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Dublin Feminist Film Festival features the female gaze

Wmc Features Cameraperson Kirsten Johnson Dfff18 121218
Kirsten Johnson's "Cameraperson" was among the films featured at the festival. Photo courtesy of Dublin Feminist Film Festival.

This year’s Dublin Feminist Film Festival, which took place in late November, took the unusual step of featuring not only feature films directed by women, but those shot by female cinematographers. The festival, now in its fifth year, has gone from strength to strength, firmly establishing itself as an integral part of Dublin’s cultural calendar and this year, with over 400 people attending, relocating to a larger, more prominent venue at one of the city’s leading arthouse cinemas.

The festival began in 2014 as a fundraiser to support feminist activism in Nepal. During a trip to that country, festival founder Karla Healion encountered the work of an organization called Sasane, which was set up by a group of women, themselves victims of sex trafficking, to help other women who have been trafficked. Healion, a feminist activist and film producer, was deeply impressed by the work that they were doing and wanted to help support the organization; she was also interested in establishing a feminist film festival in Dublin to promote women working in film, both in Ireland and internationally. From these dual aspirations, the Dublin Feminist Film Festival emerged. The festival is organized and run entirely by a team of six volunteers, this year led by festival manager Aoife O’Toole and program manager Jennifer O’Meara.

Aoife O’Toole spoke to me about how the festival has become more involved with women working in film in the five years since it began: “Every year we have included either a panel discussion with women working in film, a lecture, or interviews with women in the industry,” such as this year’s interview with Irish filmmakers cinematographer Deirdre O’Toole and director Mia Mullarkey. O’Toole has noticed that “in comparison to a couple of years ago, women working in film are now more on board for discussing their work and being more confident about being out there [as filmmakers].” The festival also includes a shorts program for women filmmakers, and O’Toole was struck by the “amount of women who wanted to submit their work — young women, students — all getting out there and submitting their work.”

An explicitly feminist film festival raises interesting questions in terms of programming. Women have been traditionally thought of as either the consumers or the subjects of film; their participation behind the camera remains more limited. Figures from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reveal that in the top 250 films in 2017, women comprised only 18 percent of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers.

It is not that women are not working behind the camera, but the films that they make tend to be concentrated in less commercial forms like documentary and arthouse cinema that do not get mainstream releases and so are less visible in media and popular culture. This creates a particular challenge for a small feminist film festival that wishes to showcase the work of women filmmakers while also appealing to a broad audience. It is a tightrope the festival has successfully walked; it has managed to showcase films made by women in a number of genres and forms while also cultivating a growing audience for their offerings.

This year the festival made the unusual decision to focus on women cinematographers. This decision, O’Toole told me, was in part inspired by Rachel Morrison’s 2017 Oscar nomination for her cinematography on the film Mudbound; Morrison was the first women in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards to be nominated in that category. Cinematography is an essential part of filmmaking, although cinematographers receive comparatively limited attention compared to directors and writers. The cinematographer oversees the creative visuals that contribute to the development of narrative and help cultivate the audience’s emotional experience. 

While women have become increasing visible behind the camera, cinematography has long been the exception to this (only 4 percent of the top 250 grossing films in 2017 were shot by a female cinematographer). Even though some of the earliest camera operators were women, classic sexist ideas have persisted. At the panel discussions, women talked about hearing stories of women being told that their breasts get in the way of the camera or that they do not possess the muscular shoulders required to hold the camera rig. While these objections are clearly ludicrous, more importantly, they ignore the centrality that the eye and imagination play in the art of cinematography. What is more important, and indeed more interesting, to consider is how women cinematographers approach light and frame and how they navigate through the cinematic space that constitutes our visual experience of cinema.

This year’s festival program reminds us that, albeit in small numbers, women continue to work very successfully within cinematography. Indeed, some of cinema’s most visually exciting films have been shot by women, from long-standing talents like Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Caroline Champetier (Of Gods and Men), and Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) to new emerging figures such as Quyen Tran (Pali Road), Nanu Segal (All Good Children), Reed Morano (Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold), and, of course, Morrison. However, the decision to focus on cinematography is about more than just acknowledging the work that goes on behind the camera; it also, the organizers argue, allows us to “expand the notion of who ‘makes’ a film and what ‘films by women’ means,” while considering the question of “whether and how films shot by women feature a different or other gaze.”

The festival’s visual program, alongside the facilitated public discussions, encourages us to pose an even more interesting and complex question: Does a woman’s camera “see” differently? In thinking about these questions, the two films that stood out for me from the festival program were Cameraperson (U.S. 2017) by Kirsten Johnson as both director and cinematographer and The Seen and Unseen (Indonesia 2017) by director Kamila Andini and cinematographer Anggi Frisca. Cameraperson is a fascinating hybrid vacillating between documentary and memoir in which Johnson weaves together sometimes shocking film fragments from conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan from across her career with intimate material about her own family. The result is a work that challenges our concept of authorship in the act of seeing. Andini’s film also pushes boundaries, but in a different way. The Seen and Unseen is the story of two young twins, a girl Tantri and a boy Tantra, who share an intense emotional connection that, the film suggests, transcends even death. The film challenges conventional expectations of narrative both conceptually and visually. Frisca’s cinematography is strikingly dark to the extent that it takes time for your eyes to adjust. Thinking about cinema through the lens of the work of these filmmakers, we are invited by the organizers to consider how if part of what makes cinema so captivating as a cultural form is the visual, can a film be “authored” by its cinematographer as much as by its director?

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