Film Society Screening: A Woman’s World

By Phang Yeu Yeou (19A01A) and Loh Lin (19A01D)
Photos courtesy of Ms Joanna Ng

“What are the struggles of being a woman?”

That was the big question that Raffles Film Society’s film screening addressed in a small space on 8th March. That Thursday evening saw students gathering in the Hodge Lodge and being ushered into the movie room by enthusiastic Film Society members, where movies were screened in commemoration of International Women’s Day. Although initially beset by technical difficulties, the session soon got underway, with breaks for discussion interwoven with the screenings of the films themselves

Film society member facilitating discussions about the films

The overall tone of the session was nothing short of sombre, with a sharp focus on the struggles women face in realising their sexuality, autonomy, and identity through the ages, as showcased through a lineup of five films.

The Order of Things (2010)

The Order of Things (2010)

The first of the films, The Order of Things opens with a woman, Julia, hunched over in a bathtub, while her husband Marcos alternately cajoles and threatens her for the location of his family heirloom belt. Later, the audience is let in on the revelation that Julia has actually been sitting on the belt all along, and for good reason – the welts on her back bear testament to the real reason for Marcos’s frenzied search for the belt.

The minimalist cinematography directs the audience’s eye to a number of props used prominently throughout the film. Chief amongst them is the belt that Marcos uses to perpetuate the domestic abuse he and his brothers inflict on their wives – much like how traditional masculinism is learnt and enforced, the belt is likewise passed down from generation to generation as a stern reminder of the fixed roles of men and women in relation to each other. The difficulty of deviating from that tradition is shown through Marquitos, Julia’s son, fleeing the household out of self-preservation; although he rejects the tradition for himself, he was ultimately unable to help his mother out of the same situation.

Water was another key symbol in the film, with the water in the bathtub serving as both sanctuary and prison – for despite the temporary safety it provided Julia in her own home, staying inside the water likewise furthered the length of time she stayed inside the cycle of violence. That, in conjunction with Julia’s silence throughout the film, mirrors how victims of domestic abuse in the real world often choose to suffer in silence instead of seeking help as they fear the escalation of abuse if they report their abusers. Overall, the abstract and metaphorical nature of the film gave new perspective into the helplessness domestic abuse victims feel, and how difficult it is to extract the victims out of their situation.

Charlotte Yeong (19A13B) shared that “although it showed the ugly side of domestic physical and emotional abuse, it also gave watchers a hint of hope of the possibility of new beginnings and rebirth after trauma, which I feel is important to acknowledge.” She also “[appreciated] how the film was able to show both the vulnerability and strength that a woman can possess”. It was evident from the reactions during the discussion that this was the pivotal film of the session for many, and residual uneasiness lingered even as Film Society moved on. Interestingly, they chose to show the next two movies, Une Femme Coquette and Pretext, in tandem as both dealt with how women coped with rape across different time periods.

Une Femme Coquette, or The Flirtatious Woman (1955)

Une Femme Coquette, or The Flirtatious Woman (1955)

(Trigger Warning: Rape)

Une Femme Coquette follows a woman who comes across a prostitute seducing a man and luring him up to her room, and grapples with both shock at her boldness and respect for her ability to utilise her autonomy for herself. She later attempts to emulate this by flirting shyly with a stranger, but changes her mind almost immediately after. However, she is mistakenly assumed to be soliciting sexual services and is harassed by him. Despite her fervent rejection of his advances, he pursues her all the way back to her house and violates her.

Despite this grim narrative, the film maintains a considerably casual tenor throughout, with the woman seemingly unaware of the gravity of the situation. The film opens and ends with her writing a letter to her friend, expressing her distress not over the assault, but over the fact that she “cheated” on her husband. She laments that “[she is] cruelly punished for her flirtatiousness”,  and ends the letter with a plea for her friend to trust in her innocence. Her trivialisation of her sexual assault echoes society’s beliefs at that point in time, where the concept of women having sexual autonomy was hardly acknowledged, and a woman’s sexuality was a tool for men’s pleasure. The flippancy of the movie’s treatment of its subject matter is thus revealing of far more insidious and appalling implications; this is not a movie to be treated lightly.

Pretext (2017)

Pretext (2017)

(Trigger Warning: Rape)

Decidedly modern in its use of audio recording technology and idiosyncratic yet common spaces like the laundromat, Pretext differs from Une Femme Coquette in its approach to depicting the trauma sexual assault victims must live with long after the event has occurred, opting for a more no-holds-barred approach. A woman confronts her rapist over a phone call in order to get him convicted for his crime, following which she attempts to integrate back into her daily life. She goes through the motions of her usual routine, all the while bearing the weight of her trauma, and we see the aftermath of the pain her assailant inflicted on her.

Subverting the typical dramatic structure of inserting the film’s climax in the middle, Pretext opens with what may easily be the most distressing moment of the entire film: the phone call. The woman is forced to relive her experience all over again and relate it in explicit detail for it to constitute as evidence under the court of law. The irony is that in order to seek justice for themselves, the victim would be forced to relive their trauma, lending credence to their dilemma over whether the process of standing trial is worthwhile. This is especially since the assaulter may still receive a mere slap on the wrist even after the undoubtedly painful procedure the victim had to suffer through.

Both films end on an abrupt note with little semblance of closure, cutting to black right after the woman in Une Femme Coquette reveals that she was raped and right as the woman in Pretext experiences a panic attack after glimpsing someone who might have been her rapist. The purposeful cliffhangers suggest that much of the residual trauma that sexual assault victims undergo happens off-screen, or hidden from the scrutiny of their loved ones, particularly since the women in both films put on a façade of normalcy in front of their friends. Ultimately, recovery is a long and arduous process, and support networks must be consistent for them to be effective.

Dove: Legacy (2014)

Dove: Legacy (2014)

Legacy departs from the archetypal mould of beauty that typical commercials for beauty products promote, choosing instead to explore how a woman’s confidence is taught and inherited from generation to generation, with an emphasis on natural and inclusive beauty. The film showcases mothers and daughters being asked, separately, about which aspects of their bodies they felt most insecure about, and later, which aspects of their bodies they took the most pride in.

Unfortunately, criticism and skepticism directed at the film have attacked the apparent level of scripting involved in the responses. For instance, the parallel of a mother hating her thighs because they were big and strong, even as her daughter professed love for her own thighs for much the same reason felt too coincidental to suspend disbelief in the authenticity of the responses. Yet, in an industry where corporations prey on consumer insecurities and idealisations of a narrowly defined body type to market their products, a commercial promoting such messages of self-love come as enough of a breath of fresh air to forgive its other transgressions. After all, like one woman in the film acknowledged, “self-worth and beauty [are] an echo”, and the underlying premise that confidence and body-positivity can be a ripple effect is an important one to learn. The message that self-hatred is learnt thus transcends the directing of the film; skepticism of the script must be differentiated from skepticism of the message in evaluating the commercial’s attempt to raise awareness of issues regarding self-love or acceptance.

Gender (2012)

Gender (2012)

A documentary drenched in heavy irony in its subversion of male tropes, Gender offers us several glimpses into the protagonist’s life. A female andrologist, Lena repeatedly espouses the belief that men remain the superior species. The irony of her beliefs undercuts the tone of the movie when she is shown to be carrying out the acts she declares women are incapable of performing: we see her directing a play and attempting to solve conflicts among the actors, despite her previous assertion that women were not structured for leadership due to their lack of testosterone. Additionally, she works in a medical field usually dominated by men, and for all intents and purposes appears to excel at her job.

Her recurring refrain of men’s supremacy underscores her internalisation of a woman’s circumscribed place in a traditional society: docile and content to remain in the background, whereas men are encouraged to assert dominance and make their mark. In almost deliberately wry scene transitions, her actions mirror the very traits she declares women inherently lack, all the while seemingly unaware of the nature of her behaviour and the male archetype usually associated with such attributes. One scene in particular depicts her engaged in a heated phone call, where she vows to utilise her oratory arsenal to ruin anyone who hurts her immediate social circle. This stark show of aggression juxtaposes with the subservient “backseat” women are typically consigned to in tension-fueled situations, further highlighting the subversion of the suppressive stereotypes that typify a male-dominated bubble.

Fortunately, such revolutions no longer have to be subtle in our current age, where women are predominantly responsible for kickstarting and leading prominent social movements that allow change to snowball. One recent example would be the #TimesUp movement, which was started by over 300 women, and is focused on expanding its support to industries beyond the elite entertainment sphere. It has undoubtedly generated worldwide attention, lending to the aim of raising awareness and amplifying oppressed voices. If anything, this film quietly prods us with the reminder that, whether they are aware of it or not, women are capable of resisting the conventions society attempts to bury them in.  

Closing thoughts

The general sentiments about the films shown seemed to be that of horror, startle and hope. Charlotte (19A01B) felt that “[the screening] was a greater reminder of the issues that women still face in society”, and that “this serves as motivation for [her] to change society’s perceptions of women and rid misogyny, to be more involved in advocating [for] women’s rights and to better appreciate the women around [her] for braving through the struggles…[and to] rid society of such problems so that the women of future generations need not face similar experiences”.  Zenan Han (18S06A) also expressed that “[the screening] did help [him] understand [female troubles] better, be it the barricades a rape victim faces in her/his process of getting closure or the chains attached to women facing domestic abuse that prevent them from getting out of their situations”.

 “literature, visual arts, music [all come together] in film and [films] draw on the strengths of each form to be really emotionally compelling. I think that’s also why film is probably the most popular art form today. That makes it powerful, that makes it influential, and in the long run the cultural impacts of film can be very lasting”.

– Elizabeth Xu (18A13A), Chairperson of Film Society

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Xu (18A13A), Chairperson of Film Society, had this to say about film’s effectiveness as mechanism for change: “literature, visual arts, music [all come together] in film and [films] draw on the strengths of each form to be really emotionally compelling. I think that’s also why film is probably the most popular art form today. That makes it powerful, that makes it influential, and in the long run the cultural impacts of film can be very lasting”. Indeed, film does make use of its unique method of storytelling to wholly immerse the audience in the headspace of someone else. If only for a moment, seeing things through their eyes, hearing things through their ears – all of that culminates in the profound empathy most feel after watching a movie. She also observed that “females are still sorely underrepresented in film, which means a lot of authentic female-centric struggles are overlooked especially in mainstream media”. Giving the spotlight to such women-specific issues is thus needed to redefine the conversation around the role of feminism in today’s society, and to broaden our collective empathy of the multidimensional struggles women face.

Ultimately, films have no inherent moral obligation in and of themselves, but given their immense ubiquity across various societies, they are capable of sowing seeds of social revolution and starting conversations about issues that should be discussed in greater depth. Such discourse was observed to have taken place even after the screening ended, with students vacating the movie room still deep in discussion about the films. We at Raffles Press found this heartening, and would like to encourage all our readers to continue this spirit of curiosity about the larger societal fabric into our daily lives. 

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