Dish: Women, Waitressing & The Art of Service (Dir: Maya Gallus, 2010)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 68 min

Krystal, a worker at Hooters-esque restaurant.

Dish, which was an official selection of the 2010 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, is a produced by Red Queen Productions, which is Toronto-based and founded by the filmmaker herself (Gallus) and her co-producer, Justine Pimlott.  Both women have quite a bit of experience in the business — Gallus made her first film in 1991 and has been in the industry since.

The film is made in classic documentary style — it follows women from different parts of the world in different types of waitressing jobs: truck stop waitresses, a diner owner, waitresses in Montreal’s “sexy restos,” nude waitresses, a female maitre d’hotel, and waitresses in Japanese “maid cafes.”  The film does much of its work through interviews.  Gallus is not present throughout the film, and its only voice is that of the women it interviews (and one man).

As I scoured the internet for reviews of the film, I found this quote from one blogger: “While the doc shows us the very different styles of serving, one common theme is apparent throughout the film. This job is not easy and it takes a special kind of person to pull it off. Patience, understanding, the ability to please and the stamina to work the long hours for a pay that isn’t exactly promised to you is a challenge I would never want to take on. I never assumed that the art of serving was an easy one but the film did show me that it’s still harder than I had imagined.”  This is something of a misreading of the film — in fact, the film is working towards painting a picture of the gender discrepancies involved in the service industry.  It’s not just about the “art of service” — it’s about the art of service as experienced by a woman.  The film subtly juxtaposes each woman’s experience to create a wide-reaching portrait of the service industry and the people involved in it, while also inserting a quiet feminist critique of the gender dynamics that are often implicit in the work of waitressing.

Dish would work well to jump start class discussion in several ways.  The film raises the question of the specific film tools the director uses to get her message across to the viewer.  It also is a good film to use to examine the practice of documentary-making more widely: how do people change when they get in front of the camera?  What was left out of this story?  Was it intentional?  What is the value of interview footage?  How “true” is the story that the film tells?

Daisy Schmitt 2011.

Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China (Yue-Qing Yang 1999)

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 59 min

Format: Color, VHS/DVD

Nu Shu, which translates literally to women’s writing, is a unique language that was developed surreptitiously in Jianyong county in Hunan province. This secret language of Jianyong’s local women has attracted much attention, as its creation can be seen as an incredible act of defiance and rebellion against the patriarchal nature of feudal China. As Yue-Qing Yang investigates the phenomenon in Hunan, she obtains access to first-hand testimony of the effects of female oppression and subordination condoned by society, along with evidence of the outlet that Nu Shu, a language exclusive to women, provided for Jianyong’s mother’s and daughters.

Within Yue-Qing Yang’s interviews with the local women, we are shown gripping images of bound feet and stories of domestic abuse which become reminders of women’s lower class status and even more so, their physical subjugation. The women of Jianyong speak candidly of their frustrations with the nature of marriage and wifehood within their society. Thus, the documentary depicts the women’s resounding response to the binding of their freedom. The film details the development of Nu Shu, demonstrating how the women used the domestic mediums which were available to them and transformed the arts of simple sewing and craft into a written language. Nu Shu was unrecognizable to men and because it was viewed as a bastardized version of Chinese, it was allowed to slip by unnoticed. Thus, empowered by its low status, Nu Shu enabled the creation of a community of “sworn sisters” and refuge among the women. Nu Shu also became a gift that would be bestowed from one generation of woman to another. Thus, the film traces the history of Nu Shu and its passage among women, as well as the ways in which Nu Shu and the “sworn sisters” became an essential source of freedom, a means for finding support, as well as an alleviating medium for a community of the oppressed women of Jianyong.

Though many Nu Shu documents were shown to have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and the lineage of this heirloom has very much diminished, the study and understanding of the characters from what primary documents do still exist is research that is ongoing. However, the last proficient user of Nu Shu in Jianyong, Yang Huanyi, died on September 20th, 2004.

Further reading:

Overview of Nu Shu:


Comparison of Nu Shu and Chinese characters :

More on Nu Shu

McLaren, Anne E. 1996. “Women’s Voices and Textuality: Chastity and Abduction in Chinese NüShu Writing,” Modern China 22.4: 382-416.

Silber, Cathy L. 1994. “From Daughter to Daughter-in-law in the Women’s Script of Southern Hunan.” Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State: 47-68.

Black, Bold and Beautiful (Dir: Nadine Valcin, 1999)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 40 min

Format: Color, VHS

Black, Bold and Beautiful depicts a relationship that few films venture to explore: the relationship between black women and their hair. The multitude of styles and their social implications are discussed in this riveting documentary. Valcin, through six different women of varying ages, illustrates the effects hair can have on the lives of black women. Using interviews, narration, and personal pictures and videos, Valcin manages to beautifully tell the histories and struggles of black women and their hair. Social and racial, as well as private and familial issues are explored, and in the process Valcin is able to “comb” through to the root of the problem. Far more than a mere accessory, some women find their hair defines them, while others refuse to fall into society’s expectations of them. The six women interviewed, all falling between 16 and 60 years old, had very different experiences with their hair, but could agree on one thing: it is a large and important part of them.

While some chose to go “natural” and others to “relax” their hair, the social aspects of the choices can not be ignored. Because society tells women that straight hair is beautiful, black women straighten and perm their hair. This social pressure, which all the women recognize and discuss, is the main reason women struggle constantly with their hair. This struggle, which not only occurs within, but amongst mothers and daughters, can greatly affect relationships. Auna, one of the women in Black, Bold, and Beautiful, attested to the difficulties that hair caused between she and her mother.

This is a beautiful and personal film. It wonderfully introduces issues and questions the effects of society’s perception of beauty.


“Amazing that a documentary about hair can say so much about politics, race and culture.”
Antonia Zerbisias
The Toronto Star

” An entertaining and informative primer on the do’s and don’ts of Black hair….Filmmaker Nadine Valcin runs her comb through some of the tangled dilemmas surrounding Black hairstyles.”
Starweek Magazine