Attributes of narrative in Women cinema

Author: ISPAEC


   (The paper is published in the Proceedings of the 2nd Dhaka International Conference on Women in Cinema (January 15-16, 2016, Dhaka). Ed. Nazia Akther Sinthia (Dhaka: Rainbow Film Society), 22-24)

   The purpose of the present paper on the attributes of narrative in Women cinema is to reflect on the works of women-directors and largely women-artists as having common traits typical to female creative process. At the same time speaking about female films I would like to avoid placing female art in a certain ‘ghetto’ and talking about it as a special phenomenon. Because what matters at the end of the day is a film and on my opinion it is not right to divide films into male films and female films based on their director’s gender. The nature of the film is collective and there is no woman cinema in its pure form unless the whole film from A to Z is made by a women team. For example, the film ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ (1975) by Chantal Akerman, the Belgium director, was entirely made by women. She used to say: ‘It was simply enough to be a woman to work on this film’.

    Thus in most of the cases because of the collective nature of the filmmaking we can speak about a certain percentage of inputs made by women and men in the particular film. And based on that we call it as woman-oriented or man-oriented film. Definitely there are exceptions like films made almost entirely by a men-crew but masterly portraying reality from a female prospective. For example, a recent Indian film “Lajwanti” (2014) by Pushpendra Singh, whose director was a man, but the editor was a woman. The film reveals the inner fluctuations of a married woman who meets another man. And we yet to speak about female and male energies - the Chinese Yin and Yang in us when we create art.

   The ancient Chinese philosophy states there is a path of nature, the principles of existence of everything alive, the causes of all changes in nature, the basis of life and death, the sources of spiritual activities are comprised in Yin and Yang. The accumulation of Yang creates Heaven, while the accumulation of Yin creates Earth. Yin brings calmness, Yang controls passions and gives life, Yin promotes growth, Yang brings death, Yin promotes preservation of life, Yang creates a body out of particles, Yin creates their shape…If there is Heaven, then there is Earth; if there is sun there is moon; if there is Yin there is Yang; if there is Spring there is Autumn; if there is day there is night; if there s left there is right; if there is external there is internal; if there is white there is black; if there is light there is darkness; if there is something hard there is soft; if there are men there are women… - there is a root of Path (Dao) in it as well as essence of energies of Yin and Yang, a will of alive and dead…If there is no these two beginnings – Yin and Yang – nothing alive can be created. Therefore the destinies of everything alive are related to these two beginnings that merge within one form.[i]  The similar energy we find in an ancient Indian philosophy. Shakti is a universal female beginning; it’s an energetic manifestation of Lord Shiva – a Hinduist God being in charge of a Universal fertility. The idea of Shakti being identical to Lord Shiva appeared under the influence of an orthodox school Vedanta: those who are not able to address the abstract God-absolute can reach the highest purpose by addressing to his female manifestation – Shakti being more concrete, palpable, having attributes and qualities. Shakti is depicted in different forms, for example, when a newborn appears she takes a form of the Great Mother, that’s why her cult is related to sexual functions. Most of the family and tribal goddesses of fertility received Shakti name as well. For example, in some of the places these goddesses used to be depicted symbolically in a form of Ardhanarishvara – half man half woman: she was personified as a Yoni and he was a Lingam. Shiva is presented as Lingam, as something that doesn’t have its own qualities and manifestations and only the female beginning adds him an activity, development and life.[ii] If the both of the energies – male and female – exist in us in different proportions then we can state that the women directors consisting more of a male energy in themselves rather than female one because it is a decision-taking job and requires leadership that is to say qualities attributed most of the times to men.

   Men and women are not equal right from the physiological viewpoint. For example, the differences lay in how both of the sexes percept beauty and colors. Numerous research was done on it: clearly male and female brains differ as result of the hormonal development. Recent studies of the art class students have confirmed what might be obvious that girls tend to draw with warmer colors (e.g., reds, pinks) while boys draw with cold colors (e.g., blues, grays); girls draw more humans and nature motifs (e.g., flowers, butterflies) while boys draw mobile and mechanical objects (e.g., trucks, planes); girls depict objects in a row from a ground perspective while boys more frequently use a bird’s-eye perspective. According to data collected by a Japanese researcher Megumi Iijima and her colleagues in 2001, hormonal events during early development may play a particularly significant role in creating an art work. These researchers analyzed the drawings of 124 boys and 128 girls from six kindergartens and noted the significant differences in color use, motifs, and perspectives. The drawings of eight 5-yr-old girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) were also examined. As a result, females with CAH are often exposed to exceptionally high levels of androgens during the periods of development that are critical for sexual differentiation of the brain. Interestingly, the artwork created by the girls with CAH exhibited characteristics that are more typical of the drawings of boys than those of unaffected girls. Thus, early androgen exposure may lead to a more masculinized brain and, perhaps, more male-typical decisions when creating art.[iii] As an addition to the relations of an artwork from a hormonal level, neuroscientists discovered that women are better at distinguishing among subtle distinctions in color, while men appear more sensitive to objects moving across their field of vision.[4] Perhaps at one time this exceptional quality was developed due to a need of women to understand a variety of plants and fruits to plug, while men required to have a sharp eye to notice an animal while hunting. One more scientific study proofed that when men and women see something they think is beautiful, their brains react differently, with the female brain showing more activity than the male.[5]

   Most of the time men react differently to films made by women-directors. In contrary to female viewers who can immediately connect to the characters created by women directors and identify themselves with the heroines. To the features of women films we can add an extreme sensitivity that relates, firstly, to universal maternal instinct, secondly to the soft emotional nature of women. Women tend to experiment more and break the rules and stereotypes easier while men being more conservative. For example, some of the attributes of Chantal Akerman’s cinema are simplicity of the plot, continuity, cyclic dialogues and other routine actions performed by actors. The dialogues are fragmentary and compressed. We would like to research few of her directorial works as a filmmaker who expressed the gender issues well.

   The two girls – the characters of the film ‘I’m hungry, I’m cold’ (1984) by Chantal Akerman, run away from home in Belgium and on their way to Paris. But there is something mechanical and cyclical in their body language, dialogues – an overall acting as well as the story itself. It’s a piece of narration taken out of their life and we don’t know the beginning of their journey neither the end. The moment of repetition is shown the way they lay down, eat, talk and it reminds a girl’s game of counting rhyme – it is also cyclical and rhythmic. It places us in a border between teenage and adult age where our heroines with their identity problems belong to. When of the girls says to have breakfast they have to age first and takes out make-up, we already assume that the later part of the film will be surreal because the heroines transfigure. Make-up was an initiation for them. Both of the heroines are infantine. Even their mutual lip kiss doesn’t express eroticism but instead spontaneous like children asking to experience it out of any subtext. This is we who create a different meaning in our heads. The infantilism brought me a thought that there is always a little Freudian girl hiding within a woman-director. And the woman-director always addresses her in her films – she is the same heroine at different stages of life. Perhaps the similar processes go within male directors too but in contrary their main object of observation and research are women most of the times. The powerful scene of ‘I’m hungry, I’m cold’ is the climax when one of the girls chooses to lose her virginity. The virginity is seen as a burden she was running from since the beginning of the film; lovemaking was seen as a panacea from any problem. The love scene was shown through a sublimation of another girl cooking a meal and consuming it. It was similar to another scene from a different film ‘Portrait of a young girl at the end of the 1960’s in Brussels’ (1993) also by Chantal Akerman. Prior to the last sequence the two girls – the protagonist and her girlfriend- come together to a party. The protagonist has none to choose to dance with other than her girlfriend. The female world and the male are juxtaposed to each other when her girlfriend is invited to a dance by a man. The protagonist was isolated and out of place here. What is required to be pointed to that the director chooses metaphors that are the sublimation of the actual sexual act, for example, the dance scene, the cooking and eating scenes.

   Quite interesting the way how Chantal Akerman dresses her protagonists. All of the women who challenge male qualities and success are dressed up in a male-looking cloths, for example, baggy pants, male shirt-looking night gown…The cloth helps to identify her as a woman who tries to become equal to a man though in vain. The finales of Akerman’s films are different: either the protagonist escapes to nowhere, either the woman continues to compete for her success like in the film ‘The man with the suitcase’ (1983). It’s a story of a woman who is not able to concentrate on her writing work because of a new male flat-mate who also happened to be a writer. The most intriguing is that the male character in the film doesn’t act wrong in any case. But the conflict awakes in the female perception. The male protagonist is rather good to the heroine: he buys groceries, flowers, he cooks and washes dishes. And on top of that he has a great inspiration to write non-stop. But the competition that develops inside the heroine disturbs her, she loses her inspiration and finally the motivation to work as she is suppressed by the man’s ego. The minor interest in the opposite sex that developed in her was suppressed by the realization of her being self-sufficient and independent. The narration of Chantal Akerman in this film acting as a main protagonist herself was a self irony and also an irony at the male character who is portrayed as a huge giant being not capable to help a woman to lift furniture, who is clumsy and loud while eating his breakfast. This film is entirely shot in master-shots. And it is not important for us to watch the close-ups of the heroine because we can connect to her even if her face is in shadow. The most important is the sincere human reaction, the body language of the heroine and the off-screen sound. After 26 days of the awkward neighborhood the heroine is shown eating leaves of the roses brought by the male character. She is voluntarily isolated in her shell-looking room and slowly turns into an animal that is deprived of any mental work. But when her flat-mate finally shifts out of the apartment the heroine breathes freely ready to work.

   Women naturally tend to beautification, and in our case I mean a beautification of an image – it can be a model, her dress, a set behind her…but on my opinion a woman can never create ugliness just because all her nature opposes to it. I took two images of the same theme (‘A Girl next to a window’) made by a man-photographer and a woman-photographer to examine. The man shot his model as if he was peeping after her hiding behind the corner. It was a stealthy glance at a model who was day-dreaming. While the woman shot her model with the naked shoulders and long open hair who looks outside. She might be melancholic too, but what differs the image made by the woman is a sense of enjoyment while looking at the model who is aware being observed. Female nature tends to be conscious of being observed, she even strived to be liked by others. For instance, there is even a shot in Akerman’s ‘The man with the suitcase’ when the heroine brushes her teeth and for a moment looks back at the camera where we stay thus making us aware that she knows we are watching her.

   To summarize my conclusions I would like to add that every woman-director is unique and we always search for our own individual handwriting that will differ our films not only from cinema made by men but to distinguish every woman’s creativity. As it was mentioned above in any way it is a certain energy (male or female) that dominates our creativity. I can recall words of a Russian poetess of ‘Silver age’ Marina Cvetaeva, who always referred herself as Poet and not a Poetess. It seems Cvetaeva emphasized such qualities of a Poet as seriousness, masculine rhyme, depth of thoughts opposing to a light-mindedness of ordinary romantic poetesses. The word (film) ‘director’ is usually of male gender and there is no female equivalent to it because the job requests women to adopt certain masculine qualities. Will we remain women and preserve our worldview in a highly competitive world?


   [i] Nei Zin; Taipin Zin//Ancient Chinese philosophy: Han epoch. Moscow: Nauka, 1990. P.35, 337

   [ii] Pertold O. Cult of Goddesses//Gods, Brahmans and people. Moscow: Nauka, 1969. P. 90,91

 [iii]How“Male” and “Female” Brains Might Lead to “Male” and “Female” Art// from 9.03.2010 (accessed on 8.12.2015)

    4.Copeland, Libby. Where Men See White, Women See Ecru. Neuroscientists prove what we always suspected: the two sexes see the world differently// from March, 2013 (accessed on 8.12.2015)

   5.Sample, Ian. Women appreciate beauty better than men, says study// from 24.02.2009 (accesed on 8.12.2015)

Sharofat Arabova,

Lead researcher, Institute of Asian and European Studies,

Film historian, culturelogist, filmmaker