Shooting Women. Directed by Alexis Krasilovsky. New York: Women Make Movies, 2008. 54 minutes (disc 2, special features: 103 minutes).
Camera/Woman. Directed by Karima Zoubir. New York: Women Make Movies, 2012. 59 minutes.
Africa Is a Woman’s Name. Directed by Ingrid Sinclair, Bridget Pickering, and Wanjiru Kinyanjui. New York: Women Make Movies, 2009. 52 minutes.
In 1975, Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” proposed that the filmic representation of women was not simply a matter of roles and stories, but rather that the cinematic apparatus itself functioned to produce collusion between the camera’s gaze, that of the on-screen male protagonist, and that of the spectator, all of whom participated in the construction of the female image as spectacle, fetish, and object of desire and voyeuristic consumption.1 Mulvey’s proposition generated questions for feminist film criticism: Is the gaze indeed male? How has mainstream cinema worked to reinforce dominant ideologies? Conversely, how have women filmmakers defied patriarchal regimes of visual representation? The notion of women’s cinema as “counter-cinema” gained ground, as did the idea that filmic “technologies of gender” could be used not only to reinforce the status quo, but also to educate and empower.3 Four decades later, the profusion of filmmaking by women on all continents offers a parallel profusion of responses to the questions posed by feminist film theory.
Three recent documentaries exemplify this diversity: Shooting Women, by Alexis Krasilovsky, explores the experiences of women cinematographers across the globe.2 Camera/Woman, by Karima Zoubir, documents the struggles of a wedding photographer in Morocco. And, finally, Africa Is a Woman’s Name, by Ingrid Sinclair, Bridget Pickering, and Wanjiru Kinyanjui, presents African women working to improve their own lives and those of their children, communities, and nations, a picture of hope in a region more often characterized in the media as a quagmire of poverty, hopelessness, and despair.
The title of Shooting Women, as it turns out, is not verb-predicate but rather modifier-subject: women who shoot, not guns but images. Cinematographers from grassroots productions to commercial studios tell their stories. Entering the business, overcoming sexism and other obstacles, helping hands, balancing work and family, and love of craft are themes that unite women from Hollywood, Bollywood, and beyond. Some interviewees describe a supportive environment, including Zoe Dirse with the National Film Board of Canada and French camerawomen Agnès Godard and Nurith Aviv. However, tales of discrimination predominate. Kristin Glover tells of being groped by Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Pumping Iron in 1975; although her protest temporarily warded off the future California governor, Glover says that reporting him didn’t cross her mind, as sexual harassment was not yet “on the radar.”
Other acts of sexism are more subtle, such as union exclusionism, “old-boy networks,” or giving women difficult tasks to see if they can “take it.” Despite commonalities, the diversity of experiences is seemingly infinite: in Afghanistan, camerawomen defy the Taliban regime to clandestinely film evidence of a brutal reality, while pioneer Shu Shi Jin, age 75, tells of filming Mao Zedong on his trips into the Chinese countryside. A poignant case is that of Leelaben Raben of the Self-Employed Women’s Association in Ahmedabad, India, who, after seeing her first film as an adult, decided to learn videography. Her productions have had a tangible impact: one documentary helped bring potable water to her community, and others have empowered local women in multiple ways.
Shooting Women comes with additional material and a downloadable study guide. Many films mentioned in the interviews are also available for viewing, allowing for further interaction around questions such as, Does it make a difference that a woman is filming? While the participants would no doubt want their work to be recognized for reasons other than gender, Shooting Women signals a history of struggle whose specifics differ but whose outcomes merit scholarly attention.
Camera/Woman, directed verité style by Karima Zoubir, shows problems that few feminists in the era of “Visual Pleasure” could have foreseen. Far from Hollywood, yet nevertheless enmeshed in a modern economy in which communications technologies are part of everyday life, Khadija Harrad earns her living as a wedding photographer/videographer in Casablanca, Morocco. As a divorced mother, Harrad earns money from her photography not only for herself and her son but also for her parents and siblings. Harrad is proud of her work, but because the weddings keep her out late at night, her job appears suspect to her family, unsuitable, akin to prostitution. Although Harrad pays the bills for the entire family, she is criticized, threatened, and ultimately forced out of the house. Consolation comes from divorced friends who likewise suffer their families’ disapproval. These working women bear the brunt of “traditional” prejudices that translate into violence and oppression.
Ironically, we also learn in Camera/Woman that women photographers are preferred precisely on the grounds of gender: women partygoers feel comfortable with the women-held camera as they would not in front of the male gaze. Moreover, a harsh view of marriage does not prevent Harrad from enjoying the weddings, with their colorful wardrobes, banquets, music, and dancing. Watching Harrad on the job, it is clear that for her, as for the women celebrants, the parties offer a break from the difficulties of daily life. At the same time, her work requires technical skills, business savvy, long hours, and the risk of being out at night, with rented equipment to return and wrath rather than comfort waiting at home. Camera/Woman is an intimate drama whose tension is at times unbearable and whose outcome, as the video unfolds, is less and less certain. This critical engagement with Harrad’s life provides much material for discussion; the conditions it depicts are not unique to Morocco or the Arab world, but rather common in many places where the presence of a woman alone at night implies sexual transgression. Camera/Woman is an insightful portrait of what it means, under these conditions, for a woman to make images.
Unlike the works discussed above, Africa Is a Woman’s Name is not directly about film or video; however, in this collaboration between three female filmmakers, the question of the “female gaze” returns as a way of framing gendered representations, in this case, of an entire continent. Women are seen by women as agents of change, as mothers, teachers, and leaders. In the first segment, Ingrid Sinclair interviews Amai Rose of Zimbabwe, who migrates regularly to work in South Africa. Filmed during a visit home, scenes of family closeness are juxtaposed with others in which Rose narrates her life history. Shot against the brilliant cornfields of the plot where she is building her house, she tells an ambivalent story of hardship mixed with dreams and ambitions, concluding that “I have this confidence that I am a complete woman, strong and independent”: an apt description of what we see in front of the lens.
The second segment, by Bridget Pickering, focuses on Phuti Ragophala, award-winning teacher and principal in a poor South African rural school district. Pickering shows Ragophala in action, supervising morning cleanup, gently correcting students’ errors, and using computers to introduce her class to Martin Luther King, Jr. Articulate, forceful, and committed, Ragophala demonstrates that lack of resources need not determine the quality or outcomes of education. Finally, Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s segment features Njoki Ngund’u, Kenyan human rights lawyer and former Member of Parliament. Ngund’u is known for her work on sexual violence, a problem minimized in Kenyan politics in spite of alarming statistics; other achievements include programs teaching young women to resist violence and take control of their bodies and lives.
The three protagonists share qualities including resilience, strength, and significance as role models for family members, students, and Africans in general. Ngund’u’s dream of becoming United Nations Secretary-General reflects the film’s spirit: positive female energy rejuvenating a continent long battered by colonialism, apartheid, post-colonial strife, and the challenges of state formation under circumstances of global inequality. While the focus on individual women runs the risk of setting them apart as “exceptional” and thus minimizing the role of collective action, the three segments’ juxtaposition implies a more inclusive project. As a collaborative, woman-centered teaching tool, Africa Is a Woman’s Name exemplifies the power of representation to transform the future.
1Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.
2 Claire Johnston, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” in Notes on Women’s Cinema (London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1973), 24-31; Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
3Krasilovsky is also author of Women behind the Camera: Conversations with Camerawomen (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997).