Citizen Jane Film Festival: Day 2

Julia-Reichert 75There’s a lot of history embedded in the festival.





Julia Reichert 500

Day 2 of the Citizen Jane Film Festival began with what has become an annual event, a presentation by director Julia Reichert (three times an Oscar nominee!) about the history of women’s films, with particular focus on directors influenced by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Reichert’s own career is a case in point, as her film Growing Up Female (1971) was a key film in raising the consciousness of women, and of men as well, to the way the lives of girls and women are limited by societal conventions and direct conditioning.

There was plenty of audience laughter as authority figures in a clip from Growing Up Female spouted “wisdom” about how “it’s in the nature of women to want to get married” and told their female students, in no uncertain terms, that their job was to facilitate their husband’s career by taking care of “menial” work like taking care of the kids, and welcoming for the equivalent of Mr. Don Draper when he comes home at the end of his exhausting and competitive workday. In the talkback, someone brought up the segment where a primary school teacher noted how nasty girls can be towards each other, acting as if they are in competition and ganging up on anyone who dares to be different, and there was general agreement among those present that that attitude is unfortunately still cultivated in some quarters.

Reichert showed clips from films directed by several other women, including “A to B,” directed by Nell Cox, which focuses on a female high school student in Kentucky who is being trained to defer to men (her parents and teachers would probably just say they were preparing her for adulthood). Interestingly, Reichert was from Kentucky and became interested in film while studying in France, where she saw the films of the French New Wave directors. She was unable to get a foothold in Hollywood and became a television director instead, and later began adapting her unproduced screenplays as fiction, a medium more open to women’s voices.

In this context, Reichert mentioned a rumored memo, from a Hollywood producer, specifying that he didn’t want to see any more scripts with women or girls in central roles. I haven’t seen the memo, so I don’t know if the story is true, but it does seem like Hollywood producers still act that way. Reichert showed two clips from works by the Newsreel Collective, “Up Against the Wall Miss America” (1969) and “Make-Out” (1969), both of which were hilarious (so who says women don’t have a sense of humor?), the latter particularly so, as it features a voiceover representing the thoughts of a young woman as she engages in a make-out session in a car with her boyfriend.

Finally, a clip from “Michigan Avenue,” directed by Bette Gordon and James Benning, rounded out the presentation. Gordon was interested in film theory and her films are more experimental that some of the others featured. She was particularly influenced by Laura Mulvey’s essays “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” which popularized the phrase “the male gaze” and highlighted that films aren’t made for a random viewer, but for a specific type of person, and in Hollywood films in particular, that person is assumed to be male.

Imba Means Sing, directed by Danielle Bernstein, follows one of the many African Children’s Choirs (this one is identified as choir #39, from Uganda) as they tour the United States and Europe. It’s full of uplifting performances and declarations of purpose (the kids have been trained to announce, as part of their stage shows, their names and what job they want to do when they grow up), and the children are completely charming. Unfortunately, the film is so relentlessly upbeat that it feels like a piece of fundraising propaganda, and fails to ask any important questions about the whole enterprise of sending young children on world tours, ostensibly in order to raise money for their education.

The financial aspects of the choir are never addressed, and there is talk of children needing to attract a sponsor to pay for their educations back in Uganda, as if simply participating in performance tours of more than a year were not enough to raise the needed funds. Also not interrogated is the possibility that competing to attract individual sponsors may work against the unity of the group and encourage the children to become showoffs. There’s also a clear gender imbalance in both the film and in the performances as they are portrayed in the film, with the boys getting more solo and featured time. Is that the way it works in reality, or did the director simply decide the boys (and the male leader) were more photogenic and/or articulate? Finally, the life of the children when they return is given short shrift—I have no idea if they all get to attend school, for instance, and issues such as needing to fit in to an impoverished environment after having seen the lights of the big city, and to relinquish being featured performers to become family members and classmates, are barely even mentioned.

A few other random notes about the festival. One is that the films are preceded by shorts that find different ways to say “please turn off your cellphone,” with my favorite so far being a mini-drama about a cell phone that needs some away time from its owner. Also, each film so far has been preceded by an artistic performance by Stephens students—dance and spoken arts being among the types of arts featured. Finally, there’s a lot of history embedded in the festival, from the opening night at the Missouri Theatre (built in 1928 and beautifully restored) to the presence of Maude Adams’ lamp in the lobby of the Macklanburg Theatre on the Stephens college campus. The latter connection: Adams was a notable American actress who originated the role of Peter Pan on Broadway in 1905, and headed the Stephens Drama Dept. in the 1930s. | Sarah Boslaugh

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