harassed for having abortions. It is their right to decide.

Trapped contains footage from past protests with signs such as “women power”. On the other hand, there is footage of politicians and citizens expressing their belief that abortion is wrong. The documentary shows a few politicians in the south who run on anti-abortion platforms as the central component of their argument. Anti-abortion protesters are seen on the lawns of several clinics yelling and harassing the doctors. So the film is clear in its persuasion that pro-choice is the right choice.

Yet despite this being a serious film, there are comical moments such as June Ayers setting the sprinklers on protesters to get them to leave the premises. The shots in Trapped are repetitive and straightforward, especially with the transition between the clinics in the different states; there is always a shot of a state’s map. There is cuts to direct action sometimes with instrumental music playing in the background. It is not an artistic documentary but is nonetheless important in explaining reproduction rights.   

Suggested use:

I suggest this documentary for the educational purposes of already pro-choice individuals. I would not recommend someone showing their pro-life friend or family member this particular film if their intention is to change their friends mind. It is not as emotional or thought provoking as one would need to fully and engagingly realize abortion is a right.  

Bibliographic items:

Information about the film:

http://www.trappeddocumentary.com

http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/trapped/

https://www.democracynow.org/2016/1/25/trapped_new_documentary_follows_abortion_providers

Information about the restrictive laws discussed in the film:

https://www.texastribune.org/2016/06/27/us-supreme-court-rules-texas-abortion-case/

http://www.statesman.com/timeline/texas-abortion-law/

 

Don’t Tell Anyone / No le digas a nadie

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Running Time: 75 min

 

Don’t Tell Anyone follows the story of undocumented immigrant Angy Rivera and her family as she comes out to the public as undocumented.  Against the wishes of her mother, who is also undocumented, Angy proudly displays this part of her identity while helping other undocumented immigrants deal with life and the issues that arise.  As she faces the challenges of being undocumented in America, Angy also admits to the public that from the ages of 4-8 she had been a victim of sexual violence from her step-father, adding another layer to the adversity she experiences in life.  The audience sees that Angy is not just defined by the label of “undocumented” or “victim,” but is rather a fully complex human being.

This humanizing of Angy is key to the message of the documentary.  Don’t Tell Anyone is a very personal story about Angry, her family, and the challenges they face in life.  A majority of the scenes we see are direct interviews with the Rivera family and shots of them living everyday life.  The documentary does not portray them as simply statistics; rather, they are deeply humanized and relatable.  We see that the Rivera family is just as human as any other family with lives full of complications, excitement, and love.  The viewer can’t help but feel empathy for Angy and her family, and their message is heard.

India’s Daughter (Leslee Udwin, 2015)

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Running Time: 62 min
Indian women participate in a candle light vigil at a bus stop where the victim of a deadly gang rape in a moving bus had boarded the bus two years ago, in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. The case sparked public outrage and helped make women’s safety a common topic of conversation in a country where rape is often viewed as a woman’s personal shame to bear. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

Indian women participate in a candle light vigil on the anniversary of the gang rape in 2012. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

Synopsis:

India’s Daughter tells the story of an infamous gang rape that occurred in New Delhi in 2012, and the protests and legal action that followed. It succeeds in portraying the heinousness of the crime committed and, through interviews with the victim’s parents and others, representing how horrifying and heartbreaking the event was. In terms of the other tasks that Udwin set out to accomplish — answering the question “why do men rape?” and unpacking the incident’s connection to its cultural context – the film not only comes up short, but constructs an actively problematic narrative. The film ties, sometimes implicitly but often explicitly, the rapists’ mentalities and motivations to their Indianness and to their poverty, a dangerously inaccurate representation.  It also focuses heavily on the story of the rape and the lives of the convicted rapists, and very little on the organizing and activism undertaken by so many Indians in the months after the attack (only three people involved in protests are interviewed, each is on screen only once, for a minute or two).

After the first few minutes, in which the gang rape case is briefly described in voiceover, the film contains almost no overt narrative voice, in voiceover or on-screen text. The film is largely made up of interviews, the most prominent and controversial among them being an interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the men convicted of Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder (though he maintains that, while his brother and friends committed the assault and rape in the back of the bus, he was driving the entire time and did not commit the crimes himself). Much of the narrative work, then, is done through the juxtaposition of particular moments in different interviews. An exemplary instance of this narrative strategy is when Jyoti’s friend recalls Jyoti saying “A girl can do anything,” and the film cuts to Mukesh Singh saying “Boy and girl are not equal” (this quote is drawn from the English subtitles because Mukesh is speaking in Hindi – it is interesting to note that, though Hindi does not have articles, they chose not to supply them in the translation, making his speech appear improper or uneducated) and then shows shots of crowds of Indian men in public while Mukesh continues to recount his sexist views. While Jyoti and her family are heralded as progressive, the subtle work of the filmmaker presents Indian men, in general, as sexist and archaic. Besides interviews, the film contains a small amount of footage from the massive protests that occurred in the months following the rape, and some shots of the rapists being transported after their arrests and convictions. It also utilizes a vague form of reenactment — interviewee’s accounts of the rape itself are played over dark, blurry shots of a bus, the back of a driver’s head and hands, a religious figurine bouncing on the dashboard. These formal choices suggest a tendency of the filmmaker to amplify­­­ dramatic effect, perhaps at the expense of accuracy.

At the end of the documentary – over a still black and white shot of candles and a blood-spatter graphic – a list of statistics about gender-based violence in different countries scrolls across the screen. While this is presumably an effort to demonstrate how widely rampant violence against women is globally, it instead highlights the complete lack of international context given in the entirety of the film preceding. This last ditch attempt to broaden the film’s scope seems somewhat disingenuous in light of the overarching message that violence is the specific cultural product of a uniquely Indian misogyny.  Though an account of the event itself would not necessarily need to incorporate an international context, the film’s fixation on Indian culture and its omission of any other contextualization creates the impression that rape is India’s problem.  Particularly because this film was made for English-speaking audiences, i.e. primarily for outsiders to Indian culture, its myopic view leads to dangerous and counterproductive conclusions.

Suggested Uses:

I would only advocate the use of this documentary in very specific settings, among viewers already equipped with a background in intersectional and global feminism, wherein it might be consciously consumed and critiqued. It should not be turned to as an objective source of information on the facts of the case, as they are not carefully explained and one would do better reading about the incident.

Bibliographic Items:

Courting Injustice: The Nirbhaya Case and its Aftermath: A book by Rajesh Talwar on the legal changes made in India since 2012, the reasons the changes have not affected enforceability, and the cultural context in which all of this is taking place

Kavita Krishnan, prominent Indian feminist activist, on the Udwin’s white savior problem: http://www.dailyo.in/politics/kavita-krishnan-nirbhaya-december-16-indias-daughter-leslee-udwin-mukesh-singh-bbc/story/1/2347.html

Nilanjana S Roy, Indian journalist and writer, on the glaring absence of protestors’ and activists’ voices in the film: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/03/indian-women-delhi-rape-film-rapist-indias-daughter

Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too

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Country of Origin:
Running Time: 55 min

Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too (2013), Dir. Su Friedrich and Janet Baus

Lesbian Avengers
(lesbianavengers.com)

Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too documents the 1992-1993 activities of a New York chapter of the lesbian direct action group the Lesbian Avengers. The film gives a sense of the flamboyant and unapologetic yet varied direct action tactics the group used, from eating fire at protests, to leaving stink bombs outside the office of a lawyer for a homophobic school superintendent and covering his office with “Homophobia Stinks” stickers, to protesting inside the office of SELF Magazine after the magazine planned a conference in Colorado, a state that had recently passed an anti-gay and -lesbian amendment. We see extended footage of the protest in favor of the multicultural Rainbow Curriculum; an anti-violence march and vigil in Greenwich Village following the murder of two gay people in Oregon at a time when Oregon had an anti-lesbian and -gay measure on the ballot; and of the Valentine’s Day installation of a statue of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s lover, next to the statue of Stein.

Formally, the documentary cuts back and forth between interviews with members of the organization, extensive footage of direct actions, and often hilarious clips of passers-by responding to the question, “Who do you think the Lesbian Avengers are?” The candid, conversational interviews, filmed during Avengers meetings, and the glee and raw power of the extensive protest footage combine to relay a sense of the explosive political energy of these lesbian activists, fed up with invisibility in women’s and gay movements and respectability politics among their fellow lesbians in this historical moment. Absent from the film is any overview of the group’s structure or sense of how the group was situated with respect to other queer activist groups. The film, directed by two Avengers, treats each action as a victory, and functions as a call to action, ending with the Avengers’ hotline number. The content of the interviews shown, which feature racially diverse lesbians, suggest that the group took an intersectional approach to; as one woman says, “Anything can be a lesbian issue.” However, critiques of the group by lesbians of color are given no screen time in this documentary.

Suggested Uses:

Because the documentary focuses exclusively on the Avengers, with little attention to coexisting groups of the era like OutRage! and ACT-UP, and because it presents no criticism of the Avengers, it is of limited use in conveying historical information. It would be more useful in conveying the mood of the group and in presenting a compelling case for the Avengers’ brand of activism. While it is necessarily one-sided, it could be an entry point into the women’s and gay movements in a high school history class, or in a college class focused on lesbian activism, if shown in concert with readings or films that offered other perspectives on the activism of the time. Or, watch it just for fun!

Bibliographic Item:

the march, off our backs: The radical feminist periodical off our backs documented the Avengers’ activities, including the inaugural Dyke March in Washington, DC.

Harlan County, USA

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Running Time: 103 min

 

Harlan County, USA, an Oscar-winning documentary directed and produced by prominent filmmaker Barbara Kopple in 1976, is an incredibly moving film that tells the story – using an intersection of the participatory and observational documentary modes – of coal miners in Kentucky who, together with their families, endured a long, violent strike in defense of their rights.  The conflict arose out of a disagreement between miners at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County and Duke Power company.  The miners of Harlan County were in favor of joining the United Mine Workers of America; however, when Duke Power and the local mining company in Harlan County refused to sign the contract, the miners and their families embarked on a 13 month-long strike, which was only resolved after one miner was shot and killed during a peaceful protest.

Though, at face value, the film sounds simple enough, it possesses several powerful undercurrents worthy of discussion.  First and foremost: the film is widely regarded as feminist.  Again and again, throughout the film, Kopple represents the the miners’ wives as being integral in both the planning and carrying out of protests and demonstrations.  So much so, in fact, that that one of the larger messages of the film is the growing influence of women, both domestically and publically, in the latter half of the 20th Century.  Simply put, the miners of Harlan County may never have successfully gotten their contract without the help of their wives.

Secondly, the role of music plays a fascinating, unifying role amongst the miners and their families.  Throughout the film, we hear songs – presumably written and performed diegetically by characters in the film – that speak directly to the miners’ struggle.  One scene, in particular, shows a woman singing in front of a large rally, and the camera shows us people in the audience singing along.  These songs unite the mining community – men, women, and children alike, in their struggle against Duke Power.