Women in the Director’s Chair International Film and Video Festival

The 19th annual Women in the Director’s Chair International Film and Video Festival, featuring narrative, documentary, animated, and experimental works by women, continues Friday through Sunday, March 24 through 26. Screenings are at Women in the Director’s Chair Theater, 941 W. Lawrence; the Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson; Video Machete, 5732 N. Glenwood; and South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr. Unless otherwise noted, tickets are $8, $6 for students, seniors with a valid ID, and members of Women in the Director’s Chair. Festival passes are also available; for more information call 773-907-0610. Films marked with a 4 are highly recommended.


Under Surveillance

This program of shorts includes Miranda July’s 14-minute video The Amateurist, in which the filmmaker plays two astonishingly deadpan roles: a blond in underwear who occasionally dons a fur coat and is the subject of black-and-white footage framed by a TV monitor, and a brunet who adjusts the monitor’s knobs and interprets the changing positions of the blond’s arms and legs as if they represented numerals. At first dryly scientific, the brunet’s monologue lays out a silly yet systematic numerology with increasing passion, implying that the blond is an unwitting research subject. “She wakes up every morning and thinks, what am I going to do today?” says the brunet. “If she was a professional, she’d know that decision had already been made for her.” The blond never speaks. Without resorting to simple allegory, July has found powerful metaphors for knotty questions about objectification, and any conclusions may be less accusatory and more feministic because no males are portrayed. (Reader critic Ted Shen, reviewing this video in a different program last week, called it “self-indulgent,” saying “a woman babbles about spectatorship while watching her scantily clad self on television.”) (LA) On the same program, works by Amie Siegel, Carol Jacobsen, Laurie King, Naomi Uman, and Dorothee Van Den Berghe. (Film Center, 6:00)

Found in the Translation

Lighthearted and often funny, Marjan Safinia’s But You Speak Such Good English inventories the ignorant remarks heard by Iranians living in England; they’re called “Greek” and “Mediterranean,” and one stand-up comic mocks a popular stereotype with a bit in which his mother tries to haggle over the prices at McDonald’s. In Lost in the Translation, U.S. filmmaker Lala Endara travels to her native Ecuador and also interviews other immigrants in the U.S., but it’s not clear whether the tape’s extreme disjointedness is supposed to express her sense of dislocation. Farida Pacha’s Tongue is similarly enigmatic but more successful: strange wordlike symbols are drawn on leaves, defacing nature and suggesting that language itself can be oppressive. Michele Stephenson’s colorful Play Mas’ documents a West Indian carnival held every year in Brooklyn, highlighting its spectacular, often gigantic costumes. In Maja Tillman Salas’s Guapear a woman encourages two other people to hold their fingers in front of their eyes as if making a lens, which magically transports them to a strange tunnel–a lesson in mind’s-eye seeing. (FC) On the same program, Ximena Cuevas’s Contemporary Artist. (WIDC Theater, 7:00)

Dance Me to My Song

A brave film that demands a certain amount of bravery from the audience, this sexually explicit 1998 Australian feature focuses on a young woman with spastic cerebral palsy (played by Heather Rose, who shares that condition and collaborated on the script with Frederick Stahl and director Rolf de Heer). A painful romantic triangle of sorts develops between her, the spiteful and lonely young woman who takes care of her (Joey Kennedy), and a handsome male stranger the afflicted woman meets by chance who’s more sensitive to her (John Brumpton). In depicting the heroine’s life, the film spares us little, concentrating at length on the processes of feeding her, taking her to the bathroom, and making out what she says over a voice machine, without neglecting her feelings of sexual longing and jealousy. In some ways the film is as harrowing and cruel as Tod Browning’s Freaks, though it’s much more politically correct and not nearly as artistic. (JR) (Film Center, 8:00)

Small Lies

The ambiguous line between truth and fiction is far older than cinema, and the videos on this program find interesting ways to address it. In Barbara DeGenevieve’s provocative Steven X and Barbara C a man’s face and a woman’s face occupy side-by-side frames, each character frozen as the other describes his or her (real? fictional?) sex life. They tell stories of voyeurism, childhood experiences with other children, and even an adult encounter with a child. The stories are sometimes nasty, but the transgressions are undercut by the format, which renders the man and woman talking heads instead of people and reminds us how often sexual stories are fabricated. In Lynne Chan’s pseudodocumentary Ladycop a young, somewhat effeminate German shopkeeper tells how he discovered and guided to movie stardom an Asian woman who’s since disappeared; it plays on the artificiality of media imagery, the man displaying Liberace memorabilia from his shop and explaining that his interests have shifted from “the creation of stardom” to “the fellation of hard-om.” Rita Gonzalez’s The Assumption of Lupe Velez offers a related treatment of fame, mixing footage from two avant-garde films about the movie star with footage of two drag queens; its disjointed nature blunts some of its impact. (FC) Jill Godmilow describes What Farocki Taught as a precise remake, in color and English, of Harun Farocki’s 1969 black-and-white German film Inextinguishable Fire. Farocki’s powerful film, never shown in the U.S. until recently, describes Dow Chemical’s development and manufacture of Napalm B and the effects of its use during the Vietnam war. By adroitly remaking the film three decades later Godmilow wants to call attention to a model of political filmmaking, though one might argue that she runs into trouble when she describes her own work as “agitprop” in the same sense that Farocki’s was: after all, he was addressing a contemporary issue, and in a sense her kind of political filmmaking is yet another excuse for avoiding our current problems. On the other hand, Godmilow does a fine job of stirring the pot, and this fascinating intervention is bound to generate some interesting debate. (JR) On the same program, Shelly Silver’s Small Lies, Big Truth. (WIDC Theater, 9:00)


Media Girls: New Youth Videos

Short videos by young women. The moving My Girl, by Jessica Ramos, Analitia Roman, and Street Level Youth Media, concerns a young girl who recently died of unspecified causes. Her friends circle a field looking for some object she may have left behind, and a friend speaks about her as she visits her grave, but the filmmakers show hands and feet rather than faces, a powerful way of focusing attention on her absence; it’s almost as if her friends don’t feel they have the right to show themselves. Several of the videos argue that girls need to respect themselves, whether alone or in a couple. (FC) On the same program, films by Katrina Schuman, Luz Ortiz, Ashley Hunt, Mokerah Bradley, Autumn Vasquez Smith, Street Level Youth Media Girls’ Group, and Media Activism for Girls in the Know. Admission is free. (Video Machete, 3:00)

The People Uprooted

Films and videos on various forms of displacement. In Anita Chang’s Imagining Place short interviews with immigrants are accompanied by snippets of the filmmaker’s own story. Printed titles provide more information about their lives and ask key questions (“What is the cost when culture is taken away, or when one leaves it?”) to create a thought-provoking and appropriately disturbing mix of words, sounds, and images. There’s a bit of the romance novel in Nadine Ghorra’s The Siren–a Lebanese girl who’s never seen the sea falls for a fisherman instead of the man her father arranges for her to marry–but its austere, precise imagery saves it from bathos. In Karolina Sobecka’s There Is No Clear Light one lovely, wavering image dissolves into the next, paralleling spoken texts on the instability of memory but also becoming a bit too decorative. (FC) On the same program, Ronit Bezalel’s Voices of Cabrini (see capsule in main film listings). (South Shore Cultural Center, 3:00)

Sale of the Century: The Commodification of Race and Ethnicity

Most of these shorts examine the relationship between race and the individual self. Tinola Mayfield’s Blackface parodies racial stereotypes, with a black actor wearing both blackface and whiteface, but it also seems to seek a more personal self-image through abstractions of bright colors and shadowy figures. Tania Kamal-Eldin’s Hollywood Harems justly decries stereotypes of Middle Eastern women perpetrated by Hollywood studios, which had better luck getting bare bodies past the censors if the setting was Arabian, but her montages of men entering harems and men abducting women are too silly and too much fun to sustain the pedantic voice-over (which is arguably all to the good). Muriel Jackson’s intriguing Objects of Hate, Objects of Desire documents the current interest among African-Americans in what one expert calls “contemptible collectibles”–racist dolls and signs made until the late 1950s, mostly for whites. Jackson offers multiple perspectives on the phenomenon; one collector describes how she “fell in love” with a figurine of a watermelon-eating boy while another defends the collectibles’ utility for teaching history. (FC) On the same program, films by Grace Lee, Ximena Cuevas, Christina Pantazis-Blades, and Leah Gilliam. (South Shore Cultural Center, 5:00)

Pass It On: New Work by African American Women

Four short films: Shawn Batey’s Hair-tage, a documentary about the politics of dreadlocks; LaTrice Dixon’s The Book of Ezekiel, a narrative film about a mother and daughter who’ve learned different things from the poetry of an enslaved ancestor; Eve Sandler’s The Wash, a video about incest and denial; and Patrice Mallard’s Mute Love, a one-hour film about the relationship of a 23-year-old recovering addict to her daughter and mother, whom she hasn’t seen for seven years. (South Shore Cultural Center, 7:00)

Nobody Knows My Name

Rachel Raimist’s lively video about women in hip-hop–rappers, break-dancers, DJs, and one rapper’s wife–gives a good sense of the obstacles they face in this sexist field. A sequence of a male performer role-playing with a woman onstage illustrates how females are viewed, and the subjects explain that they’re more likely to be judged for their looks than their talent, but one guesses they’ve had uglier experiences that aren’t being told. Raimist builds a decent sense of rhythm through camera movement and editing, and the film suggests that these strong and independent women can make a place for themselves, though the sobering end titles suggest that none of their careers has taken off either. With Medusa, T-Love, Leschea, Asia One, and DJ Symphony. (FC) Admission is $10, $8 for students, seniors, and WIDC members. (South Shore Cultural Center, 9:00)


You Must Remember This

In the one-hour video Golden Threads, Christine Burton explains why she started the social club Golden Threads in the 80s, when she was in her 80s. To provide context for footage shot at two of the group’s retreats, writer-director Lucy Winer introduces herself and her girlfriend, coproducer and art director Karen Eaton, and interjects boldly animated segments about her insecurities as a filmmaker and her feelings about aging. Two women–one in her 70s–celebrate their fifth anniversary and tell how they met through Burton’s network, a story that’s both wonderfully romantic and quite practical, like the reasons that prompted Burton to form the group. Another interviewee speaks firmly about how important it is not to sentimentalize old people, tempering Winer’s sentimentalizing of Burton, whose sudden illness during production changed the course of this documentary. (LA) On the same program, works by Ivan E. Coyote, Roisin Mongey, and Kadet Kuhne. (Video Machete, 12:30)

Women of Faith

Two videos about feminism in relation to fundamentalist religions, each pedestrian in its presentation but fascinating in its content. Faye Lederman’s Women of the Wall is a documentary about a group of Jewish women attempting to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, in defiance of an Orthodox-inspired regulation. It’s claimed that no Jewish law is being violated, and Orthodox men cite “tradition,” though apparently the sound of women praying is what bothers them. One woman notes sadly that the attacks on them, some physical, recall anti-Semitic attacks elsewhere. In Under One Sky: Arab Women in North America Talk About the Hijab, Jennifer Kawaja uses Muslim women in Toronto and Montreal as a starting point to investigate the meaning of the hijab, or veil. Not required by the Koran, the veil has taken on different meanings depending on context: it was a sign of female oppression to British colonialists (who meanwhile opposed women’s suffrage at home) but an assertion of nationalism toward the French occupying Algeria, and to some Canadian women it’s now an assertion of cultural identity. At different times and for different reasons, some Arab states have forced women to wear veils while others have torn them away, making women’s bodies, as one speaker states, a battlefield. (FC) A discussion will follow the screening. (WIDC Theater, 1:00)

Stories From Palestine

The Palestinian people refer to the founding of Israel as “the catastrophe,” by which they were “scattered and spread every which way,” and these two richly textured videos advocate for their cause without shying from the complexities and contradictions of their situation. In Jennifer Bing-Canar’s Collecting Stories From Exile: Chicago Palestinians Remember 1948, college-age Palestinians interview their elders, urging them to tell their stories despite the celebration of Israel, denial of Palestinian history, and anti-Arab prejudice they experience in the U.S. Talking heads dominate, but there are telling inserts: one shows ruined Palestinian homes in areas that Israeli maps now call “nature reserves.” An old woman shows a cloth she’s crocheted, explaining that she used to sell such work in Ram Allah, and it becomes a powerful metaphor for both displacement and continuity. Mai Masri’s Children of Shatila recalls the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the eponymous camp. The camera moves over a squalid pool of debris as a nearby boy identifies it as the site of a mass murder in which his aunt was beheaded. The tape centers on a boy and girl who were given cameras and provide some of the footage. It’s hard to tell what they shot, and their stories are fragmented, but the jigsaw puzzle of memories is appropriate to the theme of displacement. The boy suffers some memory loss after having been hit by a car, a tragic metaphor for his people’s situation, while an older boy collects rocks and sand in a horse-drawn cart and tries to sell them at construction sites; their attempts to cope with the present contrast with the Palestinians’ almost universal desire to rebuild their family homes when they return to Palestine, a return they all seem to expect. (FC) (WIDC Theater, 3:00)