In Not Me (1991), the poet Eileen Myles writes, “We live in a culture of vanishing men.” She was referring then to the AIDS epidemic, but the quotation takes on a second reality when applied to our current collective consciousness — a punchline that now presides over every Weinstein, Cosby, or Spacey whose position atop the hierarchy has been challenged over the past year. The downfall of these men, consequently being held accountable for their actions, has opened up new avenues and conversations, reminding the world — and the film industry — what has been lost through the lack of foregrounding of the voices of women, femmes, and nonbinary folks. But we, like Maxine Waters, are reclaiming our lost time. In this sense, the series “The Future of Film Is Female” (at the Museum of Modern Art) is an advancement of the ongoing reckoning, hat-tipping toward such symbols of the moment as “The Future Is Female” T-shirts (or, to take the wording of Tessa Thompson’s tee in Sorry to Bother You, “The Future Is Female Ejaculation”). The program is a beautiful vessel allowing us to collectively grapple with, applaud, and support the future of women in filmmaking and storytelling.
History has been full of F. Scott–and–Zelda scenarios, with women’s perspectives by turns sidelined or co-opted ingloriously by men. Why would women need to tell their own stories? has proven a disturbingly resilient attitude, prevailing through the decades. A recent Wesley Morris article about actress Annabella Sciorra, who fell off the map after she said she was raped by Harvey Weinstein, provides vivid evidence of a man wielding his power to silence those who would challenge his station. There is, therefore, a legacy and a context of urgency to this series of women-directed and -featuring work, which ranges from Shirin Neshat’s Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017), a hybrid piece in which the director examines the life of the legendary Arab singer, to Gillian Robespierre’s funny-sad comedy about a New York family, Landline (2017).
“The Future of Film Is Female” originated as a venture to help women develop shorts and “have their voices represented and respected on equal footing with their male counterparts” (per a MoMA release), but expanded its mission after partnering with MoMA. When I asked Rajendra Roy, MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film and one of the two programmers on the series, why create this now, he wrote: “It’s important not only to celebrate past achievements, but also to nurture the talent to come. More and more, cinema is being driven by women’s choices as audiences. We want to make sure that women filmmakers are speaking directly to those audiences.” One of these talents is Coralie Fargeat, who brings to the slate Revenge (2018), a searing and devastating rape-revenge story that navigates all of the terrifyingly real faculties of abuse onscreen, with a vengeance that feels weighted and necessary. At times the movie’s parameters of survival are so extreme as to seem almost unreal, but it’s nonetheless a timely (and accurate) portrayal of a woman scorned. (Lest we forget, rape-revenge movies are rather unfortunately very often made by cis-men.)
Throughout, Fargeat toys with expectations and desire. From its early stages, Revenge probes the male gaze, opening on the tantalizing sexuality of our heroine, Jen (played so powerfully by Matilda Lutz). By cementing her protagonist’s sexuality from the outset, Fargeat forces the audience to reckon with what their reactions to and interactions with Jen will be like during the film. I, personally, was caught off-guard. When Jen taunts, as she does, floating barely clothed in a miniskirt that hardly conceals her ass or a cutesy red bikini bottom-set, her glittered-star earrings gleaming like a clichéd department-store find, I found myself worried for her. Why isn’t she covering herself, or, at least, acting less brazenly sexual? She’s the only woman in a house of men, in the middle of the desert! But this, I realize, is part of Fargeat’s intent — for us to consider how the patriarchal gaze has seeped into our everyday ownership and surveillance of the female body. It’s such a clever fuck you that it took me a while to fully understand it.
It’s fascinating how we as viewers negotiate when women deserve violence — how so many of us (me included) have bought into the violence of the patriarchy. Films like this are a reminder to ourselves that under no circumstances do women deserve anything other than respect. What I love about the rape-revenge genre is that it feels like a glimpse at the justice that was never afforded us, like seeing a palpable revolution on the screen. Jen is raped, then consequently discarded and left for dead in the bleak cruelties of an unknown desert. She awakens half-impaled by a tree branch; like a lunar moon, she rises, blood congealed to her sides and pouring out into the sand. Already we want no mercy for the men who put her there. We’re vouching for Jen’s resurrection, and their defeat. Fargeat constructs all this beautifully, forcing us to look within ourselves, then root for murder.
In Bar Bahar (In Between, 2017), by Maysaloun Hamoud, we see the lives of three Palestinian women unfold in a way that breaks all the stereotypes of the Western conception of what a Palestinian is, or what being a Palestinian means. Hamoud zeroes in on two friends: Leila (Mouna Hawa), a Palestinian-Muslim criminal-defense lawyer, and Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a lesbian Palestinian-Christian DJ. Leila is generally the life of the party, gregarious and sexy, her mane rapturous in its burgundy halo; Salma is often in her booth, DJing like a regular Samantha Ronson. Both can also outdrink any Irish-sailor type. Nothing much changes when Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a more (outwardly) conservative Muslim as well as a computer-science student, moves into their Tel Aviv flat. Except that, every now and again, Noor frantically completes household activities: cooking arduous meals and cleaning for her fiancé (who we find out she kind of despises, and she has her reasons); putting up Quranic motifs around the space; stamping out cigarette butts; hiding the ashtrays. Kanboura compellingly suggests that Noor is not doing these things out of fear, or even duty, but perhaps out of despondency.
Hamoud’s subtle touches question stereotypes of Muslims and Palestinians; she shows, without making too fine a point about it, how quietly and insidiously anti-Palestinian/anti-Arab ideas float around and exist within Israel. In one scene, with Salma at her job as a cook, she speaks to the chef in Arabic; in short order, the host comes in, chastising them for speaking in their mother tongue. (The nice Israelis out front want to enjoy their meal, not hear y’all speak Arabic!) Salma unleashes her apron and quits. It’s exhilarating to see Palestinians have agency, when so often they’re removed of not only their humanity but their right to demonstration. Salma savors this moment, its poignant air. (The host’s behavior brought back memories of when contemporary asshole Aaron Schlossberg screamed at a restaurant manager because he could hear Spanish being spoken among the employees — another dining-adjacent episode of racist rage, fueled by an exhausting sense of entitlement.) Without giving much away, there is a scene in Bar Bahar that’s lucid and painful in its enunciation of violence. In its aftermath, we see the three women come together, arching toward each other with care, making space for sorrow and pain. Watching it, I was, despite the circumstances, filled with light, because the most ardent truth is: Women have always held each other up.
Among the shorts included in the series — each feature is paired with one, and there’s also an evening of shorts, on July 29, curated by the online movie club NoBudge — is Mariamma Diallo’s Hair Wolf, a winner from Sundance’s shorts competition this year. It’s a hilarious, pseudo-zombie horror (at times recalling Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video), with a distinct commentary on the (eternal) trendification of black bodies. Of particular concern here is the notion of black hair being a commodity that white women think they have access to, because of, well, white entitlement, à la Kim Kardashian in micro braids. So, a white woman goes into a black hair salon and asks for Rihanna-like braids. There’s a short exchange between the two stylists, Janice (Trae Harris) and Eve (Taliah Webster), about money and politics, that resonates in a Get Out sort of way; it’s funny because its verbal navigations of the struggles of exploitation are so real. Diallo accomplishes a heck of a lot of brilliance and hilarity in just twelve minutes.
Another short, Adinah Dancyger’s Cheer Up Baby (2017), stars India Salvör Menuez as Anna and explores the minutiae of being a femme existing out in the world. There are a lot of early descriptions of the languidness of the human body, beginning with a dance class that focuses on touch and movement, evoking the physical boundaries in which we often go about our days. One night, Anna falls asleep on an orange-seated train; she is assaulted by a creepy older man, leaving her whole purview thoroughly shaken. She has phantom hallucinations of his hand on her leg. All of a sudden, a depression creeps in that starts like a thin line and erupts very, very slowly — almost not at all. It’s the sadness lurking behind Anna’s brightness that makes Cheer Up Baby such an enthralling film.
In her 1966 review of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Pauline Kael wrote: “The men who made the stereotypes drew them from their own scrambled experience of history and art.” I see the essence of this observation in how Hollywood functions: Men make art based on fractured bromides. When I asked Caryn Coleman, the guest curator of “The Future of Film Is Female” as well as the director of programming at Nitehawk, about the stakes behind her project, she replied: “There has been a lack of representation of women, and the desire to see more works by them on screen can correlate to our current political climate.” It’s not as if these stories have never existed, but rather that the energy, space, and momentum — as well as, let’s be real, the resources — are now finally being pushed in their direction. The “Future of Film Is Female” series, an unmissable one, further cements that women and femmes of all backgrounds have an ability to tell stories that all of us would be lucky to see.
‘The Future of Film Is Female’
The Museum of Modern Art
July 26–August 2