London Feminist Film Festival 2017

Did I Say Hairdressing?  I meant Astrophysics!  This gently amusing film from Leeds Animation Workshop has just won the Audience Award at this year’s 5th London Feminist Film Festival.

The audience’s knowing laughter during the screening is a reminder that women have gained only modest ground in STEM careers since the film was made in 1972.   At the panel discussion that followed, Chi Onwurah MP – and chartered engineer – commented that after her long career in engineering, Westminster turned out to be the most diverse environment she’d worked in.

Ouaga Girls, Theresa Traoré Dahlberg’s charming film set in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougo, also looks at women stepping into a traditional male preserve – car mechanics.   As young women work on a car, a male bystander comments that the work is a bit physical, it requires strength. ‘I’ve got strength too’, comes the calm retort.

The film is a sweet mix of light and slightly dark.  During their apprenticeship, the young women are reminded of the dangers of pregnancy and the importance of education.  One of the apprentices has brought her child to class.   Their teacher picks the restless baby in his arms, and continues his lecture.  The teachers’ principled belief in their students and their rightful place in the world is life-affirming. But do the students make it to graduation?

From the gentle to the harsh, Abeer Zeibak Haddad’s film Nesaa Alhoria (Women of Freedom) documents a very specific type of family violence – so-called honour killings.  Zeibak Haddad had been shocked by the story of a murder she had heard of in her youth, of a young woman from Nazareth, murdered by a close relative.  The victim’s grandmother had poured mercury into her ear as she lay asleep.  This engaging film documents a hard reality, that such killings remain common to this day, and also the hopeful resistance to that: shining a light on the issue might be the most effective way to create change.

The Festival’s classic revival film was Marva Nabili’s The Sealed Soil.  Ticket demand exceeded the BFI’s NFT2 capacity and the film was moved to NFT1, where it again sold out.  Over 450 festival-goers got a chance to see a rare and beautiful film.

Shot in 1976, on the eve of radical change in Iran, the negative was smuggled out of the country before being developed or printed.  This remarkable film won the Most Outstanding Film of the Year Award at the 1977 London Film Festival, and gained widespread critical acclaim before lapsing into relative obscurity. It has never been shown in Iran.    The film follows a critical turning point in a young Iranian woman’s life, and in the future of her village.   She is eighteen and under pressure to marry; her village is under the pressure of forced relocation from the land they live off.  The film’s sparse aesthetic is enhanced by a striking use of colour and sound.  The deep crimson of rugs and clothes, the lush green of the surrounding plants are set against the dull beaten earth of the villagers’ dwellings.  The villagers are mostly silent.  In that setting, the sounds of clucking hens, trees in the wind, and heavy rain come to the fore.   When the young woman breaks down, an exorcism ceremony takes place, reminiscent of some scenes in Sergei Parajanov’s films.  Marva Nabili has pointed out that her formative influences are Bertolt Brecht and Robert Bresson, and that Bresson has been what she has termed an extreme influence on her work.

The Festival’s well-deserved Feature Film Award went to Where to, Miss?  

Manuela Bastian’s documentary feature, filmed over a number of years, follows Devki Sharma, a resolute young woman from Jaitpur, a Dehli slum.  Devki’s ambition is to be a taxi driver, and to ensure her independence.  It is a dangerous job, with social opprobrium and worse, for women who work at night.  She is asked: alone at night in a taxi – how does that work out? But it is at night that Devki feels she is most useful as a taxi driver, helping other women be safe.  In so doing she encounters strong resistance and must make painful sacrifices.  Her story is compelling and the film is visually beautiful – the busy night-time scenes in Delhi glisten and fascinate.

It is still the case now, as it has been in the past, that in cinema, the stories of the disempowered or the dispossessed are mostly told by the relatively better off – those of a different class or race.  This is true of Poor Cow, the 1967 film written by Nell Dunn and directed by Ken Loach, true of the 1977 Sealed Soil, and remains true now of a number of the excellent films shown at the LFFF.   Cinema also needs direct testimony, and feminist cinema doubly so. In future years, here’s hoping we will see increasing numbers of films made in her own voice.

Feature Film Award: Where to, Miss?

Short Film Award: Cycologic

Audience Award: Did I Say Hairdressing? I Meant Astrophysics (with Talk Back Out Loud being a very close runner-up).