Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman?

The most revelatory film I have ever seen on the universal challenges faced by women is the 2006 personal documentary Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman by award winning director Jennifer Fox. This six hour documentary series succeeds in telling not only her personal struggle in re-evaluating the life she’s built as a “free modern woman” but also that of women’s shared struggles all over the world. While exploring her own past and the concept of women's freedom within a patriarchal society Fox speaks with women from seventeen countries about relationships, marriage, adultery, sexuality, illness, infertility, female genital mutilation, masturbation, forced prostitution, motherhood, abuse, rape, abortion and oppression.

This exploration of female culture through film can be evaluated with what Elaine Showalter calls ‘gynocriticism’ in feminist literary criticism according to Maggie Humm's essay “Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist Film”. Citing Josephine Donavan, “ ‘Gynocriticism’ is a way of assessing works of art specifically in relation to the interests and desires of women” and according to Humm, “…involves a separate way of thinking, and a recognition that women’s experience has been effectively silenced by a masculine culture”. This ‘separate way of thinking’ is revealed through Fox’s exploration into the experiences of women and in utilizing the camera technique that Fox calls “passing the camera” to whomever she’s speaking with. Passing the camera creates an intimate form of storytelling by working in collaboration with the film’s subjects, in contrast to the separate masculine gaze of traditional image making.

One of the most powerful aspects of the work is the inclusion, honesty and vulnerability of its participants. In an interview with The Independent, Fox says of the film, “In some ways what we do in Flying is radical…Here’s a white woman being shown in the same scene as a woman behind a veil. Normally we show the other by itself. But instead it’s not just about poor woman in Pakistan, it’s about how our lives relate to one another”. Fox’s personal story works as a through line for the series as she reveals her past and present struggles to understand why her life as a successful, liberated, western woman is missing something. The answers come through the voices of the women that she speaks with who are struggling to survive under the pressure of dominant male culture and with the director's resulting revelation that her ‘independent’ life has always orbited around men.

Fox’s unique approach creates a shared process blending her role as auteur and subject. When describing ‘passing the camera’, Fox said "That the power is being shared creates a different conversation...I hope Flying can create another dialogue, one about representation..." Instead of using the camera as ‘a writer’s pen or metaphorical penis’ described by Humm when discussing Alexandre Astruc’s ‘the birth of a new avante-garde: la camera stylo’, Fox works in alliance with her subjects in creating, and symbolically giving birth to, a film about women's lives.

This style of filmmaking did not get a warm reception with funders who were concerned about production values, though it is likely that the subject matter contributed to the director's challenge in raising money for the project. Potential funders were equally reticent about the length of the film when it grew from feature length into a series, according to Fox, but the director managed to maintain her vision and through perseverance that vision won out. The six part series aired on Sundance Channel in May 2008, screened in selected theaters and received official selection awards at six film festivals. Many revues seemed to say the same things, that before viewing it the length of the film seemed daunting and the subject suspiciously self-indulgent but that it proved to be an engaging, inspiring and thought provoking accomplishment. In Bell Hooks essay Making Movie Magic, the author describes the transformational experience of viewing films, "Movies not only provide a narrative for specific discourses of race, sex, and class, they provide a shared experience, a common starting point from which diverse audiences can dialogue about these charged issues". Flying succeeds in giving a voice to the struggles of women silenced by oppressive male culture creating an opportunity for personal and societal understanding and change.

In their essay about filmmaker Catherine Saalfield, Judith Redding and Victoria A. Bronsworth discuss the feminist slogan "the personal is political" when quoting Saalfield's description of her own process, "You can't separate you activism from your art any more than you can separate your sexuality from your identity". This statement, on both counts, aptly applies to Fox's process in making Flying. When a New York Times journalist asked the filmmaker if the tiltle Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman should have a question mark at the end, she responded, “Absolutely…or we could call it ‘Confessions of an Imprisoned Woman Trying to be Free”.

Works cited:

Bell Hooks, Making Movie Magic

Judith Redding and Victoria A Bronsworth, Catherine Saalfield: Art and Activism

Maggie Humm, Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist Film




1 comment:

  1. This is certainly a film that I want to watch!Conversations with a 100 women from 17 different countries...very interesting to me...
    Great post!