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Sunday Shorts: Directed by Women

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours re-watching films by the legendry filmmaker Agnes Varda, after one of her rare shorts was made public, earlier in the month. The Little Story of Gwen From French Brittany (2008), so wanted to use this as a starting point to think about some the short films directed by women that I have been excited by/rediscovered/discovered in the past year.

We start with the aforementioned film, The Little Story of Gwen from French Brittany. It is a story of friendship, between the director and Gwen Deglise, who she first met in France, before reconnecting in Los Angeles, where Deglise was working for The American Cinematheque, where she is now the head programmer. In typical Varda style there is an intimacy and warmth in the filmmaking, heightened by the use of the hand held camera.

To accompany this if you want more Varda currently on Netflix’s is one of her later feature films Faces Places(2017). a film of memory, stories and like The Little Story of Gwen from French Brittany, adopts a personalized documentary style, which has come to define Varda’s oeuvre.

Next up is Barbara Hammer’s Doll House (1984). Hammer was an American film-maker who has made over 100 films, most of which celebrate various themes, notably female sexuality and ways of looking. Of making her first film, she commented on how, ‘I was literally a woman living in a man’s world.’

In her film Doll House, we are immediately greeted with a structure made up of multiple rooms, filling the frame entirely. Created using 16mm and in a stop motion technique, the house and rooms become filled with various objects, signifying domestication, but also violence. The unnerving sound of a boiling kettle creates a pressured feel, and the constant zooming in and out by the camera adds to the frenetic nature of the film. A doll house is obviously an item of play notably for young girls where staged narratives of domestication can unfold, Hammer is clearly playing on this association to create a work that questions the role and view of women within the domestic space.

Barbara Hammer, Doll House,(1984), 3.22:

We move onto filmmaker Ja'Tovia Gary and her piece Women’s Work(2012). This was created during Gary’s MFA in Social Documentary Filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts New York City. This work was created to make an intervention into the curriculum being taught whilst she was studying. The film focuses on the process of sculptor and video artist Simone Leigh and aimed to offer a different way of documenting artistic work that Gary came across during her studies. The camera focuses largely on the hands of Leigh, which gives a tactility to film, and highlights the importance of production and object-making. The film also considers the idea of gendered labour through the use of archive footage, and the importance of using objects associated with the global south within Leigh’s practice. Despite being a film only of 5.55mins in length, the malleability of the image and subject matter creates a work that intertwines and highlights various complexities of contemporary craft making and the similar ‘malleability of black female subjectivity.’

Like Gary another film-maker whose work explores notions of female identity is Onyeka Igwe, and in particular her film, We Need New Names,(2015). In her films she uses a mixture of dance, voice, archive and text to expose the multiplicity of narratives within a no-fiction topic and was recently awarded 2020 Arts Foundation Futures Award for Experimental Short Film and was the recipient of the Berwick New Cinema Award in 2019. This work takes the form of an essay video, which explores contemporary Nigerian diasporic female identity through the inconsistencies present in ethnographic reading of the funeral of the filmmakers’ family matriarch. The use of the archive is a key part of Igwe’s work and here she delves into the personal archive to produce a work that explores notions of ‘female identity, diaspora, cultural memory and most importantly ‘fiction’.’ Although only an extract of the film is online it gives you a sample of Igwe’s practice and the new ways that non-fiction narratives can function, especially through the addition and use of the personal archive.

The last film to feature is Inci Eviner’s Re-enactment of Heaven, (2018). The work was specifically commissioned as part of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial, and concerns the ideas of heaven, religion and authority. In the film you can see various figures who are dressed in costumes or morphed into creaturely forms, writhing on the floor or performing various physical movements. Looking closely you notice that all the figures are women and Eviner focuses particularly in the work on the role consigned to women in societies dominated by the male gaze and aims to show the performers as self-determined and active. The use of costume and masks, creates an illusion of fiction, but the use of the real human forms and background, adds a sense of reality to the work; which thus creates a blurring between the two.

Although best seen on a large projected scale, a computer screen still allows the work to be a powerful and mesmerising piece, that thinks about the role and position of women in society. Eviner says of the work and its themes how:

Women always seem to volunteer to obey the authority as well as turning themselves into its secret agents. I want to encourage them to overcome this dilemma by assigning them an active role and seeing how they perform in it. They start with deleting their minds and look for the dark spots in their languages and bodies. The dilemma of the world and the eternity compress them into an undetermined space in-between the public and the private spheres. They discover they can get rid of many things that cling to them by making an unknown song and turn it into a new beginning on the ground. Inci Eviner, November 2017

Links to the Films:

Agnes Varda, The Little Story of Gwen from French Brittany, 2008, 5.13:

Barbara Hammer, Doll House,(1984), 3.22:

Ja'Tovia Gary, Women’s Work(2012), 5:55:

Onyeka Igwe, Excerpt from We Need New Names, (2015), 4.20:

İnci Eviner, Re-enactment of Heaven, (2018):

words and film selection by Martha Cattell

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