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Feminism at the Rotterdam Film Fest: Sex Tourists, Mad Scientists, Psychopath Kidnappers

Feminism at the Rotterdam Film Fest: Sex Tourists, Mad Scientists, Psychopath Kidnappers

The last week of January saw one of the
biggest international festivals, the Rotterdam Film Festival, dedicate the
entirety of one of its program sections to feminism. An array of directors
from all over the world presented their films, exploring the possible
definitions and interpretations of the women’s movement today.

Although the festival itself is over, we
have reflected on some of the films and ideas the “What the F?!” program offered. They highlight issues that often come into play
when we talk about gender and sexuality in film; in a way, each of them
answers the question of what feminism in cinema actually is in its own way.

Feminism is alternative femininities
interacting on screen.

“Sand Dollars,” directed by Laura Amelia
Guzmán, Israel Cárdenas, 2014

After Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise: Love” three
years ago, it seems like sex tourism in third-world countries is becoming a
rich source of inspiration for stories previously untold. “Sand Dollars” makes
it even less conventional, though, by making the central romantic plot revolve
around two women. One is an older, white, and affluent lesbian (played by
Geraldine Chaplin) and the other is a twenty-something Dominican (Yanet Mojica),
trying to make her everyday life a little bit better by getting involved
romantically and intimately with European tourists, expecting financial favors
in return. It is heartbreaking to watch the masterful Geraldine Chaplin as Anne
interpret a love unrequited. But at the same time, our heart can’t help but go
out to Noéli, being underprivileged to the point of actually having to consider
living a lie and sidetracking her real feelings. Moreover, the complex
portrayal of their relationship does not shy away from revealing Anne’s
selfishness and exploitative behavior, as well as Noéli’s recklessness. But
what is most striking about “Sand Dollars” is the way it films the bodies of an
older woman and a Dominican woman in a way that is—at least in mainstream cinema—usually
reserved for young, white, conventional, heteronormative female bodies. Much has been said about
how a surprising number of films don’t pass the Bechdel test due to their never
showing two women talking to each other of things other then men—but ask about
ethnic femininities or women past the age of 35, and the number quickly shrinks
even further.

Feminism is saying no to idealised
representations of women in cinema.

“I Stay With You,” directed by Artemio
Narro, 2015

Perhaps one of the most divisive and
controversial films of the festival, “I Stay With You” has four psychopaths
kidnapping, torturing, and raping their victim in what will prove to be one of the
most uncomfortable watches you’ve ever experienced. The kick? The four psychopaths are all female — and their victim is male. This brings up one of the most important but
frequently overlooked issues regarding representations of women in film: idealizing
them is just the other side of the same (sexist) coin. Much has been written
about “strong” female characters who are beautiful and brilliant at the same
time. But if you think about it, why should women characters have to try so
hard to be better than men? Why is it not simply acceptable for them to
sometimes just generally be lousy people, like so many of the beloved film and
TV male characters are? In the case of “I Stay With You”, the film brilliantly
deconstructs the notion that women as a gender are somehow “gentler” and “less
violent,” a preconception that has much to do with keeping women in
check. (Violence, after all, is empowering.) And if that means that some women can
be sick, despicable people who should spend the rest of their lives in jail,
well, we’re not seeing enough of it. 

Feminism is delving into bizarre,
absurdist humor and genres usually reserved for “gender-neutral” (i.e., male) cinema.

“The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes,” directed by
Nancy Andrews, 2015

The mad scientist Dr. Myes has unexpectedly
acquired superior vision, but unfortunately, the side effects of her experiments
are slowly transforming her into an insect—yes, just like Gregor Samsa, but
with a little more oomph. This deliciously weird mix of 60s B-movies, the
Hollywood “mad scientist” narrative, horror, animation, and musical is visually
gorgeous and invites us to re-think the fundamental concept of feminist
film theory: the gendered gaze. When Dr. Myes claims a superior vision for
herself, she works analogously to the role of the female film director
who refuses to play the role of the spectacle in front of the camera, and instead takes matters into her own hands.

Feminism is NOT saying that
women are somehow better than men (obviously).

“No Men Beyond This Point,” directed by
Mark Sawers, 2015

Not everyone got it right, though. Although
there is no doubt that “No Men Beyond This Point” is at times highly
entertaining and contains some bright moments, in the end, conjuring a
straw man of a “feminist utopia” on screen just to poke holes in it and
ultimately portray it as nonsense is as far from feminist as can be. In the alternative universe of the film, women are able to reproduce without male
interference and an all-female world bans violence and
sex completely. Because everyone knows that women hate sex and are not
violent at all, right? (See above.) Although there is no arguing that reversing
the power of gender dynamics is illuminating at times just for exposing the
absurdity of the reverse-situation—for example, when a woman tells three men to
“keep it down because nobody wants to hear a bunch of men’s voices”—ultimately,
“No Men Beyond This Point” is just too rife with an essentialist, binary logic
of gender representations, men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus type of jokes,
references to the “natural order,” and even downright offensive portrayals of
lesbians as frigid, jealous, and borderline psychotic to be anything more than
just everyday sexism done a bit more creatively. 

Three steps forward, one step back is still progress, right? 

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