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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

 

 

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

Jasad and the Queen of Contradictions

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Running Time: 40 min

This documentary from Lebanese director Amanda Homsi-Ottosson explores the controversy surrounding Jumanah Sallum Haddad’s magazine Jasad. Published quarterly, Jasad is an erotic cultural magazine through which Haddad, a writer herself, hoped to provide a forum for Arab men and women to read and write about arts and literature surrounding sexuality and the body.

Jasad and the Queen of Contradictions mostly focuses on the debate that has sprung up around Jasad, focusing both on critics who find the magazine to be inappropriate and shameful and on those who believe that it is not serving Arab women in the way it should be. The documentary includes interviews with Haddad herself, those who read her magazine, those who wish to ban it, and various professionals, such as a sexual health counselor, whose lives are touched by the issues covered in Jasad,

The documentary begins with Haddad explaining why she was motivated to create Jasad and continues with street interviews about perceptions of the magazine. Reactions are predictably polarized, ranging from religious denunciations to endorsements of the work by young men and women hoping to spread awareness and acceptance of sexuality.

The most interesting part of the film comes when various Jasad readers explain the importance of having such a publication in the Arab world.  It is explained that it is common for Arab men and women to use French or English words for genitalia and sex acts, because the most common equivalent words in Arabic are either offensive or nonexistent. Jasad is portrayed as bringing back ownership of not only the body but the language surrounding the body to Arabic speakers.  The narrative of Jasad can be written as one of decolonization and reclamation.

Although unconditionally supportive of Haddad and Jasad, the film does allow alternative opinions to be expressed through interviews. One in particular offered a valid and interesting critique of the magazine. Two Muslim feminists – one veiled and one not – argue that Jasad is pushing a certain kind of liberation on society. The women explain that there should be no shame in wearing a veil, and that they are “not represented in this ‘revolutionary magazine.'”

Related readings:
I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, by Jumanah Sallum Haddad, creator of Jasad

Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (Helena Solberg, 1995)

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Running Time: 91 min

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is my Business tells the story of Carmen Miranda from birth to death and legacy.  It follows Miranda as a Portuguese immigrant to Brazil who found fame both locally and in the United States as a Samba singer, dancer and actress.  Helena Solberg, who is also the director of the film, narrates the documentary.  She places Miranda’s story into a more personal context, exploring the impact that the star has had on her own life and perception of the world while keeping the focus on the progression of the biography. There is a particular authenticity to Solberg’s storytelling that creates an immersive viewing experience.

The film contains many interviews with characters that were relevant to Carmen Miranda’s life, ranging from fans and journalists to her musicians and family members.  Solberg interweaves these interviews with archive footage of Miranda (both staged and real), movie clips and musical performances.  She shows both the public perception of Miranda as a star in Brazil and the United States, and reflects on the cultural and domestic conflicts with which Miranda had to deal with behind the scenes.  It is fascinating to see Miranda’s choices in music, performance, film and beauty influence the trends of her time and leave its mark in entertainment history.  One of the most remarkable things about this documentary is that even if you do not start out a Carmen Miranda fan, you cannot help but get caught up in her story.

For further reading:

A piece by Gary Morris from The Bright Lights Film Journal

A review of the documentary in the American Historical Review (pages 1162-1164)

Serra Kornfilt 2011

Yes (Dir: Sally Potter, 2004)

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Running Time: 100 min

YES


CREDITS

Release Date: September 4, 2004 at the Telluride Film Festival (USA)

Original format: 35 mm film 

BRIEF SYNOPSIS

Spoken entirely in verse, Yes is about an Irish-American woman (Joan Allen) who is tired of her loveless marriage (with actor Sam Neill) and begins a passionate affair with a Lebanese man (Simon Abkarian). Set in the present day in the UK, the film follows the two lovers as they face the reality of their relationship – and ultimately their differences – in the larger context of the complicated international climate and the relationship between the West and the East. As the story progresses, Potter highlights the cultural divide between the pair, making the longevity of their intense relationship seem impossible – which is emphasized by an explosive and emotional scene where the two discuss what they as individuals represent to the world. The film exhibits an experimental approach as Potter plays with unique camera angels and film speeds that reinforce the moods she tries to create and showcase the beautifully orchestrated cinematography.

While the movie focuses greatly on the couple, it is clear that the film is an opportunity for Potter to work through her thoughts about the current state of international affairs – as the US enters into war in the Middle East – and human nature. The film touches on a multitude of different issues including lies and misperception, the role of women (as mothers, wives, etc.), female body image, and isolation. In addition, throughout the entire film, Potter creatively uses the role of female cleaners who play the role of the Greek chorus as they observe the story as passive and transparent characters. Specifically, the main woman’s housecleaner (Shirley Henderson) provides an ongoing commentary about the dirt that never disappears but is just moved around.

After traveling the globe to Beirut and Havana, Yes ends on a hopeful, yet surreal, note about the potential to overcome great divides.

KEYWORDS

  • Cultural divides between the West and East (such as religion, money, etc.)
  • Forbidden romance/affair
  • Post-9/11 world
  • Relationships/Interactions
  • Misperception – Lies, miscommunication and “dirt”
  • Iambic pentameter
  • Identity

USEFUL RESOURCES

Resources about the film

  • www.yesthemovie.co.uk
  • Lucia, Cynthia. “Saying ‘Yes’ to Taking Risks: an Interview with Sally Potter.” Cineaste 30 (2005): 24-32.
  • Potter, Sally, John Berger, and Pankaj Mishra. Yes: Screenplay and Notes. New York: Newmarket P, 2005.

Resources about post-9/11 film

  • Dixon, Wheeler W., ed. Film and Television After 9/11. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.
  • Rich, B. Ruby. “After the Fall: Cinema Studies Post-9/11.” Cinema Journal 43 (2004): 109-116.