by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 20, 2008
NO THROUGH LINE, BABY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Where's the through line?
This week I've been spending a lot of time at Brattleboro's Women's Film Festival, and after seeing something like 15 movies (the good, the bad and the ugly) in a hugely compressed period of time, the big question running through my mind is simply this: where's the through line?
OK, it's the women's film festival. I get it. But isn't having a vagina the lowest common denominator for both the subjects and (most) directors? What does it tell us? Yes, we've come a long way (baby) from being sex objects. But really, where's the through line here?
Kris Carr, for example, is a lovely young woman, silly and beautiful and open and honest and smart, the kind of woman of whom they used to say, "her nerves run close to her skin." When she was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, she started making a film about it. "Crazy Sexy Cancer" is, as she puts it, her journey from "looking for a cure to finding my life."
Today Carr is not cancer-free, but her tumors are slow-growing to the point where they are a sideline to her full, rich, funny life. In one of the last scenes in the film, she even gets married to her cameraman. She's totally adorable - the kind of heroine that a really good chick flick would be proud to call its own. And she has a completely fresh take on cancer that explodes the usual "fighting with dignity" stuff.
"I won't call it a gift," she says - and God bless her for it. "Because I wouldn't give it to you."
There's no way to compare Carr with, for example, the inscrutable and elegant Leila Khaled, who in the name of Palestinian liberation hijacked an airplane in 1969, got international attention for her cause (whatever you might think of it), went into hiding, had plastic surgery, and then went out and hijacked another plane.
In "Leila Khaled: Hijacker," by Lina Makboul, Khaled shows us that at the very least, her actions came from a genuine emotion - she wants to return to Haifa, where she was born. She's never stopped working for her cause, although she has grown up, married, become a mother and a homemaker, and eschewed violence.
No one ever died in the hijackings she was involved with, and she has unkind words for the hijackers of 9/11. "I don't agree with the killing of civilians," she says.
She also can't hide her contempt for the way the press treated her in 1970. Had she ever been in love? they asked. Had she had sex? How long did she spend in front of the mirror every morning?
"They thought I wasn't human," she said. "I'm a fighter! Ask me about my work!"
So let's ask photographer Olive Pierce about her work in "Olive Pierce: Maine Master" by Richard Kane. Concerned during the run-up to the first Gulf war - the one started by the first George Bush - she went to Iraq to take photos of the children. Their haunted, frightened and hopeful faces tell you everything you need to know about their terrible futures, as guaranteed by the second George Bush. It makes you wonder who the terrorist really is.
When Pierce's Iraq pictures were exhibited, she was told that one commentator said, contemptuously, "You can't even tell what side she's on." Duh, isn't that the point?
So, freedom fighter or terrorist, which is it going to be? Well, Makboul says this: If your side wins, you're a freedom fighter. If it loses, you're a terrorist.
And I say, where's the through line?
What does Carr have to do with Khaled? Not very much. Then there's Granny D, who was over 90 when she walked across the country in support of campaign finance reform and then ran for the U.S. Senate. And Mary Olive Smith and Amy Bucher, who went into the back country of Ethiopia to find women suffering from a serious childbearing injury that left them incontinent and ostracized from their families and society. Wrestling with the entire tradition of documentaries, they said "to hell with objectivity," got involved in their subjects' lives, and helped them find surgery and healing in a special hospital in Addis Ababa. They not only change their subjects' lives, but told the world about the fistula problem that exists in many developing nations. Their amazing film is called "A Walk to Beautiful." Now Bucher is taking on the subject of child marriage.
Or take Laurel Hester, the gay policeman who, while dying of cancer, fights her city government for the right to pass on her pension to her partner. And take Cynthia Wade, who made "Freeheld," the film about the remarkable, strong and courageous Hester. Wade won an Academy Award for it.
Or take Dorota Kedzierzawska, who made the exquisite Polish drama "Time to Die," and her star, the 90-plus but ravishingly beautiful Danuta Szaflarska. Or the six female Jewish comedy stars of "Making Trouble," from Fanny Brice to Gilda Radner. Or the amazing elderly artists of Amy Gorman's "Still Kicking."
The truth is that there is no through line here. The lives of these women - and many more - have little to do with gender, race, country of origin or profession. They are independent people living through their authentic, independent selves. They have minds, they have lives and they have souls. Vaginas are the least of it.
For some reason, I find that immensely satisfying.
(There's still time to see some of the films in this remarkable series, which runs until March 23. Find the schedule at www.womensfilmfestival.org. And find my blog about the films on reformer.com or womensfilmfestival.blogspot.com.)
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.