I worked as a cinema usherette for a while. One of the great things about the job was being able to observe the audience’s response to film. I would sit on my fold-down usherette’s chair, at the perfect angle to watch the audience watching the screen. One of the most striking responses occurred at a screening of Jane Campion’s The Piano. The film opens with a close-up of a girl’s face, looking out from behind her fingers, watching and shielding her gaze at the same time. Once the plot of the film is under way, it seems a throwaway image, almost incidental. But later in the film, when the husband violently acts out his revenge on his wife, I saw all the women in the audience holding their hands up over their faces in the same gesture. What was obvious was the gender division in this reaction. The men just looked, the women looked and hid. When I think of anything to do with women and film, I think of this unconscious gesture. It suggested to me that there was a distinct female way of seeing and that good female directors, like Campion, knew very well what they were doing when they exploited this.
The trouble is that The Piano came out over ten years ago. It was already the product of more than two decades of feminist experimentation in cinema. It did what very few feminist films had done before: it won acceptance in the mainstream. It won Oscars. With acceptance, however, came a full stop. The decade since has seen an emptying out of politics from popular culture, post-modern irony replacing it. The need for a critique of this and for an alternative space to accommodate an alternative way of seeing has never been more vital.
Last summer at Club Des Femmes we revisited Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames: a razor-sharp, political, edgy film, it effortlessly creates a new storytelling shape, a very female narrative shape that truly explores a democratic point of view through a communal narrative structure and an anti-heroic plot. The final section of the film sees a terrorist blow up the Twin Towers. I knew the scene was coming, I knew what it would mean to see this after September 11, and I felt the impact of watching premonition with hindsight.
Visionary art depends on freedom. With commerce dominating cinema programming we lose space for radical vision and our mass media narratives are led by consensus. There are a lot of vital fights to be waged about the position of women in film. Bird’s Eye View importantly takes on the mainstream, pointing out that women make up only 7% of film directors and 12% of screenwriters. It’s an appalling statistic. What we try to do at Club des Femmes is give space to the many women whose politics and aesthetics do not fit in the mainstream. We look for the alternative, we look for politics and dialogue and experimentation. Here is where cinema is alive. Godard suggested that ‘all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’. It’s a cynical understanding of genre formalism that he exploits and subverts in all his work. At Club des Femmes we look for filmmakers who wield their cameras with force, because in the proper expression of vision comes liberation.