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In Control of the Situation

The 2017 edition of the Internationales Frauen Film Festival of Dortmund and Cologne in North Rhine-Westfalia, Germany, marked the 30th anniversary of the female focused festival. Ever faithful to its original feminist curatorial stance, the festival featured an incredible variety of female fronted cinematic works from all over the globe. Indeed, this edition’s programme featured no less than 240 films embracing many formats, genres, topics, nationality and lengths, as well as a number of successful side-events.

On this occasion, the Museum Ostwald located in the Dortmunder U, the very heart of the festival, hosted an exhibition on the work of the French-American artist Niki de Saint-Phalle entitled ‘I am a Fighter’. The exhibition featured artworks, installations and videos that retraced the artist’s reflection on femininity and the fascinating complexity of womanhood, a vision shared by the artistic direction of the German film festival.

Niki de Saint-Phalle considered artistic creation as a dedicated and natural space for women to express themselves through. A space where femininity may fully express itself, with its passion, its aggressiveness, its personal relation to sexuality. In this space, art is freed from the harassing guilt stemming from a patriarchal society that pressures women into meeting unrealistic expectations, notably to keep silent and to answer male demands. It is a space where women may cherish the most basic of human rights and needs that is to feel and to express oneself intimately, entirely and dare I say, selfishly.

For Niki de Saint-Phalle ultimate goal always intended to reach an accurate depiction of the contemporary situation of women in the world from the late 50s to her death in the early 2000s. Throughout six decades, her work celebrates the many facets of femininity: multicultural, committed, violent, passionate and devouring. Concepts that do not usually fit within the conventional definition of womanhood - soft-spoken, timid and submissive. It was this traditional construct of femininity that she fought against throughout her artistic life.

The ‘I am a Fighter’ exhibition resonated particularly strongly with the curatorial stance of the Frauen Film Festival defending through its programs a plurality of feminist approaches and visions of womanhood, raising unconventional reflections on women’s works, claims, and creativity. The exhibition on Niki de Saint-Phalle thus naturally fit within the space of the festival where women film directors, producers and technicians are able to share their creative works with an audience curious to discover alternative and unconventional female discourses and talents.

It is essential to explain that Niki de Saint-Phalle remains up to these days a paragon of feminist art because of her absolute and utter abandon to the traditional ideas of femininity when it comes to artistic creation. Her person and her work reconcile seemingly antagonistic conceptions of womanhood, and by doing so assert that it is alright to be a complex being.

The image one might commonly have of a strong woman today might be simplistically summed-up as being unattached, notably by giving up on motherhood and privileging a career for example. I myself once clung to this incomplete and poor vision of modern femininity which had been altered and shaped by society by turning women either into mothers or career-women. In the end, one is still given no choice and the doxa chooses for them. Re-discovering Niki de Saint-Phalle’s work through this exhibition opened my mind anew and made me realise how harsh I was being with myself, in regards to both my personal expectations and my vision of femininity. How about being a mother and a creator if you decide to? How about embracing all aspects of femininity? How about being complex woman and being okay with it?

In one of her most famous interviews Niki de Saint-Phalle is asked questions by an interviewer to whom she points out his biased, anti-feminist behavior and discourse on her work. Answering him, she exalts her body and her art, never diminishing them but proudly countering his attacks by embracing her individuality and her personal relation to femininity. She proudly declares that biological creation or artistic creation are, in the end, both creative processes, and that if she did not have the possibility to create as an artist, she would get pregnant every nine months just because creation is an individual trait of hers and that she cannot depart from it. She declares this without any apologies and, to me, it was notably a very refreshing way to consider motherhood through art, not as a burden or a social expectation but as a proper individual choice, and here, the choice of an artist. What is also very refreshing when listening to her is that pregnancy is not a taboo topic and being a mother didn’t change her as a person, as a lover, as an artist, as an activist. She remained faithful to herself. This is something very important to stress because in most global discourses, motherhood transforms you, transcends you, turns you into a saint by making you renounce to your life for the sake of your family. It is a divine-like, redemptive act that is supposed to fulfill your very existence because, as a woman, one is born to give life and it ends there. That is what a traditional society teaches you. But Niki de Saint-Phalle, just as many other women on this planet, does not consider motherhood as an end, nor as a means either, just as one of the many facets of femininity that she exalts in her work, and that a woman may or may not embrace. It's all about choice.

And just as motherhood is one of the many facets of femininity, it also counts many other ones that do not make women less, or more, women-like, it only makes them more human. For example, it is generally agreed upon that aggressivity in women’s behavior is considered as a sign of biological disfunctionment. Being a woman is emotionally very straining and violent because you are never really allowed to let go and give way to extreme feelings without being categorised or stigmatised as unhealthy. Art allows this to happen by establishing a safe space for the translation of this very human behavior and thought process tending toward violence and that, I think, many women feel as repressed individuals. It allows them to turn these feelings into positive acts of creation. That is what Niki de Saint Phalle did too, and she particularly expressed it through her different series of tirs (target paintings).

…I shot at daddy, all men, small men, large men, important men, fat men, men, my brother, society, the Church, the convent, the school, my family, my mother, all men, daddy, myself, men. I shot because it was fun and gave me a great feeling. I shot because I was fascinated to see the painting bleed and die. I shot for the sake of this magical moment. It was a moment of scorpion-like truth. White purity. Victim. Ready! Take aim! Fire! Red, yellow, blue, the painting weeps, the painting is dead. I have killed the painting. It has been reborn. War without victims. -Niki de Saint Phalle (1)

The exhibition having thus left a lasting impression on me, I attended the festival in an interesting state of mind. Just as promised, the films screened by IFFF were very diverse in their form and in their discourses, telling of the sensibilities and personalities of each film professionals. There was a documentary about aging and the loss of connection one experience at a certain age, a connection found again thanks to artistic expressions (A Young Girl in her Nineties by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Yann Coridian, 2016), a fiction on the work of mourning in the face of natural catastrophe with beautiful and surreal underwater scenes setting a fantastical frame for the actual trauma of 2010 (Ayiti mon Amour by Guetty Felin, 2016), short documentaries by Su Friedrich on the topic of family roots (I Cannot Tell You How I Feel, 2016; The Ties that Bind, 1984), a short animation film reflecting on the violence of pop culture and contemporary capitalism (The Call of Cuteness by Brenda Lien, 2017)… and many other works that asserted the diversity of voices and approaches that make female and feminist cinemas so interesting and complex.

However, one film in particular caught my attention for its pitch-black humor and its unusual take on motherhood. Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016) is sleek, aesthetically very pleasing to watch and delightfully gory, and was inspired by the scriptwriter, director and main actress’ (she endorsed every role) straining experience of pregnancy.

Prevenge tells the story of Ruth, a seven months pregnant woman on a mission: to kill, first as a training, and then as an act of revenge as she holds society responsible for the loss of her child’s father. The concept in itself is enough, I think, to scandalize the most conservative of audience, but it doesn’t end there as the unborn child is the one whispering from the womb to commit those crimes.

The synopsis gives high expectations, and the film lives up to them. The story questions the general state of loneliness of individuals in our society, and particularly the situation of lone women, and not only through the figure of the heroine. It also questions sanity, obviously the sanity of the main character, independant of her biological state and co-dependant of society’s expectations and pressures on her. It also questions the sanity of the other characters, the silliness of their conception of motherhood, naive, joyful, painless, all pastel, far from the extreme (fictional) reality the main character experiences but also far from the reality of regular pregnancies.

When watching the film you can feel how much feminine and yet, irreverent, gory and hilarious it is. Alice Lowe, actually pregnant when shooting the film, plays with her body shape in a refreshingly untraditional way, and we have here with Lowe’s film a great case of creative inventiveness motivated by a pure female experience, and a deeply individual one too. What is also highly enjoyable is that Alice Lowe does not backpedal on her fictional and psychotic approach on motherhood. My only fear when watching the film was that she could risk making it less powerful by redeeming the heroine, but the film retains perfection up to its last seconds.

The cynical, shameless approach of Alice Lowe on this personal experience is very interesting and thought-provoking. It pushes the audience to consider motherhood and pregnancy as something different from the common and excessively cheesy construct it ended up being in our society.

Without condemning it as something negative, Alice Lowe’s film just put things back into perspective (in an extreme manner but still) and her own audacity as a creator also advocates to get rid of the guilt women can feel when physically or emotionally suffering during their pregnancy.

In the end, I think this film found a particular echo because its irreverent violence reminded me, somehow, of the one inhabiting some of Niki de Saint-Phalle’s work. I enjoyed how masterfully complex the film is, in terms of depiction of character, but also in terms of meeting of antagonistical themes, love, violence, aggressivity, desire, despair… all coming from the mind of a woman. As such, and as said already, the film is distinctively feminine, focusing on an exclusively female experience where female frustration is successfully and powerfully addressed.

1. Kempel, Ulrich: The Political Universe in the Art of Niki de Saint-Phalle).

Words by Leslie de Oliveira

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