A Feminist Survival Guide to Seattle
Per annual tradition here at She’s With Me headquarters, we drank a bottle of wine, watched about 1000 movie trailers, and compiled a feminist-friendly guide to this year’s SIFF film festival. Here was our criteria:
1. Beyond just passing the Bechdel Test, the film focuses on women’s/girl’s experiences, female friendships, and complex relationships between women.
2. It stars women in unconventional (but not hypersexualized) roles, leadership positions, or as powerful athletes.
3. It exposes patriarchal oppression.
4. Tig Notaro.
1. Described as an “off-beat romantic comedy.”
2. Is about women who literally suck out the souls of men (not that we believe men have souls, but we’re really over the Femme Fatal/Succubus trope).
3. Is about women murdering other women out of jealousy.
4. Features Melissa McCarthy mistaking a cloth napkin for food.
The majority of our selections were directed by women. These are the flicks that made the cut:
In the isolated mountains of northern Pakistan, 10-year-old Zainab has been promised to Tor Gul, a cruel, aging tribal leader six times her age, in order to broker peace between two warring camps. On the eve of the nuptials, Zainab’s mother Allah Rakhi—who herself was married to an elderly man at the young age of 15—refuses to have her daughter meet the same fate, and the two make a harried escape, beginning an epic journey fraught with danger with both tribes hot on their trail. Billed as Pakistan’s first road trip thriller, Afia Nathaniel’s directorial debut is a tensely shot, superbly told, emotional story that highlights repressive patriarchal society.
Director: Afia Nathaniel | Country: Pakistan, USA, Norway | Year: 2014
Diouana is a young black woman who has accepted a job as a governess to a wealthy family in the French Riviera. Excited for her new job in glamorous France, her dreams of the cosmopolitan life are quickly dashed when her employers treat her more like a slave than hired help. Diouana tries to keep positive and keep her depression at bay, dressing up fancy to do chores and anticipating when the children will come back from their school abroad so she can focus on something other than tedious housework. Her employers, especially the lady of the house, begin to constantly berate her based on her race and her illiteracy, forcing her to wear shabby clothing while she does her work, and not allowing her to leave the house to enjoy time in the city. Diouana falls into a deep pit of despair as she comes to terms with her alienation and new life as a lowly servant to this posh French family.
Director: Ousmane Sembène | Country: Senegal | Year: 1966
When she was five years old, Kurmanjan was told by a mystic that, despite being an ordinary girl, she would soon rise up and band together the warring tribes of her Central Asian nation. Forced into an arranged marriage, Kurmanjan rejects her husband on their wedding night and runs back home, bringing shame on herself and both families. Alymbek Datka, ruler of the Alai highland country, resolves the conflict and frees Kurmanjan from her imposed marriage by taking her as his own wife instead. Tensions in the Central Asian highlands increase over the years, and eventually Kurmanjan’s husband is killed. Remembering the prediction in her childhood, the resourceful widow gathers together an army, and leads them against the forces out to conquer her people.
Director: Sadyk Sher-Niyaz | Country: Kyrgyzstan | Year: 2014
Veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui follows up her international success A Simple Lifewith an audacious, illuminating, much-needed look into the life of Xio Hang (Tang Wei, Lust, Caution), a poet and essayist who despite her short life became one of China’s most influential writers of the 20th century. The Golden Era tells the story of an exceptional free thinker who was way ahead of her time in the politically turbulent China of the 1930s. Born in Manchuria in 1911, she ran away at age 20 to escape from an abusive father and an arranged marriage. Soon, her married lover abandons her, leaving her pregnant and in debt. When her landlord threatens to sell her to a brothel, she desperately turns to the local newspaper for help. It is an unlikely beginning for what Xio Hang was to call her “Golden Era.”
Director: Ann Hui | Country: Hong Kong, China | Year: 2014
Laila, a student and aspiring writer at Delhi University, has just gotten her heart broken for the first time. The lead singer of the rock band she assists in writing lyrics for has just rejected her and she is devastated. Refusing to let her heartbreak, nor her cerebral palsy hold her back, Laila jumps at the chance to travel abroad on a scholarship to New York University despite her mother’s worries. Fiercely independent, she embarks on an exhilarating journey of exploration and sexual discovery, meeting Khanum, a blind Indian/Pakistani student activist at a demonstration who challenges her beliefs and sparks her creativity. The two become fast friends and eventually lovers; exploring the many dimensions of Laila as someone defined by her personality and the love she gives rather than by her disability.
Director: Shonali Bose | Country: India | Year: 2014
Bella, a 30-year-old Guinean cabaret singer, lives a miserable, dangerous life as a prostitute in Dakar. Though she longs for escape, a gang of pimps, led by Kèba, treat her like property and make sure she keeps in her place. Her only hope is the thought of earning enough money to escape and reunite with her daughter, who she gave up at birth at age 15—a desperate act that haunts Bella’s nightmares and fills her with guilt. While fleeing an angry client, she meets Yélo, a Guinean worker for the United Nations, who happens to be passing through Dakar. Instantly smitten, Yélo agrees to help Bella, and so begins an epic journey of redemption, from Guinea to Paris. Morbayassa is named for a joyous traditional West African dance that women perform after they have a child or are reunited with a long-lost son or daughter to rejoice over the lifting of the bad luck that has burdened them.
Director: Cheick Fantamady Camara | Country: Guinea | Year: 2015
No one can love, or hate, like sisters. 12-year old endearingly awkward and chubby Stella, spends her time practicing her first kiss on tomatoes, making prank phone calls, and watching her older sister Katja in her beautiful figure skating outfit glide over the ice. She’s also the only one who knows her sister’s secret. Stella begins to notice Katja’s odd behavior, barely eating and throwing up after meals, and she doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. Katja makes her swear not to tell, saying she’ll tell everyone about Stella’s crush on her older figure skating coach and about the love poems she writes in her diary—so Stella doesn’t. Yet as things begin to get worse, protecting her older sister becomes the most important thing, and Stella hopes it’s not too late
Director: Sanna Lenken | Country: Sweden, Germany | Year: 2015
You never know when love is going to take off. Sangaile is an inquisitive and introverted teenager who finds herself obsessed with stunt planes. At a recent aeronautical convention by her parents’ lakeside villa, she meets Auste – a young woman so enraptured by impulse and vibrancy, Sangaile cannot resist her. They form a close bond instantly, with Sangaile encouraging Auste’s creativity, modeling her clothing designs and posing for photos, while Auste coaxes Sangaile out of her socially withdrawn shell. The two soon take part in a tumultuous and ravishing summer romance, full of highs and lows so intense that the story flies in either direction with panache and passion.
Director: Alante Kavaite | Country: Lithuania, Netherlands, France | Year: 2015
In Albania’s Mountains of the Damned, just along the Kosovo border, lie centuries-old villages far removed geographically and culturally from the busier modern world. In many of these, there is a rigid patriarchal structure, one that holds up men as paragons of virtue and women as subservient and secondary, forbidden from partaking in the majority of the villages’ activities. For such women, there is another option: become a virgjinesh (or ”sworn virgin”), a process in which a woman disavows her female identity in order to live as a man but must in return live a life of chastity. Mark, born Hana, is one of these sworn virgins, having lived the last 14 years of his life smoking, drinking, and felling trees, but when his surrogate parents suddenly pass away, Mark is hit with a crushing loneliness. The only respite is to journey beyond the borders of his native village and into Italy, landing unannounced on the doorstep of his estranged adoptive sister Lila. Faced with a strange new world, Mark begins to reclaim his original identity as Hana, far from the shadows of the mountains.
Director: Laura Bispuri | Country: Italy, Switzerland, Germany | Year: 2015
This tense thriller is based on the true story of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in Dutch history, the case of intensive care nurse Lucia de Berk, aka “The Angel of Death.” When de Berk, a woman with a complicated past, is present at one inexplicable death too many, her hospital alerts the police. Ambitious Assistant District Attorney Judith sees de Berk’s case as an opportunity to make her career, so she pieces together a prosecution based largely on circumstantial evidence. Eventually, though, the real evidence starts troubling Judith, and she discovers inconsistencies in witness statements, even the suppression of lab evidence. But can she turn back the wheels of justice? Director Paula van der Oest is renowned for her subtle and sensitive direction of actors, her humor, and the foregrounding of strong, independent women in her work — all qualities to the fore here.
Director: Paula van der Oest | Country: Netherlands | Year: 2014
Once a month for six decades, a group of women have religiously maintained a tradition of meeting for tea, cakes, gossip, and reminiscences. Their encounters through the years result in a surprising, emotionally intense documentary about friendship, growing old, love, and the role of women in the last century.
Director: Maite Alberdi | Country: Chile, USA | Year: 2014
Set in a traditional Kosovar village a year after the war with Serbia, this finely written and directed drama provides a critical look at a patriarchal culture threatened by the knowledge that the enemy violated their women. The action takes place in a scenic mountain enclave that is trying to rebuild after the war. When a local woman anonymously reveals to an international journalist that she and others were raped, the fallout from this once-repressed secret threatens to tear apart the fabric of village life. Upon the article’s subsequent publication, the controlling mayor tells the local men that he suspects schoolmarm Lushe as the source, and advises them to shun both her and her lad. While the men are happy to comply, as they believe Lushe has brought shame on them and their village, they can’t stop wondering about the identities of the three other raped women mentioned in the article.
Director: Isa Qosja | Country: Kosovo, Germany | Year: 2014
In August of 2012, stand up comic Tig Notaro, whose wry delivery and pointed one-liners have made her an industry favorite, took the stage at the Largo nightclub in Los Angeles and decided to share a very personal, and terrifying, story. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer, she cheerily said into the microphone, launching into a hilarious thirty-minute set filled with such candor and vulnerability that it became legendary almost overnight. Directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York followed Tig for the next year, a strange period during which she faced a very real chance of dying, just as her career was taking off. Life kept throwing curveballs: a double mastectomy, and doubt over maintaining her comedic voice. And just as the cancer appeared to be in remission, Tig’s desire to have a baby returned, though the treatments in order to do so could endanger her health. Through it all, the affable and honest comedian maintains the one thing that helps her deal: an unbelievably quick wit and an unshakeable sense of life’s absurdities.
Director: Ashley York, Kristina Goolsby | Country: USA | Year: 2015
Middle-class Bangledeshi woman Roya has played the central character of Nandini in the famed play “Red Oleanders” for nine years now but is finally aging out of the role, even though she’s barely pushing 30. With her future in theatre uncertain—it doesn’t help that her mother, whose husband left her for a performer, considers all actors “whores”—Roya must contend with her stern husband, who, while making perfectly clear that he wants a child with her as soon as possible, is oblivious to the fact that Roya may not be interested in motherhood. Opportunity knocks in the guise of Imtiaz, a Berlin-based curator who wants to represent Bangladesh for a series of European theatre festivals, and he won’t do it without Roya. Tasked with representing her country, Roya reclaims and reconstructs “Red Oleanders” itself, setting the politically minded play in a contemporary garments factory and giving Nandini a previously unattributed agency.
Director: Rubaiyat Hossain | Country: Bangladesh | Year: 2015
On the list of irrevocably life-altering surprises, pregnancy has to be right at the top—no matter what your age. For 30-something high-school science teacher Samantha, news of the “blessed event” couldn’t come at a worse time. She recently found out her job at an inner-city Chicago school is ending due to budget cuts, and she worries that impending motherhood may interfere with her future career plans. As Samantha ponders these crossroads, she begins mentoring straight-A student Jasmine, who comes from a poor family and is concerned about getting into college. When Jasmine confides that she too, is pregnant, she and Samantha develop an even deeper bond, based on shared feelings of fear, joy, doubt, and courage, that transcends their different races, ages, and economic backgrounds.
Director: Kris Swanberg | Country: USA | Year: 2015
This tender portrait of female friendship follows three friends, Monica, Violeta, and Mayelin, as they leave their job for the day at a Havana hair salon and decide to spend their paychecks on a night out on the town. Going from shopping, to trying on dresses, to eventually ending up at a techno nightclub, their conversations are meaningful and dynamic, exposing deep desires and insecurities, all the while keeping an air of light-hearted humor found within any trio of best friends. Alvarez introduces us to the parts of Havana tourists rarely see, not being afraid of diving into the grittiness of the working class woman’s environment, and never shying away from the realistic dialogue the three exchange (which were often improvised).
Director: Kiki Álvarez | Country: Cuba, Colombia | Year: 2014
When Palestinian teen Badia ages out of her orphanage and goes to live with her three estranged aunts in Ramallah, she might as well have taken a time machine to the ’60s. Each woman is holding tight onto the past and all of the rigid traditions that come with it, making the arrival of Badia a potential disaster. Stripped of their aristocratic status in the wake of 1967’s epochal Six-Day War, these devout Christian women are trying desperately to retain their entitled air as they reside in a Grey Gardens-like limbo. With the arrival of their late brother’s orphaned daughter disrupting the delusional equilibrium they’ve established, and threatening to bring long-repressed memories rushing to the fore, they conspire to marry her off as quickly as possible. Not particularly eager to relinquish her newfound freedom, the headstrong Badia proves a less than apt pupil in their makeshift finishing school.
Director: Suha Arraf | Year: 2014
This animated children’s movie follows shy foster child Anna, who suffers from chronic asthma attacks. For health reasons, she is sent to live with her adoptive aunt and uncle for the summer on the rugged island of Hokkaido, where she spends time sketching a house that has long been abandoned—or has it? She spots an odd blonde girl in the window named Marnie and feels an almost instant bond. Though the two become inseparable friends, no one but Anna can see Marnie. As their friendship deepens, Anna finds she may have a closer connection to the spectral Marnie than she ever dreamed.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi | Country: Japan | Year: 2014
In 2012 the blood-doping scandal enveloped erstwhile hero Lance Armstrong, forcing him to retire from cycling in disgrace and his former teammates to withdraw from that year’s Summer Olympic Games in London. Amid this controversy, however, there was the nearly forgotten Women’s Track Cycling team that picked up the fallen baton for their country, seeking to become the first U.S. team to earn a Women’s Track Cycling medal in more than 20 years. This inspiring documentary, directed by Tamara Christopherson (herself a former Olympic athlete) tells the story of four athletes – Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Lauren Tamayo and Kirkland, WA native Jennie Reed – who sought glory despite being abandoned by sponsors, who had recoiled from the doping scandals.
Director: Tamara Christopherson | Country: USA | Year: 2015
In a country ravaged by the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed over two million people during its four-year reign in the 1970s, Cambodia’s wounds are still fresh. But what of the generation that was born after the genocide? Angkor’s Children tells three stories of young women hoping to heal through the arts: Phunam, a “vagabond child” who now goes to Phare Ponleau Selpak, a school founded to help children express the trauma of war, where she studies circus arts and performs as an acrobat; Sreypov, a performer of smot (an ancient form of Buddhist poetry sung at funerals), who travels and teaches internationally with the organization Cambodian Living Arts; and the women of the Messenger Band, an all-female pop group that performs protest songs for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Through injuries, hardships both personal and political, and the horrors of the past, these young women and their mentors emerge as beacons of a brighter future.
Director: Lauren Shaw | Country: Cambodia, France | Year: 2014