It's a "War Zone" out there, Baby.
by Andrea Meyer
In Maggie Hadleigh-West’s documentary “War Zone,” the filmmaker hits the
streets with a tiny digital camera at her hip, exploring what the
filmmaker calls “street abuse”- the leering, catcalls, and kissy-kissy
noises women put up with every day in America’s city streets. Walking
around five major cities, Hadleigh-West waits for some sleazeball to say
something and bam! she turns the camera on him, and the fun begins with
a slew of questions. Hadleigh-West concedes that mutual flirtation does
exist and is acceptable. However, the practice of men interjecting
themselves into a woman’s space and threatening her right to walk
undisturbed is both bothersome and potentially damaging.
In 1991, Hadleigh-West made a short film of the same name, which
received attention from the media, including appearances on the Today
Show and 20/20, among others, and articles in such publications as
Glamour, USA Today, and the New York Daily News. In that piece, the
filmmaker’s narration covered footage of men harassing her in the
street. The feature version, which has appeared at the Berlin Film
Festival and New York Docfest, opens Wednesday at the Film Forum and in
L.A. this September. This time, she lets the men speak. And the
indieWIRE: In your short film the viewer couldn’t hear what the men
harassing you were saying. Why did you decide to let them talk in the
Maggie Hadleigh-West: I knew I had to start over and let the men speak,
which was really hard for me, because that’s the way it always is. It’s
always about the power. They’re the ones who are talking, taking control
of the circumstances. And I really hated the idea of them taking control
of the film. The alternative title of my first film was “Shut the fuck
up. I’m talking now.”
iW: What inspired you to make the short?
Hadleigh-West: It was when I first moved back east, to Washington D.C.
Because there are so many people on the streets and living in close
proximity, it was like a bombardment. My boyfriend didn’t understand it
at all, how angry and uncomfortable it made me. He always thought I was
being a whiny woman, so I came to feel that he couldn’t possibly love
me. That was the primary impetus. I also realized that it was not
limited to him. It was much more a cultural thing, because men don’t
experience it. Or they’re participating in it. They’ve been trained to.
I remember a friend of mine not long ago told me she was so proud of her
son, when she saw him checking out a woman in public. He was
six-years-old or five-years-old. He definitely had his genetic
masculinity in place.
iW: Some people must consider you very aggressive, running around
shoving a microphone in people’s faces.
Hadleigh-West: I don’t shove the microphone in their faces. That’s the
kind of language that really undermines what I’m doing. I didn’t shove a
microphone in anyone’s face. I had a microphone. I turned around and
asked them a question. People say that I’m very angry. I’m not angry!
But there’s an assumption that how dare a woman do something like this
unless she’s so pissed off, she’s out of control.
iW: Did anything really shocking happen to you when you were out there
making the film?
Hadleigh-West: The biggest surprise was the aggression exacerbated by
the microphone. It surprised the shit out of me. I didn’t think I’d be
attacked. It’s too literal of a role-reversal. It’s bad enough being a
mouthy woman. My camera was my weapon. I was trying to do to them what
they had just done to me. My camera became my equalizer, and it made the
men uncomfortable to suddenly be focused on in the same way that we feel
iW: Did the film turn out the way you’d envisioned it?
Hadleigh-West: It’s 80% of what I’d like it to be. But making a film is
so hard. I edited for seven months and had five editors. And it was in
my house, and I was being evicted. And I had people in my house after
midnight, and I was looking at myself all day long. I wanted to kill
that bitch! I wanted to have more of an onslaught, more of the verbal
aggression, but I ran out of time. And I had to decide, was 80% enough
of the message to get out? Or I could spend another three years to make
the perfect film. And it had already been six years. My alternative
title for this version of the film was “Shoot, Shoot and Re-shoot.” I’d
shot in Super-8 because I loved the quality, but it was really
inappropriate. And I kept shooting in Super 8 . I had 10, 15 shooters
and an assistant. I didn’t go to film school. I was learning by the seat
of my pants. But then I realized that for the sake of consistency I had
to re-shoot in every city. I had to shoot in Hi-8, because I needed
something I could roll with continuously. The Super-8 was in three and a
half minute loads, and I’d be like “hold that thought while I reload my
iW: At Docfest, you were attacked for taking money from Penthouse to
make your feminist film?
Hadleigh-West: I didn’t really take money from Penthouse. I mean, I
would have taken money from Penthouse! But they paid me to write an
article about street abuse, because they wanted to help me. It’s coming
out in September. I didn’t have any problems at all about it, because
Penthouse makes a lot of money off the tits and the asses of women, and
as far as I’m concerned they owe us. I would have taken $50,000 from
them. I would have taken anything. In terms of the article, I really
think it’s a privilege. How great to be able to write an article
directly to these dirtballs. I’ve made a slight compromise for the
greater good. That’s what you always do. I needed to get the film done.
They have a lot of money. I approached every woman’s organization in the
world. They all know what I’m doing, but they are grassroots
organizations. They don’t have funding.
iW: What has the making of the film done for you?
Hadleigh-West: It’s exhausted me.
iW: Has it changed the way you feel walking down the street?
Hadleigh-West: Not really. I’m like everyone else. Lots of times I
ignore it. Sometimes I tell them to fuck off. Every once in a blue moon
I employ some sort of smart strategy, and it doesn’t work. Like one day
I was walking down First Avenue and there was this guy with two women or
three women, and he said something to me. And I turned to him and said,
“So, is that how you disrespect the women you’re with?” And the women
were like, “fuck you, bitch.” They were totally with him.
iW: How exactly do you think street abuse is detrimental to women?
Hadleigh-West: On a very simple and fundamental level, I think it
creates a division between men and women. The final line in the film is
that I grew up living with two ideas simultaneously. One was that men
were big and strong and would protect me, and the other was that men
would be feared. And I think that is an inherent cultural conflict that
we have that is right now unresolvable. And it twists our perceptions of
ourselves. We’re so accustomed to being fragmented by men that we begin
to see ourselves that way, and of course that’s reinforced again and
again in advertising and every other way that women are sold culturally,
that we begin to see our value as breasts or ass or legs. It’s very hard
for us to integrate our personalities with our bodies and feel good
iW: You’ve taken some heat for equating intense ogling with some of the
other more invasive behavior in the film. It doesn’t seem to me that
looking is really that abusive.
Hadleigh-West: When I started making the film, I felt the way you do,
that it was really about verbal abuse, but what I realized, once I
started doing research, was that the way that men looked at me made me
feel just as bad. I had actually started to create a hierarchy about
what was more important or less important. I would go, “he just looked
at my breast, that’s not so bad,” but I would still feel creepy about
it. I look at men. I look at women. We all do, but there’s a very
distinct difference. I have never looked at a man on the street and made
him aware that I was trying to see how big his dick was. And I don’t
think women would do that. If we check out a man’s ass and say something
to him, we’re actually jeopardizing our safety, because he’s bigger than
we are. So, I’m not talking about just casually looking at somebody. I’m
talking about looking at somebody in a sexual context and then making
them aware that they’re being looked at in a sexual context. I don’t
care who checks me out, even in a sexual context, as long as they keep
it to themselves. The minute they don’t, they’re impinging on my privacy
or potentially making me feel anxious.
iW: You’ve also been criticized for dressing in a provocative manner
that invites male attention, in the film.
Hadleigh-West: It’s so interesting what is considered provocative. Even
if I were wearing something that could be classified as provocative, I
don’t buy it. That’s assuming that a man can’t control his sex drive,
which is ridiculous. One of the guys who didn’t make it in said he was
checking me out because I was looking sexy and wearing shorts. I’m like,
“I haven’t worn shorts since I was ten years old. I wouldn’t be caught
dead in shorts. Wait, I’m wearing a pair of long, baggy jeans.” But the
very first thing that comes to people’s minds is I’m being provocative.
We are the seducers. They’re not responsible for their behavior at all.
iW: What I think is kind of pathetic is that in a way we’re flattered by
Hadleigh-West: One of the saddest things that happened was I got this
call when I’d been on the Today Show. This woman called me up and left
this message on my machine and said something like, “you’re so lucky. I
wish you could tell me where to go so that I could get the kind of
attention you’re getting.” Click. One of my favorite lines in the film
is, “you’re cute but you’re old.” And I thought, yeah, I’m losing it,
aren’t I? I’ve got about another ten years of street abuse and then I’m
gonna feel fatter and uglier than I already feel. There’s also this one
guy from Brooklyn who’s like, “if you’d just dress a little more
conservative, you won’t have guys like this talking to you on the
street.” Well, his friend was so cute I could barely talk to him,
because I was so flattered, which is what’s so pathetic.
iW: The film jumps pretty rapidly from a discussion to the ways in which
street abuse hurts our self-image to the suggestion that street abuse
leads to rape. It feels like a bit of a logical jump. Can you talk about
Hadleigh-West: If we’re walking down the street and somebody starts
being sexually aggressive, you know you’re afraid but you don’t know
what you’re afraid of. If I start to literally trace that anxiety, what
is the thing that could happen to you that you’re afraid of? What is the
fear that men incite in women? It’s always the fear of being raped. I’m
not delusional. I don’t think that everyone who’s involved in street
abuse is going to rape me or anyone else. That would be silly. What I do
believe is that it triggers the anxiety that is related to rape and that
the bottom line is that they’re strangers. We don’t know what they’re
going to do, and we’re not in any position to figure it out. Are you a
good guy, or are you a rapist? A guy might say, “I’m a good guy,” and
I’ll say “no, you’re not. You’re #20 today, you’re part of the continuum
iW: What kind of positive feedback have you gotten about the film?
Hadleigh-West: A couple of men who saw the film as a work in progress
have told me that it has profoundly changed their lives. One of the
women who worked with me said that when she saw the film, she was so
angry at herself for all the compromises she had made with men because
she wanted to be perceived as desirable. And she had nightmares about
being attacked. A man said to me yesterday that it made him think about
his own behavior and that there’s hardly a man alive who can watch the
film and not think about his behavior.
iW: What about negative feedback?
Hadleigh-West: I’ve been told I’m a feminazi. I’ve been told I’m a
frigid lesbian bitch and I obviously don’t like men. Probably the most
disturbing response I’ve gotten was from a family member. It was too
close to him, with me. I thought he would explode.