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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

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

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

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

 

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.

against a trans narrative (Dir: Jules Rosskam, 2008)

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Running Time: 61 min

Still featuring Jules Rosskam (filmmaker) and his girlfriend in a confessional-style scene

Synopsis:

Through reenactments, interviews, and both informal and structured conversations, filmmaker and subject Jules Rosskam deconstructs the idea of a singular trans narrative. His reflexive film acts more as an intersectional conversation and discussion instigator than as a traditional story-telling documentary. The scenes in the film, which vary in type from confessionals to individual/group interviews to reenactments to dinner table conversations to “behind the scenes” footage, not only respectively contain challenging and controversial conversation, but also engage in conversation with each other, working cohesively to deconstruct the idea of one cohesive trans experience.

Rosskam, often using his own experiences, aptly addresses some of the most pressing, yet coded and hidden topics of FTM trans experiences both through reenactments and his own narrative. These topics include navigating the healthcare system as a transperson, transitioning while in a relationship, evolution from one part of the queer community to another, personal physical comfort in contrast with social perceptions, and constructions of both feminism and masculinity. While representing several experiences of FTM folks and those who surround them, the film also seeks express the importance of individual experiences and the multifaceted and varying aspects of physical and social gender transition.

The film also captures sociopolitical stances of a time around 2008 through its subject’s statements. This was timestamp was particularly noticeable in a conversation about feminism; a group of men are prompted to discuss feminism, and one states, “I wouldn’t go out and say I’m a feminist… I identify as a feminist but I don’t know if that’s a thing I should say.” Rosskam, who certainly engages with more current ideas about feminism and gender, introduces ideas that are just now (in 2015) starting to enter more mainstream vocabulary. Most prevalently are the concepts of passing and an idealized narrative; “the idealized narrative of what it means to be trans has become so pervasive that ultimately we’re all in process to get to a certain endpoint, and that endpoint is to be passable and read as a man or a woman in a world. And then if you’re not passable and read as a man or woman in this world, then clearly you haven’t finished yet.” Rosskam further challenges the binary that sits at the core of the idealized narrative, using footage of himself talking to his girlfriend about his social transition: “I’m afraid you’re going to lump me in with men – and I don’t see myself that way, I don’t identify myself that way.” Furthermore, Rosskam directly confronts the intersectionality that is too often ignored when discussing trans issues and narratives by asking his subjects “how do you think that your race and class impact your transition?” and related questions.

While Rosskam’s film is not a comprehensive view of trans lives, it offers a glance at many pivotal (and often silenced) issues. His involvement in the film (which ranges from confessional footage of himself, to vlogs with his girlfriend, to him appearing on screen to sync sound with audio) gives a humble tone of reflexivity and determination for self growth within an ever-expanding, intersectional, and complicated community that exists within a world designed to work against exactly the identities fostered in his community.

Related Subjects: Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, Health Studies, Identity Politics

Critic Responses:

“Employing roundtable discussions, confessional on-camera monologues, acted-out skits, rehearsals of the acted-out skits, and rather fine rap poetry, the film can be applauded as an important tool for classroom use, but as a finished product for mass appreciation, Against is too haphazard, too unstructured, too insular. It’s a slightly amateurish paean to academic solipsism broken up by numerous episodes of power.”

Brandon Judell, CultureCatch

“It is inarguable that documentary is meant to create a motion, but “Against a Trans Narrative” does more than this. It creates a conversation, which is the first step towards understanding. Watching films such as these will encourage people to push for an open dialogue about how to make not only Colgate, but society more accepting.”

Reyna LaRiccia, Colgate Maroon-News

Bibliographic items:

Raun, Tobias. “Out Online: Trans Representation and community building on YouTube.” Roskilde University. http://rucforsk.ruc.dk/site/files/40335798/Tobias_final_with_front_page_pfd.pdf

Rosskam, Jules. “The ties that bind are fragile and often imaginary: Community, identity politics, and the limits of representation.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0740770X.2010.529256

William, Gabe. “How I knew I was Trans: My Story and the Trans Narrative.” Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo3Qav6cLtY

 

War Takes

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Running Time: 96 min

The film War Takes, directed by Adelaida Trujillo and Patricia Castaño, offers a distinct perspective on the violence and chaos inflicted on Colombia by guerillas, the paramilitary, American involvement and conflicts over the drug trade. Unlike sensationalized depictions of conflict in Colombia, War Takes is narrated by Patricia Castano and is heavily influenced by her and Adelaida’ s families and careers producing television for children. The film spends a lot of time showing how both women balance their lives in the studio and at home. This view into their domestic and public lives is essential in understanding how the situation in Colombia affects their lives.

For those of you unfamiliar with the history of violence in Colombia this is a great film to start with. Patricia offers a narrative of the situation that is geared towards an English speaking audience that has little or no prior knowledge. The film War Takes gives a middle class family’s perspective on the impact of the history of violence in Colombia.

Thin (Dir: Lauren Greenfield, 2006)

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Running Time: 102 min

Thin (2006), directed by Lauren Greenfield and released by HBO, follows four women through treatment for disordered eating at the Renfrew Center in Florida, and serves as both an exploration of the struggles these women face in this institution as they try to live their lives and improve their health, as well as a presentation, if not a dramatic exposé, of the politics and running of the treatment center itself. The film follows three women in their twenties and thirties—Shelly, Polly, Alisa—and a girl named Brittany, who has been admitted to Renfrew at just fifteen years old, as they meet with therapists, deal with nurses and staff, and interact with one another and the rest of the patients.

The film crew of Thin is fairly passive in their filming and telling of these women’s stories, forgoing traditional interviews in favor of a cinema verité style that allows the viewer to judge the situations on screen for themselves. Renfrew is presented as a seemingly-endless set of rules that, for Polly and Shelly, are begging to be broken. Thin mainly follows the arc of these two women’s stories, as Shelly deals with her body image and the effect her sickness and her mercurial attitude has on her family, while Polly carves out a niche for herself, both in our eyes and in those of the Renfrew staff, as a sort of troublemaker and leader. She smokes cigarettes where she’s not supposed to; on one of her days off she goes to a tattoo parlor and gets inked; however, Polly is eventually kicked out of Renfrew because Shelly admits that Polly gave her mood stabilizers. While Alisa’s story of being a single mother struggling with an eating disorder and Brittany’s youth and fragile composure also make for compelling side stories, Polly is clearly the “Randall McMurphy” sort of character that the audience finds—and is meant to find—alternately dangerous, charming, and frustrating; indeed, the New York Times wrote in its review of Thin:

““Thin” could have been “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for women, a rousing parable about the extinction of individual souls by American institutions. But the HBO production, which appears tonight, is a documentary by a compassionate and detached photographer, and not a novel by an inflamed polemicist, and thus its point of view is more passive-aggressive than Ken Kesey’s. That’s O.K. The upthrown hands of the filmmaker, Lauren Greenfield, come through anyway: clearly the treatment for anorexia, even at the Renfrew Center in Florida, one of the plushest eating-disorders clinics in the country, is exasperating. Infuriating, even.”

The film closes after Polly’s and Brittany’s forced exits from Renfrew (the latter having to leave due to her insurance running out, a theme that could be the subject of an entire new documentary), and the filmmakers inform us, in text displayed under photographs of the four protagonist, about their lives post-Renfrew: Brittany relapses and moves back in with her mother, Alisa attempts suicide and returns to Renfrew, Polly goes back to school, still struggling with her weight, and Shelly undergoes electric shock treatment for depression after losing an unhealthy amount of weight. However, visiting the Wikipedia page for Thin reveals a far more grim reality post-2006: that while Shelly, Alisa, and Brittany (after struggling with drugs) managed to get some help after the events of the film, Polly ended up possibly committing suicide in 2008; knowing that she dies after the events of the film, where, despite her recalcitrance and rebellious nature, she is infantilized, condescended to, and thrown out of Renfrew, makes the implications of her death that much sadder. Had she been allowed another chance to stay at Renfrew, she might still be alive today.

What I found interesting while watching the film is that no attention is paid to aspects of aspects of society, especially in the United States, that could very well have played a part in these women and girl developing such severe eating disorders. The focus of the film is very much about the process of the treatment of these sicknesses rather than an exploration of the imagery and visual cues that, especially for a girl as young as Brittany, could have caused these four protagonists to develop unhealthy body images. Additionally, the film is rather narrow in its demographic scope as it focuses on four white women rather than including a more diverse set of protagonists. I would also have been interested to see a reference to a male protagonist, since most of the dialogue around eating disorders follows the stories of women and girls.

Thin aims to demonstrate the experience of being at Renfrew as lived by these three women and one young girl. The juxtapositions of patient experiences and Renfrew staff responses, created just by what Greenfield chooses to cut or leave in, casts Renfrew and its processes in a negative light. Rather than having the patients’ best interests at heart, Thin seems to show, Renfrew’s nurses and staff engage in often cruel gossip about the patients, make jokes about losing and gaining weight while in private, and engage in tone/language policing as a means of exerting power.

Ultimately, Thin is a saddening, sobering depiction of trying to heal in an institution that, on paper, might seem to be a safe, positive place for treatment, but in reality is just as flawed and bureaucratic as any other institution. There are undercurrents of issues that the film easily could have followed, had it decided to go that direction, and thus made a more political statement, but instead Thin presents the evidence, both inside and outside Renfrew, and leaves it up for the viewer to decide who is right and who is wrong—or rather, if there are even any true villains in this piece.

Watch the film online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AL3FeQU4HjU

Jesus Camp

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Running Time: 87 min

jesustitleIn their film, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady offer their audiences a glimpse into the experiences of some of the people who form the radical Christian Evangelical subculture. Jesus Camp follows a group of children as they participate in a summer camp called “Kids on Fire,” run by Pastor Becky Fischer. The footage documenting events, and interviews of the participants and their parents at the summer camp, are framed by excerpts of a radio talk show hosted by Mike Papantonio. Papantonio represents the voice of dissent in a film whose subjects purport a very singular religious-political ideology.

The film begins with images of the road and towns in Missouri, while the sound track switches between radio stations reporting the news of Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation from the Supreme Court and those on which talk show hosts say things like, “We are engaged today in what they call a Culture War. We didn’t start it, but by His grace we’re going to end it. Say, ‘Yes, we want to reclaim America for Christ.’” From here the film goes into Papantonio’s studio where we see him critiquing the religious-right’s role in the political arena. The directors use the first four minutes of the film to establish a political framework through which interpret the events that will unfold.

Most of the remainder of the documentary consists of shots of camp activities and interviews with camp participants Levi (age 12), Tory (age 10), and Rachael (age 9), their parents, and Fischer. Through these interviews we learn that many of the children are homeschooled by their Evangelical Christian parents and are taught things like creationism and that science is untrustworthy. The camp activities range from the more common Christian camp activities like group prayers in which participants beg forgiveness for their sins to seemingly very political activities like praying over a life-size cardboard cutout of George W. Bush.

Given the controversial nature of many of the things shown and said (at one point Fischer compares her summer camp to Palestinian militant training camps for child soldiers), the directors tried to keep their presentation as objective as possible. They expressly desired to keep their own bias out of the film and accomplished this through some interesting documentary techniques. For example, the directors are never seen in the film; the audience only ever hears the answers and the questions posed during interviews. Following the first screening of their film in New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the directors changed the musical score because they “felt that it was too judgmental-sounding and [they] were painfully trying to come to the film with a neutral eye.”

Despite their efforts to be objective documentarians, Ewing and Grady expressed not being able to resist placing the story of “Kids on Fire” into a national context by putting it in conversation with liberal-Christian Papantonio’s radio talk show. This occurs very literally when, at one point, Fischer calls in to the show and the two hold a debate on the matter of indoctrinating children. Even with the political framework that the directors explicitly create for the story of the camp, the film does manage to present all opinions expressed with respect and in such a way that leaves the audience to come to their own conclusions and question their beliefs.

Nw York TImes review: http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/09/22/movies/22camp.html?_r=0

Interviews with filmmakers: http://www.nycmovieguru.com/rachelgradyheidiewing.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWFBfh7gmZc

 

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