Welcome to Auteuse Theory

Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…

Sunday, 5 August 2012

‘Imagine someone who lives with a secret her entire life’: Violence, ‘Honour’, Rape and Women in Duma (Abeer Zeibak Haddad, 2011)

EYLEM ATAKAV (@eylematakav) 

Duma is an extremely powerful documentary by Abeer Zeibak Haddad. It is regarded as the first ever film to focus on and shed light to violence against and sexual assault of women in Palestine.

Haddad’s first attempt to expose this issue is a puppet theatre show she created (‘Chocolate’), which deals with silencing of sexual abuse. The film opens up with a scene from the puppet show: we see a little girl in the playground; a stranger approaches her; we do not see what he does to her, but we can see him turning her forcefully on the carousel as she pleads: ‘Enough! I don’t want the carousel! I want to get off!’

Failing to attract audiences for the act, Haddad decides to make a film and directs her camera towards the lives and realities of five Arab women who were sexually harassed or raped by their family members or friends at an earlier age.

What bring these women together is not only the violence they endured in different ways, but also their silence imposed upon them by their families or society. The film creates a space for women to break the barrier of silence and fear and speak overtly about their experiences of rape and abuse.

One of the women interviewed talks about how she chose to hide it from her parents in order to not hurt them. She is not seen but heard in the scene when she talks about rape: ‘‘We sat on the promenade, my friend’s cousin and I. I was drinking coke and felt something strange, felt dizzy. We entered the room, he shut the door. Picture yourself suddenly waking up in great fear.. that’s how I felt. I suddenly woke up. I went to open the door but he didn’t let me. He shut the door. I tried to escape but he suddenly pushed me forcefully like an animal that captured its prey. He took of my pants. He took them off and I pulled them up. ‘I beg you, please! Please don’t force yourself on me!’ Suddenly I felt a terrible pain. Terrible. I cried and cried. When I saw the blood my fears boiled down to: ‘what is they find out, what if he tells…’ I am forced to have sexual intercourse. I am no longer a virgin. That’s it.. it was like something died, something was crushed.’ Another woman tells us that she lives with the images and nightmares as she says: ‘I picture him as a monster.’

In an interview Haddad talks about the challenges she faced in making the film: ‘People told me that it would be impossible to find women who were willing to come forward and talk about these issues in front of a camera. This is because these women fear negative retributions from the community, and bringing shame to their family. Some women have lived with the secret of being sexually abused for years, they are even afraid to tell their own mothers. Even though I spoke with many women who had suffered from sexual abuse, only five of the women agreed to be filmed. Out of those five only one agreed to have her face shown. It took months to find these women. Additionally I was afraid that society would not accept the film, I am finding that now people are very open to seeing the film.’

Haddad sees the main mission of her film ‘to be able to make women who are victims of sexual abuse feel that they are not alone. I want this film to give women the courage to come forward with their secrets. My mission is to show this film to as many audiences as possible, it does not matter what country a person is from or what religion they associate themselves with, I just want to show it to as many people as possible.’

In the film one of the women decides to face her abuser and tries to come to terms with her fears about re-living the experience when he sees him. Yet, he does not turn up to the meeting.  Another woman seeks legal advice from a woman lawyer to file a complaint against her rapist/uncle, but she decides not to proceed with it because she is scared:  ‘I’ll have to hide from everyone when they find out my uncle’s arrested because I filed a rape charge against him…. In the meantime he is alive and I am dead. In the future he’ll be in prison and I’ll be dead outside, jailed outside.’

One of the most powerful talks in the film is from a man who gives a public speech (about the death of her daughter) at a demonstration about violence against women in Palestine: ‘I was informed of the murder of my daughter… Some tried to ‘silence’ the crime and people came up with false allegations to prove the innocence of the killer. They said a closet collapsed on her. Then they said she slipped and fell and so forth… Then the report… stated that her ribs were broken, that she was strangled and prevented from breathing…. Where did we go wrong? Where did we fail that we couldn’t protect…all those who were murdered?’

These questions remain unanswered. Around the world as women are continuously murdered in the name of ‘honour’; the practice of female genital mutilation in the name tradition takes lives; attempts to ban abortion continue; women’s bodies are sold and women are abused, we need more films that scream the pain women go through while their identities and bodies are violated. Haddad’s film does so brilliantly as it is brutally realistic; revealingly provocative, and exceedingly enthralling.