Tagged: films about women

Looking for Light: Jane Bown (UK 2014)

A self-portait of Jane Bown from the 1970s (when she started using the Olympus-M1 camera)

(All the images in this post are by Jane Bown and ©Jane Bown Estate or the Guardian/Observer)

Currently streaming on MUBI, this is a documentary about the legendary photographer who spent most of her working life at the Observer Sunday newspaper. MUBI has ‘programmed’ it in a strand entitled ‘Portrait of an Artist’. This places Jane Bown in the company of some much more flamboyant artists such as David Lynch, whereas she was seemingly a shy and mysterious figure, though also dogged in her quest for the best portrait she could produce of celebrities profiled in the Observer. The documentary-makers Michael Whyte and Luke Dodd present Looking for Light in a simple format of interviews conducted at points towards the end of Bown’s life (she died aged 89 in December 2014) and witness statements by ex-colleagues and public figures who have been photographed by Bown. Interspersed and against a black background, Bown’s photographs are presented ‘full screen’ (mostly portrait-shaped in a standard 1.85:1 frame). Bown nearly always worked in black and white, using only available light to produce very strong images. The images are presented without sound and must have looked even more impressive on a cinema screen.

One of Jane Bown’s best-known images. This portrait of Samuel Beckett was one of just three shots Bown was able to capture as he exited the stage door of the Royal Court in 1976.

Jane Bown had a ‘difficult’ childhood. She never knew her father who died when she was five. Her mother was a private nurse and Jane was brought up by various aunts – or ‘aunts’, one of whom was her mother. This family background is explored by Jane and her son Hugo in the documentary. However, her family life during her career at the Observer is kept mostly under wraps. She had a long marriage to the influential retail fashion executive Martin Moss and at home she was known as ‘Mrs Moss’. At the Observer she was always ‘Jane Bown’. Her childhood is discussed partly because it might explain aspects of her unique work practices. For instance, as a teenager she would often attach herself to other families or groups, enjoying being in the background. When she attended the only Photography course available after she was demobbed from the WRNS in 1946 her shyness might have resulted in failure to succeed but she did produce a few outstanding photographs which eventually led to her first work for the Observer in 1949 – the daunting task of producing a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, then one of the best known figures in the UK.

The interviews tend to focus on Bown’s shyness and her very distinctive approach to her work. She became part of the ‘family’ culture under the editor David Astor (whose family formerly owned the paper but placed it in the hands of Trustees). This connection does perhaps suggest a kind of ‘cosy’ upper middle-class conservatism and Jane Bown  was at least economically and socially ‘comfortable’. But she also developed her photographic practice and honed it to perfection. It involved little preparation about the subject, but attention to detail with her search for available light and the opportunity to ‘catch’ her subject in a natural pose. She generally took a roll or two of 35mm film images in less than half an hour and often just 10 to 20 minutes. I don’t want to discuss the practice in detail here but there are various web sources that do this and these are recommended: Luke Dodd wrote an obituary, you can see many of the photos on the Guardian gallery and this entry on PhotogpediA is very useful, with further links. (See also this entry on Anatomy Films.)

A member of station staff at Earl’s Court station on the District Line, c.1960

Doing further research on webpages like the above, I discovered that Bown’s early photography that did not become well-known until an exhibition and an accompanying book entitled Unknown Bown 1947-67 appeared in 2007. Some of the images from the exhibition appear in the 2014 film. When she started on her photographic career, Bown was not interested in famous people as subjects, instead she was pre-occupied by ‘space and texture’. This resulted in images that sometimes show unnamed people in slightly odd situations, some at work. The best seem to me to be almost Bert Hardy-like and to be valuable documentary images of British society. I would like to have known a little more about this time of Bown’s life as some of these images are terrific.

Mill hands in Rochdale going to a byelection hustings in 1958

I read the Observer during the 1970s and 1980s so many of the portraits seem familiar and certainly the style. I knew the name Jane Bown and I think I appreciated the work at the time. Now many of the photographs seem very rich in meaning. Germaine Greer, who introduced the Unknown Bown in 2007, linked Bown to the approach of Cartier-Bresson in finding the ‘decisive moment’ when she went off on her travels to find interesting subjects – often children. Bown at that time worked with a Rolleiflex, the camera of choice for art photographs.

Björk in 1995

Watching the 2014 film now with its stretch back over 70 years of creating images, I wonder if the world of photography and image-making has changed fundamentally again in the last eight years? What would a young woman interested in becoming a photographer in 2022 make of Jane Bown’s career and her portfolio? Apart from the technological changes in photography, it must be difficult to appreciate the changes in the concept of ‘celebrity’ and the circulation of images produced by citizen journalism. The other issue is the extent to which Jane Bown was ‘unrecognised’ during her career, because she was a woman? I’m not sure about this. I suppose the highest profile figure as a female photographer for me in the 1970s/80s was Annie Leibovitz as chief photographer on Rolling Stone magazine. Later on in the 1990s I remember working on aspects of an exhibition by Nancy Honey in Bradford. I think that there were successful women in photography but they were ‘exceptional’ and not necessarily particularly ‘sisterly’ towards other women. There is a sequence in the film where Bown refers to Diane Arbus as a photographer she didn’t like and Martha Gelhorn, the famous war correspondent as a woman who didn’t like the portrait that Bown produced. But she photographed many famous women and produced stunning images. One of the best ‘statements’ in the film comes from Edna O’Brien who was certainly very responsive as a sitter and understood was Bown was doing.

I liked this film very much and went back to re-watch several sequences. I appreciate the measured pace and the moments of silence. I’m not sure what younger audiences make of the film. The celebrities are all named briefly by a subtitle, but even I struggled on a couple of them I didn’t recognise. My only criticism really is that I wasn’t always sure who was interviewing Jane Bown, but that’s a minor point. If you are interested in photography or artistic practice or if you enjoy finding out about women’s lives over a long career you might enjoy this film very much.

¡Viva! 26 #3: Los Sonámbulos (The Sleepwalkers, Argentina-Uruguay 2019)

Luisa and Ana

This was the second of my ¡Viva! screenings to offer a film by a female writer-director, Paula Hernández, and to focus on a young woman. The other aspect of the film’s narrative shared with the earlier A Thief’s Daughter is the sense of ‘show not tell’ and therefore some work for the audience in understanding relationships. In other ways The Sleepwalkers is a different kind of narrative.

The narrative begins with the sudden realisation by Luisa (Erica Rivas) that something is wrong. She wakes in the night and finds her young teenage daughter Ana (Ornella D’Elía) standing naked in the family apartment with menstrual blood trickling down her leg but unaware of her actions. The next day Luisa and Ana with Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski) drive to a family New Year holiday in the countryside. Emilio’s mother Memé lives in the large family house with only her housekeeper-companion Hilda but today Emilio and his siblings Sergio and Inés and their children will gather for a few days. Luisa is concerned that Ana has not been confiding in her but in Emilio’s family there seems to be a ‘freer’, more ‘liberal’ attitude to parenting. The New Year holiday corresponds to the family summer holidays in European films, particularly those from Southern Europe with hot weather, days by the pool, al fresco meals and always the possibility of tempers flaring and old feuds emerging. When the first dispute/niggle surfaces – Ana and her parents are sleeping in the house rather than the annexe where they usually stay – it is clear that this holiday will have its frictions. The ‘provocateur’ is the appearance of Alejo, Sergio’s eldest son who may be an older teenager or a young man in his twenties – his age and his history as a teenager are not clear. Ana is an attractive young girl, much younger than she looks, who has some memories of Alejo from earlier family gatherings a few years ago. The young man sets out to flirt with both Ana and her mother.

The family are called to dinner . . .

There is also a sub-plot familiar from the family melodrama. Memé has decided she wants to sell the house and its extensive grounds (a stretch of river, woods and a swimming pool) and a couple of prospective buyers turn up to visit but are turned away because of the family holiday. Memé’s late husband Lacho established a publishing house and both Emilio and Sergio are involved in the company, but there appear to be disputes about how it should operate. Though these issues are referred to, they don’t appear to be a central narrative concern, but rather a way of explaining some of the tension.

Luisa shows consternation at something Emilio (in the foreground out of focus) is saying

This is a slow-paced drama with emphasis often on looks and small gestures. I don’t think there is any explanation of why Sergio and Inés are present without their spouses – or perhaps I missed it? Possibly Sergio’s sons don’t all have the same mother. Sergio has three sons. The younger two treat their cousin Ana as simply someone to spend time with in the pool or around the bonfire. Inés has a baby who cries much of the time and she doesn’t really feature as a character. In fact Inés seems to be there almost as an illustration of how women are treated in the family. Luisa shows concern about the stress of dealing with the baby but ironically Memé as the matriarch seems less interested. The tension rises throughout the narrative and leads to a dramatic climax that I did find shocking both for the actions themselves and because of how the escalation of emotion was constructed.

Memé and Luisa at odds

The Sleepwalkers is a skilfully made film. Paula Hernández has had a long career. This is her fourth feature as a director and she is aided by Iván Gierasinchuk’s cinematography and Rosario Suárez’s editing. The performances are generally very good and the mother-daughter pairing is excellent. I read the title to refer to both mother and daughter whose actions tend to vacillate between a clear-eyed sense of where things could be headed, but also include behaviour which seems almost instinctive in encouraging the opposite. Typically, the more Luisa reaches out to re-engage with Ana, the more Emilio seems to block the action as he has other concerns and the future of the marriage is being pitted against his wider family concerns. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I found it impressive though perhaps a little too slow-paced and I would have liked to know a little more about the minor characters outside the central quintet of Luisa, Ana, Emilio, Sergio and Alejo. I don’t think in the end that the film qualifies as a family melodrama. There is some diegetic music but mostly it’s direct sound throughout. In this sense the trailer below is misleading.

Women of the Sand Brings Urgency to Timelessness

We received this piece from Andrea Swift at the New York Film Academy. It describes a film that may be of interest to our readers, so we decided to post it:

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Director Richard Wolf has produced more than 30 documentary films in his career, many for international television networks (CNN, BBC, etc.).  Much of his work focuses on the plight of women in third world countries.

As he puts it the, “humanistic values that are deeply reflected in our films… are simple yet gripping because they tap into universal emotions.” In short, Wolf’s vision touches the heart.  But his 2008 film,Women of the Sand, enthralls the eyes, the mind and the soul as well – at least according to the selection committee for Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.  Last year, the film became one of the select few to enter the museum’s permanent selection – and for good reason.

Women of the Sand focuses on the women at the heart of communities of Islamic nomads in the Sahara Desert, specifically in Mauritania.  An unmitigated, cinéma vérité experience of the women’s daily routines, carries filmgoers into the meager existence of this millennia-old culture and engages us in their struggle against growing desertification.  The visuals are stunning – a sculptural contemplation of wind blowing across shape-shifting dunes that rise and drop.  The occasional trees and bushes are as sparse as the humans who stand improbably against this arid climate. Those same winds also catch the thin fabrics of tents and lean-tos, and of the traditional fabrics worn by the men, women and children of these unsettled communities.  Heads peaking out from inside their moulafas, the women tell their stories of survival in this harsh climate, of the challenges they navigate just to feed, cloth and educate their children.  They also speak of the green plants that come forth in the rainy season – the basis of all that makes life worth living. Their focus is not on the dryness and the more frequent times when food is less plentiful, though to outsiders those stark climatic conditions make it impossible not to contemplate the fragility of life. These “women of the sand” are resilient people who speak of the friendliness of the desert and desert people.  One woman says she prefers that to the coolness she observes between people in the cities she, evidently, has visited.

We also learn that the desert expands by about six miles per year, challenging their beloved and centuries old nomadic ways.  Over a lifetime, that means 360 more miles of largely barren sand will overtake arable land, making those green plants a sparser and sparser presence in their world.  It is a losing battle against scarcity that drives more interaction with non-nomads, disrupting their way of life.  Long term, it threatens to seriously diminish, perhaps even end the nomad culture.

While MOMA selects films for its collection for a broad range of reasons, the unifying criteria, according to the institution’s website, is innovation. That innovation may come into play in the film’s structure, narration or in its success immersing the viewer in the subject.   One particularly striking example ofWomen of the Sand’s immersive quality gives us real insight into the nomad’s experience of modernity:  In a tent on a rug that are all that separates them from endless, depthless sand, flies walk on the women’s hands and wrists, as they type on the keyboard of a laptop computer with the same skill they later demonstrate creating traditional fabric on a loom.  Technology may or may not be useful to them.  One mother explains they do not consider it particularly impressive or important.  But will their children – who attend school in a tent, seated on the ground, feel the same way?  Through a string of such moments,Women of the Sand creates a compelling tension between its exploration of a vanishing way of life, and a simultaneously contemplation its abiding continuity.

Produced by C. Litewski and Lucy Barbosa, directed by Richard Wolf, Women of the Sand is available on DVD (see below). Wolf studied film direction at the New York Film Academy. He also studied documentary production at the Global Village School, also in New York. Part of his signature style is to blend very candid, personal one-on-one testimonies with monstrously out-proportioned imagery that is said to provide a global context to a very intimate story. The production company is Lobo Docs.

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Andrea Swift is Chair of the Documentary Program at the New York Film Academy. She earned her Masters in Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and was the executive producer of the ‘In the Life’ documentary series for the PBS network, among many other credits. Her ‘nuclear folktale’ Deafsmith was featured at the United Nations Earth Summit, won a Silver at the Chicago International Film Festival and took second prize at the American Film and Video Festival.

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A free low resolution streamed presentation of Women of the Sand is available on SnagFilms (with some forced ad breaks). The film can be purchased from the same website on this page or downloaded/rented on this page. The DVD appears to be Region 0 and the film was made in 2003.

Trailer:

Crowd-sourcing a film to shoot in Africa

A still from the proposal for ‘Yefon’

We received this message from Martin Stein about a new African film to be developed via Kickstarter.com

I’ve read the message and checked out the website for the film proposal. It’s very interesting to see what ‘crowd-sourcing’ a film looks like in practice and the subject for the film is one that everyone ought to support – women’s education in West Africa. I’m still not quite clear exactly what kind of film is being proposed. From the very glossy proposal it looks like a film produced from the US about a social issue in Cameroon.

A little context is useful here. There is a growing trend for film projects to be developed by West African filmmakers with US partners. This is part of a coming together of Nollywood and African-American filmmakers to create films for both Nigerian and diaspora markets. The movements in the opposite direction have up to now been mostly concerned with US directors and actors working in South Africa, but also other parts of Africa – and Hotel Rwanda is one film mentioned in the message below. This proposal appears to include a range of creative talent drawn from the US, Nigeria and South Africa.

The driving force behind the proposal is Sahndra Fon Dufe, who is the writer and who plays the central character. She comes from Cameroon and has presumably trained in the US where she currently works. I can’t fault the proposal in any way and she fronts it persuasively. There is part of me that is excited by the prospect of a global project to “put Cameroon and its stories on the map”. But there is also another part of me slightly concerned by a US-led project to make, as the proposal puts it, “the first major production in Cameroon” which is a “virgin country for film”. I wish I knew more about film in Cameroon, but I think that there have been many locally-made films before – perhaps not in the region where the story is set? I suspect that the most activity has been in Francophone Cameroon but I would be surprised if there was no interest in the Anglophone part.

I confess that I’m sceptical about most of those films made by Hollywood in South Africa – will this be a better bet? Is it good to have a bigger budget because there are known stars attached? Are there any local Cameroonian actors and crew who will take part in the production and what are the plans to show the film in Cameroon? It would be good to see these questions addressed in the proposal. Anyway, have a look at the proposal, and especially the video presentation (via the link below), and make up your own mind.

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“A young African woman with dreams of becoming a teacher takes reading and writing lessons from a visiting American. But, when the male village elders find out, she is sentenced to death for breaking from tradition.

Yefon is a film that continues in the proud tradition of socially conscious, Africa-based cinema like Hotel Rwanda, Beat the Drum  and Sarafina — but unlike those movies, its producers will come from the ranks of generous Kickstarter supporters: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/405663859/yefon-the-movie

It has already attracted the attention of Hollywood stars like Jimmy Jean-Louise (“Tears of the Sun” “Heroes”), Adriana Barraza (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee, “Babel”) and Hakeem Kae-Kazim (“Hotel Rwanda”). The film is being co-produced by Justin Massion, the director of the Kickstarter campaign for “Space Command,” which brought in $75,000 in just three days, and ended with over $200,000—making it one of the crowd-funding platform’s top 10 projects.

“Yefon” is the brainchild of 22-year-old actress and filmmaker Sahndra Fon Dufe, who got her inspiration from too many similar, true stories from Africa. Broken-hearted by this sad reality, she and the production team have pledged to use a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the film, a companion documentary, books and related merchandise to build an all-girls school in Nso, the Cameroon village where “Yefon” is set.

As well as playing a role in helping to correct this grievous wrong and set free generations of women, Kickstarter contributors receive amazing gifts, including African couture, masks, jewelry and art; tickets to red carpet premieres; opportunities to meet the cast and crew; and more.

With only 9 days left to reach the goal of $50,000, we can offer more information, artwork and even interviews with Fon Dufe and others so you can help spread the word about this important project.

Thanks!”