‘It seems cinema and politics don’t go together anymore’, said Sarah Wood of Club des Femmes as she introduced the Body of Work section at the London Short Film Festival. She and her colleague Selina Robertson, whose mission as CdF is to provide a ‘positive female space for the re-examination of ideas through art’, chose their return slot at the festival to look at female nudity on camera, screening a programme of films selected from the archives to demonstrate Wood’s point.
Marina Abramovich & Ulay’s 1977 film Imponderabilia features a naked man and woman standing opposite each other in the narrow doorway to a museum. As swathes of people cross the threshold, only a handful turn to face the man. The rest – both male and female visitors – choose to face the woman as they squeeze past, revealing the dynamics of power relations and gender roles simply and visually.
A striking sequence in Jayne Parker’s black and white film K (1989) shows the director standing naked in an empty room, pulling a long internal organ out through her mouth and knitting it into a cloth-like structure with her hands. ‘I bring into the open all the things I have taken in that are not mine and thereby make room for something new. I make an external order out of an internal tangle’, Parker said of this work. Indeed, there is something satisfying about seeing the grotesque and abject woven into a symmetrical dress-like structure – which Parker then holds up to shield her nudity – taking on myriad meanings in a feminist context.
Parker uses the female body to awe-inspiring effect in Almost Out (1982), a film that rarely makes it on to the big screen. At 112 minutes it defied the ‘short’ remit of the festival, but was a key part of the CdF Body of Work programme. Self-consciously breaking the taboo of maternal sexuality, Parker films her mother Joyce naked, while asking probing questions such as, ‘Can you see yourself being penetrated?’ Intercut with this footage are scenes showing the filmmaker naked in a similar set-up, being interviewed by a disembodied male who is credited only as ‘Camera-man’. ‘I don’t know what I can do to get you to see me more. I’m sitting here naked and willing to talk’, Parker tells him, before she concedes that, as the film’s scriptwriter and editor, she ultimately is in full control.
Joyce has no such power. Her scenes are seemingly unscripted and she tells her daughter she is taking part only because of the absolute trust she has in her: ‘If you love someone you wouldn’t make them do something they didn’t want. You wouldn’t put them in that position of having to refuse.’ At her daughter’s request, Joyce talks about body image, sex, motherhood and family. Her open and loving manner is at odds with the mode of questioning which is, comparatively, intrusive and confrontational. She fulfils all of Parker’s wishes, apart from explicitly showing her where she came from, whereas her one request – to know if her daughter thought she was a good mother – goes unanswered. But the power imbalance is rectified by comments made by Parker in her own interview: ‘I’m cross with my mother because I depend on her and she sees that I do.’ She claims she wants her mother to desire her. In turn, Joyce wishes she looked young, slim and beautiful – as Parker does. In this way, the cycle of wishes between mother and daughter, and the push/pull dynamic of their exchanges become as fascinating as the taboo-breaking nudity of the piece.
Measures of Distance (1988) is another example of maternal nudity caught on camera. Director Mona Hatoum contrasts the emotional closeness between mother and daughter with their physical distance, brought on by war and exile. Still shots of her mother taking a shower dissolve over images of letters they wrote to one another. A voice-over ties the two together by reading out the text of the letters, which describe the moment the photos were taken, and their repercussions. In Almost Out, Joyce reveals that she was pleased to stop breastfeeding, as it meant her body was her own again and, similarly, Hatoum’s mother describes how her husband feels betrayed by the photos of her taken by their daughter – as if she belonged to him alone.
Body ownership is also the theme of Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977). In the first part of what she describes as an ‘operatic work of three parts’, filmmaker Martha Rosler depicts herself stripping off before being examined by a man in a lab coat. As he reads out every conceivable weight and measurement, such as ‘sitting spread girth’, another man annotates an anatomical diagram in the background. A trio of women signify whether each measurement is above or below average by honking horns, or ringing a bell if the measurement is spot on. She is then made to dress up in ultra-feminine clothes, style her hair and apply make-up before being dismissed. This sequence takes up the best part of the film’s 40 minutes. It is a noble idea, demonstrated well, but the message is repeated to the point of tedium and beyond, and while the political message is urgent the filmmaking certainly is not.
Better filmmaking was seen during the ‘Femmes Fantastique’ programme, which featured new shorts with interesting and original female characters. They tackled a far more wide-ranging and political variety of topics than last year’s selection, and issues such as miscarriage, sexual dysfunction, prostitution and old age were treated with verve and sensitivity. Clare Holman’s winning film, The Escort (2008), showed a woman trying to balance family life with her job as an escort for young people confronted with the police and social services, and the struggles faced by the teenage girl she is currently escorting. While not as explicitly political as the archive films, it demonstrated that women’s issues and spiky storytelling are not mutually exclusive, and that CdF’s call for political filmmaking is not falling entirely on deaf ears.