The Empress's New Clothes

By Mute Editor, 9 September 2004

Anja Kirschner reviews three films screened at London’s Lux Salon and laments the passage of radical women’s filmmaking into depoliticised, stylistic affectation

Capturing ‘underdogs’ on film is a famously sticky pursuit. In the context of radical women’s filmmaking, this problem was elucidated through the critique of the camera’s complicity with the ‘gun’ and the ‘phallus’ which privileged a ‘white, male, heterosexual’ mastery over the moving image. A critique which reached its climactic point in the ’60s and ’70s when wider struggles over production and representation were spilling onto the streets, contesting what and who made up the ‘real world’ on and beyond the TV and the movie screen.

Marguerite Duras’ Les Mains Negative (1979) is affected and informed by these struggles and the radical discourses they generated, while Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance made one decade later in 1988, and Alia Syed’s Eating Grass made over two decades later in 2003, are clearly drawing on the historical legacy of early radical women’s filmmaking.

Les Mains Negative was shot from the window of a moving car in the early hours of the morning, during a popular holiday season. The deserted boulevards of Paris are punctuated by interspersed groups of dark-skinned workers, stray prostitutes and vagabonds. The scene is one rarely captured on celluloid, despite the fact that its dramatis personae are the stock fodder of the movies, the stuff of hilarity, trepidation and wet dreams. Here they appear as the living outcasts of a sepulchral city, whose marginalised existence secretly ensures the basic functioning of the carnivorous metropolitan metabolism. Beyond what meets the eye, Duras is spinning out a different trajectory for these men and women. An off-screen voice evokes the lone figure of primordial man, whose hands have left ‘black and blue’ imprints directed towards the sea on the interior surfaces of a Magdalenian cave. It is hard to watch the boulevards’ inhabitants and hear the call to ‘early men’ without unease, because their hands leaving transient marks on the stony surfaces of the city are also ‘black and blue’. But the evocation of the primordial past together with the solitude, desires and migrations across oceans imbedded in it, casts a primitive exotic air over the surreptitiously captured state of abjection and just about normalises it in the context of Duras’ heady existential and anthropological symbolism.

What becomes apparent is that, when viewed together with the two later works, what was still raw, defiant and certainly avant-garde about Duras’ filmic approach, has passed into a conventionality of its own; gesturing towards critical readings without bursting the bubbles of repressive representational codes.

In Measures of Distance, Hatoum inserts images of her mother taking a shower under the steadily receding grid of her letters from home as a means of chronicling the concrete impediments to communication with war-torn Beirut. These photographs, taken against – as we discover from the letters – her father’s wishes on a previous trip to Beirut, simultaneously cast the maternal body as a symbol of a newly found and emancipatory intimacy between mother and daughter in separation. Although smartly referencing the controversies surrounding the visual representation of the female body, the very literalness of the curiously unspecific and over-coded image of (Arabic) writing against the blurred and abstracted torso of a middle-aged woman, reduces the challenge to paternal and state authority to a reality which, although disturbing, is endured with a degree of complicity: the inhabitation of a private universe, the ‘dignity’ of Muslim woman skilfully agitating behind the back of the man, the resignation to political realities as the harsh dealings of ‘fate’.

Eating Grass, composed of footage from Pakistan and London accompanied by overlapping, bi-lingual voiceovers, tentatively structured around the five times of Muslim prayer and intimating the reciprocal dynamics of defensiveness and desire, comes, crudely speaking, from the textbook of radical women’s filmmaking turned inoffensive art school convention. In terms of non-compliance with the camera’s voyeuristic imperative it offered little beyond the continual use of time-lapse and a slow shutter speed, long recycled by the mill of the ‘creative’ advertising industry to denote the ‘ephemerality of subjective experience’ etc. The (ir)relevance of the film’s title (a quote by President Bhutto who promised the Pakistani people, in the early ’70s, that their country would rival India’s nuclear capabilities even if it meant ‘eating grass’) to the film itself remained as lazily indicative of ‘meaning’ as the juxtaposition of Asian and western locations that did not add up to a significant illumination of the innately complex and politically calculating business of the formation of ‘identity’ they pointed towards.

Somewhere between the ossification of feminist filmic experimentation and the ceaseless intervention of power, which has in part appropriated radical concepts of ‘gender’, ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’ to exercise increased control at a bio-political level, stands the empress stripped bare of her intentions.

Anja Kirschner <amk AT> is a filmmaker