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…

Friday, 16 August 2013

Wadjda (Haifaa Al Mansour, 2013)


The first ever feature film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, where there are no cinemas and public spaces are segregated according to gender, is written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour. The film tells the story of Wadjda, a rebellious 10-year-old girl, who enters a Koran-reading competition at her madrasa, planning to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle, in a culture where women are not encouraged to cycle.

There is a lot to be praised about Wadjda. Indeed, there are so many powerful scenes in the film which delicately tell us about womanhood and women’s place in a culture dominated by religious values and rules. The camera travels between a house, a school, a playground, a little street with a bicycle shop, and a roof top. Wadjda, living within this limited and conservative space, is a witty, clever and, at the same time, powerful character whose imagination and ideas are limitless. It offers an interesting parallel with Al Mansour, who had to film Wadjda’s limitless world from within the very limited space of a little van. Indeed, she directed the exterior scenes in Riyadh from inside a van, watching the actors on monitors and communicating via walkie-talkie. As she explains in an interview, ‘Conservatives may have interrupted filming had they seen me or called the police. We had sandstorms to deal with, getting access to locations – we didn’t need to worry about people protesting, too,’ she laughs. ‘I didn’t want to go and fight with people, I’m not an activist, I’m an artist.’
The references to polygamy, loss of virginity, child brides, the implications of veiling, and religion’s place in education make the film thought-provoking. One scene in particular, however, is remarkable: Wadjda is secretly learning to cycle in the rooftop of her house, but she panics as her mother approaches, falls off the bicycle and hurts her knee. As she cries out ‘I’m bleeding!’ the mother covers her face with shame mistakenly thinking her daughter is bleeding for having ridden the bike and lost her virginity. The scene is astutely narrated, skillfully performed and brilliantly filmed.

In an interview with the BBC, Al Mansour discusses the importance of introducing change in Saudi society while acknowledging that ‘change is a painful process’, and that she wanted ‘to allow people to embrace change in their own pace’ as ‘change has to come from heart.’ Both Al Mansour and Wadjda present us with an idea of change around the perceptions of womanhood and women’s place in Saudi society that is not imposed upon people but one that is heartfelt and embraced by them. Change is embedded in the film in the image of a bicycle. The bicycle represents independence, mobility, freedom and imagination. At the end of the film when we see Wadjda cycling to the borders of the town and stopping by the motorway, we are assured that there are new worlds and possibilities she is now able to explore.

Al Mansour engages in self-expression through a subtle yet powerful focus on the social, the cultural and the political through the story of a little girl who dares. It is not surprising to learn that Wadjda’s character is very similar to Al Mansour’s in real life. Indeed, she states on the film’s website that she comes from a small town in Saudi Arabia ‘where there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will reshape and redefine our nation.’ This message of female solidarity also comes across in an interview with Al Mansour in which she emphasises that "women have to stick together and believe in themselves and push towards what makes them happy. We just need to push a little bit harder against tradition. We need to do things and make things and tell the stories that we want to tell. And I think the world is ready to listen." What Wadjda tells us is that there are no limits to how much women can push for change even from the limited space of a little town or while directing a film from within a little van.