#MeToo as the End of Auteurs? Good.

In Hannah Gadsby’s much-discussed comedy special Nanette, she argues that one of the biggest problems with celebrity today is the issue of reputation, and the idea that the (male) artist’s reputation and the myth of their genius is more important than looking at how these men actually acted in their lives. Spoiler alert: a lot of the Western world’s favourite art movements were built on a hefty dose of misogyny. In Gadsby’s performance, she particularly focuses on the (to her defunct) argument that separating the artist from the art is impossible in a world that still glorifies the idea of the individual, misunderstood man, arguing that “Nobody owns a circular Lego nude, they own a Picasso!”.

A similar dynamic goes on in film, with auteur directors taking up the role of the troubled male genius. Although auteurship in film has been widely debated, there seems to be a consensus that on the whole the director is the most important person working on a film at any given time, as the director is the person who delivers the film all the way from inception to its final form. Sure, a film might often be sold to audiences through its starring actors, but when it comes to who is ascribed the artistic merit for the film, it is more often than not the director who gets the praise, whose creative stamp is seen as inevitably present, no matter how much or how little control they had over the production. This is also why, when referencing films, the director is the person who is named, rather than for instance the first-billed actor or the screenwriter(s).

However, we also know that directors, especially directors within mainstream Hollywood and mainstream arthouse, tend to be more-than-overwhelmingly male. When we think of ‘the’ auteur (as a social stereotype as opposed to ‘an’ individual auteur), our mental image is likely to reflect the type of person who indeed is at the head of the most widely spread cultural productions: straight, white, Western, male. So in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, in eras of #OscarsSoWhite and the push for not only more diversity in front of the camera but behind it as well, have we perhaps reached a point where we should rethink auteurship, or maybe even do away with it altogether? To answer my own rhetorical question: I sure fucking hope so.

The structure of the auteur is undeniably an individualist one: although we all know that there are more people on set than just the director, it is the director’s influence which is deemed to permeate the whole film. However, many auteur directors work with a similar cast and crew for many of their projects, which is often exactly where their distinctive feel comes from. Why are Tim Burton’s films considered to be created in ‘his’ style, when this style is heavily influenced by his staple costume designer, Colleen Atwood? Why do we all know Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill as Tarantino films, and not as Menke films, even though she edited all of his films until the day she died? How many more people are attracted to Todd Haynes’ films because of his frequent collaborations with Julianne Moore? Yet none of these women are known as ‘auteurs’ in the same sense, despite being an integral component of their oeuvre’s ‘look’. Even at LFFF we participate in this culture of the director as authority to some extent, by only choosing films that are directed by women.

Of course, it could be argued that this is exactly the job of the director – to bring the various components together into a coherent whole. However, this is just as much (sometimes even more) a function of the studios, the producers, the executives, as well as the marketing, publishing and distribution sides of filmmaking. Yet, aside from a few niche exceptions, they don’t tend to get thought of in a similar way, because their jobs are deemed to be financial, clinical, not ‘artistic’ in the same sense that a director’s job is understood to be.

It is exactly this undefinable area of the ‘artistic’ that gives auteur directors social and cultural license to behave in ways that we would often (hopefully) find intolerable in any other workspace, in the name of ‘art’. Think for instance about Alfred Hitchcock’s abysmal treatment of Tippi Hedren in several of his films. The creation of a set that is explicitly hostile to his female colleagues is often considered part of his creative vision for the perfect suspense film (in a similar way that Hollywood goes gaga for method acting – ‘you don’t know where the film ends and the actor begins!’) rather than gendered abuse. Or Kubrick’s behaviour towards Shelley Duvall, which left her more or less out of the public eye and made him one of the most celebrated directors ever. Dive into the behind-the-scenes situations of auteur and see for yourself how many male careers were nurtured by hostility to, and sometimes outright abuse of, women. Meanwhile, women get branded as divas for something as simple as wanting to close the gender pay gap. Imagine the uproar if female directors shouted at their (much younger) actors until they cried. It is good that they don’t get the luxury of artistic license, as nobody should have it, but we cannot deny that this is a gendered problem.

The oft-repeated phrase ‘separating the art from the artist’ is commonly applied to artists who have done something that as an audience we disagree with, but that we might decide to (temporarily) ignore in order to enjoy their art, especially when their actions aren’t visible in their art. However, I would argue that this is impossible when it comes to auteur cinema (if indeed it is possible in any form of art). When we celebrate the auteur-film, we are celebrating the director alongside it, because it is commonly accepted that it is their vision and their artistry that makes the film have that particular style. It is impossible to separate the art from the artist, if they are already sold as one product. Nobody watches a random film about a neurotic New York writer who falls in love with inappropriately young women, we watch a … Even finishing this sentence seems too obvious, and yet people still tell me that I should give Woody Allen a chance, as if his disgusting ‘private’ life doesn’t bleed into his public artwork.

Of course, auteurship is not the cause of abuse in Hollywood. There are many people who take up positions of power without abusing this status, and there are many people working in the film industry who do not have an auteur status, and who still behave in a despicable manner. However, the way auteurs are viewed by mainstream press is still a symptom of our culture’s excuses for men’s actions, so long as those actions can be shrouded in mysterious, creative masculinity. When we tell the world that there is something extraordinary, something ungraspably, intrinsically artistic about these men, something that elevates them from a normal human being to an artist, we create a space where they cannot be held to account for their actions.

So how do we go about changing this culture? First of all, film journalism would do well to emphasize the communal aspect of filmmaking and de-mystify the role of the director, by showing that many parts of the film production process have a dedicated artist devoted to it. While it could be argued that there is no market for focusing on other people involved in the production, such as screenwriters, costume designers, composers, cinematographers and casting directors, that this is too niche, only interesting to those already interested, I would argue that it is only niche exactly because it is under-discussed.

And yes, I do know that these people are not invisible by any stretch of the imagination, especially within circles of people who are already interested in film, but ask a random person to make a list of all the editors she know versus all of the directors, and I am willing to bet quite a large amount of money that one list is longer than the other. If these jobs were de-mystified, if the general public knew what the day-to-day tasks of a colourist were, their craft could be discussed, praised and criticized in a more in-depth way, taking the sole attention away from the auteur director.

Second of all, we need to de-mystify not just the role of the director as the sole artistic genius, but also their behaviour. In the West, through influences that may not be directly derived from but are definitely caught up with Christian and capitalist epistemology, we love the idea of looking towards a singular authority figure as someone who instructs, whose decisions are final, who is not to be negotiated with. For obvious reasons, this creates a massive power imbalance, especially considering the approval of the authority figure as necessary in the social, cultural and financial sphere – do what they say or risk being a social outcast. Do what they says or risk unemployment. Do what they say, or risk the reputation of the woman who ruined the artist.

At LFFF, we’re making a start on investigating feminist set/filmmaking practices in our Feminist Filmmaking Panel, on 19 August, in the Rio Cinema in Dalston. As filmmakers, as film journalists, as audience members, as people who are involved in the film industry, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to shape this industry, and we need to discuss how we can shape it into something that chooses women’s welfare over an abstract idea of ‘artistry’. To borrow from Gadsby once again, art that is created through the subjugation of women isn’t the be-all and end-all of art, it isn’t the ‘human experience’, it is men ‘painting flesh vases for their dick flowers’.

In a world where straight white men overwhelmingly occupy this position of power, it is tragic but not unsurprising that they might use this position to amplify the power that society has already given them, resulting in sexist and racist behaviour on-set as well as in their films – indeed, we must ask ourselves if straight white men are not attracted to the individual glory of auteurism exactly because this position is in line with how the world divides power anyway. If we see this easy abuse of power for what it is – lazily reinstating normative values through workplace violence – rather than an act of leaving artistic fingerprints on a film, the auteur stops being a singular force of genius, and is turned into the pathetic opportunist that he is.

Whenever I discuss the #MeToo movement with people, I get an inevitable chorus of ‘well, but if you’re going to discard every artist who has ever behaved badly, you’re not left with an awful lot’. My response is that that shows exactly how our ideas around consumption of art and culture are built on patriarchal foundations. Yes, an awful lot of men in Hollywood are despicable, and yes it is almost impossible to avoid their work. Does that mean that we should just treat (sexual) harassment as an inevitable component of artistry? Does that mean that we can excuse these men, because well, we need something to consume? Absolutely not.


This Article was written by Pippa Sterk.

Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.

Half The Picture: 0.006% of Hollywood Directors from BAME Backgrounds

When you see the same kinds of stories over and over from the same perspective, it’s not representative of people living in society; women’s voices are certainly marginalized and women of colour are basically erased.” – Amy Adrion

Half The Picture (2018), directed by Amy Adrion, comes at a pivotal moment for gender equality in Hollywood. Successful women directors tell the stories of their art, lives, and careers in a film that doesn’t pull any punches about what the realities are for women in the industry, specifically in Hollywood. Nevertheless, it still manages to offer an inspiring sense of fight and hope and the first glimpse of a future that values women directors’ voices equally to those of men.

Amy Adrion’s documentary feature began life being funded solely on credit cards, similar to many of us starting our projects, and gathered momentum as more interviews were conducted and finances were confirmed, and as #MeToo unfolded. Half The Picture presents facts and anecdotes from women directors that work across a range of films and documentaries all the way from the indie market up to and including big budget studio films. The women discuss the realities of getting films financed, dealing with male colleagues challenging their authority and their experience, and also the demands of the job – working in film as a mother often means leaving young children behind while being on location weeks on end.

The statistics that the film shows are as expected, but are particularly awful if you are a director from a BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnicity) background. Female BAME existence in the film world borders on invisibility: 0.006% of directors working in Hollywood are from BAME backgrounds. There is also a correlation between lower budget documentary/narrative films and the number of female directors who are working in this space. Then, conversely, as the budgets grow, the number of women securing directing roles begins to decline there – save, of course, some rare successes.

Adrion is quick to debunk the myth that if your work is good enough you’ll succeed no matter what your gender, saying: ‘That’s exactly what’s been happening for the past 100 years. Only white men have been considered for every job in Hollywood forever; they have been favoured over everybody else. So it’s frustrating because a lot of white male directors will say “it’s a tough time to be a white male director, they’re only looking for women” and you’re like, maybe they’re looking for women a little bit, but it’s not like women are now directing 96 percent of movies’.
Over the last year, we have seen some groundbreaking moments, from the release of Wonder Woman, with Patty Jenkins back to direct the next installment; to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird which led to an Oscar nomination for her; to Ava DuVernay’s much-awaited A Wrinkle In Time, which had production and marketing budgets of around US$200 million and US$250 million respectively, making her the first African-American woman to direct a live-action film with a budget of that size, and which has also now exceeded the US$100 million mark at the box office.

All three films have done well and so their impact will continue to be felt in more female-led films both behind and in front of the camera. Half The Picture should be required viewing for anyone in the industry regardless of gender, as it is the gatekeepers who we need to continue to lobby for change.

 


This Article was written by Zam Naqvi.

Zam Naqvi, is a film writer & director living and working in London, UK. A version of this article originally appeared on: zam-naqvi.com.

Ouaga Girls (2017) // Last Frame Film Club – Review

LFFF had the happy fortune to be invited to the screening and panel discussion of Theresa Traore Dahlberg’s Ouaga Girls On 13 May. Our partners in film crime, Last Frame Film Club organized this event in collaboration with Women of Colour Film Club, at the CentrE17 in Walthamstow. The film, which LFFF was proud to present in our 2017 programme, documents the story of a group of women in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso who are all training to become car mechanics. As we see them progress in their studies, the women tell about all aspects of their lives, from the domestic to the classroom, from their social life and their relationships, to their careers as prospective car mechanics. Filmed in the run-up to the 2016 Burkinabé presidential elections, the audience subtly receives information about changing political and social lives in Burkina Faso from news reports and radio broadcasts in the background.

Afterwards, a panel discussion was held with filmmaker and script writer Laura Kirwan-Ashman and historian and educator Alinta Sara, moderated by WOC Film Club founder Aurelia Yussuf. Kirwan-Ashman spoke of her experience writing and directing short fiction films. She remarked on how interesting it was to see a documentary that is shot and edited as if it were a fiction film, and how her own forays into filmmaking started in a supportive environment of friends being creative and having fun together, similar to the female friendships shown in the film.

Yussuf related the casual depiction of the classroom to her own professional life in education. She particularly noted the nuance with which school life was portrayed, from the subtle undermining of the male teacher by the female students, to the fears that home life might infringe on the possibility to finish the course. It’s a nuance that is often lost in films about Black women, where school is often portrayed as the site of exclusion, bullying, or racism.

One aspect of the film that both the panel and the audience returned to during the discussion was the relief at having found a film that portrays Black womanhood in all its camaraderie and joy. The friendly classroom setting where women are free to support each other is a refreshing change from the usual way Black female bodies are treated in both fiction and documentary, especially those that (try to) appeal to a white Western audience. Despite this, the film never shies away from portraying the tougher parts of the women’s lives, such as poor sexual health education, inequality in the workplace, and the death of a school staff member. The difference is simply that viewers are not just left with an unsettled feeling that Black womanhood is intrinsically tragic or tough.

Ouaga Girls is an important counter-narrative to the normative ways Black women are portrayed on-screen, and it is a testament to Dahlberg’s talent as a director that by making a few artistic choices, her debut feature feels intimate and uplifting, when the subject matter lends itself particularly easily to depressing stereotypes. She is certainly a director to keep an eye on, and I can’t wait to see her next film, the Ambassador’s Wife, which is also set in Ouagadougou.

Altogether both the film and the event itself showcased the importance of spaces to explore, encounter, and develop oneself with others. Having a film club that allows us to watch these films in a community space, on an affordable budget, in a friendly setting with people from artistic, activist, and academic backgrounds as well as people who are not familiar with any of these areas is exactly what film needs right now.

Last Frame Film Club is based in Walthamstow, and hosts film screenings, masterclasses, and workshops around socially engaged films. Their next event is the UK premiere of Land of the Free on 7 June.

Women of Colour Film Club aims to showcase, discuss, and celebrate films about women of colour.


This Article was written by Pippa Sterk.

Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.

“I Deserve to be Loved” – Love, Simon; A Wrinkle in Time and the Need for Minority-Led Fairytales

With more and more films being hailed as icons and milestones of diversity, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the on-screen depiction of marginalized groups is little more than Hollywood finding new cash cows to exploit. However, with diverse films gaining a bigger audience, and the target audience becoming younger and younger as the moral panic of multiculturalism and LGBT influences is dying down (“but what about the children?”), I want to make the case that there is value in Hollywood reinventing itself through diversity, exactly because diverse films have been held (and continue to be held) at a higher standard of attaining ‘quality’ than their less-diverse predecessors.

Firstly, the film Love, Simon (2018, Berlanti) is one of the biggest mainstream releases ever to feature a gay teen, its coming-out narrative being very likely to reach audiences consisting of gay, straight and questioning young adults. However, a lot of criticism has come its way for portraying a story that shows a character having too simple and uncomplicated a relation to his coming-out – in other words, a story that is too happy. Not realistic. Even the mostly-positive review by Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian comes with the caveat that not everyone will be able to relate to Simon’s happy story towards acceptance, because ‘in real life, things are a bit more muddled.’

It is a difficult debate. Bradshaw in particular was referring to the whiteness, middle-classness, and (in the film’s own words) ‘normal’-ness of Simon’s immediate surroundings, allowing audiences that might be reluctant to watch a gay film the peace of mind that Simon is just like us! Obviously this doesn’t necessarily help all gay people, there are a lot of gay people, especially gay people who also belong to another marginalised group, who will still be treated as uncomfortable realities by some people who consider themselves open-minded enough to accept a character like Simon. This is a fact that needs to be addressed.

However, all too often debates about whether a depiction of a minority is true to life, seem to devolve into arguments that oppose any kind of depiction of minority characters that are happy, for the sake of either realism, complexity, or an obligation towards activism – realism, complexity and activism in this context always meaning tragedy, loss, isolation, existence on the fringes. The controversial Time critique of Love, Simon (written by Daniel D’Addario) had the following to say about the film:

“Kids like Simon, in 2018, already have a good shot of fitting in. They don’t need this movie. […] Love, Simon feels like a film responding to an entirely different culture, like one in which gay marriage was never legalized. That decision both acknowledged that equality for gays had won the day and opened the door for far more interesting and challenging fights, ones the next generation will lead. Movies that integrate those stories are ones worth anticipating with relish.”

What D’Addario fails to attend to in this review, is the fact that Love, Simon never proclaimed to be a revolutionary story. There is a reason that it doesn’t deal with ‘challenging fights’, and that is because it is a YA film, a YA fairytale if you wish, which generally tends towards escapism and is aimed at a teen audience. Forgive it for not wanting to introduce young, scared, and/or closeted children to violent homophobia.

Instead it explores how even left-wing people, even well-meaning people, even our closest friends and relatives can make it harder for us to accept ourselves. It shows that even for a generation that ‘has a good shot of fitting in’ – a massive generalization in itself that completely overlooks how much young LGBT people still suffer – there continue to be obstacles to be overcome, and (self-)acceptance is anything but self-evident.

Most importantly, it does all of this without painting gay life as being one of inevitable and perpetual tragedy. Explain to me how that is not an interesting and refreshing story to tell in an age where we are told that homophobia is a thing of the past, a thing of the working-class, a thing of immigrants, a thing that doesn’t happen in well-adjusted ‘woke’ white middle-class suburbia.

Similarly, white critic Amy Nicholson wrote a scathing review of A Wrinkle in Time (2018, DuVernay) for the Guardian, in which she argued that the film falls flat as an adaptation, because it is too ridiculous, too flashy, and too sugary sweet:

“The film has the feel of an iPad video pawned off on a toddler so Dad can make comforting mac and cheese – here’s a bite-sized lesson about loving yourself and a jumble of pretty colors.”

I cannot comment too extensively on the film as an adaptation as I haven’t read the book, but I know that the book’s protagonist Meg is white, whereas in the film she is mixed race– and it is this difference exactly that makes me disagree with the view that a story about loving yourself is simple.

How many films about mixed girls learning to love themselves after abandonment has Nicholson seen in the past few years? How many allowed the main character to be a trouble maker? How many allowed her to come to terms with her various flaws? How many allowed her to come to this conclusion with the help and mentorship of several other women, the majority of which were Women of Colour? How many films pointed out the ways in which girls of Colour with mental health issues are being left behind by official institutions and mocked for their trauma, rather than being guided through it?

Maybe Nicholson found the film bite-size and moralistic because she is looking at it from a white, adult female perspective, in which these stories are indeed abundant. However, knowing that this film was made by a Woman of Colour and features multiple varied and rounded Women of Colour, makes it clear that it is meant for Women of Colour. You can tell young Brown and Black girls that they should love themselves all you want, but until you show it through addressing them in their specifications and societal complexities, it won’t work. It can be debated how well A Wrinkle in Time shows this, but the fact that it shows at all is anything but simple, and nothing short of revolutionary.

A Wrinkle in Time and Love, Simon are both fairytales, and should be treated and critiqued as such. It is exactly a feature of homophobia and racism that views racialized and gay bodies as uncomfortable because of the historical politicization inherent to these bodies. It is a relief to finally see these bodies outside of a politicized struggle (which is not to mean outside of politics – we are of course never outside politics) and watch them in a dreamlike version of society that is simply cooler, more magical and more fun than the everyday.

Nobody re-tells Snow White as the story where the princess runs into the woods and survives for three days on berries and mushrooms before perishing under the harsh weather conditions ‘because that’s what would happen in real life’. Harry Potter isn’t seven books and eight films about a boy growing up in England and being entirely uninteresting because wizards don’t exist and magic isn’t real. Star Trek isn’t the story of an accountant for Starfleet who is far removed from all of the space battles because hey, we can’t all be Captain Kirk, right? We understand that ‘normal’ people (read: white, cisgender, able-bodied, straight Westerners) need their heroes and their escapism, and can still enjoy these stories while knowing that they aren’t true to life, so why are we denying that to young  people who may be gay, or mixed race, or both?

Fairytales exist for a myriad of reasons, but they can hold specific significance for young people with marginalized identities. They are essentially mini-conversations about justice versus injustice, and in that respect they do not just have the ability to give young people a language through which to describe the oppression that they face, but they also allow for the conception of a reality in which this oppression is undone. This can be a powerful tool of escapism, as well as laying the groundwork for activism, when young people start demanding that they be treated in the way that they deserve, rather than the way they are now.

Love-Simon-Movie
Love, Simon (2018, Berlanti)

Films can carry out an activist message exactly because they show a Utopian image rather than the real world. Sure, we can and we should discuss what these Utopias look like and who they serve: are they centered around a white middle-class Westerner likeLove, Simon? Around a child of professors, like in A Wrinkle in Time? These are still important questions. However, it does not mean that fairytales are bad, regressive or anti-feminist because they are Utopian – if we don’t have a vision of the world we are fighting for, how can we ever begin to secure it?

 


This Article was written by Pippa Sterk.

Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.

BFI Flare Reviews

The BFI Flare festival, Europe’s largest LGBT+ film festival, ran from 21 March to 1 April. We were present as delegates during the many screenings, talks, and socials that the festival offered, and we thought we’d share our thoughts on a selection of the films screened at the festival.


Becks (Feature)
Becks (2017, Powell and Rohrbaugh) tells the story of Brooklyn-based singer Becks (played by Lena Hall), who moves back to St Louis after a breakup with her girlfriend (played by Hayley ‘Lesbian Jesus’ Kiyoko). We observe the dynamics between Becks and her Catholic mother, her best friend, her absent brother, and the townspeople who ‘have never met a real-life lesbian before’.Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 7.57.07 PM

Then, obviously, Becks falls in love with the WASPy wife of her childhood bully, and the two start an affair. While the premise is not particularly original, I found it interesting that Becks’ love interest Elyse (played by Mena Suvari) never seems to hesitate or blame Becks for her identity crisis as a formerly-straight woman, when it is such a common trope to demonise the lesbian character for ‘tempting’ the good housewife into sin. The film associates lesbian love with the potential for freedom and escape, in a way that so few films do. Furthermore, the performances by the main cast and the strong dialogue ensure that the film is never boring or repetitive.

Altogether, it is an easy film to watch and enjoy. There is nothing too out-there, but yet it still manages to subtly avoid many of the stereotypes that are so common in lesbian films.

Between Here & Now (Short)

nullThis Danish short (2018, Splidsboel) reminded me a lot of Eastern Boys (2013, Campillo), with the benefit that with its 22 minutes, it was the exact right length for the narrative arc. Any longer and it would have lost the area of mysticism and fleetingness that surrounds it now, any shorter and it would have felt like a rough sketch of a plot.

Brown Queers (Short)
nullAesthetically beautiful, this short (2017, Williams Gamaker) plays with and discussesideas of perceiving, self-perception, and being perceived a particular gender and sexuality, or as a transgression of those, particular among People of Colour. At 25 minutes it feels slightly too long considering it is a portrait of only three people, and they seem to have very similar views, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a discussion of race, sexuality and gender, at most it would have to be a starting point of those discussions. As an art film it works brilliantly, though.

 

Clash (Short)
This short (2017, Al-Kadhi) deals with the difficult position of British-born QTIPOCs and nulltheir relation to the British colonial past and the nostalgia towards it that is produced in mainstream film and television. The talking-heads style black and white footage is intercut with colourful scenes of the interviewees dressed up in drag-like wigs and costumes playing sports and socializing in deliberately anachronistic colonial settings, and we are never sure if they are mocking the portrayal of colonial times, or inserting themselves in it, or perhaps both. The relation of the interviewees to the past (critical but also a wish to fit in? Jealous? Nostalgic?) is left complicated, which sets it up as a great opener of discussions.

A Deal With the Universe (Feature)
A Deal With the Universe
(2018, Barker) is a documentary both by and about Jason Barker, his partner Tracey, and their road to pregnancy. After countless unsuccessful attempts at fertilising Tracey’s egg cells, Barker chooses to stop certain aspects of his transition in order to allow himself to become pregnant. The documentary deals with the various aspects of parenthood, the pain of unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy, and the reactions of friends, family, and others.null

Considering the topics that it touches upon are very heavy (infertility, cancer, death of a loved one, transphobia), the story is told with a surprising amount of humour, probably owed to the fact that Barker is also a standup comedian. Furthermore, while press coverage made it seem as a film that played on the Channel 4-type shock factor (“it’s about a MAN who gets PREGNANT” you can just hear the invisible exclamation points in almost all mainstream coverage), the documentary is actually very intimate and toned-down, never veering into the voyeurism that it could have gone into. Again, this is probably due to the fact that Barker is the documentary’s director as well as the subject.

Altogether, A Deal With the Universe is one of the true gems of the Flare, and for many viewers, including myself, it was the highlight of the festival.

 

Des!re (Short)
This visually stunning short (2017, Campbell X) celebrates the desire that women feel nulltowards masculine people who are assigned female at birth (trans men, butches, studs, genderqueer people et cetera). The shots are all in black and white, and show the subjects both fragmented and in full, both autonomous and anonymous. This allows the film to discuss sexuality and sensuality (indeed, desire) without becoming voyeuristic.

The Fish Curry (Short)
This short animation (2017, Verma) tells the quiet and understated story of a son nullpreparing his father’s favourite dish, the eponymous fish curry. We see the main character preparing the curry, and preparing himself for a very important dinner as part of a very important talk. Although there is very little action or dialogue, we feel the weight and the tension of the main character’s nervousness. At the end, we are very much left without narrative conclusion, but this works well, because it is just a short snapshot.

Goldfish (Short)
null
Goldfish (2017, Angelopoulos) might be the short with the most interesting premise: a boy, Stratis, believes his fish Tom (named after Tom Daley, obviously) is gay. We see Stratis’ father react to this revelation, as well as to Stratis’ less masculine characteristics, in what is ultimately a sweet and funny story about family and social pressure.

 

The Happy Prince (Feature)
Rupert Everett’s directorial debut The Happy Prince (2018) centers around the last days of Oscar Wilde, his exile and his illness after incarceration.

Considering that this is one of the more high-profile films at the festival (the cast includes Colin Morgan and Colin Firth, probably the most famous Colins of this era), it is perhaps unsurprising that it is a little less daring than many other films. Wilde’s popularity with the public hasn’t wavered since the 1997 film Wilde (dir. Gilbert), and the only thing that seems to

null

make the film relevant to the current age is told to us right at the end, namely that Wilde, along with other gay men (including Alan Turing), was pardoned by the British government.

As a costume drama and a biopic it has its mood swings, veering between dreamy and harsh, at some moments choosing to portray Wilde as the snappy, eloquent dandy, and at others showing him to be mad, irrational, and rude. It is an interesting direction for the biopic to go, and certainly raises questions on how we view our heroes of the past, especially ones that were despised (legally and socially) while they were still living. However, I can’t help but feel that the film could have made more of an impact if they had simply decided what kind of message it wanted to get across.

Hard Paint (Feature)
In Hard Pain (2018, Matzembacher and Reolon), we follow the story of Shico, an introverted prostitute, who makes his money livestreaming himself dancing in neon paint. The film’s pace is slow, but never boring, and shows Shico starting a relationship, both personal and professional, with a dancer who is set to leave their city when he gets his scholarship to attend dance school.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 8.50.43 PMThe film has an interesting approach to filming bodies, framing them seemingly objectively, without becoming clinical. There is a lot of non-sexualised nudity, and even in sex or romance scenes, it never feels as if the film is trying to be voyeuristic.

The slow pace allows the film to have an air of mystery, and really immerses viewers into the feeling of repression, of being trapped in a particular space or situation.

Love, Scott (Feature)
Love, Scott (2018, Wayne) is a documentary about the Canadian Scott Jones, who was left paralysed after surviving a homophobic attack. The documentary deals with parts of the emotional as well as the physical aftermath of the attack, and particularly tries to address the fact that Scott’s attacker may have been convicted of murder, but was never charged with a hate crime.

The fact that Laura Marie Wayne, the director, is a personal friend of Jones’ that he knows from their musical education, gives the film an amazing personal touch, which is a nice occasional relief from the heavy topic it discusses. Indeed, the documentary works best when it just feels like two friends having a conversation, which happens to be recorded. There are some points in the film where this familiarity seems to become undone by the forced narration, but the intimate, less scripted, more whimsical moments make up for it. Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 8.52.41 PM

As a call for social it also does well when it shows Scott’s mother realizing that gay men still need to be emotionally prepared for a world that will reject them, when Scott shows  his frustration at the fact that you can know you’re being targeted for what and who you are, and yet legally there is no acknowledgement of this, and when we see Scott’s community in Canada come together to celebrate their sexualities and support each other to not let this scare them back into the closet- in short, when it focuses on the emotional and social impact that the attack has had.

At the end there is an attempt to make a more formal, broader call to arms, which falls a bit flat exactly because this has been such a singular story about a very particular person in a very particular place. Altogether it tries to be two films at once: a portrait of a man who has had something terrible happen to him and the way he deals with this, and a general activist film that tries to make change but doesn’t give us the tools to focus on what should be changed and how. While it lacks a little in the latter, it does very, very well in the former.

My Days of Mercy (Feature)
My Days of Mercy (2017, Shalom Ezer) was the opening film of the festival. The story centers around Lucy (played by Ellen Page), who travels across the country to protest the death penalty. She lives with her siblings as their father is in prison on suspicion of the murder of their mother. At one of the protests, she meets the counter-protester Mercy (played by Kata Mara) – yes her name is actually Mercy and yes this does make the title fit in the long history of lesbian films with corny titles that sound like bad porno rip-offs of themselves, like I Can’t Think Straight, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

Anyway, obviously Lucy and Mercy start an affair, and obviously their ideological differences complicate this. As an opening film it was quite a safe choice, but not the most exciting. While the cast ensures that this will be one of the most discussed films in the festival, it is not as daring as I expected of both actresses. Given that particularly Page has been very vocal, progressive and political in interviews, and is one of the only mainstream lesbian actresses whose career in the mainstream is fairly secure, it is unfortunate that she is either unable or unwilling to choose a project that is more out-there, more experimental, more edgy.null

Particularly the treatment of race feels very off about a film that could have decided to take a more outspoken step: first of all, there are some protesters in some of the background scenes who hold placards reminding the audience that the death penalty disproportionately affects People of Colour. Yet at the only protest in the film that tries to prevent the death of a Black man, we see a shot of Mercy and Lucy running off, away from the Black and Brown protesters, in order to have their little romance together. The shot almost seems like an ironic commentary on the film itself, and as a rule of thumb I would say that if your film contains a scene in which two white characters run away from a mob of unnamed People of Colour, this better not be framed as a good and romantic thing.

Second of all, the only major Black character is a woman (again unnamed) who has no personality, seemingly no life or family of her own, and exists only to conveniently be a substitute mother to Lucy and her siblings- she gives Lucy some extra money out of nowhere, she sings gospel with the other protesters, and she consoles the children when they are sad. With all the discussions about race on film going on, I assumed that filmmakers knew better than to have such stereotypical and one-dimensional characters in their films.

Technically, the film is pretty good. There are strong acting performances from both the main actors and the supporting cast. The dialogue is wittier than I expected of a film with such an intense topic and such paint-by-numbers overall plot. There are scenes, especially in the second half of the film, that did genuinely move me, and there are many points at which I thought they were going towards Oscar-baiting material, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they avoided that route.

However, while I watching it, I felt similar to when I was watching Freeheld: while the film could have touched upon , it prefers to take a more conventional approach, in which it loses two audiences: it is not yet accessible enough for a mainstream straight audience, but it is also not original or interesting enough to capture . It is good for an hour and a half of entertainment, but it is not going to be a turning point of lesbian cinema. Then again, it never pretended to be the latter.

Postcards From London (Feature)
Derek Jarman, John Waters and Baz Luhrmann walk into a bar, they brainstorm for a few minutes, and Postcards From London (McLean, 2018) is the result. This absurd comedy was the closing film for the festival, and what a choice it was. Visually, the film is a whirlwind of colours and movement, turning every shot into a spectacle in itself, and making central London look like the neon-noir (and that is not a typo) New York it so desperately tries to be – tempting, but dangerous.null

The story is about Jim, who moves to Soho from Essex to seek his fortune, ending up working as a rent boy (sorry, ‘raconteur’) for a group of men who pride themselves on an in-depth knowledge of the arts. The film is a pastiche of various references to gay culture both high and low, and occasionally to references of references, with jokes flying quickly.

While the references are relatively niche and aimed at a white, educated, gay male audience, Postcards From London has enough content and humour to stand on its own. At some points it would have been nice if it had believed in itself a bit more, rather than hide behind infinite layers of irony and camp.

Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Short)
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This short (2017, Pepall) is a humorous twist on the old classic of a bridesmaid’s lamentations just after the wedding of her best friend (although the twist is kind of given away by it being screened at this particular festival). The story fits the film’s length perfectly, and it isn’t overly ambitious, but rather chooses to focus on what the format of a short film does best – giving a quick insight into a character’s life, without trying to dwell too long. It could be criticised as somewhat flimsy, but I think that that is part of its appeal, as so many LGBT films tend towards the very intense and melodramatic, and this is a nice short relief.

You Will Be Free (Short)
nullYou Will Be Free (2018, Jacques) is an experimental short, using footage from games, advertising, and other popular culture to create a pastiche commentary on the concept of bodies. The short gives a simultaneously fatalistic and hopeful view on gender identity. While this may sound paradoxical to some people, it is an odd mix of emotions that will seem familiar to especially LGBT+ youth.

 


This Article was written by Pippa Sterk.

Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.

“Asgard is not a place, it’s a people. And its people need your help” – Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and the diaspora

Since the election of Donald Trump (because honestly, who doesn’t start an article about nationality with the words ‘Since the election of Donald Trump’ nowadays), his rhetoric of a ‘great’ America and who could, will and should belong to this, nationality, national identity and racial identity seem to have been thrown into a new state of crisis, not just in the US, but all over the world. Some people strongly support the divisive idea of a whiter America as one that is ‘great again’, others argue that America is great exactly because it was never white. Yet others argue that it was never great.

Benedict Anderson wrote in 1983 that nations are ‘imagined communities’, a self-fulfilling social construct where the idea of belonging to a nationality allows us (or forces us) to feel connected to people we don’t know simply because we imagine that there is a concrete thing that binds us: it is impossible for a US citizen to personally know every other US citizen. Yet up until recently, many would argue that there is such a thing as ‘Americanness’ that is either present or not in people and unites those who have it, while setting apart those who do not have it.

For diasporic subjects the concept of the imaginary takes on an even more significant role. While non-diasporic people can put their ideas of belonging in things that are typically, though falsely, considered to be intrinsic and unchanging (borders, language, physical closeness, a particular area of land), diasporic people have to make do with imaginaries that are also commonly considered imaginaries: the dream of a homeland that we are no citizens of, that we are not resident in. The dream of a language that we don’t hear around us. The dream of what could have been, had we not become displaced subjects.

In this respect, the two latest Marvel films, Thor Ragnarok (2017, dir. Taika Waititi) and Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler), provide interesting commentary on various questions of the diaspora. It is not surprising that the first Marvel films to be directed by diasporic People of Colour (Waititi is Jewish-Maori working in the US, Coogler is African-American), look at the superhero genre as one that is quintessentially attached to an obviously imagined identity.

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Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler)

Both Thor and Black Panther raise questions about a people’s relation to a possible homeland: what responsibility to maintain our residence in (or return to) this land do we have? Do we belong to our land or does the land belong to us? And if, like Thor, we come to the conclusion that a people is defined by its people alone, does that immediately delegitimize any attempt at a more material definition of a nation, be it in gaining its own money that isn’t controlled by the colonizer, a land to call its own, or cultural artifacts to keep among its people?

And yes, what about culture? Do we have a responsibility, a duty, to continue the traditions of old, in order to keep them alive? What if we don’t agree with particular traditions, but letting them go or criticizing them would, for all intents and purposes, legitimize the view that the colonizer already has of our cultures as backwards or not worth preserving altogether? Black Panther contains a beautiful scene in which Killmonger, the main antagonist of the film, violently kills museum guards in order to retrieve an artifact that rightfully belonged to Wakanda and was forcibly taken by colonizing powers. Despite Killmonger being presented as ultimately a character in the wrong, his methods destructive and informed by masculine individualist approaches to conflict, as opposed to Nakia’s community-oriented approach (I beg of you to click the link and read the amazing article) – his argumentation in this particular scene is not at all questioned.

The beauty of the films in my view is that they do not attempt to give a simple answer, because these are no simple questions. Instead we are given motivations, (possible) consequences, and a wide variety of character’s opinions, none of which are immediately or wholly dismissed, not even the ones that end up on the losing side in the film. We are exactly encouraged to see that characters can be partially right, do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or do the wrong thing for the right reasons. And hopefully, we are then able to debate among ourselves how to do the right thing for the right reasons. Just like the diaspora can only ever be observed in flux between seemingly fixed points (though how fixed these points are, is a question in itself), this debate is ever-evolving.

Indeed, when I was discussing Black Panther with my mother (regardless of what we think of the film, I think we can acknowledge that Black Panther signifies turning point in the portrayal of race on film if it can get my mother, who never voluntarily watches superhero films if she can help it, to the cinema), she explained that she was uncomfortable with the melting-pot that Wakanda seemed to be, with languages and accents that reach over the entire continent being brought together in one country. She argued that it reinstates the idea of Africa as a country, and of these cultures as basically indistinguishable and interchangeable.

Before she told me this, I would have argued that in this case, it is because Wakanda is a diasporic dream aimed at the diaspora, rather than an accurate portrayal of what a real hyper-technological nation could look like. I interpreted the various cultures as not being mixed into one, but existing parallel to each other, each one retaining their unique aspects. It is a dream of what Africa could have been like if colonizing forces hadn’t robbed the continent of its resources, people, and potential. I assumed that it was obvious to all audience members that this was what the film was aiming for.

However, similar to what my mother argues, Azad Essa makes the case that the Wakanda portrayed in Black Panther is one that the West is comfortable with: non-violent, passive, preferring to throw money at problems than fight for material change. Killmonger (you only have to read his name to know that we are not supposed to be on his side) is painted as a cautionary tale of radicalization of Black youth in lower socio-economic areas of the US.

While there are many ways to interpret Killmonger’s character, and a lot of audience members have taken to the internet to defend his honor, fact remains that by the end of the film he is dead and T’Challa is not. This is seen as a direct result of Killmonger being a body out of place in Wakanda, as in the last fight he is defeated by not paying enough attention to the way T’Challa and Shuri can manipulate their surroundings. The message is clear: however noble Killmonger’s motives, his methods of realizing his dream are ‘not done’.

Furthermore, Liberal Current has already claimed Thor Ragnarok as a champion of liberal, imperialist supremacy. The article never seems to make up its mind as to what it’s actually arguing for and against, but it does spend about a third of its word count explaining that Thor shows that Odin’s violent and imperialist mission to take over other realms is justified because it built the beautiful Asgard, despite all this wealth literally being gained by the actual goddess of death, Hela. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the piece, so let me just say that I am not ever going to agree with an article that follows up the sentence “None of this justifies the horrors of colonial, war machine liberalism” with the word “but”.

Both articles make very clear that when we are watching films about race, especially mainstream films, we are held in a double bind. Mainstream films will be seen by white people, by people who don’t realise that they are not supposed to identify with the colonizing forces. When we address the toxicity and danger of mainstream ideology, there will always be people who will consider the depiction of this ideology, even to criticize it, as a sign that they should continue celebrating it.

When we make films, and when we watch films, it is always a balancing act between the film’s intention and between the film’s reception. I would like to say that my mother, that Essa, and particularly that Liberal Current are objectively wrong. I would like to believe  my interpretation, of these films as champions of radical anti-colonialist thought, holding up a mirror to the West, and creating conversations among diasporic subjects. Unfortunately this is not the case.

How then, do we devise a revolutionary cinematic language? If we aim it at the minority, we have to live with the fact that the majority can and will interpret some of the messages in a way that might harm the minority even further. If we aim it at the majority, we force ourselves to continue speaking their language, and having our debates on their terms. How then, so we devise a revolutionary cinematic language? Again this is a question that has effected more sub-questions and debates, than actual answers. The best option it seems, is to keep trying to find solutions that approximate an answer, and find out how to ask the right questions in the meantime.


This Article was written by Pippa Sterk

Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.

Axels of violence: the portrayal of abuse in I, Tonya

If the Tonya media spectacle was big in 1994, it is potentially even bigger now with the release of I, Tonya (2017, dir. Gillespie) during a year which also saw the 23rd Winter Olympics. The film has already been praised for its consciously subjective and nuanced portrayal of abuse and violence; and although she didn’t win, the role of Tonya has been widely acknowledged as the final proof that Margot Robbie is both the comedic and dramatic powerhouse that she was suspected to be.
However not everyone is raving about it. After the Oscars, Cosmopolitan published an article written by Ali Drucker about the repeated use of Tonya Harding-jokes during the awards ceremony. Drucker argues that the story of Harding and Kerrigan becomes flattened to be about violence, and violence alone. The trauma that both women went through in their lives becomes a shorthand for aggression and competition among women, and nothing else.
The film explicitly addresses how the cycle of violence continued through the media, in the sequence where Tonya turns to the camera and says that:

“I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punchline. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”

Drucker makes an interesting point, and one that has occupied feminist filmmakers and film theorists for decades: how can we address violence without perpetuating it? How do we balance the line between showing violence in order to criticize it, and showing violence in order to be voyeurs?
In the case of I, Tonya we might be the voyeurs of the voyeurs of the voyeurs. A spectacle that is viewed through the lens of a film, based on interviews enacted by an incredible cast, viewed in cinemas by an audience that formerly (or still is) part of the media spectacle “Nancy and Tonya”, watched by people who have already picked either “Team Nancy” or “Team Tonya”. To interpret the film as simply wanting to bring Tonya Harding back to an international consciousness and fix her reputation into a stagnant, objective point in time (which is the unfortunate subtext of this award season’s many Tonya jokes), is to miss out on exactly some of the interesting commentary that the film offers.
It is not a binary story where you have to pick between the goodie and the baddie, the film rather tries to address the culture and reality in which Harding grew up. It shows way more than just the Kerrigan-incident, and most importantly, never tries to be just that. If anything, the incident is merely a footnote, a horrible real-life case of dramatic irony, in what is essentially a story about a girl being dragged from one abusive relationship to another: It is the relationship with her mother, as well as with competitive sports, with expectations of hyper-femininity that are only accessible to wealthy people. More layers of abuse are added showing the constant struggle with her husband, media spectacles and condemnation, and eventually competitive boxing.
Whilst the hyper-femininity of figure skating always shines through as the main spectacle of the film, it is often undermined or ironically criticized by being immediately juxtaposed to how Tonya is constantly enraged. Rage is what drives her to be her best self but also ensures that she fails to assimilate to what the figure skating judges expect from her. This is particularly significant in the last scene, where the intercutting of her skating and boxing allows us to see kinetic, cinematic, and social parallels between her career as a skater and as a boxer: the high point of her career, the triple axel, the moment where she says she became aware that “I was the best skater in the world”, was partially brought about by Tonya’s mother paying a man to verbally abuse her beforehand. We are asked how different the two situations are, and if we cheer for one, why not the other? If we pity one, why not the other?
The film is ultimately all about the line between care and abuse, acclaim and criticism. It is about Tonya Harding, the redneck, whose mum is an abusive alcoholic but still spends all her money on her daughter’s talent. It is about Tonya, the tomboyish girl surrounded by hyper-feminine figure skaters, someone who is taught that only rage will push her to her very best. Simultaneously she gets criticised for being just that: an enraged figure skater, unfit to join the status quo of fragile, feminine, restrained skaters. I, Tonya shows to how competitiveness, media spectacle and class issues are both the cause and the result of a fixed system that controls who is able to succeed and who is not.
However, while some audiences might consider it important to show this abusive life because of the film’s aforementioned socio-political engagement when it comes to class and gender norms, I, Tonya has also been criticised for portraying overtly cruelty and blatantly exchanging violence for laughs. In a piece for the Muse, Madeleine Davies points to who and what we are laughing at: “Scenes of physical abuse are seen in glib montages set to an anachronistic soundtrack of rollicking ’70s rock songs—played for laughs rather than for pathos”. She concludes that firstly, the real Tonya Harding has so far failed to acknowledge her past bad choices and behaviour and secondly, does neither deserve the novel limelight nor to have her privacy be the source of ridicule.
Whilst Davies makes an interesting point here especially in regard to how abuse is too easily laughed about, the scenes that walk that fine line between comedy and uneasiness, show how abuse and violence were a big part – if not the only part – in Tonya Harding’s life up to adulthood. Many women cope with abuse through humour, and the frequent breaking of the fourth wall by the characters, especially during scenes of abuse, signals to us that we shouldn’t take these images as objective, but rather as a retrospective look back on a very difficult life. In that sense, we are not told that this story of abuse is comical, but just that it can be told in a comical way.
We are shown that Tonya Harding grew up learning to immediately slap back, being beaten up by her mum was the every-day. Moreover, she had no one to teach her that violence should not be omnipresent as the people showing her initial kindness left (her dad) or had their own interests in mind (her coaches). To depict the many forms of abuse she encounters somewhat ‘normalised’ is what works so well here: We laugh at the absurdity of someone growing up like this, because we are transported into the mindset of someone for whom this is all so normal, that the only thing we can do is try and find the humour. Tonya herself realises in only a very few scenes that the way her surroundings interact with her is not normal.
Furthermore, we must not forget that again, it is a reality for many people that abusive behaviour comes hand in hand with (the image of) care – the most poignant scenes (and the ones in which the film is most obviously flaunting the talent of its cast) are the ones where we are shown, through the filmic Tonya’s eyes, slapstick violence enacted against her from either her mother or her husband. Then, suddenly, the tone of the film changes, perhaps a silence falls, and the audience as well as Tonya herself, realise that this is not funny, this is abuse. The juxtaposition of lightheartedness, the expectation of care, and this grotesque violence which initially contributes to it being perceived as comical, is exactly one that is emphasized as being a source of tragedy.
Hence, if all depictions of violence are seen as voyeuristic, then we must accept that it is unethical to depict violence altogether. And while it is certainly possible to make a case for that (as indeed some critics, especially feminist critics, have done very well), it is also possible to make the case for an alternative depiction of violence. One that does not simply exploit the cinematic subject but challenges the audience to see where we draw the line between indulgence and repulsion, between the spectacular and the grotesque. I, Tonya definitely sets a high standard for this depiction, and hopefully signals a change in the way that violence is portrayed on screen.

 

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I, Tonya (2017, dir. Gillespie)

This Article was co-written by Pippa Sterk and Johanna Sprenger.

Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.

Johanna Sprenger is a London-based writer from Berlin. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths University as well as two BAs in Communication and English Studies from Leipzig University, Germany. Usually she has opinions and writes about them on her only recently launched blog too many tall men where she discusses situations of the every day, politics and music from a feminist perspective.