Add These to Your Queue

Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms
By Patricia White
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $24.95, paperback

Reviewed by Erin Trahan

I’ll confess to an easy rapport with Patricia White, who quips that Netflix has pegged her as a lover of “dark dramas with female leads.” There’s the fact (me too!), and then there’s the politics of including this information in what is also an ambitious and compelling assessment of global women’s cinema. Women’s Cinema, World Cinema would be a worthy nucleus to a course syllabus, or as I took it, an expertly curated film festival with exclusive bonus material.

White’s previous book, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (1999), is treasured by lesbian and queer advocates and considered a must read within media studies. She has also collaborated with Timothy Corrigan on foundational texts such as The Film Experience (2014) and edited essays and lectures by the film scholar Teresa de Lauretis in Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory (2007). Just as significant are White’s many decades of on-the-ground advocacy for the distribution and exhibition of women’s cinema.

Because of this, her latest is peppered with the personal (she cites the marquee of her favorite Philadelphia art house to make a point) and grounded in both the practical (how women’s films are made and circulated) and the theoretical (how they are perceived). White has assembled a book that has applicability beyond the academy and could be read, in part or whole, by an array of people working in independent film production and exhibition. Certainly it’s relevant to, if not vitally needed by, feminist cinema-goers in North America.

Nonacademics like me may get lost in some of White’s rhetoric—films’ “enunciation and address” and “accented style” could receive pages of discourse—but her larger effort triumphs: her book expands and shifts how cineastes consider both women’s and world cinema, separately and together. Even more to the point: the films she studies are brilliant. Add them to your queues.

White’s book arrives at a time, she argues, when “women’s cinema as a concept seems to have fallen off the map, even as the field of film studies has taken on the world.” The flourish of support earmarked for women filmmakers by government and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Australia, and Europe in the 1970s has all but disappeared. The great women’s film festivals in North America have folded or morphed beyond recognition.

Even with the fortification of those prior decades, along with the simultaneous expansion of film studies toward what the film scholar Lúcia Nagib calls “a positive definition of world cinema” (in contrast to uses of the term that sanctioned “the American way of looking at the world, according to which Hollywood is the center and all other cinemas the periphery”), White observes that the “political and epistemological motivations of women filmmakers…seem to have been absorbed by market categories.” Consumer labels like “foreign film” or “chick flick,” used wittingly or not on the circuit of North America film exhibition, can unnecessarily abridge film content and limit films’ range of public debate. This process has imprinted, too narrowly, how women’s films from “there” are situated “here.” The dismal, flat-lined statistics of women-made films and their lack of awards across the international board, for example, tell us that troubles remain.

White points out that, like feminism itself, such troubles are neither simple nor singular. Nor is trouble the entire story. Globally, women are making films in greater and greater numbers, and new forms of distribution are opening up more channels of circulation. Likewise, the need for more women media makers has garnered increasing coverage in mainstream North American media, in Oscar speeches, and in social awareness campaigns such as #AskHerMore or #DirectedByWomen. With all of this in mind, White embarks on an ambitious global journey to create a canon of emerging women directors within a few key parameters. She focuses on feature-length, fiction films made in the 2000s—what she also calls “entertainment films”—and she by and large looks at films that have been vetted by esteemed European film festivals and US art house theaters. Still, I’d neither seen nor heard of way too few of these gems.

In her findings, which refreshingly reference not just theorists but also large- and small-scale critics, trade publication interviews, box office sales, and film ephemera such as press kits, posters, and DVD extras, White urges fellow academics (and presumably the rest of us too) to move beyond lenses of our own, monocultural nation states when considering women’s cinema. The category is dear to her (she published an elegiac essay, “The Last Days of Women’s Cinema,” in 2006) and she wants it redeployed. “New critical practices are needed,” she says. Her strategy is to expose the limitations and possibilities of the “terms of visibility” women directors from all nations face today.

For White, those terms include auteurism, cultural authenticity, women’s genres, regional networks, and human rights. She devotes a chapter to each. The terms do not represent White’s ideals; rather she is naming the current points where women’s and world cinema intersect. (To illustrate: imagine an Oscar-nominated foreign language film in which bridesmaids suffer war crimes, and in which the director, who is telling her life story, also stars.) Given that the dim stats about women filmmakers also apply to women film programmers, critics, and jurors who bestow prizes and prestige here, there, and everywhere, it’s worth noting that only one of White’s fields of critique, human rights, has a likelihood of having women in leadership roles and in that way influencing public dialogue.

In keeping with world cinema scholarship, White does not let geography alone dictate the organization of her case studies; she nimbly crosses borders to compare and contrast films based on her own criteria. Thus, the book hops from Australia to Argentina to Iran to India to Lebanon, and moves on to South Korea and China. Filmmakers from continental Africa are missing, as is an accounting for their absence. The few references to African films focus on North Africa; the one comment on sub-Saharan cinema, in the introduction, leaves me curious and wanting more. White writes,

While strong central female characters are signature features of the films of fifth-generation Chinese film directors and recent sub-Saharan African cinema, women directors working in these movements are much less well known internationally and receive less support at home.

As White is keen to remind readers, women directors set their own terms and, in her case studies, act as “harbingers of new film culture.” That is, women are shifting and innovating the form itself. At least a dozen of the films I watched in preparation for reading the book include images, locations, or storylines that were wholly new to me—and unforgettable. And I watch a lot of movies. (Netflix has me pegged as someone who should read more!)

Indelible are two films by Peruvian-born Claudia Llosa: Madeinusa (2006) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009). Both feature the stunning Magaly Solier as protagonist, in one case as the town virgin for a religious celebration in which sin does not exist, and in the other as an enigmatic young woman who keeps a potato in her vagina to protect herself from sexual violence. In both films the actress’s Andean background is part of the storyline; the films trade on convincing indigenous folklore that Llosa—with Solier as what White reads as “coauthor”—concocts from scratch. With Llosa as part of Peru’s cultural elite and with her family’s involvement in Peruvian politics (an uncle ran for president in 1990), it’s not surprising to learn that critics outside of Peru have failed to fully grasp the class and race debates stirred by the films.

Further complicating matters, in White’s view, Llosa grasps that North American audiences have a propensity for “foreign” films with female characters who overcome unimaginable hardship. Yet her main characters veer off scripts that typically garner sympathy. This transnational self-consciousness “turns the internationally circulating art film’s anticipated display of the signifiers of the exotic national identity and trauma into a performance,” says White. Not only do The Milk of Sorrow’s two women leads become entangled in an exchange of art and commerce (a professional singer promises pearls to Solier, her maid, for songs), but Solier now has an off-screen singing career because of her roles in Llosa’s films. White spells out what happens when a European-identified cultural producer uses indigenous talent for personal gain: “the two women’s power-saturated alliance at the very least indicates a scenario of collaborative female creativity.” She is shading the nuances between The Milk of Sorrow’s leads, but the point, that there’s something generative about women joining forces, is also made for the give and take between Llosa and Solier. White’s discussion of this film is one of few into which she incorporates crew beyond the director or principle actor.

White is at her best, and seems especially comfortable, when closely reading Llosa’s films and those by Argentina-born Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga [2001], The Holy Girl [2004], and vThe Headless Woman [2008]); Korea-born Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat [2001]); and Taiwan-born Zero Chou (Spider Lilies [2007] and Drifting Flowers [2008]). In these sections she factors in the filmmakers’ biographies and their nations’ filmmaking milieus, all the while offering deep analysis of the films themselves. You could take a weekend, binge-watch all the films by one of these filmmakers (if you can find them: I recommend interlibrary loan and a lot of patience), and then sit down and read what White has to say.

Which filmmaker to choose? There is no wrong turn. White unleashes her full arsenal of examination, including a reading of lesbianism that most critics have failed to acknowledge, on Jeong Jae-eun’s foresighted Take Care of My Cat. The discussion occurs as part of White’s chapter on women’s genres, which includes another recommended section on Lebanese-born Nadine Labaki (Caramel [2007] and Where Do We Go Now? [2011]); Labaki’s well-deserved homeland celebrity has curiously not crossed into North America.

Take Care of My Cat is about five female friends who try to stay connected as they transition from school age to adulthood. (Think Sex and the City meets Girls, but with class consciousness and set in South Korea.) White’s analysis disrupts two chick-flick tropes by defending “girlhood as a subjective social position” and “the strength of affective bonds between women, including erotic ones.” Girls and their modes of communication are too often dismissed; yet when this film was made in 2001, girls in South Korea were on the cutting edge of cell phone use and texting. White shows how Jeong celebrates their innovation as well as their “tender yet skeptical perspective” at this unsettled time in their lives. She makes particularly effective use of frame captures (which differ from the still photographs offered in press kits by film distributors). In one, Jeong splits the screen into four panels, showing all five friends talking on their phones; two others show text messages being composed and received as title overlays. “With its mobile style,” White sums up, “the film intimately signifies the effects of globalization on girls, even as its narrative shows how, as girls, they are likely to get stuck.”

This section is important for several reasons: South Korea is a “full service” cinema hotspot; the region has integrated academic and political communities into its film culture—and that goes for feminists, too; and Take Care of My Cat is one of the few films discussed that depicts girl culture. The overall creative environment is a source of hope for women’s cinema, and even better, as White points out, this film “is not an isolated example of feminist feature filmmaking in South Korea.” Still, it was disheartening yet not surprising to learn that despite strong critical reception, Jeong has struggled to earn a living as a filmmaker. It’s as if White anticipated my cautious optimism with a reminder that feminists need to celebrate the small victories while always pushing for the big ones.

Women’s Cinema, World Cinema is a substantial victory in terms of scholarship and the ripple effect it could have on the far-flung communities of people who care about women’s cinema. In my research I found companion books such as Krista Lynes’s Prismatic Media, Transnational Circuits: Feminism in a Globalized Present (2013), but no single volume completely echoes White’s endeavor. Reading it reminded me why I considered pursuing an academic career and then, weighed down by I thought would be too narrow a scope, I ventured in a different (possibly also too-narrow) direction. My work in independent film journalism and exhibition has been held back by the very terms White describes. After several conversations about the films in this book with like-minded colleagues—the people I count on to be familiar with world and women’s cinema—I realize I’m not alone.

Erin Trahan has worked in film exhibition, production, and journalism for more than 10 years. She currently edits The Independent (www.independent-magazine.org) and writes regularly about movies for radio station WBUR in Boston. Before that she worked as a program officer for a private women’s foundation and as a staff member at the Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston.

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