Exploring the ‘female gaze’ during FilmScene’s Women’s March

Wrestling romance Signature Move is screening at FilmScene as part of Women’s March. — video still

In the wake of director Joss Whedon stepping down from production of the upcoming Batgirl film, some internet denizens had the temerity to suggest that perhaps a woman be found to replace him.

The internet, as the kids say, broke.

Even in 2018, the idea that a woman might have greater insight on or be better suited to helm a project centered on the experiences of a woman is still met with resistance, even derision. It’s called sexist even to suggest it.

According to the 2017 Celluloid Ceiling report from San Diego State University, women accounted for just 11 percent of directors of the top 250 grossing films from that year, and only 8 percent of directors of the top 100.

This year, Greta Gerwig became only the fifth woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Director category. Only one has ever won — Kathryn Bigelow took home the statue in 2010 for The Hurt Locker.

This is the world that FilmScene’s Women’s March is entering into. For the course of the month of March, with no exceptions, Iowa City’s art house cinema will be presenting only films directed by women — in their new releases, in their family series, in all of their collaborations and initiatives.

“The idea of a female director of a movie … is still pretty novel,” Rebecca Fons, FilmScene programming director and lead programmer of the festival, said of the importance of Women’s March. “There’s so few that have been recognized.”

Deborah Esquenazi, whose film Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is screening Monday, March 12, sees opportunity in that dearth. “Agency (or who gets to tell stories about women and about people of color) is the biggest debate right now in documentary, and it’s really an exciting time to make films,” Esquenazi said in an email. “And the (business side of the) industry is learning that the more diversity of voices for storytelling, the more dynamic and exciting these stories can be — and the more that gets butts into the theater!”

Fons, who was adamant in the planning phase that the program be intersectional and diverse, said she feels the lineup is “a really great snapshot of what female filmmakers look like in the industry and are capable of.”

And she agrees with Esquenazi’s hope that the proof will be in the audience response. FilmScene is offering such a wealth of options that, she said, “We hope the audience will lean into that and just say, ‘There’s so many good things! I’m just going to camp out at FilmScene for the month!’”

Fons came to FilmScene with a background in producing film festivals, and that experience is evident in the care and craft that she and her advisory board put into Women’s March. The board consists of FilmScene Board Chair Laura Bergus, United Action For Youth’s Jamie Ellis, Liz Gilman of Produce Iowa, University of Iowa Visiting Assistant Professor Leah Vonderheide (who has written about film for Little Village), filmmaker P. Sam Kessie, Connie White of Balcony Booking and filmmaker and FilmScene staff member Spencer Williams.

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“I knew I didn’t just want to present historically significant films,” Fons said.

The board broke the selections down into categories: Pioneers speaks to those earliest voices of historical significance. The Vanguard series highlights new and emerging artists. And Homegrown looks at filmmakers with roots here in Iowa. There’s also the Late Shift at the Grindhouse series, the Picture Show children’s series, the Bijou Film Forum, Vino Vérité (which Little Village co-presents), the Science on Screen programming, a summer camp for girls and genderqueer youth and all of the theater’s new releases — every film directed by a woman.

Even with so many screens to fill, there was such a wealth of options available that Fons felt like they made some difficult choices.

“There’s so many great filmmakers that we couldn’t fit in … I feel like I need to send a fruit basket to Jane Campion,” Fons joked of the decision not to include anything by the only woman ever to win the Palme d’Or.

FilmScene partnered with University of Iowa’s Vertical Cinema for a portion of the programming of the Homegrown section of the series. Vertical Cinema, which started in 2016, is a student-run organization dedicated to showcasing experimental and avant-garde filmmakers in the early stages of their careers. The group is “generally open to collaboration,” co-leaders Traci Hercher, Kelly Swanson and Michael Wawzenek said in an email, but were so excited by the idea behind Women’s March that they knew they had to reach out.

Their segment is a series of shorts featuring current and recent UI MFA filmmakers.

“We aimed to showcase the diverse body of work that comes out of the University of Iowa’s MFA in Film and Video Production, while also looking for themes under which the films unify,” they said. “As we watched through the work we were considering, themes of intimacy, displacement, bi-cultural and female identity, the ethics and boundaries of representation, voyeurism, male fantasy and the return of the gaze emerged and this cohered for us strongly in the shorts program we curated.”

The question of the gaze is an inevitable one when considering the impact of female directors in film. The male gaze — a term coined by critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 to describe female objectification and passivity in the male, heterosexual view in art, especially — is turned on its head when the point of view is the woman’s instead.

“I do think about the gaze — male and female gaze — as I direct, edit, screenwrite, investigate,” Esquenazi said. “So yes, I do think there is such a thing as the female gaze.” She referenced art critic John Berger with a quote from his essay “Ways of Seeing”: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

FilmScene’s Women’s March is an invaluable opportunity to explore that shift of perspective — and see how it can shift our own perspectives. From groundbreaking female auteurs like Chantal Akerman, whose 1975, 201-minute classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles used an entirely female crew, to Sasha Waters Freyer, who was Fons’ advisor when she was at UI, and whose Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable makes its Iowa premier straight from its South by Southwest run, the perspective and power of women in an industry that continues to chronically overlook them will be on full display during Women’s March.

Genevieve Trainor’s favorite movies are all directed by men. She looks forward to changing that. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 238.