Pathfinders: Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is one of many powerful films by women playing SFIFF53.

SFIFF53: Women's Worlds

Max Goldberg May 1, 2010

Don’t let Hollywood crow for too long about The Hurt Locker and “the year of the woman” –not until more women filmmakers of the sort featured at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival actually benefit from the supposed advance. Women are typically associated with “intimate” genres (e.g. documentary, experimental) on the festival circuit, but Kathryn Bigelow isn’t the only one going against the grain. Of the many SFIFF films from women filmmakers on my wishlist, I’ve thus far seen four: Laura Poitras’s The Oath, Claire Denis’ White Material, Mia Hansen-L›ve’s The Father of My Children and Nina Hedenius’s Way of Nature. All are made of durable stuff.

Poitras’s The Oath is a documentary, though travelling to Yemen to film dialogue sessions between Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, Abu Jandal, and young prospective jihadists is several steps bolder than the typical combat film exercises. I had a chance to speak with Poitras, and when I asked her the gender question–not without reluctance–she commented that she thought being a woman may have helped her with the young men in Yemen simply because they were so curious about her presence. Certainly, Poitras’s first documentary, My Country, My Country, was crucial in gaining access to Abu Jandal, a chimerical figure who stands at the nexus of the so-called War on Terror–enough so that the US delayed its 2001 Afghanistan operations until his FBI interrogation was completed. Poitras intersperses Jandal’s dizzying discourses with the long silence of his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, the Guantanamo detainee of Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld fame. Poitras once again structures current events with great intelligence, though The Oath centers upon the complex negotiations of Jandal’s “intelligence.”

Claire Denis’s last film, 35 Shots of Rum, was an exquisite work of repose, though its nuanced representation of class and race didn’t figure into many of the raves it received. These issues cannot be ignored in White Material, a violent allegory of postcolonial Africa. Set in an unnamed country quaking with Civil War, the film’s protagonist, Mary Viale (a steely Isabelle Huppert), is holding on to her family’s coffee plantation even if it means madness and murder. It’s unusual having a woman in this almost Clint Eastwood-ish “last man standing” role, though Denis’ elliptical narrative and typically sensuous camera movements emphasize inchoate states like anticipation and dread rather than definitive “action.”

Connecting the dots a bit, Denis’ L’Intrus (2004) was one of adventurous producer Humbert Balsan’s last projects before he ended his own life. His story is the inspiration of Mia Hansen-L›ve second feature, Father of My Children. It’s a very tender film, with a novelistic sense of life’s passages. The first portion of the film grinds us into producer Gr‚goire’s hectic routine, periodically drawing back to his life of plenty at home with an adoring wife and daughters–these scenes touch the same nerve of out-of-joint elation as AgnŠs Varda’s Les Bonheurs (1965) or a rousing game of “Ring Around the Rosie.” Hansen-L›ve cuts the fragmentary scenes of this opening section just a beat shorter than we expect, so that we’re already out of breath by the time we pull up to the edge of despair. As Father of My Children becomes tangled up in grief, the plot mechanics fall to earth (e.g. a half-hearted “save the business” storyline), but Hansen-L›ve remains energetic at the margins, glimpsing an elder daughter’s entire coming-of-age in a few unkempt passages.

As you might guess from the title, Nina Hedenius’s mesmerizing Way of Nature moves at a different pace. Hedenius draws upon a year’s worth of patient observational footage of people and animals going about their business at a pastoral Swedish farm. The drama of the seasons in these northlands is majestic, but it’s the small gestures and interactions between people and animals, and, especially, between animals, that gives Way of Nature its quiet wit. Again and again, Hedenius shows us something that seems improbable to urban eyes–a baby goat balancing on its mother’s back, for instance–and then slyly crafts an entire montage of variations on the same action. Following Tulpan, Sweetgrass and Sleep Furiously, Way of Nature makes the fourth recent film to bring us to a live animal’s birth. I’m working on an explanation, but in the meantime, there are plenty more promising films by women on the SFIFF docket: Night Catches Us, Russian Lessons, Winter’s Bone, and Lourdes are a few that haven’t yet passed by, which, alas, Everyone Else and Jane Geiser’s Ghost Algebra already have.

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