First of all, we here are working so they don’t make flower vases or muses out of us.
—Mulheres: uma outra história
A metal worker toiling on the factory floor. A sex worker standing on a street corner. A breastfeeding mother marching in a protest. Contrasting, sometimes contradictory images of women at work recur throughout “Mulheres: Uma Outra Historia,”a new program currently streaming via Another Screen. Curated by feminist journal Another Gaze and the non-profit Cinelimite, the collection presents six short documentaries made by Brazilian female filmmakers spanning the late-1970s to the mid-1990s. Together, these films offer a revelatory insight into the lives of women in the country during a period of social revolution, charting the influence of a growing feminist movement at every level of society, from the chambers of the National Congress to the brothels of the red-light district.
The central preoccupation of “Uma Outra Historia” is the intersection of work and politics. These films focus primarily on the experiences of women in paid work, examining the experiences of factory workers, seamstresses, and child-minders, but they also gesture outwards towards the often-invisible unpaid work taken on by women within the family and home. Most strikingly, they center the labor of activism, the work that goes into agitating for your rights and fighting to be heard.
Eunice Gutman’s Mulheres: uma outra história (1988), from which the program takes its title, is full of this kind of activist labor. In this compelling, multi-stranded documentary, Gutman takes the 1988 signing of Brazil’s new constitution as a focal point for an exploration of female political participation in the country. The involvement of women in the writing of the constitution is seen as a breakthrough by the activists in the film, but while Gutman captures this excitement she also weaves in notes of ambivalence. Images of female representatives in the congress, their bright outfits stark in a sea of gray-suited men, are contrasted with the all-female cleaning team who maintain the building. These opposing images of female workers—the politician in her suit, the cleaner in her uniform—highlight the disconnect between the symbolic work of politics and the lived reality of most workers.
The most memorable scenes in Mulheres are shot during rallies on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. In these sequences, masses of protestors at a women’s rights march engage in exuberant displays of solidarity, handing out flowers, and singing as they march. On the surface this looks more like a carnival than a protest, but what we’re witnessing is work not pleasure. There’s a palpable electricity in the air as women speak directly to Guttman’s camera, shouting above the noise of the crowd, outlining their ideas with arresting eloquence despite the hubbub. “The space we try to occupy isn’t given to us for free,” declares representative Benedita da Silva, “we are here working so they don’t make flower vases or muses out of us.” Elsewhere, a woman holds her breastfeeding child as she speaks: “We can no longer see ourselves in pretty headshots! It’s important we practice a new kind of politics where we appear in our entirety.” With her suckling child in one arm, her free hand gesticulating emphatically, this woman is the multi-tasking embodiment of this new kind of politics: a mother, a worker, an activist, and a symbol.
The often-conflicted role of mother as a worker within capitalist structures is addressed directly in Maria Luiza d’Aboim’s Creche-Lar (1978). A portrait of an experimental daycare in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, the film is a compassionate illustration of the impossible choices faced by poor working mothers forced to choose between unpaid caring labor and the waged work they need to survive. Tenderly observed and beautifully shot—look out for a streak of lush, hopeful green running throughout, from a mass of verdant palm leaves to a flash of a peppermint headscarf—Creche-Lar is also a clear demonstration of how the feminist filmmaker can work within a resistance movement. In an interview published alongside the program, d’Aboim describes how filmmaking emerged as an extension of her activism. D’Aboim first came across the creche through her work as part of a feminist community group, the Brazilian Women’s Center. “I had a filmmaker friend, Noliton Nunes, and I said to him, ‘you have to make a film about what is happening there, it’s very interesting,’” d’Aboim recalled. “He turned to me and said, ‘Not me. You!’” For d’Aboim, making Creche-Lar was an attempt to raise awareness, stimulate debate and propose new solutions to an urgent issue facing many working women. Soon after finishing the film, d’Aboim joined forces with Gutman to start the Cinema and Video Women’s Collective, one of the first female collectives in Brazil. Like other international feminist film groups of this period, this collective saw filmmaking as activist work, a means through which to actively disseminate second wave feminist ideas.
The idea of filmmaking as activist labor can be felt particularly strongly in two films in the program which explore sex work. Amores de Rua (1994), also by Gutman, offers a portrait of Rio’s red-light district built around a series of interviews with sex workers, who, like the activists in Mulheres, are becoming increasingly politically organized. Inês Castilho and Cida Aidar’s Mulheres da Boca (1982) explores similar terrain—the brothels and nightclubs of São Paulo—but is experiential rather than explanatory, using cinema verité techniques to offer an intimate insight into the women’s lives. Despite their different approaches, both films achieve a similar purpose, humanizing the women whose stigmatized work means that they are often reduced to flat stereotypes.
Gutman achieves this empathy in Amores de Rua by letting her subjects speak at length directly to her camera, outlining their feelings in their own words. “If you think that being a prostitute means that I’m a poor miserable little person you’ve got it all wrong,” says Euridice Coelho, President of the Association of Prostitutes, describing how her work enabled her to survive as a single mother after the collapse of her marriage. Like many of Gutman’s interviewees, Coelho is conscious of the role sex workers play in exposing the capitalist dynamics that underpin the heterosexual family unit. Used to performing dream versions of the girlfriend, wife, or mistress, these women are well placed to critiques these roles, drawing comparisons between the “immoral” labor they engage in as sex workers and the socially sanctioned but sometimes strikingly similar labor performed by wives and girlfriends. Gutman shows how the informal networks that sex workers have always formed have evolved into organized advocacy groups, an extension of the same grassroots organizing we see in Creche-Lar and Mulheres. “Society has to stop with this hypocrisy and recognize our existence,” says Gabriela Silva Leite, a spokeswoman for the National Network of Prostitutes, “prostitutes exist, and we are insisting on our rights.”
While Gutman presents a polemical argument for destigmatizing sex work, Castilho and Aidar convey similar ideas through images rather than words. In Mulheres da Boca, the filmmakers eschew contextualization, instead plunging the viewer headfirst into the São Paulo underworld. Fluid handheld camerawork allows the filmmakers to slip unnoticed into this world, capturing the inner workings of these businesses. The sex workers we meet have formed their own alternative family under the watchful eye of a madam, a faux-maternal figure who scolds her girls as if they were her own daughters, apparently protecting their interests while at the same time exploiting them. It’s clear, though, that those profiting most here are men. While in Gutman’s film men are largely absent, here they are a parasitic presence, drinking and playing pool while the women work, or storming into their bedrooms to steal their money.
These same power dynamics—female bodies exploited by male bosses—are replicated in Olga Futemma and Renate Tapajo’s Trabalhadoras Metalúrgicas (1978), which follows a group of unionized female metalworkers as they strike against dangerous working conditions. The testimony of the women is harrowing—“no gloves, our eyesight is damaged, stomachs are churning, no ventilation”—and reminds us how often even in legitimate industries the female body is sacrificed for profit. Who can blame the exhausted, middle-aged worker we meet at the film’s outset, who admits that she’d rather be a man? “It’d be easier right?” she shrugs, calmly tapping the ash from her cigarette, “women suffer a lot.”
A more hopeful vision of female labor emerges in Katia Mesel’s Sulanca (1986), a colorful short which centers on the Feira de Sulanca market in rural northeastern Brazil. Once male-dominated, the market has been revolutionized by the participation of female seamstresses who, having fought to be able to trade their wares, have transformed the economic prospects of the region. As the filmmaker tells us in her to-camera introduction, this is a film about how “work and determination can truly change a people… [an] improvement in quality of life that was created by the women.”
Like a Sulanca blanket, Mesel’s film is an artful construction, a patchwork of voices and picture postcard images with a handcrafted feel. Shots of the bustling market are juxtaposed with images of the workers whose houses overflow with stacks of fabric. In one scene a woman works surrounded by teetering piles; in another an elderly woman smokes a pipe as she sews frantically, a man dozing next to her. These women have been working since they were children, but despite this toil they are proud of their hard-won independence. In a lovely sequence, Mesel’s camera scans the skyline like a landowner surveying their territory, while off-camera, two women discuss their achievements. “It’s a miracle…. Now any woman can take over a house,” says one. “We can boast about it. The two of us, we fought for it the most!”
Mesel’s Sulanca is the most optimistic of these films, but its spirit is in keeping with a program that ultimately leaves us feeling hopeful. Despite their problems, the women in these films remain convinced that change is possible. Their pragmatic spirit is mirrored first by the work of the filmmakers themselves, picking up their cameras to bear witness, and decades later, again by the curators at Another Screen and Cinelimite, as they do the work of seeking out and re-contextualizing the films for new audiences.
A huge amount of effort has clearly gone into that rediscovery and re-framing. The films arrive on Another Gaze accompanied by a rich array of texts, including a series of contemporary interviews with the filmmakers themselves. An introductory note highlights the complicated preservation histories of these films, several of which were considered “lost” until recently, with others available only in damaged or incomplete copies. Preserving women’s stories, through archival interventions like this, is itself a form of resistance, a way to stand against a historic lack of interest in female experiences. Thanks to this labor, these films live on as testament to those women who, determined to be vases and muses no more, stood up in defiance and took on the labor of activism: rebellious, radical, and ready to work.
Mulheres: Uma Outra Historia streams on Another Screen April 24 – May 24, 2022.