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Frankfurt Women's Film Days celebrates 'HerStory'

Jochen Kürten eg
November 26, 2019

What can we learn about female perspectives from past and current cinema? The second edition of "Remake. Frankfurt Women's Film Days" offers answers with a comprehensive retrospective of films that celebrate women.

God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya
Image: jip film und verleih gbr

The film God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya by Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska depicts the everyday life of a woman whose perspective suddenly changes on her way home from a failed job interview. Instead of accepting this latest rejection, the young Petrunya decides to jump into a cold river.

Entering male territory

Petrunya is not alone in the water. It's the Orthodox feast of Epiphany and, as part of a Macedonian religious custom, dozens of men dive in as well, all competing to fetch a cross thrown into the water by a priest.

Petrunya spontaneously joins the men-only competition. And she is the one who retrieves the cross from the river, as well as another unexpected item (see picture above). The men are offended.

Read more: What a history-making Oscar nomination reveals about gender equality in Hollywood

Film still 'God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya'
In 'God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya,' a woman beats the men to the coveted cross Image: jip film & verleih

Now released in theaters across the world, Mitevska's award-winning film had an impressive festival run, including at the Berlinale earlier this year.

God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya is also screening at the 2019 "Remake. Frankfurt Women's Film Days" festival since it embodies this year's festival motto: "Viewing history. HerStory in the cinema."

The slogan encompasses themes such as women in the working world, women in religion and society, or films as history written from a women's perspective. The connecting thread is the idea of cinema as a means to express gender equality.

Movies reflect specific female experiences

Do women have a different perspective on history? "Absolutely," Karola Gramann, one the three curators of the festival, told DW. "Our statements, whether in film or literature, are based on our personal experiences — and the experiences of men and women in our society and in almost all societies are different."

Another major ongoing issue in the film industry in recent years is the fact that "gender equality is lacking," added the curator.

Through official film history, predominantly written by men, the history of women "has not been not been portrayed — or only as dependent on the historiography of men," Gramann also pointed out.

Some changes were, however, noticeable in past decades. 

"In the 1970s, when a new feminist movement emerged, there was also a breakthrough in feminist historiography," she said. This allowed "a focus on issues that had previously received little attention."

Read more: We need men to talk about periods: Oscar winner Guneet Monga

Thinking about emancipation

Female perspectives on privacy and the body are two specific examples noted by Gramann, who cites a pioneering work by Belgian director Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Described upon release by The New York Times as the "first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema," the 1975 film offered an unusual look into a single mother's routine of cooking, cleaning — and sex work.

Film still Jeanne Dielman
'Jeanne Dielman' has become a cult classicImage: picture-alliance/Collection Christophel/Paradise films/Unite trois

Also screening in Frankfurt is Riddles of Sphinx (1977), a film by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen that offers a further exploration of domestic life, motherhood and sexuality in an experimental form. 

"When we think about emancipation, it has to be about sharing experiences and developing perspectives from there," said Gramann, adding that this is only possible "when women get to express their viewpoint in and about history."

Films by women are different, they tell their stories and history differently, she said. Instead of centering on "big figures," these films often focus on "completely ordinary women." 

Film still 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'
Sciamma's 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' won the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes film festivalImage: Imago Images/Prod.DB

But despite the efforts of feminist avant-garde filmmakers of the 1970s, gender inequality in the film industry remains a concern. 

There are of course exceptions, including Celine Sciamma's feminist period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, now in cinemas in Germany. "When women grab the camera, you can expect to see something different," wrote Verena Lueken in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about Sciamma's film that won the Queer Palm at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. 

Silent origins of female liberation

Men too have directed films with powerful feminine perspectives. The Frankfurt festival is showing, for example, Maurice Elvey's rare silent film from 1927, Hindle Wakes: "A very interesting example about emancipation and women's right to vote and the consequences," said Gramann of the classic.

Filmstill Hindle Wakes
Women in a British textile industry: 'Hindle Wakes'Image: courtesy of Park Circus ITV Studios

The festival had also screened the British film last year in reaction to the #MeToo wave unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. Hindle Wakes also directly deals with women's sexual self-determination.

This year, the film, which portrays "astonishing female impetus" according to Gramann, features new music by Dutch female composer and pianist, Maud Nelissen.

"Remake. Frankfurt Women's Film Days" runs November 26 to December 1.