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…

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Price of Sex (Chakarova, 2011)


The opening of The Price of Sex hits you hard like a punch to the gut.

“What were the first words [of English you learned]?”
“How much? With or without [condoms]?”

If that weren’t enough, the statistic that 1.5million women are trapped in this living hell follows. That’s an estimate - the actual figure is almost certainly higher. The order of these exposures makes an important statement too. We’re presented with human tragedy before we hear the figures; so from the start we’re invited to see statistics as millions of individual horror stories, rather than simply cold impersonal calculations. Before, the tales behind the numbers largely went unheard. Mimi Chakarova’s film changes that.

Originally from Bulgaria (a major source of human trafficking) it’s perhaps easy to see why she was so willing to go beyond the call of duty for this project. She goes undercover on various occasions as a sex-worker - at great personal risk – to tell the human stories behind the statistics. Whilst Chakarova herself migrated to the USA to become a photojournalist after the fall of the USSR, she often wonders what might have happened if she stayed.

With prospects scarce in Bulgaria, Moldova (Europe’s most trafficked country) etc, young people have two choices, “become criminals or go abroad and risk being trafficked”. Bulgaria itself once had the highest percentage of women employed anywhere in the world. When the USSR crumbled however, many were forced to leave to earn money abroad, and it became easy for traffickers to lure women into the sex-trade with false promises of employment.

These economic disparities and institutional failures are recurring themes at this film’s core. Ana Revenco of La Strada, a call-centre that helps ‘one woman at a time’ – is keen to point out the futility of their struggle without wider changes. She says the key issue is an economic one: citizens of poor countries cannot afford the same access to justice we take for granted in wealthier nations. Unless this changes, Revenco asserts “all these hotlines will not solve the situation.”

Personally I find this uncompromising stance on the failure to tackle the economic inequality as admirable as Chakarova’s risky undercover work. Where many film-makers (perhaps with awards on their mind) might baulk at naming the free market as the cause of the poverty that empowers traffickers, she pulls no punches by showing the principles of supply and demand are as much culprits here as pimps themselves.

This gives her chosen conclusion; an interviewee saying, “Ask the next question” an added importance. When asked later why she chose this ending, Chakarova stated she intended to provoke a response from the audience, to stir them into action. In a time of deepening economic crisis, as millions world-wide descend into poverty, that action must extend beyond simple acts of charity, toward radical economic change – or traffickers will continue to prey on the desperation of Europe’s poor to line their pockets. In other words, the ‘next question’ is: What Is To Be Done?