Directors Lounge 2008 • Berlin, february 7-17

Wednesday, February 13

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

The idea of universal sisterhood is about as preposterous as the idea of universal language but advertising and the media machine pushes this insipid notion on women at every turn. We want makeup, jewelry, babies, yogurt, perfume...carefree fun. It's always profoundly revealing when women filmmakers, artists and writers endeavor to suggest the truth about their needs and desires or their particular spin on the desires of other women. Over the past couple of days, I've been taking special notice of women as directors, actresses and subjects of their own films and it has been a very revealing process.

Catherine Forster's We Shop (USA 8min  2007) took on the subject of shopping as a woman's favorite pass-time and chose the rural suburbs of North Carolina rather than the saturated commercial landscape of Madison Avenue as her microcosm.  The film follows two women, a  middle-aged granddaughter and her elderly grandmother, as they tour their favorite stores and then go home to refresh and beautify themselves. The film opens with an acapella rendition of Cyndi Lauper's hit Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Against the backdrop of passe department stores and dinky boutiques, the song has a haunting quality. The vocals alone sound so empty and the experience of shopping takes on an inevitable emptiness as well. But the two main characters are unperturbed by the supposed meaninglessness of shopping. They speak about the activity as if it were their life support. Shopping is a way to evade loneliness. Department stores are places to eavesdrop on funny conversations that you can laugh about with your friends later on. The middle-aged granddaughter insists that Belks, the store they most often frequent, is 'like a second family. We know everyone. We talk to everyone and we become a part of these people's lives.' She says without a hint of irony.

For Forsters part, she allows the women to speak openly and resists the urge to satirize her subjects. These are very normal Southern women with what they perceive to be very normal interests. They are feminine to a fault, even up into their 90's but Forster doesn't dwell on the futility of dressing up when you are so old you can barely reach the clothes in your closet. She does pan a couple of times to closets filled with junk and she suggests the American disease of consumerism in these moments but mostly she avoids this judgement. In fact, Forster does something really brave--she allows the women to enjoy their shopping without villianizing them or making them pathetic. Shopping becomes a ritual for female interaction, a chance to smell different, smooth your skin and chat about your life. It seems as harmless as a quilting bee. But that eerie acapella Girls Just Wanna Have Fun reminds the viewer that the ritual of shopping carries a good deal of mythology and can never just be shopping in and of itself. 

Ann Hirsch has a complicated relationship to consumerism and femininity as well. In her short film I Love You, I Hate You, Emaciated, (5 min 2007) she covers her mouth with a cellular phone and mouths 'I love you' over and over again, making exaggerated kissy faces at the camera. This goes on for quite some time and then their is a sharp cut to a girl in a t-shirt with her hair severely pulled back sitting on a dormitory couch. It seems like the same girl who was mouthing I love you just seconds before. With unmistakable candidness this girl begins to describe her  anorexia and the complicated manipulations she must enact in order to continue to starve herself. She realizes that the disease is her burden and that other people don't want to shoulder it so she performs normal eating habits in front of them to trick them into thinking she is healthy. ' I just eat a donut a couple of times in front of them and they think everything is fine. Then I don't eat for the rest of the day. ' The irony of pretending to want anonymity as an anorexic and then making a film about yourself and your anorexia is a bit heavy handed. But the subject of anorexia itself is so indefatigable for viewers that Hirsch can get away with this hypocrisy. Our obsessive need for information about anorexia is like our addiction to shopping. It's unhealthy and it's a closed system that perpetuates itself. The more obsessed you are with image and consumerism, even on a supposed informational level, the more likely you are to have actual image and consumer issues.  As in We Shop, the most winning aspect of Hirsch's short is her directness and honesty. Both films involve a greater media driven system but the perspective of these women is refreshingly sincere and unapologetic.

Maja Borg SE Ottica Zero 8 min , 2007

Nadya Cazan's unapologetic nature is surprisingly the sort of attitude that Madison Avenue tends to co-opt for commodification purposes. She's beautiful, cool, enchanting and she doesn't seem to need much. If I saw her in a commercial for perfume or yogurt, I would probably immediately go out and buy some. In the film Ottica Zero, Swedish filmmaker Maja Borg relies heavily on the muse like qualities of Nadya Cazan. The film is half biography, half futurist fantasy. Nadya is (or plays) a woman who was on the brink of major commercial success when she turns her back on the star system ('I didn't want to make anything that had no purpose,' she says) to live as an ascetic amongst modern society. She does not touch money. She wears a Muslim-style body covering. She lives on kosher food and fish heads. As Nadya speaks about her past and what has led her to her present, their is a second monologue from a 90 year-old futurist (can somebody say oxymoron) who has dedicated the rest of his life to offering an alternative resource based economy. No more money and all the messy social strife that goes along with it. In his Utopian vision, people would trade useful resources for other useful resources and we would all be free from judgement. 

NEM in Maja Borg´s Ottica Zero

The film is breathtakingly beautiful. Borg captures Cazan as some sort of modern day Alice in Wonderland and asceticism hasn't looked this good since Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.  Somehow these three films orbit each other in their relationship to judgement, consumerism and the feminine ideal and I suspect beauty is at the heart of this constellation.

--more soon S.S.