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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

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

Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too

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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.

The American Nurse (Dir: Carolyn Jones, 2014)

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Running Time: 79 min

The American Nurse

The American Nurse: Healing America is an American documentary directed by Carolyn Jones as part of a larger project covering American nurses. The American Nurse project, started in 2011, is a collection of photographs, short video interviews, and this film. The purpose of the project is to “meet nurses all across the country and hear their stories and give them a voice”, according to Jones. The collection of short interviews (most are about 1 minute long) and the book were both published in 2012, with the film the final chapter of the project.

The film looks into the day to day activities of 5 American nurses: Jason Short, Sister Stephen, Brian McMillion, Tonia Faust, and Naomi Cross. The nurses all work in very different environments ranging from the middle of nowhere in the Appalachians to a hospital in Baltimore, MD. Jones shows us the private and public lives of these nurses in an effort to give them more of a voice when a lot of the times these nurses come in and out of patients room without sharing much of their lives. Jones, who begins the film explaining that at first she thought nurses were just nurses until she had breast cancer, isn’t a main character in the documentary, choosing instead to focus the attention of the film onto the nurses. It’s rare to hear her voice at all. The documentary takes us through the joys and pains of being a nurse, and is a great look into a world that many of us are not aware of. Instead of being simply medical professionals who do their job robotically with no emotion, The American Nurse shows us that nurses are humans like everyone else, and that they feel for their patients as anyone else.

American Nurses is a great tribute to the men and women who work hard everyday to help their patients through difficult times. Jones’ film is a must watch for anyone interested in hearing about nurses in the United States.

NYT Review: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/16/movies/the-american-nurse-documentary-focuses-on-five.html

Hollywood Reporter Review: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/american-nurse-film-review-701975

 

Gideon’s Army

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Running Time: 95 min

Gideon’s Army (2013) directed by Dawn Porter documents the personal and professional lives of three public defenders working for the criminal court systems in Georgia and Mississippi. Toggling back-and-forth between each of their lives and each their trials, the documentary captures the emotional hardship attendant upon those who unflinchingly and devotedly defense the otherwise defenseless. The documentary follows multiple trials defended each by Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick. In addition to documenting the lives of clients as they prepare for trial – in home, in jail, or in offices – Gideon’s Army captures in intimate detail the struggle of these public defenders as they manage loans, relationships, children, and ultimately the burden of representing clients on trial for life-long prison sentences.

Indeed, much of the focus of the movie regards how these public defenders cope with burden of being a public defender. At one point, Alexander recounts a case in which her client was plotting to kill her if she did not obtain a not guilty verdict. In many ways, the documentary is about how these public defenders maintain despite strong reasons for quitting: low pay, long hours, stress, and dejection. The film attributes professional retention to the Southern Public Defender Training Center, an organization that now goes by the name of Gideon’s Promise, of which provides numerous services including support groups for public defenders to share their struggle and re-imagine their commitment. The name of the organization and the name of the documentary both reference the 1963 supreme court case Gideon v. Wainwright in which it was deemed that stares are required under the 14th amendment to provide council in criminal cases for defendants unable to pay for their own attorneys. The name of the film and the organization work not only to commemorate this case, but also to enjoin public defenders in a heroic community of individuals who defend those highly vulnerable in the justice system.

Throughout the documentary, the structural disincentives of working as a public defender and the painful failings of the justice system are clear. There is no doubt that the strength of public defenders stems from a sense of personal and communal commitment to the defense of the defenseless. In many ways, this documentary offers a form of recognition for those who work irregardless of public recognition.

 

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

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Running Time: 92 min

broadsheet.com.au

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), Dir. Mary Dore

Synopsis: Dore’s film covers a huge range of issues in the rise of the women’s movement, mostly between 1966 (beginning a few years back with the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique) and 1971. The documentary covers a range of issues the women’s liberation movement focused on, from abortion to birth control to equal pay to employment opportunities to self-defense and rape, and locates the beginning of the movement in the political energy of the Civil Rights, antiwar, and Black Power movements of the 1960s. The film also emphasizes the huge number of everyday, ordinary women who worked together to begin the movement, underscoring the role of consciousness-raising groups and collective organization rather than focusing on just a few women.

Formally, the film cuts often between interviews — always brief, interesting and relevant — and footage of past protests, speeches, and events, usually featuring the women interviewed. This effort to weave together interviews and past footage makes the film much more engaging than lengthy interviews or tape might be. SBWSA‘s interviews also lend a pleasing affective texture to the film, emphasizing the sense of women involved in the movement that it was long overdue as well as the catharsis and necessary support of consciousness-raising groups and a new (for white women, at least) understanding of the personal as political.

The film touches briefly on certain schisms within the women’s movement and towards the end focuses on the rollback of certain feminist gains such as abortion rights, but overall emphasizes the movement’s unity and triumphs — at the cost, perhaps, of truly delving into the painful and bitter exclusion of and alienation felt by Black women, for instance, from the feminist movement (the issue of lesbianism is given more time, but the Combahee River Collective’s statement and movement, though it emerges a few years past the film’s purview, would be an invaluable addition to the film — along with a few more minutes’ analysis of lesbian separatism, rather than what the documentary does, which is conclude that lesbianism was added and treated as important almost immediately by feminism after the Lavender Menace raised the issue). An unfortunate perpetuation of the universalism of the term “women” pervades the documentary, which, with a few notable exceptions in Fran Beal and Linda Burnham, focuses its interviews mostly on white women (a striking contrast with the footage and images from the past, which clearly show many Black women and other women of color involved in the organizing and activism taking place). The film could have made interesting connections between the ways in which certain spaces within the women’s movement would not permit the entrance of male infant children and modern day trans exclusion, or touched upon any number of issues which are brought up in the film but remain salient for the women’s movement (antifeminism from women, rape culture, etc.) but instead strikes a joyful and positive tone throughout. This is certainly in service of a noble goal of emphasizing the power of collective organizing, but misses the force which acknowledging difference and difficulty can generate.

Suggested uses: There is nothing new here — in fact, there is a lot missing — for those who have taken even an introductory Gender & Sexuality Studies class or studied the rise of feminism. Its most appropriate use might therefore be in high-school US history or possibly health classrooms, or as an engaging way in which to begin to study feminism’s development, though obviously much more research should still be done.

Bibliographic items: “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Written by the group of lesbian radical feminists calling themselves the Lavender Menace and responding to the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement. The manifesto was passed out as part of a demonstration at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in 1970 (which did not feature any openly lesbian women). Often cited as a major moment and text in second-wave feminism, perhaps the foundational document for lesbian feminism. The next year, delegates at the 1971 National Organization of Women’s national conference declared lesbian rights a key concern for feminism.

The Combahee River Collective Statement and the anthology Words of Fire, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, both of which provide more nuanced looks than the documentary at Black women’s role in women’s liberation.

The Kickstarter campaign for the film contains interesting information about the filmmaking process and creators’ purposes.

Miss Representation

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Running Time: 85 min

Miss Representation, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a documentary that focuses on the media representation of women and the effect this has on women in society. The main points of the documentary comment on the lack of authentic representation of women in films, TV shows, political offices, news outlets, and other aspects of popular culture mass media consumption that lead to harmful psychological issues for young girls, sustaining this system of oppression. The documentary looks at historical events as well as current events of the disenfranchisement of women in America. It uses interviews with various women of power or those who have been affected by the media misrepresentation, statistic facts about the skewed society we live in, and direct examples from various media sources of harmful and misogynistic portrayals of women or men talking about women. The documentary ends with ways in which we as a society can deny the influences of huge media conglomerates, such as through the political power of  voting and purchasing power that we as consumers have.

Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (1989)

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Running Time: 30 min

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Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women is a documentary tribute to the lives of jazz musicians Ernestine “Tiny” Davis and Ruby Lucas, including their forty year romantic partnership.  The ladies’ careers were so prolific that after a few minutes, they begin to sound like myths.  Tiny started her own all-female jazz band and travelled around the country playing before she turned 30.  Ruby was on Louis Armstrong’s very good side, and played at least three different instruments in countless bands (including Tiny’s).  Together, they cultivated “Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot”, a queer club in Chicago; one of few safe spaces for queer people at that time in the city.  These ladies have lived well and authentically, and director Greta Schiller doesn’t skimp on their accomplishments.

But Hell Divin’ Women is more than jazz history and lively vintage footage. It weaves the public with the private beautifully, featuring rare musical recordings, home videos, off-the-cuff interviews with the couple, publicity photos, and narrative poetry by Cheryl Clarke.  The result is a nostalgic and intimately fresh approach to historical documentary with some good laughs too. Ruby and Tiny are hilarious.  They know who they are; it seems like Greta Schiller does, too.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of scholarly materials on the film, but I personally found the film’s references to 1950s queer Chicago subculture fascinating, such as the couple’s famous club in the South Side. This Chicago Encyclopedia entry details more about the highly intersectional history of gays and lesbians in the city.

The third and fourth paragraphs relate specifically to the black gay and lesbian community that formed the South Side during the Great Migration, which Tiny and Ruby largely contributed to.  Strangely, their bar is not mentioned.