Women talk about their lives in Metrograph's incisive 'Tell Me' series


The series “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories,” a timely program of 25 shorts and feature-length films by and about women, will screen at New York City’s Metrograph Feb. 2-11. Opening night pairs two avant-garde shorts, Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction (1979) and Peggy Ahwesh’s From Romance to Ritual (1985). Ahwesh is a guest speaker for the 74-minute program. Strand, who died in 2009, is well-known for her ethnographic films; in fact, she and Ahwesh may be compared in this regard. Both women are interested in the uses of language, and explore the relationship of the camera to their human subjects, Strand in such close proximity to her female subjects that it is easy to imagine hearing their breath among the ambient sounds.

Strand studied anthropology, and her first interest as a filmmaker was to record the effect of colonization on the indigenous people of Central and South America, especially women. Born in 1931, she disliked the “feminist” label; she once told an interviewer that she was an artist and had no interest in politics—but Strand nevertheless belongs to the first-generation feminist filmmakers of the 1970s. Their preoccupation with the depiction of women and the recording of their testimony is apparent in Soft Fiction, where women recount their sexual desires and fantasies, some of which may seem shocking even to modern audiences. There is renewed interest in many of the filmmakers represented in this series; like Strand’s films, their work has also recently been restored. The opening-night shorts, and some documentaries and fictional films in the 10-day program, will screen in their original 16mm or 35mm formats.

The diversity represented in “Tell Me” is quite striking, as the documentaries profile African-American women, Latinas, lesbians, working-class women, homemakers, retired teachers, prison inmates and single moms. Many also have delightfully intimate titles, such as Janie’s Janie (Geri Ashur, Peter Barton, Marilyn Mulford, Stephanie Pawleski, 1971), Joyce at 34 (Joyce Chopra, 1972), Suzanne, Suzanne (Camille Billops & James Hatch, 1982), and Fannie’s Film (Fronza Wood, 1979), the frequent repetition of names suggesting the complexity of women’s identities. Several of the documentaries address one of the most pressing issues of the 1970s and early 1980s that will resonate with contemporary audiences—that of being torn between work and motherhood. During that era, women were just beginning to establish daycare centers.

In Janie’s Janie, the subject is a poor, white single mother who, in the course of applying for social services, must confront her own racist attitudes as she mingles with African-American moms. In direct-to-camera testimony, Janie recounts her abusive marriage, and the limitations placed upon her and her children because of her economic situation. Nevertheless, her resiliency is apparent: “I was my father’s Janie and then my husband’s Janie…now I’m my own Janie.” By the end, Janie partners with other single moms to start a daycare program.

Joyce at 34 is a humorous, middle-class take on the issue of motherhood; in this autobiographical short, the pregnant filmmaker talks about why she did not want a child. In Suzanne, Suzanne, the eponymous subject was the apple of her father’s eye, and also the object of his abuse; the testimony of Suzanne and her mother in this short film is a moving examination of longstanding family trauma and the double identities women often acquire to survive it.

Among the standouts at the festival is It Happens to Us (Amalie R. Rothschild, 1972), released a year before the Roe v. Wade decision, in which women recount their experiences in the era before legal abortion. The documentary is both a powerful reminder of the ongoing struggle for free choice, and the major legal victory in women’s history, second only to women’s suffrage.

Delphine Seyrig’s Be Pretty and Shut Up (1981) will resonate with modern audiences, as the French actor-filmmaker speaks with well-known female colleagues, such as Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine, about their experiences in the movie industry. Seyrig, who died in 1990, was an ardent feminist; she is best known to American audiences for her performance in Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal (1973), although she appeared in many critically acclaimed films, including Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

Documentaries by Christine Choy, To Love, Honor & Obey (Choy & Marlene Dann, 1980) and Inside Women Inside (Choy & Cynthia Maurizio, 1978), offer bracing portraits of women. In To Love, Honor and Obey, Choy’s subjects testify to the psychological and physical abuse they suffered in their marriages; the filmmaker then interviews some of those abusers, as well as social workers and police officers. The blatantly misogynistic attitudes of the men will make audiences wince. Through her subjects’ candid testimony in Inside Women Inside, Choy reveals the awful conditions under which women are incarcerated at Rikers Island prison in New York City, and a correctional facility in North Carolina. One African-American prisoner says that her unpaid prison work as a seamstress is slavery; another speaks of lifting 70-pound boxes as a regular part of her duties, and all the women complain of the lack of privacy and hygiene. What is especially apparent in Choy’s work, and in so many of the excellent documentary films showcased in this series, is that the point-of-view of the filmmaker in relation to her subjects is neither judgmental nor neutral.

This refreshing lack of outright advocacy, especially notable in the 1970s documentaries, reminds film audiences that when the camera simply documents, and the filmmaker listens—the series is aptly named “Tell Me”—the gestures, words and demeanor of the subjects shape the film. That stance more eloquently expresses the need for change than any documentary that is obviously a call to action. As women, we may or may not be more acculturated than men to listening, yet as “Tell Me” makes apparent, it was the desire of first-generation feminist filmmakers to listen closely. Baby Boomer audiences will recall the slogan of the 1960s and 1970s women’s liberation movement, that “the personal is political,” when in Roberta Cantow’s masterpiece, Clotheslines (1982), women speak about laundry. Cantow’s subjects discuss their pride or their mother’s pride in clean laundry, as well as laundry as an acknowledgment of their drudgery and oppression—yet they also speak of fond memories of conversations with other women while hanging their laundry on the roof, or calling to neighboring housewives through the open windows that provided access to their clotheslines.

The obvious significance of “Tell Me” is that it addresses the historical moment. As the series moves from the 1970s to the present, from black-and-white to color, and 16mm film to digital media, women’s concerns remain surprisingly unchanged—motherhood, marriage, their friends and family, low wages, abusive spouses, sexism and, sometimes, extreme poverty and abuse. “Tell Me,” curated by Nellie Killian, is also named for Chantal Akerman’s rarely seen (and only recently subtitled in English) Dis-moi (1980), in which she spoke to grandmothers who survived the Holocaust. In that documentary, there is the weight of annihilation, the loss of historical memory, and yet there they are, these women who remember—Akerman’s mother among them. Film is an indelible record, the Aegis for the ongoing struggle of women to be heard. Metrograph’s series is a mini immersion course in “the record.”