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Lately, Facebook feeds and the front pages of newspapers have abounded with stories of women bravely sharing some of their most agonizing personal experiences. But such an act is not an unprecedented phenomenon. Long before the #MeToo movement, the “Shitty Media Men” list, and the Harvey Weinstein revelations pushed these matters into the mainstream, women were doing this work among themselves: warning one another about which sketchy colleagues to avoid at work; sheltering a friend or relative from an abusive partner; listening to a story that a doctor or a lawyer would not find time for. To be heard is to have a slice of humanity restored to you. And as we recognize and reckon with the power inherent in speaking one’s truth, we must remember that there is also an equally great power in listening.
The Metrograph series “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories,” guest-programmed by Nellie Killian, gives women from across recent decades — the series spans from the Seventies to the Aughts — the chance to be heard by new and returning listeners. These humble movies weren’t made to turn a profit on pain or exploit a social issue for empty gain. They are grungy and lo-fi home videos, some on nicer stock than others. These were the only tools with which these stories could be expressed beyond personal circles. Many of the selections share an unfiltered vérité look that lends the subjects’ memories and recollections an increased intimacy, as if a close friend were sharing her problems. The speakers, by and large, feel comfortable enough to ruminate frankly on marriage, motherhood, and other prescribed gender expectations, without sugarcoating or watering-down any of the details.
Such is the case with the breathtakingly candid Janie’s Janie (1971). Filmed by a collective that includes Geri Ashur, Peter Barton, Marilyn Mulford, and Stephanie Pawleski, the documentary follows the experience of a working-class survivor of domestic abuse in New Jersey who opens up about the physical, mental, and emotional toll her violent marriage took. “I feel like the walls were closing in on me — that I was going to have to scream or holler,” she says about her relationship, in voiceover. Meanwhile, the camera glides over her daily life: her household chores, taking care of six children. In another scene, Janie remembers the verbal vitriol her husband used to put her down: “He pounded into my head I was no good. Everything was my fault. I didn’t do it right. I had only my husband to talk to, so I got to believing ‘maybe I am stupid.’ ” Janie’s story ends on a hopeful note — hardly something all the entries in the series posses. After years of beatings, she breaks free from the men controlling her life and creates one for herself. “First I was my father’s Janie. Then I was Charlie’s Janie. Now I’m Janie’s Janie.” Later, we see her join a group of women for a meeting. We are not the only ones to witness her roar.
If Janie’s Janie offers a decidedly personal slant on the issue of domestic abuse, To Love, Honor and Obey (1980), also on the program, presents a bigger-picture, all-encompassing approach to the matter. Directed by Christine Choy and Marlene Dann, the film collects numerous interviews with survivors, abusive partners, social workers, and police officers. The focus is still clearly on the women’s voices — whether they’re seeking, or providing, help. Theirs is a powerful testimony about holding onto sisterhood for survival. One woman fielding calls for the shelter at which she works estimates that twenty to thirty women a day telephone, looking to escape domestic abuse. Although we see many women throughout — some only once, others many more times — it still amounts to only a fraction of the total number of victims facing abuse in the home. Listening to others’ experiences is eye-opening even for other women at the shelter, as no two stories are alike. “I learned to see other women’s problems,” one survivor tells the camera mournfully. It’s a terrible sense of relief to learn you’re not alone in dealing with such a situation.
Domestic abuse is one of the major topics unpacked in “Tell Me,” but it is not the only one: Not all of the stories shared are tragedies. Lourdes Portillo’s Conversations With Intellectuals About Selena (1999) is a VHS-taped meeting of academics trading their thoughts on the Tejana singer over a dinner table topped with home-cooked food. It’s hard to discern how well everyone seated in the round knows one another, but they feel secure enough to debate the merits of the now-deified pop star. In between sips of margarita, the women discuss issues of sexuality, Chicana identity, and the patriarchy in Mexican American culture. Even a few conspiracy theories — regarding Selena’s relationship with her fan club president and eventual murderer, or with her controlling father — are voiced that not all viewers will agree with. Of course, such consensus is not the point: It is essential, in fomenting a true feminist discourse, to hear out ideas or experiences that don’t match your beliefs.
Other movies in “Tell Me” include a portrait of consciousness-raising groups (The Woman’s Film, 1971), a documentary on three trans Latinx women facing homelessness (Susana Aiken and Carlos Aparicio’s The Salt Mines, 1990), a made-for-television presentation of women who survived the Holocaust (Chantal Akerman’s Dis Moi, 1980), and an eight-minute orchestra of women responding to the query “What does it mean to be a woman?” (Agnès Varda’s Réponse De Femmes, 1975). There is so much to learn from these women’s experiences, past and present. We could never spend enough time listening to them, because the screen has not spent enough time recording their stories. We cannot undo the harm that has been done to strangers, loved ones, acquaintances, but we can let them know that their pain does not need to be buried in silence, stuck only in memory. They will be heard.
‘Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories’
Through February 15