Jasper Johns was on to something. How else to explain the strange optical illusion that comes from staring at an American flag? When you look at the bold colors and geometric shapes for a long period of time, the stars and stripes representing the United States begin to etch themselves directly onto your retina. If, after a while, you turn away to focus upon a white wall, you will find that you can see a new version of the flag in which all of the reds have changed to greens, and the blues have changed to orange. In fact, you find that wherever you look, you see everything through a hazy template of the flag, which has superimposed itself over your field of vision. Without its identifiable red, white, and blue, the new flag has lost its original significance, suggesting instead some new meaning that you must discern on your own.
Although film has most often been heralded as a mirror reflecting culture, watching a film that examines a completely unfamiliar society can be more like experiencing this optical illusion. Since the majority of Americans rely primarily upon American media for information about other countries, a vivid scene from a film that explores a foreign culture can embed itself in your mind like the insignia of a nation, becoming a metonymical device for that culture. This month, Walker Art Center similarly bends the viewer's sight with its eighth annual "Women with Vision" series (subtitled "Crossing Boundaries" this year), a collection of 32 films by women who have traveled to other countries and infiltrated other civilizations, and who now have indelible pictures to transmit back to the home front.
With all of the women artists around the globe who are currently making films, any one film festival would be foolish to try to encompass a broad notion of "women's experience." What makes the films in "Women with Vision" so intriguing is the way they demonstrate that film not only can be employed to capture a certain identity, but that the filmmaking process itself can be an ideal way to help formulate a process of self-discovery. Such is the case with Gaea Girls, which could be billed as a film about Japanese women coming of age, but turns out to be a study of courageous female wrestlers in training. Likewise, in the elliptical drama Hidden Whisper, what appears to be a Chinese couple dancing the tango is shown to be a ruthless act of domestic violence. And in Family Secret, two seemingly dissimilar people--an engineer in Romania and a filmmaker in New York--discover their lives to be startlingly similar. Even films about American subcultures, such as Caesar's Park or the five-part Nightclubbing, reveal an unseen underbelly to Midwest neighborhoods and the New York punk scene--making the prototypes of those communities presented in such films as The Filth and the Fury and Fargo seem almost unrecognizable afterward.
"I realize that a group of films solely centered upon uniting women filmmakers can sound like such a wide group that it becomes superficial or outdated," says Sheryl Mousley, the Walker's associate curator of film and video and the programmer of this series. "In the 1970s, a women's film festival was necessary because there were so few women filmmakers being showcased... Now the scale has changed and there are many more women directors. But if you walked into a typical movie theater and asked anyone to name five female directors, they would still find it hard to do.
"It's even more true with female directors from other countries. So [with] this year's focus on crossing boundaries...we are trying to bring films by women in other countries, films that many people would never get to see under traditional distribution, to the United States."
Although it was made by American directors, Nightclubbing (screening at various times on March 7, 8, 15, 22, and 29) could be one of the foreign films Mousley speaks about insofar as its energetic portrayal of the New York punk scene has been lost to American audiences in the past few decades. With all the bollixy punk behavior that has previously been captured on film, few female filmmakers have shown women on stage as they appear in these five digital-video features, which present mostly unedited punk concert footage shot between 1975 through 1980. More than 20 years ago, filmmakers Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong started smuggling their borrowed cameras through New York clubs like CBGBs and Danceteria to capture raw punk performances.
Through a lens that is often stained with smoke and smudgy fingerprints, these two filmmakers found a female punk aesthetic--a bizarre mesh of campy outfits and hardcore performance--that was all too often overshadowed by Sex Pistols mania. Punk siren Bush Tetras can be seen howling beneath a kamikaze headband. The Stilettos are doing woozy shoo-wop dances like a coked-up version of the Supremes. Vanessa Briscoe-Hay, the lead singer of Pylon, is wearing a lavender prom dress and blowing a whistle over surf-punk guitars. Film clips of these female artists are rare, and the fact that Ivers and Armstrong funded them through day-job wages makes Nightclubbing a testament to an age when punk could pose as political activism without a trace of self-conscious irony. On Wednesday, March 7 (at 7:00 p.m.), Nightclubbing screens with Lisa Ganser's short film "Janestown," an affectionate portrait of one band involved in Minneapolis's own female punk scene.
Another film in which the director adapted her own lifestyle in order to examine a small society of people from the inside is Sarah Price's documentary feature Caesar's Park (screening Wednesday, March 21 at 7:00 p.m.). Price, who produced Chris Smith's indie favorite American Movie, continues her obsession with small-town lives in this feature about the residents of the titular Milwaukee neighborhood. Price moved to Caesar's Park in 1995 and proceeded to film the friends she made there. Whether she's watching habitual photographer Richard Bridenbaugh flipping through his collection of gravestone snapshots, or listening to tone-deaf musician Charles Seales plucking out a cacophonous melody on a broken guitar, Price always displays a simultaneous empathy and admiration for these bizarre characters.
In this small town where neighbors learn about one another by spying through their windows, Price was probably the first person in years to actually engage these eccentrics in active conversation about their lives. Like American Movie, Caesar's Park initially projects a lonely desperation, but avoids condescending to its subjects by observing how this desperation doubles as a motive to make the most mundane aspects of their lives into moments of curious beauty.
The dreamlike quality of Caesar's Park grows stranger and more surreal in Vivian Chang's feverish drama Hidden Whisper (Saturday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m.), a trilogy of short films that tangle together into a feature examining the roles of Taiwanese mothers and daughters. The film begins with a young girl who imagines her brutal life as if it were a carnival act, where blood flows in floral patterns and beggars move in a clown's parade. The second section follows a teenage girl's imaginary world where stealing older women's ID cards magically transforms her into them. And the third section finds a grown woman contemplating her life through a series of postcards she sends to her ailing mother.
Throughout Hidden Whisper, butterflies and caterpillars dot the screen, providing an all-too-obvious motif to bridge the gap between older and younger women. But while the metaphors may seem forced, the mystical way that Chang dots her visual landscapes with archetypal symbols makes her film into a form of storytelling as time-honored as the changing of the mother-daughter guard.
Like seeing Chang's fantastic images, watching a film in which mothers willingly bring their daughters to a school for bloodthirsty fighters might appear surreal. Yet Gaea Girls (Friday, March 23 at 7:00 p.m.), Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams's documentary about Japanese women who want to become professional wrestlers, is an unflinchingly real portrayal of young girls struggling to be survivors of the fittest. While many American and Japanese movies portray Japanese women as submissive, anyone who agrees with this stereotype has never seen pro wrestler Nagayo Chigusa verbally abuse her recruits until they become a mass of head-butting, face-kicking warriors.
Chigusa serves as both schoolmarm and boot-camp general to a school of professional wrestling that looks like a WWF for the Eastern world. Yet with all of the wrestlers' vinyl suits and campy performances, the unrelenting training that precedes that first step into the ring is regarded with the utmost seriousness. Watching this spectacle, the viewer will likely explore her own boundaries between being violent and being tough. By the final scene, even the most sensitive viewer should end up shouting, "Kill her!" to the women in the ring--or should count herself among the truly heartless.
Many other films in the festival match Gaea Girls in their grueling depictions of growing up. Deann Borshay Liem's documentary First Person Plural (Saturday, March 17 at 2:00 p.m.) describes the filmmaker's difficulty in cultivating a family history that includes both her adoptive American parents and her biological family in Korea. Similarly, Family Secret (Wednesday, March 28 at 7:00 p.m.) centers on New York filmmaker Pola Rapaport's efforts to piece together her father's and her own histories by building a relationship with her French half-brother. Both films document emotional accounts of the filmmakers' personal histories, often exposing the pressures they have faced to assimilate to another culture's ideals. First Person Plural and Family Secret are testaments to the kind of identity-in-process that "Women with Vision" documents so well.
"The idea of the festival is not to talk about all of the problems with women and film, or that there aren't enough women filmmakers out there," says Mousley. "The point is that women are making films; I mean, there are over 30 films here! Now let's see what they can do."
"Women with Vision: Crossing Boundaries" starts Friday at 8:00 p.m. with a screening of Iranian director Marziyeh Meshkini'sThe Day I Became a Woman, and continues through March 31; (612) 375-7622.