Friday, March 09, 2012

love me gender, love me sweet: a review of short-documentary screenings on 2012 International Women's Day

A friend of mine who worked for CNN Turk in Washington, D.C. had told me that on one International Women's Day, she was sent to the Turkish Embassy in D.C. to report on the solidarity the Turkish women in the United States shared with one another on this special day. It turns out that this was a culinary solidarity, in which the women exchanged recipes whilst discussing the ways in which they could serve their husbands better. As tragicomic as it may be, it also made me realise how unaware I was of what sort of activities were taking place around me and around the world on this day. Yes, I had read in news, over the years, especially in Turkey, about the atrocities committed against women, even on this day, but that was unfortunately part of daily life in my home country; and in many other parts of the world. We'd also read about how people mistake this day with a 2nd chance to make up for the gifts or flowers they forgot to buy on the Valentine's Day. I would get a decent coverage how men approached the day but knew little about what kind of activities women around the world organised, other than marches, meetings, demonstrations.

So, this year I had the chance to see 4 short documentaries as part of a screening co-organised by Open City London Documentary Festival and Hub Westminster. The selection was titled: Gender, Sexuality and Documentary - International Women's Day Screenings, and it was held at Hub Westminster. A brief word about Hub Westminster and what kind of a place it is (the screenings were held there). As soon as we stepped into New Zealand House, we were surprised by the high-degree of security and the people's confusion as to why we were there and where we should go. Now, when you normally go to a cultural activity event, there is often only one or two simultaneous events taking place in the same location, at most, but you can normally find your way easily towards your desired destination. At Hub Westminster's 1st floor, there is a plethora of activities taking place at the same time in a setting that seems to have jumped out of a Michel Gondry film. The idea of Hub Westminster is to provide work space to whoever is interested, across its multiple halls. As we walked towards the screening room, I came across a friend working for an architecture/urban design company. After walking besides what looked like a greenhouse on which it said "this space is bookable", I walked past the "office space" (a long table with electric plug sockets) of a film company and seemed to recognise the faces that went past me. It felt as if I was in a dream, walking somewhere I didn't intend to or know about and random people I knew from different eras of my life were making cameos. Anyway, it was an interesting experience and I really grew fond of the space.

Hub Westminster is a curious place.

There were 4 films on the screening, and due to some technical issues, we started a little late, which only helped a few more people make it on time, so all the better. The first film was called Home for the Golden Gays, the trailer of which you can watch here. As a continuation to my dream-like sequence of introduction to the event, this film was made by a friend of the friend I just ran into on my way in. I had heard a lot about it: how the filmmakers went to the Philippines to shoot a documentary about someone who had to return to Denmark and this person had cold feet in the last moment, and they had 2 weeks (and the funding that was granted to them) to shoot something. It did not take them too long to find what they were looking for, in the form of an old gay man who has become a regular at the Golden Gays bar, a discreet location on a calm side street in the middle of busy Manila. More interestingly, as we heard from the producer who represented the film (and who is the friend of my friend), Golden Gays sits on a site which is an annex to the building it is attached to. This building is run by a prominent person in Manila, who has kept his own homosexuality discreet for long, long years; despite the fact that a flamboyant place like Golden Gays was next to where he lived. The filmmakers made a brilliant documentary by following the daily rituals of this old man, whose profession is to clean the streets and who joins his fellows in the colourful bar that could have set the setting for any bizarre Tarantino scene, after putting on his heavy make-up in the evenings. The editing of the film is superb with beautiful photography, compelling close-ups and a good, overall definition. Added to that is a good soundtrack and there you have it, a short documentary on the non-story of a few characters whose life stories could possibly make up volumes of literature. Obviously, the producers and the director used the material available to them in the best possible way they can, and the film could only become lengthier and ever more compelling when they find a story to attach to it.

 Golden Gays is at the top of my list of places to visit if I ever make it to Manila

Zan (Woman) was the second film in the series. Produced & Directed by Farinaz Nikbakht, it is available in its entirety on Youtube. It tells us about the liberation from their husbands, marriages and other forms of oppression of three different Iranian women by way of quick and short interviews. It was neither an eye-opener, nor a cinematic breakthrough in my perspective but in many ways, I felt that it was the most relevant of the 4 films we saw, with respect to theme of the day, if not, to the event as intended by its curators (I will say more about this later). Even though the film is not remarkable as a whole, its slightly experemintative and figurative scenes and the background music make for a different experience than many may have had gotten accustomed to in documentaries. I, personally, loved the music but found the interviews too short, and the their outcome too little to argue for what the filmmakers (I suspect, through the Youtube description, but it may be someone else who wrote it) may think the film is showing: "Contrary to common belief, these women are not victims but fighters".

The third film, Dyketactics took us back in time to deep into the 1970s. In my opinion, and I am not sure if this description exists, it was a lesbian orgy pyschedelia. The curator of the night argued that this was one of the first films which was made by a lesbian, entirely on lesbians without any other connotations to it than the free-spirit sexuality it depicted. You can see a short clip from the film here. It certainly stood out from the rest of the pack, but, at first, I was not even sure why it was included in the selection. As revolutionary as it may have been for the history of documentary-making (if not cinema as a whole), surely there should have been a strong motivation to show a film from 1974, and especially this one in the light of the event. It is then I realised that this event had little to do with women, but with gender and sexuality as a whole. Now, obviously, at that point I did not recall the name of the event, hence my surprise; however, more significantly, despite the obvious overlaps, these discourses deserve attention in their own respects and could easily have been subjects of series of screenings in their own rights. If the latter was the intention for this night, that is OK, but it surely has very little to do with women's day, which was the thought that kept lingering in my mind, and which I set aside when I decided to wait and see the final film.

Twinset, by Amy Rose, the trailer of which you can see here was a lovely film. It is revolved around the daily life of Alan/Jennifer, a person who could possibly be described as double-gendered who (and I missed this bit whilst watching the film) either fluctuates between the two or has already completed the transformation from once being Alan, now to being full-time Jennifer. Jennifer was born to a mother who expected twins, but she was the only one that came out; but one could easily argue - and that is where the title of the films seems to come to - that Jennifer already embodies a twin set. Jennifer's routines are depicted by the camera that follows her in the streets, to her sunday masses, and at her (or her mother's home) where she and the mom have often argumentative, yet very polite, and always dark-humoured and funny conversations. In so many ways, the film depicts the problems Jennifer may have encountered in her life, withough giving us much hint about her background and how she may have overcome them, but through an image that depicts her as a self-confident, peaceful and a generous person; all of which make up for an unusually sun-washed documentary, set in Scotland (hence the double-reference to unusual sun). This, and the first film were certainly the highlights of the evening for me, and we were very lucky to have the producer of the first one and the director of the last one to have a small discussion/conversation after the screenings.

  Twinset is a truly beautiful documentary about what seems to be a beautiful person.
It is rather easy and fair for me to say that I liked the films, in general and the curation, too. There was some variety in terms of geographies and stories depicted but there seemed to be a predominant theme that related to type of characters depicted in the films and that had to do with issue of gender. Some of the discussions after the film also related to this. What I did not have an easy time with was the fact that, although gender is one of the most important and challenging issues, which provides for some of the most outstanding independent and contemporary cinema works I have seen, it does not always and necessarily reflect the issues that women have had to endure, and which I thought the International Women's Day was all about, in terms of raising awareness.

In a way, this selection reaches out to a group of people who are already aware of certain issues relating to gender at an advanced stage, and the fact that there was hardly any exterme reaction to what was shown and discussed could prove this point. So, then, why was the night centred around this topic? That, I don't know, however I could not keep myself from wondering why there could not be more emphasis on films that dealt with the problems such as labour or sexual exploitation, domestic violence, segregation or exclusion that are faced on a day-to-day bases by women all around the world, even in the most advanced societies. I have to admit that I felt slightly misled by what I felt to be the disconnect of what the recurring theme of the screenings were and what I thought was the meaning of 8th of March.

Nonetheless, thanks a lot to Open City London Documentary Festival and Hub Westminster, I felt indulged in a useful activity and there are few occasions where I would say "no" to a free cinema event, especially when quality of the films are what some of these films had in them. On the other hand, there is a lot to be though about and done with respect to the people's comprehension and dealing with the identities, roles and all the underlying connotations of women, or any other gender, ethnicity, nationality, race, and any and all representations where applicable. Someone most special to me has had huge impact on raising awareness on these issues for me and even though she may not be near me at the moment, I am sure she knows who she is. This is probably why I can understand why still so few people try to face, challenge and embrace these sensitive paradigms I tried to refer to. Yet, we all need to contribute a lot more to this debate. Every day and all the time, there is only more to consider and I'd rather we start getting there sooner.

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