Thin (Dir: Lauren Greenfield, 2006)

Country of Origin:
Format: , ,
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:

Jesus Camp

Country of Origin:
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:

Interviews with filmmakers:


Motherland: Cuba Korea USA (Dir. Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, 2006)

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 41 min

Second-generation Korean-Cuban Martha Lim Kim 

Korean-American documentarian Dai Sil Kim-Gibson opens Motherland with her own voice relating how her feeling of homelessness in her “adopted home,” the United States, led her to Cuba. There she meets Martha Lim Kim, a second-generation Korean-Cuban, and talks about Korea–the home of the past for both–and Cuba and US, their current homes. The conversation continues with Martha’s family and other Korean immigrants in Cuba. Their general pro-Revolution stance provokes Kim-Gibson to interview Korean immigrants in the US who fled Cuba after the Revolution. Their belief in the American dream and antagonism toward Cuba, inherited by their US-born children, makes Kim-Gibson look back to Cuba. At the end of the film, between the two (or three) countries, she seems to have found an answer that is not bound to any one country.

Although Motherland starts with a personal history, soon it becomes clear that the personal search for home inevitably coincides with political histories. Kim-Gibson, born in 1938, started her journey from her homeland North Korea to South Korea for “democracy” and then to the US for education, while Martha’s father fled Mexico to Cuba, where the revolution has accepted Martha and her children as true Cubans. The subject of Korean-Cubans branches from the documentarian’s interest in the less known peoples of the Korean diaspora such as the Sakhalin Koreans (A Forgotten People, 1995), the choice of this subject and her way of approaching it reflect her political frustration in the US.

Visual narration is as informative as the voice-over narration and interviews in Motherland. First, the documentary is bookended with shots of the filmmaker herself, first in Havana and in the end on the Brooklyn Bridge, providing a frame for the personal stories that share a common root, extend to three distinct countries, and interact with each other. The images of traditional Korea that accompany Kim-Gibson’s introduction to her personal history are followed shortly after by the shot of Martha in her traditional Korean dress. While these images project Korea as a place of the past, the houses of Martha and her sister reveal the recent history intertwined with their respective personal narratives. Martha’s house, a remainder/reminder of the colonial and capitalist Cuba, is compared with her sister’s house in Miami—a token of the middle-class, multiethnic American life. In addition to Kim-Gibson’s own footage, photographs from archives and family albums, as well as video records of historical events, are used extensively to tell personal stories.

Se Eun Gong 4/15/13

Cavallo Behind Bars (Cavallo Entre Rejas) (Erenberg, Imperiale, and Roque, 2006)

Cavallo Behind Bars was created by Shula Erenberg, Laura Imperiale, and Maria Ines Roque, in order to speak out against impunity for crimes against humanity. It focuses on the violent repression of opposition to a military dictatorship in Argentina, in which 30,000 people were “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983. About 5,000 passed through the Escuela Mecanic de la Armada (ESMA), where they were tortured and most were killed. Through testimonies from government officials, lawyers, and journalists, the film tells the story of how one of the heads of the operation at the ESMA, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, was identified and brought to trial.

Cavallo was living in Mexico and had established a powerful automobile registration business that was revealed to be corrupt. Reporters for a newspaper, La Reforma, identified an early photograph of Cavallo and traced it to the man responsible for the torture and deaths of thousands of people at the ESMA. Cavallo denied all of the allegations and claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity.

Cavallo could not be tried in Argentina, because the government had passed the Obediencia Debida and Punto Final laws, which exonerated all people associated with the repression. However, because Cavallo was living in Mexico and had ties to Spain, people in Argentina organized and protested to have him tried in Mexico for crimes against humanity. Finally, Cavallo was tried, and he was sentenced to 17,000 years in prison. Yet thousands of people who were associated with the disappearances remain free and unpunished, and victims of the kidnappings must live with the possibility of running into them on the streets of Buenos Aires every day. The film’s aim is to aid in the fight to bring those associated with the repression to justice.

The film serves as powerful documentation of the horrors that people experienced during the repression. It features accounts from people who survived being “disappeared,” who describe the experience of being handcuffed, beaten, and shepherded from site to site with hoods over their heads. In addition to providing background for the historical events related to the identification and capture of Ricardo Cavallo, it also serves as evidence of the horrific atrocities that occurred so that they will not be forgotten or repeated.

Boy I Am (Dir: Sam Feder and Julie Hollar, 2006)

Running Time: 72 min


Color, VHS/DVD

Subjects: transgender, feminist debates, queer identity

Boy I Am, directed by Sam Feder and Julie Hollar, offers a look at the underrepresented experiences of female-to-male transgender people and addresses historical and current resistances within queer and feminist movements to recognize transmale communities. The documentary follows three female-bodied men from New York City, who narrate their experiences over the period of their transitions to male bodies, and discuss their own conceptions of masculinity and embodiment. In addition to the frequent social stigmatization and marginalization of transgender experiences are political criticisms from lesbian and feminist perspectives that regard trans-identification as a trend, a “cop-out” of the oppressions tied to being female-bodied, or an effort to tap into male privilege. Boy I Am endeavors to unpack the concepts of gender and sexuality used in these criticisms and speaks with queer and feminist activists pushing for greater recognition of transgender people in social justice movements.

The film engages a variety of perspectives on what masculine identification means-historically, theoretically and personally-blending academic commentaries with personal narratives of gender identity. Interviewees address the relevance of race and class, how cultural and social difference affects transgender experiences, and what innovations in sex reassignment surgery mean for transmen.

By opening up a space for the discussion of transgender masculinity and explicitly addressing concerns about male identity in contemporary society Boy I Am makes an effort to promote understanding and solidarity between lesbian, feminist and transgender communities, and does so in an intelligent and sensitive way.

Further Reading:
Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity

Notorious Bettie Page, The (Dir: Mary Harron, 2006)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 90 min

Written by Guinevere Turner
Producted by Christine Vachon, Pam Koeffler, Katie Roumel (Killer Films)

Subject headings: pornography; body image; censorship; biography; sexuality; Christianity; costume drama; period drama

Synopsis: “The Notorious Bettie Page” is costume drama that aims to tell the story of the life of postwar pin-up Bettie Page, charting her evolution from Southern salutatorian to salacious star to evangelical Christian. The film opens in a New York City smut store in 1955, as an undercover agent tries (and succeeds) in coaxing the store owner into offering him fetish shots. These shots are the first glimpse we have of Page. The film cuts to Senate hearings on pornography, then to a shot of Page in the lobby, then to Page in church as a young girl. Most of the film is constructed in the form of flashbacks, alternating between Page in the courtroom and Page’s earlier lived experiences. Page is above all a survivor: the film walks us quickly through her childhood and early adulthood: the incestuous relationship between her and her father, her abusive marriage, her flight, a scene in which she is effectively kidnapped and forced to orally service several men, and her subsequent arrival in New York City.

Page’s early life is documented within the first 15 minutes of the film, using a combination of short scenes and montages. The remaining time is devoted to her career as a model. Posing for freelancers, she is portrayed as initiating the move into nude posing—and thoroughly enjoying it. Spending much of her time attending acting class in hopes of a career on stage, Page earns a living on the side by working as a model for fetish photographer Irving Klaw, posing for photos ordered by private customers. As the movie progresses, Page’s poses become increasingly scandalous; meanwhile Irving Klaw comes under increasing legal pressure and finds himself the target of a Senate investigation into pornography. When Klaw’s business is shut down, Page’s work as a model comes to an abrupt halt. A mediocre actress at best, Page is lost—and rediscovers herself at an evening service, born again in Christ. In the last shot featuring Page, we see her fully clothed and preaching scripture in a public park.

Biographically speaking, Harron chooses to focus primarily on the way in which Page comes to understand and perform her sexuality as a woman, both on camera and through her acting. Page’s story is a difficult one, and Harron ably constructs a sympathetic but believable narrative. Page is not presented as an exploited sexual victim nor as a whore; her career as model is treated lightly, even nostalgically—she is portrayed as playfully hamming up the roles. The mood of the film takes its cue from this spirit; political messages (the strongest addressing issues of exploitation, censorship, and feminine identity) are for the most part delivered with subtle humor. And laudably, Harron tries to avoid deviating from Page’s own views when using her character as a mouthpiece for third wave feminist thought—an effort that demonstrates a certain amount of, well, restraint.

Further information:

Official website, “The Notorious Bettie Page.”.

Official website, Bettie Page.

Mary Harron on “The Notorious Bettie Page.” Review (must watch a brief advertisement to access)

IMDB Listing.

title. The Notorious Bettie Page (Dir. Mary Harron, 2006)
name/date. Gwen Snyder, 31 May 2007

login and post/edit with their regular username and the password changeme

Shape of Water, The (Dir: Kum-Kum Bhavani, 2006)

Country of Origin: ,

The Shape of Water is a 2006 documentary that gives a face and a voice to the struggles and grassroots activism of women from a number of conflicted global zones. The film ties together stories from four countries, India, Brazil, Senegal, Palestine, following the situations, activities, and personal outlooks of a variety of women engaged in a variety of social, ecological and political activism in support of women’s and human rights. The film is unique in its strong focus on the individual political situations, subjective histories, and local conflicts that shape each of its subjects’ narratives, while simultaneously investing itself in a vision of global women’s work in defense of their communities, environments, cultures, families, and bodies.

Dona Antonia, who lives in the Brazilian rainforest, speaks on behalf of the rubber tappers’ movement against agri-business, the destruction of the rainforest, and corporate exploitation of both workers and the forest in which they work. Dona Antonia has been involved for many years with this truly grassroots campaign, and gives viewers a history of the movement as well as the individual narrative of her life as an activist, mother, wife, and rubber tapper. Her narrations and personal recollections are interwoven with those of Oraiza, a young rubber tapper and mother living in the rainforest. Oraiza works non-stop for 12 to 16 hours a day, continuing the cycle of subsistence crucial to herself and her family. Dona Antonia and the filmmaker expose the threat posed to organic, small-scale rubber tappers such as Oraiza by the interests of big business and financially-motivated governmental policy, while elaborating on the history and future of the strongly egalitarian and solidarity-driven resistance movement among the rubber tappers.

The film explores of women’s activism against genital cutting practices in Senegal, making visible a number of women-led projects from the rap group ALIF, based in the capital, who make strong statements against cutting through their engaging performances, to women’s groups in small, rural communities, whose discussions negotiate and enact the conflicted discourses on front lines of the anti-cutting movement. Those who oppose cutting practices must navigate a new territory beyond a tradition sanctified by time-honored cultural custom and sustained by vocational restrictions on women, standing against both the patriarchal cultural expectations and capitalist economic realities of contemporary Senegal in their struggle to reaffirm their rights to their own bodies. The Shape of Water documents these struggles and their participants with strong focus on the voices of the involved women themselves.

In Israel/Palestine, a group of women of Arab and Israeli Jewish backgrounds have come together to form the group Women in Black, protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine specifically and the violence that characterizes it in general. Dressing in all black to mourn the ongoing conflict’s countless victims, both Arab and Israeli, and carrying black signs bearing slogans, the women make a simple statement against the occupation by standing together in public spaces. These women have had to deal with aggressive and sometimes violent negative reactions from right-wing and pro-occupation members of the public, who attack the protestors with everything from verbal sexual harassment to physical violence. Despite these obstacles, the Women in Black have not faltered in their weekly demonstrations; now, active branches of this group exist around the globe, speaking out against destructive local conflicts and worldwide violence. Rather than associating themselves with a specific ideology or party line, the Women in Black advocate a reconciliatory approach to social conflicts that transcends ideology.


Finally, The Shape of Water takes us to India, where we encounter the work of two separate groups: the SEWA women’s collective, based all over India, and the Navdanya farm in the rural Himalayas. The SEWA (Self Employed Womens Association) is a hybrid labor union and social movement, its members drawn from hundreds of thousands of poor, self-employed women surviving from their work in small shops, businesses, and other micro-scale labor situations. The women who join SEWA represent a class of the populace who sustain themselves and their families outside of employment by the powerful international corporations that have overtaken much of India’s production economy. SEWA seeks to protect this way of life by providing all of its members with full self-supportability, including health care, child care, shelter, and work/income security—a radical goal, unfortunately, given the climate of drastic poverty and opposition often faced by SEWA’s members. Nonetheless, SEWA has been remarkably successful in achieving its goals, and due to the immense strength of the solidarity generated by its members, has become and continues to grow as a powerful, united women’s movement. The film excellently documents the history, practice, and current efforts of SEWA through many interviews with its committed, outspoken members.

The Navdanya farm, in the Himalayas, is another example of a women’s collective committed to providing and sustaining alternatives to globalized economic modes of production. Grounded in the deeply ecological-feminist thought of its founder, Dr. Vandana Shiva, the farm specifically works to preserve the native biodiversity of its region, especially in regards to the food crops that have been cultivated there for hundreds of years. In the past few years, the agricultural regions of India have been severely and doubly hurt by the actions of large biochemical corporations: the introduction of genetically modified crops has crippled the growth of native crops, while the legal patents on these genetically modified plants have forced the once-autonomous farmers who grow them into a kind of legal serfdom or sharecropperhood. The Navdanya farm project attempts to nourish and sustain native crops while simultaneously empowering its women workers, resisting globalized and genetically modified incursion on rural Indian soil, and fostering rural Indian and women’s self-reliance.

In sum, The Shape of Water offers a compelling vision of the power of women’s activism worldwide. The film shatters typical Western conceptions of third-world women as passive, pitiable recipients of suffering, instead affirming the vital and active nature of women’s work against domination locally and worldwide. Additionally, the strong focus on the link between human survival and ecological survival that is advocated in some way by all of the women in the film cannot be understressed. The film occasionally employs a rhetoric of dichotomy between the ‘feminine’/’natural’ as opposed to the ‘masculine’/’industrial’, while other times advancing a view that transcends binaries in favor of the reconciliation and co-lateral healing of human and ecological communities. The Shape of Water should thus be of prime interest to any study of contemporary eco-feminism. It would also be useful for explorations of third-world narratives, voices, and struggles, particularly those belonging to women; alternately, in a more economically-minded setting, the film could serve as an excellent complement to any study of the impacts of globalization on third-world communities and ways of life.

Internet Resources

http://www.theshapeofwatermovie.comFilm official site
SEWA homepage Navdanya homepage

Tripod Resources

Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1993.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Third World women and the politics of feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991

Ruether, Rosemary R. Women healing earth : Third World women on ecology, feminism, and religion.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996