As long as film has been around, women have shone on the silver screen, but it has also always been an important medium to help drive the gender agenda. The Berlin Feminist Film Week featured over 30 films at venues across Berlin from 6–13 March, with the aim “to inspire, entertain and most importantly, pay tribute to all wonderfully talented, inspiring kick-ass women out there.”
So as not to scare off anybody not used to the F-word, feminism is essentially the belief that there should be equality between the sexes or, as feminist writer and editor, Marie Shear said in 1986, “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
For the film community, Shear’s quote has perhaps never rung so true as in these past few weeks. Intense global outrage has been directed at the Indian Government’s ban on documentary film India’s Daughter, in which perpetrators of a fatal sexual attack in 2012 proclaim that women are not people who deserve fair and equal treatment or freedom from violence. In an interview with the BBC on 5th March, British filmmaker Leslee Udwin defended her film’s right to be screened, saying, “I know, because I have seen it firsthand, the impact this film has on audiences the world over.”
India is not alone in its banning of films that challenge a non-feminist status quo, which makes the Berlin Feminist Film Week all the more essential for carving a stronger international understanding of women’s roles on and off screen.
Founder of the Film Week, Karin Fornander, said in an interview with this Journal that recognising different feminist struggles related to class, homophobia or racism is particularly important in curating the Film Week. “Intersectionality is important because we all experience different kinds of oppression,” said Fornander.
This may be one of the reasons behind including the 2014 documentary Casablanca Calling, which follows the lives of three Morchidat: women who have started work as official Muslim leaders, providing guidance to women and girls in urban and rural areas of Morocco. It’s refreshing to see a film in which the veil debate isn’t front and centre in the discussion of the lives of Muslim women. Rather the film’s frank and open interviews with women – often illiterate, yet the bread-winners in their homes – involve hearing their thoughts about womanhood and gender equality. In this film, buzzwords can be thrown out the window – actions speak louder than words, and boy do these women act.
Prof. Wendy Meryem Kural Shaw spoke after the screening of ‘Casablanca Calling’ to share her take on women’s rights in North Africa. “Interest in women becomes a way of talking about social issues and becomes a way of selling culture and entering a private sphere,” said Prof. Shaw, commenting on recent films out of Morocco.
Delving deep into the personal experience was the Swedish film Something Must Break, by director Ester Martin Bergsmark and starring newcomer, now acclaimed actor, Saga Becker. This session at the Film Week on Saturday 7 March at Hallesches Haus was completely packed out – no standing room left. It’s a very touching story about a young man called Sebastian who increasingly yearns to be a woman: Ellie. Sebastian falls for a man who doesn’t identify as gay and it leads him to realise that another cannot determine his self-worth. Bergsmark built a story that is sensitive and thought provoking, with a transgender character at the centre, rather than as the oft-seen sideline character.
The film’s honest look at gender constructs and how they are enforced could be a big part of its incredible reception at international film festivals such as Tribeca (New York City) and Chicago International, as well as at Stockholm and Gothenburg in Bergsmark’s home country of Sweden.
Short films at the Berlin Feminist Film Week put a number of other key issues on the mainstream agenda – issues that are often construed as just women’s business. Sexuality and redemption for female prisoners in Portugal, sexual assault in Egypt, women and children living in poverty in a post-apocalyptic USA – certainly not rom-com ‘light-hearted’ topics by any means, which makes the films all the more important for the mass audience.
Director Emma Thorsander’s animated film ‘Embryo’ – another gem from Sweden – combined several styles of animation across a number of stories about abortion. Many of the stories from women of different ages and circumstance are moving in a way that can rarely be communicated by the written word, lest political correctness get in the way.
Being a hub for creative-types across the world, it is little wonder that Berlin film festivals like the Berlinale are so well attended. It is heartening though to see that a Feminist Film Week in its infancy looks like it will have to book out much bigger venues next year to properly feed this city’s appetite for more films by and about women.