Sundance Documentaries Pay Tribute to Female Trailblazers 

Two stubborn misconceptions that persist in American media about women who change the world are that they are (a) Western, and (b) self-identified feminists. This year’s Sundance film festival offered an array of documentaries spanning cultural vantages and historic eras that readily redress these myths, along with the notion that Western, specifically Euro-American, cultures are the most progressive for women. Depicting women who hail from Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand, Haiti, and Japan, these docs come from both debut and veteran filmmakers, ranging in age from 30 to mid-50s. While some succeed more than others, all attempt to look past gendered assumptions about who has the power to challenge the law, the arts, or the political landscape.

“I’ve been called an igualada,” declares Francia Márquez to a crowd in La Toma, a rural region of Colombia whose natural resources have been exploited by multinational corporations. “So what? We are all igualadas because we want to live.” Named for the epithet that Márquez adopted as a credo, Juan Mejia Botero’s Igualada charts the unlikely rise of Colombia’s current vice president from Indigenous Black activist to political powerhouse. Founding Soy Porque Somos (“I am because we are”), a leftist movement that eventually gained institutional support, Márquez makes clear that the priorities of academic (often White) feminists in her country are not her chief concern, though she does shift her stance on abortion to support reproductive choice. 

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Igualada, dir. Juan Mejia (courtesy Sundance Institute, photo Darwin Torres) Darwin Torres

Time after time it’s clear that her more politically established rivals, including Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s current president, enjoy significant advantages. The film openly addresses the disorganization and anxiety that beset Márquez’s grassroots campaign: appearing at rallies where no one shows up, failing to assemble the minimum number of signatures to join a ballot. Less hagiography than a testament to the potential of collective efforts to transform a corrupt government, Igualada paints a nuanced portrait of a woman whose ultimate victory gained little traction in Western mass media.

Frida, Carla Gutierrez’s debut film on possibly the most popular woman artist in North America, is anchored by Kahlo’s own words, excerpted from copious diary entries across her tumultuous 47 years. The film chronicles the Mexican painter’s rejection of her bourgeois roots to join the ranks of Los Cachuchas, an all-male group of college-age anarchists, as well as her stormy marriage to Communist muralist Diego Rivera and her ascendance as an artist in her own right during her final decade. Providing extensive archival footage, Frida does justice to its subject’s complexity as a queer, disabled creative icon, but somewhat dilutes the potency of her artistic genius by animating her canvases into cheerful cartoons (picture monkeys waving their furry limbs, and throbbing aortas). Further sanitizing her life are the actors cast to voice the English-speaking figures, whose timber and cadence feel utterly contemporary. At their most distracting, these elements deliver a version more aligned with Kahlo’s commodification over the past 20 years. That said, Gutierrez repeatedly recognizes the artist’s formidable will alongside her very real vulnerability. “I hate America,” Kahlo writes in her diary. What, one might wonder, would she make of how popular she is in the United States now?

Never Look Away, dir. Lucy Lawless (courtesy Sundance Institute)

Never Look Away, the debut doc from Lucy Lawless, best known for playing the title role in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess in the 1990s, pays tribute to the late Margaret Moth, the iconoclastic New Zealand-born camerawoman who played a crucial role in CNN’s television coverage of the Persian Gulf War and Sarajevo’s Sniper Alley. With her black hair, black eyeliner, and black leather duds, Moth is as compelling onscreen as the news footage she fearlessly captured. Assembling a series of talking heads who knew Moth well — including former male lovers and CNN legends like Christiane Amanpour and Joe Duran — the film embraces Moth’s rock-and-roll edge, glamorizing her demeanor while revealing its very unglamorous childhood origins. While the lack of finger-wagging toward Moth is refreshing, the film largely ignores the casualties of her more reckless behavior: the young man she courted in her mid-30s when he was only 17, the wife and daughter of a man she relentlessly romantically pursued after she was hit and disfigured by a gunshot during her stint in Bosnia. Perhaps the best takeaway from this film is that female trailblazers need not lead perfect lives for their accomplishments to matter.

In a more experimental, meta vein, Seeking Mavis Beacon follows two ebullient Black femmes as they track down Renée L’Esperance, department store clerk and model whose likeness was adopted in the 1980s to represent Mavis Beacon, the brand mascot whose typing skills were peddled in the early decades of educational computer software. Director Jazmin Jones spearheads the sleuthing from her Bay Area headquarters with Gen Z gumshoe Olivia McKayla Ross, a coding wunderkind from Queens. Featuring cameos from, among others, Black femme media theorist Legacy Russell and Black trans author Shola von Reinhold, Seeking excels when it celebrates the liberatory possibilities of the digital world, especially when it comes to self-conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality. 

The doc falters when it insists on seeing L’Esperance as “one of the most influential Black women in technology,” eclipsing the Black women who have labored in the computer industry from the 20th century through today. L’Esperance had no experience in technology, and indeed no interest in having any, nor, as we come to find out, any interest in partaking in the film. While the hunt to find the “real” Mavis takes Jones and Ross to some amusing places, the film privileges their own present-day obsession with L’Esperance over the critical role of Black service workers at the time Mavis Beacon took off, particularly the role of secretaries. As much as I delighted in Jones’s and Ross’s candy-colored tea times and skateboard capers, I found myself protective of the elder, unseen L’Esperance and mildly irked that the young filmmakers chose to center their quirky selves rather than sharing the story with women across Mavis Beacon’s nearly 40-year history.

Shiori Itō’s Black Box Diaries does the opposite, highlighting the young director’s experience in order to acknowledge women of older generations who have also endured Japan’s century-old rape laws. Itō’s investigative doc examines, in painful detail, her sexual assault at the hands of television reporter Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a national celebrity who published a biography on then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe two weeks after Itō’s criminal case was tossed out by police. In a country where only 4% of women report rape to the police — and where sexual assault against men, by definition, does not legally exist — Itō’s film reveals the extent to which the #MeToo movement in the United States both galvanized, and overlooked, victims in other countries and from other cultures. “I’m not an activist or a propagandist,” Itō vents to a loved one when facing national pushback. She was just a person who spoke up when silence was expected.

After the premiere of Black Box Diaries, Itō seemed utterly ecstatic — and surprised — at the standing ovation. Jesting with the audience about box wine and hangovers, her mood was a buoyant departure from her doc’s sober tone, upending yet another stubborn misconception: that victims of rape are defined by their assault. Her doc, along with the four others covered here, insists on identities that resist strict parameters for how women should take part in larger society. All five films serve as crucial reminders to US audiences of the many trailblazing women who are not White, Western, wealthy, or formally educated — and those who are should check themselves when they assume otherwise.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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