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'The Female Gaze in Documentary Film' is Expansive and International

By Arshia

Purple book cover titled The Female Gaze in Documentary Film: An International Perspective. Features face of six people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Half a century ago, British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s exploration of the “male gaze” postulates how the visual arts—and by extension, works of literature—objectify and frame women through a heterosexual male viewer’s sexual desires, stripping women of agency to their bodies as commodities being consumed for male viewing, ownership, and conquest. What might constitute the “female gaze” not only sets a counter-narrative to the male gaze, but also subsumes principles of intersectional feminisms that account for subjective and individual experiences and definitions of gender and sex across spectrums of culture, race, ethnicity, economies, and histories. Australian filmmaker and academic Lisa French’s latest book, The Female Gaze in Documentary Film—An International Perspective, published by Palgrave Macmillan, shoulders the fairly exacting responsibility of deconstructing the female gaze in documentaries. French’s research finds that women find it easier to gather funding for documentaries as opposed to fiction, owing to smaller budgets and crews involved. This fact sets the premise for her inquiry.

The idea of a “female” gaze shifts contexts that the male gaze circumvents by obliterating the nuances of the various sexualities residing between and beyond the male and female binaries. The male gaze, therefore, is not just limiting and self-serving, but also extirpating. As a result, the female gaze is burdened with the task of not only accommodating but also nurturing narratives that do not find space in the narrowness of their male counterpart. French establishes this unequivocally by stating that “the female gaze is not the inverse of Mulvey’s male gaze; it is centered on female subjectivities as expressed in film.” She emphasizes that the female gaze is not “homogeneous, singular or monolithic, and it will necessarily take many forms” informed by contexts not limited to only sex and gender.

The book attempts at being encyclopedic, drawing examples from various continents, cultures, and time periods. French writes, women’s participation today, “including as directors, is higher than other filmmaking genres, particularly narrative feature production.” She cites this as an example to highlight the slow, but certain growth in female visibility and participation across film and television industries across the world, stating that women directors now make up over 40 percent of the count in some markets, like Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, or at least 50 percent in Western countries like the US. These introductory pages that lend insightful and expansive overviews about the situation of women within the larger filmmaking ecosystem are crucial to equipping the readers for what lies ahead. In execution, however,  French becomes self-limiting, as the text runs in circles with the same set of examples. 

French is conscious about not making this undertaking an exercise in whitewashing the histories of the various cultures that have established themselves as forces not just in documentary filmmaking, but in filmmaking as a whole. While her studies lean heavily on the work of white and Western filmmakers, French is mindful of being inclusive—a claim she makes right at the outset and lives up to. This is crucial to her scholarship as it works to acknowledge cultural blindspots in societies that have traditionally oppressed gender and sexual minorities, especially in regions such as the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. French elucidates this with an example of the Chinese new documentary movement of the ‘90s, whose films exploring the lives of individuals marginalized by reforms in the “post-Mao official discourse” shifted from realism towards the spontaneity of cinéma vérité and direct cinema. This allowed Chinese filmmakers  room to talk about subjects that the “mainstream” rejected. Li Hong, the nation’s “first independent female documentarian,” produced the remarkable Out of Phoenix Bridge (1997). The film follows four rural single women in their twenties living together in Beijing, as Hong unravels the status of women in Chinese society. In this instance, French spotlights the “alternativeness” that Hong’s film stands for within the larger male-driven movement it’s embedded in. She reminds the reader that Hong pushed the intellectual boundaries of the movement away from the self-limiting urban elite who were usually observed with an adulatory gaze, to include subjects from socioeconomic margins who could articulately critique their own circumstances and situatedness. Her feminist gaze lent agency to the women who widened the scope of their own representation as stereotyped characters chasing “narrow economic interests” to ones who were pushing back against patriarchal structures that stifled their very existence.  This, in several ways, testifies to French’s integrity as an academic earnestly in search of an answer to her central question of what indeed the female gaze entails. 

The first half of the book, titled “Women’s Documentary Practice, Theories and Histories,” is further divided into chapters such as “Women and Documentary” and “The Female Gaze”. The inspection of what historically, socially, and economically pervades the female gaze is meticulous, with the “Aesthetics and the Influence of Gender” chapter  particularly perceptive in the way it studies the visual markers of the female gaze in non-fictional genres. French draws upon the observations of Belgian-born director Marie Mandy: “[...I]f you look at films made by men you will see that they occupy the screen a lot. They tell their story but they are on screen and we could do an exercise and count the number of shots and so on where you have a woman dealing with an intimate story—family or autobiographical story she would be more present with the voice; hands; reflection; but she won’t just go and be there like that,” French quotes Mandy. In French’s analysis, a film does not have to be about or feature women to showcase aspects of a “female gaze”—unlike the strict rules of the Bechdel Test, but functioning within the same feminist framework that attempts to understand female presence in cultural dialogues in manners less obvious and more visceral. 

In the second half of the book,  extensive interviews with filmmakers focus on how cinema is shaped by the geographical situatedness, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities of auteurs who primarily identify as female. French makes clear what each of her six interviewees brings to the table through the names of the chapters. For instance,  in “Documentary as Artform: Pirjo Honkasalo’s Cinematic Poetics,” French goes deeper into the nuances of the techniques employed in documentary filmmaking by a woman, and how said “poetics” are evident in and influence her craft. Subsequently, she lucidly states why each of her other five interviewees—Nishtha Jain, Marie Mandy, Nancy Kates, and Gillian Armstrong—were chosen for the project, through the names of the chapters dedicated to them.  The interviews are fairly exhaustive, allowing French to nail the core of this elusive female gaze as “the communication or expression of female subjectivity—a gaze shaped by a female ‘look,’ voice and perspective—the subjective experience or perspective of someone who lives in a female body (female agency is privileged).” She honors the fact that the awareness of gender difference while living and identifying as a woman lies at the center of the female experience, and is what connects women to each other. It is the same reason why women relate to films made by other women and “recognize the gendered experience each captures in their ‘female gaze’ (as multifaceted as that might be).”

Lisa French’s book, therefore, is an appropriately timed, micro-focused exploration of a subject deserving of her scholarship. One may imagine literature that zooms further into the nuances of this ever-evolving thesis, or mayhaps even expand its ambit to include more sub-genres of the gaze, influenced by a broader range of sociopolitical indices. Either way, the filmmaker-scholar sets the stage for a dialogue that is not only crucial to understanding the contributions of women to visual cultures across the world but is also key to uncovering their social status in societies across varied  geopolitical contexts. It becomes especially significant in light of hyper-masculine forces renewing their assaults on the female body by attacking our access to healthcare, education, and other bare necessities governing the everyday lives of women whose stories, therefore, need to be told, heard, studied, and amplified more than ever before. French shows the way for just that.

Arshia is an arts and culture journalist based in India, who has worked in television, print, and digital. Her body of work focuses on and lies at the intersection of internet cultures, ever-evolving dialogues on gender and feminism, cinema, literature, food, and anything that seems to go beyond what meets the eye.