'Making women's lives visible is a political act'

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Jane Sloane

2017-18 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

The exhibition FRAME: How Asia Pacific Feminist Filmmakers and Artists Are Confronting Inequalities is a collaboration led by Jane Sloane, a 2017-18 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity, with photographers Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver and Maxine Williamson, artistic advisor and exhibition manager. The project celebrates the work of eight inspiring Asia Pacific feminist screen creatives: Anida Yoeu Ali, Jan Chapman, Mattie Do, Rubaiyat Hossain, Erica Glynn, Leena Yadav, Van Ha and Anocha Suwichakornpong.

The following is the text of Jane’s opening address at the exhibition launch on 27 November at Griffith Film School in Brisbane.

I want to start with a story about a woman called Leymah Gbowee. In 2002, as the unpaid leader of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, and following a prophetic dream, Leymah Gbowee applied for a small grant from Global Fund for Women to mobilise women for peace across class, geography, religion and culture. She used some of these funds to bus hundreds of women into Accra in Ghana, where the men who were responsible for sustaining the Liberian Civil War were meeting.

Leymah also had a loudspeaker. She asked the women to surround the compound where the men were meeting and then she got on the hooter to address the men inside. “We women, we are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, that tomorrow our children will ask us, “what was your role during the crisis?”

“So, you men, you come to an agreement to end the civil war. And we women, we’re going to keep you in that compound until you reach that agreement and if you try and come out before then we’ll bare our breasts [which is like a hex on men].”

Well, the men stayed in the compound, with the women surrounding it, until after a couple of days the men finally did reach an agreement to begin the process to end the civil war. And, with that victory won, Leymah Gbowee and her merry band of women turned their attention to getting the first female president appointed. And of course, that woman was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Abbey Disney, granddaughter of Walt Disney, and a feisty, fabulous, proudly feminist, filmmaker, heard about Leymah Gbowee’s story because she was on the board of Global Fund for Women. Abbey felt compelled to make a film of Leymah’s story, which became Pray The Devil Back To Hell. Through the film, news of Leymah Gbowee’s story spread quickly and came to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. In 2011, Leymah Gbowee, together with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman from Yemen, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work". Without the film being made, it’s doubtful that the judges would have known Leymah Gbowee’s story to award her the prize.

Making women’s lives visible is a political act. Bringing a female lens and feminist perspective to the way films are created and how the world is viewed is often a political act. “What would happen if women told the truth about their lives?” poet Muriel Rukeyser asked. “The whole world would break open,” she said.

When I was interviewing Rubaiyat Hussein for this exhibition, her words resonated with me:

"There is great strength that I gain from calling myself a feminist. Men are great victims of patriarchy, just as women are, which we often don’t realise. Our fight is for a better world. I’m influenced by Judith Butler. I like the idea of gender as a performance. And the opportunity to perform it differently. For me to call myself a feminist is all these ideas in play.” 

There are many women human rights defenders whose journeys and lives are akin to modern day Joan of Arcs and I wish more of their stories could be inspiration for characters in future feature films -- and not just in documentaries. This would influence a new generation of young people through the way these women have dealt with challenges and injustice, opportunity and risk-taking.

A year ago, I was awarded an Atlantic Fellowship from the International Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics. It is a fellowship designed to support a global corps of practitioners working to address different forms of inequalities. As part of this fellowship, we were required to undertake a major project, and because of my work as Director, Women’s Empowerment at The Asia Foundation, I knew I wanted to do my project on how Asia and Pacific feminist filmmakers are using film to confront inequalities. I was acutely aware of the rising role of feminist filmmakers in the region and the important stories they were telling and documenting and the diverse experiences and voices they represented. I’d been captivated and haunted by the power of Deepa Mehta’s Elements trilogy, Earth, Fire and Water, especially Water and the plight of widows in India, and I’d also been greatly influenced by The Piano, and especially the strength of Ada in the film. I very much relate to what Jan Chapman, producer of The Piano, said to me when I interviewed her:

“I look at Ada in The Piano and I think I learn to understand more about her every time. I was attracted to the poetry of this woman who had willed herself not to speak, who was married to a man she had not met. I was really attracted, though, to her will…When you think about how Jane [Campion] created that character and the fact that she willed her not to speak, not to be part of the patriarchy, I’ve really understood lately how strong that was…what she was also investigating in that film was the uprising in a woman who had no training in it.”

When filmmakers and artists place a different frame around an issue or story, the way we perceive issues and ourselves also has space to shift. Consider an interview with Reese Witherspoon about her reading of Harper Lee’s book, Go Set A Watchman.

“Look, I could write a whole dissertation on Go Set a Watchman. There was a radical idea at the centre of it that intrigued me. Perhaps instead of Atticus being the hero of that story (To Kill A Mockingbird), what if it was Scout? I think we have to make room in our minds that some of the stories we’ve been told for so many years could be framed differently. What if Scout was the equality-seeking hero of that narrative and not Atticus Finch? What if Harper Lee made her father a hero that he wasn’t? What if the world was not ready for a 26-year old girl from the South to be the moral centre of the story?”

Early in the process of working on this project, I was fortunate to be introduced to the immensely talented Maxine Williamson, former director of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, who has been my creative partner in this wild ride to create this exhibition between our full-time regular jobs.

Photographers and videographers Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver have been integral to the whole process and with their own lens they’ve been able to capture the strength of these women filmmakers as well as something of what informs their filmmaking. Having their children, Juniper and Wilder, along for the ride has provided yet another vital dimension. In fact, some of the filmmakers specifically requested photos with Juni and Wild. I feel so lucky to have them in my life. 

Commenting on their creative process, Ariel and Sam said:

“Some filmmakers invited us to experience the impact of their feminist films in their home country. Van Ha produced a documentary in Vietnam that saved an important park from destruction where women dance, taking them there early one morning. Other filmmakers we visited were working far from home, like Indian director Leena Yadav in Toronto. Leena’s film team knows to pay attention when she starts laughing. This is her radical approach to dealing with being overwhelmed, frustrated or angry. We captured Leena in the throes of laughter, minutes from making an important pitch to a movie studio. All our photos have stories. And we explore what it means to be a filmmaker and a woman. We seek to communicate the unique strength, creativity, and perspective that women bring, showing what the world gains when women’s’ voices are heard.”

Together, the four of us formed the FRAME collective for the exhibition. We’ve all invested a great deal of our time, money and resources to make this exhibition a reality and we’re so proud of what we’ve been able to achieve.  We’re particularly grateful to Griffith Film School for recognising the importance of this subject and for providing this wonderful venue.

I’ve also had a mentor supporting this work, Maryanne Redpath, head of the Generation section of the Berlin International Film Festival, and she’s been such a champion for this work. Now the Australian Embassy in Berlin has invited us to take the exhibition to Berlin for the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

It’s been an immense privilege to be able to interview these amazing filmmakers who have such curiosity, energy, passion and persistence that drives their work. I have learned so much from them.

These filmmakers are confronting inequalities using different media including documentary, feature film and multimedia and with a different lens. In her filmmaking Mattie Do captures the phenomenal wealth disparities that exist in Laos, while Van Ha’s documentaries have focused attention on the dislocation of people living in poverty in Vietnam, especially because of the effects of urbanization and corporatisation. Erica Glynn’s work is exposing issues such as the entrenched illiteracy that is a reality for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, and Anida Youe Ali’s work spectacularly challenges assumptions and discrimination according to gender, race, religious identity, and class. Anocha Suwichakornpong uses film to make women visible in their roles in history as leaders and change-makers and to challenge the dominant narrative. 

Jan Chapman has brought to the screen films that lift up women’s strength and complexity, and increase the range for male characters, while also mentoring a new generation of feminist filmmakers. Leena Yadav’s work is breaking open spaces for women to embody their desires, ambitions, and identity, physically, and emotionally and to challenge patriarchy and power. Rubaiyat Hossain is fiercely claiming a feminist voice and the political choice of being a feminist filmmaker.

When I was hanging out with Mattie Do in Laos a couple of weeks ago, she was telling me that she believes horror films are the new frontier for feminist filmmakers – that there’s greater progress in that genre than in just about any other she’s experienced. I feel like I inhabit a bigger world from knowing these filmmakers and artists.

Our FRAME collective also holds fast to a bigger dream: to create an Asia Pacific feminist film network to support filmmakers to access the money and resources needed for making and distributing films, to connect them to a like-minded tribe of filmmakers in the region, and to be able to collectively advocate for policies and funding that provide an enabling environment for their films to be made and seen.

Maxine Williamson also affirms this with her own vision:

“My collaboration with the FRAME Collective has been a rich and rewarding one. It has sharpened my deepest desire to help filmmakers combat issues of inequality and has kicked off inspiring, inclusive, long-vision discussions with peers and luminaries on establishing a network for feminist filmmaking.”

For me with my work at The Asia Foundation, I also hope to work to attract more investment in women filmmakers, composers, choreographers, writers, illustrators, sculptors and painters in Asia and the Pacific so that women can shape the creative and critical thinking of a new generation of young people in the region.

The arts have been an abiding influence in my life in all its forms, including music, dance, poetry, sculpture, literature and film. Aside from how they enrich our lives, they can be conduits and circuit-breakers for change. Remember Vedran Smailović who played Abinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on his violin amid the ruins during the siege of Sarajevo, as his call for peace. And Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said and their West-Eastern Divan Orchestra comprising Israeli and Palestinian musicians for peace and unity, Pussy Riot shaking up the system in Russia, Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising – flash dances across the globe to end violence against women. I wish we could be tracking how the arts is contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Because there’s no doubt that filmmakers are shaking up the status quo and the #MeToo and 50/50 movements and momentum are flipping it too, propelling women’s leadership and making their views and voices visible in front of, and behind, the camera.

Importantly, feminist filmmakers are helping men and people of all genders break free from confined roles and expectations and to realise their potential and their full humanity. We all inhabit bigger canvases and worlds when stereotypes are shattered and when power is shared. I watched The Piano again the other night and went back and re-read an interview Harvey Keitel did with The New York Times after the film first screened. In the interview, Keitel said:

The Piano exists on many levels. It's a complex text. One of the levels most apparent to me is that Jane [Campion] has done what I have often seen men do – that is, a woman gathering herself up, taking responsibility for herself and her sexual needs and her spiritual needs, and taking action to fulfil herself. That has usually been the domain of the man. Jane has gained access to that domain. It's a man's world. I see it that way. And it's to our detriment that it is so. Jane has struck out in a way that has helped me to come closer to an understanding of myself and women." 

That is part of the exquisite and necessary work of feminist filmmakers.

Thank you.

FRAME is a creative collaboration by Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver (Photographers), Maxine Williamson (Artistic Advisor and Exhibition Manager) and Jane Sloane (Creative Director). Maryanne Redpath, head of the Generation section of the Berlin International Film Festival, was Jane’s mentor for this project.

FRAME was made possible through the support of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, administered by the International Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics and Political Science, Griffith Film School, the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, The Asia Foundation, the Asia Pacific Screen Lab and Netpac, the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema.

READ MORE: Jane Sloane’s Q&A on the FRAME project
Download the programme booklet for FRAME