The Female Gaze

    • General
    • November 20, 2014
    • By KEES Driessen

    In 2014 IDFA presented the program The Female Gaze: does a 'female gaze' exist within the documentary genre? Fifteen leading international female directors, including Pirjo Honkasalo, Barbara Kopple and Kim Longinotto, selected the documentaries.

    With the theme program The Female Gaze, IDFA zooms in on women in the documentary world. There's ample research on the representation of women in media, but virtually none of it pertains to documentaries. As a starting point, IDFA is also re-examining its own program over the past 10 years. The discussion is all about image and representation. What kind of documentaries do women make, and how are women depicted in documentaries? Is it different when the filmmaker is a woman herself, and do women make different kinds of documentaries than men? And are there enough women in the documentary world, both in front of and behind the camera, or are they suffering from the same so-called Celluloid Ceiling that is prevalent in the fiction film industry?

    To look for answers to those questions, IDFA has invited 15 of the most prominent female documentary filmmakers from all over the world to the festival. They have each selected three films by female directors – one film that inspired them, one of their own films, and one by a young talent. The result is a varied and international program of 28 films accompanied by talks after all the screenings as well as a main debate.

    The program includes classics such as the Iranian documentary The House is Black (1962), about a leper colony, and Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000, also part of Heddy Honigmann's Top 10), which features various kinds of gleaning. There are surprising kinships between several films, such as those that reflect on war: Images from the Corner (Jasmila Zbanic, 2003), about Sarajevo, and The Tiniest Place (Tatiana Huezo, 2011), about El Salvador. Or the pressure parents can put on their daughters: Tanjuska and the 7 Devils (Pirjo Honkasalo, 1993), in which a 12-year-old undergoes an exorcism, and Waiting for August (Teodora Ana Mihai, 2014), in which 15-year-old Georgina is forced to care for her family. In addition, Marie Mandy's Filming Desire - A Journey Through Women's Film (2000) dissects sex scenes by female directors and Jessicu Yu, Phie Ambo and Kim Longinotto present their latest works. Taken as a whole, these 28 films may answer the question as to whether there is such a thing as a female gaze.

    The Gaze

    The title of the program refers to Laura Mulvey's influential 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in which she coined the phrase "the male gaze." Mulvey noted that in traditional Hollywood films, which are made by men and have men as their main characters, the audience is forced into a male point of view on women: "The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man." Active male, passive female; the man as subject, the woman as object.

    In the years since, much has been said about both the male gaze and the female gaze: how do women look, and how are they looked at? These important questions are not easy to answer, as what exactly constitutes a male or female gaze? In 1985, the discussion gained new momentum with the Bechdel Test. The simple checklist originated with artist Alison Bechdel and a character in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. The character said, "I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man." In the past few years, this test has been applied frequently, often with the added condition that the two female characters must have names. The number of feature films that pass the test is dishearteningly low. That's why in 2013, several Swedish cinemas decided to add Bechdel Test results to their film classifications.


    The Bechdel Test gave new life to the discussion of women in feature films. But what about documentaries? There has been little research about whether the Bechdel Test can be applied to the documentary genre. In 2013, the Sundance Institute, in collaboration with Women in Film, published Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers, a study of the percentage of female filmmakers of U.S. independent feature films and documentaries shown at the Sundance Film Festival between 2002 and 2012. Counting all creative crewmembers (directors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers and editors), a quarter of feature film crews were female, while documentary crews were close to 40 percent female. The report concluded that "Documentaries represent a more female-friendly arena than narrative film," and offered as a possible cause the fact that "the documentary community has a more democratized funding structure, and is led by other women."

    The Sundance Institute examined its own selection of U.S. independent films, and now IDFA is investigating its international program of the past 10 years, taking a closer look at image and representation. Are female directors equally represented, and do these percentages change over time? What about award winners and jury members? In other words, is the international documentary world emancipated? And what about the content of these documentaries? What percentage of their subjects is female? How are they portrayed? Do women film women more often? Do they tell different stories? Does that differ by continent? The initial results of IDFA's self-examination are being presented at the festival, so that we too may contribute to the discovery of what the female gaze might be.

    The Female Gaze Film Program 2014

    The 28 films for the Female Gaze Film Program in 2014 were selected by 15 leading female documentary filmmakers: Phie Ambo, Rakhshan Bani-Etamad, Safi Faye, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, Chris Hegedus, Heddy Honigmann, Pirjo Honkasalo, Nishtha Jain, Barbara Kopple, Kim Longinotto, Mercedes Moncada, Ileana Stanculescu, Jessica Yu, and Jasmila Zbanic.

    12th & Delaware – Heidi Ewing en Rachel Grady
    The Beaches of Agnès – Agnès Varda
    The Bridge – Ileana Stanculescu
    Civil Status – Alina Rudnitskaya
    Eyes of Stone – Nilita Vachani
    Filming Desire - A Journey Through Women's Film – Marie Mandy
    The Gleaners and I – Agnès Varda
    Good Husband, Dear Son – Heddy Honigmann
    Good Things Await – Phie Ambo
    Gulabi Gang – Nishta Jain
    The House Is Black – Forough Farrokhzad
    How to Pick Berries – Elina Talvensaari
    Images from the Corner – Jasmila Zbanic
    Love Is All: 100 Years of Love & Courtship – Kim Longinotto
    Magic Words (to Break a Spell) – Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez
    Misconception – Jessica Yu
    Paris is Burning – Jennie Livingston
    Peasant Letter – Safi Faye
    Portrait of Jason – Shirley Clarke
    Profession: Documentarist – meerdere regisseurs
    Running from Crazy – Barbara Kopple
    Sound it Out – Jeanie Finlay – Chris Hegedus en Jehane Noujaim
    Tanjuska and the 7 Devils – Pirjo Honkasalo
    The Tiniest Place – Tatiana Huezo
    Waiting for August – Teodora Ana Mihai

    IDFA’s self-examination, 2003 - 2013

    The debate on the position of women in the international documentary world gave IDFA reason to do some self-examination. How many IDFA documentaries were actually directed by women? Has that number increased over the years? IDFA looked back at its programming starting in 2003, and the percentage of female directors has stayed more or less the same for years: around a third of the total, much to the festival organization’s surprise. A third might be significantly more than in the world of fiction film, but it remains less than half – what’s more, the female directors haven’t been evenly spread across the various program sections.

    There were a considerable number of women in the Dutch competition program, where they actually made the 50 percent mark. The competition for feature-length documentaries had far fewer women, while the mid-length category boasted a larger number, and youth documentaries the most (in 2008, nine of the 10 were directed by women). The Masters program with its indisputable documentary masters has historically counted far more men. It certainly looks like there’s a lot of progress to be made, but the most optimistic news is that it seems there’s an increase among debuting women directors in the First Appearance program – they now make up more than half. If only these women can succeed in breaking through!

    Extra: a follow-up in 2015

    IDFA’s self-examination of 2014 led to some questions the following year. What progress had been made? Had something been done with the results of the self-exam? Could change be expected on such a short tem? In whatever case, the festival made three decisions:

    1) Three women were added to the viewing team that does IDFA’s pre-selection of film submissions. If there’s a male or female gaze affecting selection, this action should help balance things out.

    2) Research showed that IDFA juries with a majority of male members awarded films made by female directors much less frequently. This is why members of the jury were chosen with a 50/50 gender division in 2015.

    3) The collaboration with the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ) that began in 2014 will be continued. In 2015, AWFJ awarded the prize for best film by a female filmmaker to Motley's Law by Nicole Nielsen Horanyi, with an honorable mention for A Strange Love Affair with Ego by Ester Gould.

    IDFA then looked at the percentage of female directors in the various program sections in 2015. International financing, production and distribution are all factors in determining the offering of films made by women, so IDFA’s control is limited to some degree. That said, the role of festival programmers shouldn’t be underestimated. These individuals are often the gatekeepers of international visibility. In 2015, a year after the collective brainstorm of The Female Gaze, the total percentage of female directors was 40.2. This is higher than it used to be, although it’s a good thing that the Top 10 didn’t get included, as IDFA has no say in which films get selected there. (In 2015, Errol Morris chose 10 films all made by men.)

    As for the winning films, the percentage of female directors fluctuated around a third. In 2015, it was 48.2 percent of 17 awards (including the two audience awards) – more than the percentage in the film selection. But by and large, those female winners made youth documentaries, student productions, debuts and Dutch docs.

    And in the case of the various program sections, women also score well in Dutch documentaries, youth films and student projects. They also appear more often in the Mid-Length Competition than in the Feature-Length Competition. They remained under the 50-percent mark this year in the First Appearance category, but this may just be a fluctuation. You don’t become a generally recognized master from one year to the next, and IDFA’s Masters section is another place where women score painfully low. And if you look at earlier years, most of the figures fall more or less in the same bandwidth – it’s only the substantially higher number of female directors in the 2015 student program that sticks out. But perhaps this is a bit of hope for the future!

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