Female filmmakers sweep JHR documentary awards

Nathaniel LaywineNathaniel Laywine writes about female documentary journalists, their subjects and their role in the 2nd annual Journalists for Human Rights documentary film festival.

Sure, 2010 marked an important victory for female filmmakers as Kathryn Bigelow beat out ex-husband and box office king of the world James Cameron for the best picture Oscar. But one would be hard-pressed to argue that the film industry isn’t still a man’s world. (After all, Bigelow was the first woman to win the prize in 82 years and only a handful of other women—including Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993) and Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003)—have  ever been nominated.) The stakes may not have been quite as high for the Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) Human Rights DocFest at the National Film Board, which took place this past weekend, but the University of Toronto chapter of JHR who organized the 2nd annual fest can’t be accused of allowing the same glass ceiling to persist. Women documentary journalists swept the four prizes awarded over the course of the weekend with well-crafted films dealing with a variety of different topics ranging from refugee rights to Indigenous political instability in Burma to women’s roles in Afghanistan. 

The second place prize winner, Audition—the second film completed by journalist and trained anthropologist Nelofer Pazira—is a thoughtful mediation on the relationship that Afghan women share with both the cinema and the concept of self. Pazira is both the director and subject of her film, shot on location in Bamiyan, a small village in northern Afghanistan. Although raised in Kabul until age 16, she considers this work an “exploration” as she admits to knowing little about rural Afghan traditions. One such tradition that is quickly revealed is a deep, persisting shame that exists among the villagers when women are photographed or filmed. The reason for this is loosely described as the necessity to maintain “honour”, although what “honour” precisely means is never fully explored by the people who justify it. Pazira engages in frank and earnest conversations with multiple residents of Bamiyan, many of whom invite her into their homes and workplaces. Reacting with amusement to a group of local (male) university students’ discomfort with the idea of their sisters becoming film actresses, Pazira amiably and profoundly suggests that the cinema may act as a mirror for society to regard itself and correct its imperfections. The boys remain unconvinced though they wish to become actors themselves. They go through a series playful “auditions” before the camera, feigning fight sequences, laughter and sadness. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Pazira asks a young girl who wishes to do the same to cry for her. It quickly becomes apparent that her tears are real. After an awkward pause Pazira emerges on screen and asks the girl if she’s okay before the scene cuts.

But the women interviewed are not all uniformly abused or mistreated, as is so often reported from Afghanistan. Pazira’s interviews reveal dynamic and pluralistic notions of Aghan womanhood. Some fear the repercussions of a circulated photograph of themselves should the image get back to their families. Others are sarcastically clever and one elder woman orders her husband to stop talking to the camera–an unexpected role reversal. Pazira acknowledged her privilege as a (western educated) woman, who told me after the screening, “If I was a man I wouldn’t make these films. Not without the privilege I have as a woman to talk to these women. I’ve been able to access men’s social circles. I’ve had to ask for it and struggle for it, and I’m lucky.” When I asked the festival’s co-chair, Brittney Teasdale about the relationship between women and human rights-related filmmaking practices she noted, “For me personally it has a huge deal to do with inequality. Inequality still exists in society and I don’t think gender can ever be ignored on any level until its addressed.”

Nathaniel Laywine currently lives in Toronto where he works at the Toronto International Film Festival and teaches at Ryerson University