Women and the home, their “rightful” place in it and alleged duty to it, is ever the topical subject, an all too common association thankfully rife with permutations that provoke inspired debate. The topic of women’s at-home labors is this year’s theme of BAMcinématek’s Women at Work series. Now in its third iteration, the series this year is subtitled The Domestic Is Not Free, and it reveals the many ways in which domesticity has been celebrated—or in this case, more often rebelled against—on screen, by drawing from obvious choices, but also including a few surprises and poignant pairings.
Such a series could not be complete without Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), but also of equal note is Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), Martha Rosler’s incisive performance piece that screens with it. Rosler stars in her short ferocious parody of an instructional cooking video, in which she demonstrates kitchen vocabulary from A to Z through wild pantomime, abrupt ladle stirs and knife stabs, to create her own kind of language full of vigorous defiance.
In Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), the reaction to domesticity is an involuntary rejection of it, as Julianne Moore’s wispy homemaker lilts towards hysteria from the outside forces of “environmental disease.” Confinement to domestic life has tragic results, too, in Ousmane Sembène’s seminal film Black Girl (1966), in which a young Senegalese woman Diouana has domesticity foisted upon her. Shipped to the prim jail of a bourgeois flat in France, she is commanded to cook this, clean that at the drop of her mistress’ scathing glare, and toted as a status symbol among the neighbors, freely offered to their grabby hands. Relayed in candid inner monologue that burns with indignity, her rightful grievances flood the negative space of pristinely white walls pounded by harsh sunlight, accentuating the brisk contrast of monochromatic film. That her speech has been dubbed in French—which we are told the character does not understand—only accentuates her erasure in the post-colonial world.
Narration is also key in Black Girl’s two accompanying shorts. Fronza Woods illuminates the life of an unassuming cleaning woman in a New York City fitness studio in Fannie’s Film (1979). This 65-year old-black woman might recede into the surrounding backdrop of toned bodies metrically stretching, but her voiceover grounds her presence. As she presides over them with gratifying calm, detailing her daily minutia, her hopes and dreams, and sings over them with hymn, this monologue becomes a sort of exaltation of a life that counters assumed notions about domestic workers. A contented and fulfilled presence in a room of artfully swaying mannequins. Meanwhile, Stefani Saintonge’s Fucked Like a Star (2018),bursts with frenetic imagery and energy, excerpting Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, relating the travails—hunting, bearing, fighting, burying—of female worker ants, noting the impossibility of idling as well as the superfluousness of the male species.
Men, too, are mostly absent from Ama-San (2016), Cláudia Varejão’s documentary on the “sea women” of Japan, who, following ancient tradition, dive for abalone and pearls. The invigorating forays into the writhing ribbons of kelp run second though to childcare (ferrying children to and fro, picking up after them, and feeding them.) Emerging from the undulating lyricism that stems from a seemingly ethereal task—unadorned divefor rare delicacies offered by the ocean depths—is a picture of community, wordlessly built among the women and the rhythms of their clandestine ecosystem hiding in plain sight.
In the shorts program, a trio of films skewers the stereotypes of the roles held by black women in society by wielding retributive means. With the approachable solemnity of a news-magazine, Muriel Jackson’s documentary Maids (1985) lets black women directly address the viewer; L.A. Riots-set Daydream Therapy (Bernard Nicolas, 1970) imagines a revenge fantasy to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny,” the personal as political; and Lip (Tracey Moffatt, 1999) handily stitches together scenes of black actresses as maids from cinema’s past, as they usurp the spotlight and revel in the tension with their white employers. Witness Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn among them, in their condescension and skittishness, receiving their comeuppance.
Another film that dabbles in the reclaiming of power, but this time by force of genre is Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Good Manners (2017), a Brazilian film best left unspoiled about the morphing relationship between nanny and her pregnant employer. The nanny is black and working class; the housekeeper white and rich, with an enigmatic past and prone to sleepwalking. Wriggling out from the gaudy flashbulb hues of this fairytale-like film is the notion that despite any tender rapport between the parties involved (mother and nanny; child and nanny), there will always remain the subconscious predilection for the strong to devour the weak. The marginalized help can be partner, lover, mother, in all superficial manner, but never be blood.
The main highlight of the series might be Iranian masterpiece The Day I Became A Woman,(2000). Marzieh Meshkini’s triptych recounts a scene from the life of three Iranian women of differing age. In the final segment, the accouterments of a dwelling—oven, refrigerator, wedding dress, all newly purchased—are strew upon a sandy beach. The proud owner of these signifiers of domestic life, which threaten to drift away come evening tide, is an elderly widow attended to by a squadron of kiddies. Her child-like felicity and the lightly preposterous scenario promptly conjure Fellini. It is only by the final breath of her husband and release of an inheritance that affords her this acquisition of material goods. The image poetically reflects the absurdity and irony of achieving one’s once coveted mode of life, only to realize it cannot and does not exist in a practicable way.
If the third segment was Fellini-esque, the first is more akin to De Sica. Harsh reality undercut with melancholy pops of comedy. A young girl’s future looms above her as the rising sun: the strike of the noon-day clock marks the hour she turns nine and becomes a woman. Pressed to squeeze out last playdate with a friend of opposite gender, she scampers about town with a genuine urgency. The naturalistic and earnest performances of the young children, presumably non-professionals, lend an unforeseen urgency in this simple but cutting illustration of the drastic changes that await.
The gut-wrenching second segment serves a more overt visual metaphor: a young wife peddles furiously in a bike race to escape her husband, who chases after her on horseback to save her from societal shame and later forcibly serve a divorce. The swarm of black chadors soaring down the road is underscored by the steady hum-ding whir of wheels, portending at monotony then apprehension. Soon men return in multiples (brothers, tribal elders), pleading for her return, but she serves them little response. The explanation rests in her a face, desperately pursuing independence at any cost. Resilience shines on.
Women at Work: The Domestic Is Not Free runs November 2 – 10, 2018 at Brooklyn's BAMcinématek.