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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Women at Work: The Domestic Is Not Free

By Natalie Erazo

The third iteration of Women at Work shifts to the subject of domestic labor. As homemakers, caretakers, and familial partners, women shape the well-being of our personal, professional, and cultural milieus, though these efforts often go unseen and are erased from history. Women at Work: The Domestic Is Not Free highlights the persistent efforts of women to create, challenge, and subvert domesticity around the world.

The Day I Became a Woman (2000), photo courtesy of Makhmalbaf Film House/Photofest

The series opens with Ousmane Sembène’s seminal Black Girl. Set amidst “postcolonial purgatory,” Black Girl chronicles the life of Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a Senegalese woman brought to France to work as a maid for a white family, and her journey to reclaim personal freedom. Also screening in the opening night program is Stefani Saintonge’s Fucked Like a Star, a poetic meditation on black women’s labor set to the words of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. Prior to the screening, Saintonge—a member of the black women filmmakers collective New Negress Film Society—will be at BAM to introduce her film.

Other films that look at the emotional labor of caretaking include Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Brazilian genre-bender Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras). The film follows Clara (Isabél Zuaa), a working-class nurse who takes a job caring for a wealthy mother-to-be. As the film progresses, the women's relationship encounters supernatural forces. A remarkable work of cinematic experimentation, the film considers themes of social isolation, queer identity, and fantasy. Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear winner The Milk of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada) is a coming-of-age story about a young indigenous woman navigating the inherited traumas her late-mother experienced during the 1980s guerilla uprisings in Peru. Llosa’s film is especially timely as the #MeToo movement has publicly uncovered histories of violence against women worldwide.

The series also includes a number of films about the domestic labor of housewives, including Chantal Akerman’s rigorous depiction of the quotidian routines of a Brussels housewife in Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; Martha Rosler’s subversive short Semiotics of the Kitchen, and Todd Haynes’ Safe, starring Julianne Moore.

Further challenging conventional screen depictions of the housewife role is Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (The Big City). The film follows Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), a Kolkata housewife in 1950s India who takes a job as a salesperson despite her husband’s (Anil Chatterjee) traditionalist opposition. The film, more than fifty years old, remains a powerful depiction of the cultural malaise affecting women as a result of modern-day capitalism. Prior to the screening, Dessane Lopez Cassell, curator of August’s Women at Work: Radical Creativity, returns to BAM to introduce the film.

Mahanagar (1963), photo courtesy of Janus Film

Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman—screening with Chick Strand’s Woman of a Thousand Fires (Mujer de Milfuegos)—builds a beguiling portrait of women in contemporary Iranian society depicted through three stories of women at different stages of life. A collaboration with Meshkini’s husband, the revered Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and originally banned in Iran, the film illuminates the challenges faced by women and their reflections about freedom. Strand and Meshkini’s films, both loose in plot and simple in their soundscapes, are poetic slice-of-life, near ethnographic depictions of women’s lives.

The midpoint of the series takes a beat to examine representations of domestic service on screen. The Daydream Therapy: Shorts Program, comprising Tracey Moffatt’s incisive montage Lip, Muriel Jackson’s illuminating documentary The Maids, and Bernard Nicolas’ speculative LA Rebellion-set Daydream Therapy (plus a special surprise screening), considers the pervasive, stereotypical images of black women in domestic roles throughout film and television. Pairing these films together merits a discussion on the importance of images and their power to shape narratives and cultural stereotypes. Following the screening, professor and scholar Brandy Monk-Payton will moderate a panel discussion to further unravel the films.

The Domestic Is Not Free also considers community building as domestic labor. Cláudia Varejão’s Ama-San depicts the ancient Japanese tradition of the ama, “sea women” who carry on the tradition of diving for pearls and abalone by fostering a close-knit community and training younger generations of divers.

The series concludes with WILDNESS, the first feature film by MacArthur fellow and multi-disciplinary artist Wu Tsang. The film documents a weekly queer art party Tsang co-produced at Los Angeles bar Silver Platter. Originally home to older generations of Latinx immigrants, the bar was later shared by young creatives moving into the neighborhood, inspiring Wu to film their experiences grappling with themes concerning community, queer identity, and physical and emotional displacement.

Women at Work: The Domestic Is Not Free runs Nov 2—10

Natalie Erazo is the curator of Women at Work: The Domestic Is Not Free and is the Department Coordinator, Film.

Recommended Reading:
Smith, Sarah. “Lip and Love: subversive repetition in the pastiche films of Tracey Moffatt” Screen, Volume 49, Issue 2, 1 July 2008, Pages 209–215.
“Chick Strand” (Film Comment Magazine, September-October 2018 Issue) by Sierra Pettengill
Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday by Ivone Margulies

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