Women in Revolt: An International Women's Day Film Syllabus

Ten films that explore what a woman in revolt looks like.
Ruun Nuur

Gulabi Gang

Gulabi Gang

The legacy of feminist cinema showcases the complexities of women’s humanity through different prisms of ideology, time, landscapes, and national origin. The revolutionary potential of witnessing women’s liberation through a visual medium has provided a deeper and more complex portrayal of the diversity of narratives and characters that have otherwise been stripped from other areas of culture. These will only grow under the blossoming contemporary feminist movement that will celebrate the 103th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2017. 

This anniversary comes mere months after the momentous Women’s March, whose formation has roots in the result of Donald Trump’s presidential win but was truly years in the making with cuts to reproductive healthcare access, trans and queer civil rights, and general inadequacies towards women. The galvanization of millions of women around the world has ushered an even greater desire for better representation on screen, so here are ten films that explore what a woman in revolt looks like: whether it’s visualizing a post-revolutionary queer socialist-feminist utopia in New York City, women contemplating domestic norms in Senegal, or discovering personhood within the confines of global patriarchy in Turkey, all of these films are directed by women and helps contextualize the meaning of intersectional approach to feminism on screen through an international lens. In solidarity with the A Day Without Women general strike that perfectly coincides with International Women’s Day we as a film community can harvest a new canon of world cinema that uplifts the voices of global feminist filmmaking.

1. Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983)

Under the Regan dominated 1980s American landscape comes the crown jewel of cult feminist classic Born in Flames, a dystopian sci-fi that puts lesbians as the purveyors of a successful socialist revolution. Lizzie Borden creates one of the most empowering feminist calls to arms in a narrative feature that challenges sexual harassment and embraces the micro-budget filmmaking aesthetic. 

2. Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

In Brooklyn, seventeen-year-old Alike, juggles her conflicting sexual identity as a lesbian within a religious Christian household. Constantly risking friendship, heartbreak and in a battle of familial approval, Alike’s desperate search for self-expression makes for an incredible feature debut from Dee Rees and brilliant performance by the film’s star, Adepero Oduye.

3. Mossane (Safi Faye, 1996)

Perhaps the greatest indicator that liberation is autonomy. Having the opportunity to make your own choices in life is what has fueled revolts since the dawn of time. In Mossane, the beautiful fourteen-year-old title character has reached marriageable age in her Senegalese village but doesn’t have the right to choice her suitor since an arranged marriage was set upon her birth. Yet her rejection sets up a course that makes culminates in a trailblazing African melodrama. 

 4. The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Makhmalbaf, 2000)

Considered by many as a masterpiece of contemporary cinema, The Day I Became a Woman consists of three interconnected stories: a girl on the brink of ‘womanhood,’ a wife racing on her bicycle to escape the clutches of her husband, and an elderly woman indulging in things that she has once restricted. It’s a poetic and minimalist journey of girls becoming and women in stages of undoing.

5. Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

In the midst of last year’s ongoing #OscarsSoWhite debacle, the debut feature from Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, unfortunately flew under the radar but undoubtedly was one of the most powerful films competing at the 88th Academy Awards. Set against a backdrop of a coastal Turkish village, five orphaned sisters cared for by their grandmother and uncle resist pressures of marriage and appropriate femininity in a stunning coming of age tale.  

6. One Way or Another (Sara Gómez & Julio García Espinosa , 1978)

The first Cuban feature length film made by a Afro-Cuban anda woman defied the glass ceiling by profiling the creation of the Miraflores housing complex in a post-Cuban revolution landscape through the eyes of Yolanda, a teacher who can’t find the best methods to teach her marginalized children in the slums due to their heritage.  This quasi-documentary utilizes innovative fictional techniques to create a genuinely passionate piece of cinema.

7.  Rosa Luxemburg (Margarethe von Trotta, 1986)

A couple of days ago, Marxists around the world celebrated the birthday of famed philosopher and revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, who was immortalized on film by fellow German feminist Margarethe von Trotta in the eponymous 1986 biopic. Despite the daunting reality of Luxemburg’s assassination coinciding with the rise of Nazism, the revolutionary’s iconic “socialism or barbarism” slogan heeds well today.

8. Gulabi Gang (Nishtha Jain , 2012)

In India, an uprising is brewing. The central mountainous region of Bundelkhand is the site of a women led revolution lead by the Gulabi Gang, a fierce collective ladies wearing all pink saris who take up the cause of fighting against gender violence, caste oppression and widespread corruption. Despite showcasing troubling cases of injustice, the 2014 documentary incites a seed of hope for grassroots political organizing.  

9.  Song of the Exile (Ann Hui, 1990)

Lauded as one of the pillars of Hong Kong New Wave Cinema, Ann Hui takes a step towards the semi-autobiographical with Song of Exile. It is a nuanced exploration into two women, mother and daughter, caught between the all too common generational disconnects and battles of emigration, diaspora, and war. Beautifully rendered by a lead performance from Maggie Cheung, Song of the Exile excels in grounding a multi-generational drama that spans countries in the humanity of female relationship.

10. Surname Viet Given Name Nam (T. Minh-ha Trinh, 1989)

Trinh stands as one of the most distinguished conceptual visual makers in the world, and this late eights documentary is a jewel in her canon. Exploring questions of identity, popular memory and culture, whilst focusing on aspects of Vietnamese reality as seen through the lives and history of women resistance in Vietnam and in the U.S, it raises questions on the politics of interviewing and documenting. 

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Lizzie BordenSafi FayeMarzieh MakhmalbafDeniz Gamze ErgüvenSara GomezJulio Garcia EspinosaMargarethe von TrottaNishtha JainAnn HuiTrinh T. Minh-haDee Rees
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