#Female Pleasure

Getting down about FGM in Africa.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, Vithika Yadav, Mike Scott. Directed by Barbara Miller


There are those who think “feminist” is a dirty word, that they are strident man-haters out to castrate the opposite sex and turn the world into a matriarchy. That the feminist movement might have legitimate and pressing concerns doesn’t necessarily occur to those sorts.

Swiss documentarian Barbara Miller looks at five women who are fighting different aspects of oppression that women face on a global scale. Closest to home is Deborah Feldman, an author and former member of New York’s Hassidic denomination of the Jewish faith. She found herself married to a man she barely knew and with absolutely no control over the direction she wanted her life to go. She decided to leave the faith and to take her son with her; she remains one of the few Hassidic women to win custody of her son when leaving the faith. She is reviled by those she formerly was part of the community with.

Former nun Doris Wagner, who while serving in a convent in the Vatican was raped by a priest there. When she confessed what happened to her to the Mother Superior, she found herself treated like a criminal, that it was her fault what happened to her. Essentially without recourse and feeling alone, she took the drastic step of renouncing her vows and attempting to communicate her story directly to Pope Francis, who she felt (as many Catholics do) might be ready to do something about the dangerous and brutal situation in the convent. To date, however, there have been no changes although Wagner is much happier these days as a wife and mother.

Japanese manga artist Rokudenashiko got into trouble when she made a model on a 3D printer of her vagina in order to make art out of them (including a fiberglass kayak). In a culture that is replete with porn, it was amazing to her that the depiction of a part of her body would elicit such a negative response but she was in fact arrested and charged with obscenity. She was eventually convicted of publishing the schematics so that others could use 3D printers to replicate her vagina, which falls under the corruption of minors. She continues to appeal the conviction, although she is now dating Mike Scott, formerly of the Welsh band The Alarm, who was drawn to her plot by a news story about her.

Indian activist Vithika Yadav is a founder of the Love Matters website. If rape is a problem here in the United States, it’s an absolute epidemic in India where women are regularly groped and assaulted. Most women in India do not feel safe going out after dark without a trusted escort. Yadav is trying to create an atmosphere where men learn to respect women and see them as partners rather than as chattel.

Somali refugee Leyla Hussein lives in London now, but in the country of her birth was subjected to Female Genital Mutilation, a barbaric practice in which the clitoris is cut off as well as in some cases other parts of the vagina so that women can no longer experience sexual pleasure. One of the most compelling scenes in the film has her showing on an oversize clay model to a group of Somali young men exactly what is done in the procedure. The horror on their faces speaks volumes.

While at times the tone gets a little shrill, this definitely isn’t an anti-man film; rather, it is anti-abuse of women. All five of these women just want women to retain control over their bodies and their lives. As has been said elsewhere, if the Somalis practiced the hacking off of male penises, a stop would have been put to it forthwith but the practice is spreading as refugees from countries that practice it are moving into Europe and North America.

The women are passionate and personable and tell their stories eloquently. If Hussein breaks down in frustration as she does at one point, it’s understandable. When you think about it, there has been a cultural fear of the vagina on a global scale for millennia. Women have been forced into arranged marriages (as have men, to be fair) but more to the point, into arranged roles in which they are subservient.

Even in Japan, women are encouraged to look and act more child-like with big bows in their hair and cutesy schoolgirl clothes, something Rokudenashiko buys into which I found a bit ironic. This is certainly a film for the #MeToo era although this isn’t just about rape – it’s about the oppression of half the worlds population by the other half. This is certainly an eye-opening movie and if you have an uncle who thinks feminists are lesbians who want to see men mowed down by machine gun fire, you might want to plunk them down and show them this film. Not that it would make much of an impression of the Rush Limbaugh-lovers, but you never know.

REASONS TO SEE: Looks at the issues of feminism with a global perspective. The storytelling is compact but often harrowing nonetheless.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get strident at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexual content, artistic depiction of female genitals and discussions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place over the course of five years with locations in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 71/100.

Serendipity (2019)


There’s more than one way to get a head.

(2019) Documentary (Cohen Media Group) Prune Nourry, Agnes Varda.  Directed by Prune Nourry

For some artists, their art is indistinguishable from their lives. French sculptress/videographer/performance artist Prune Nourry is one such. Her feminism is central to both her life and art; fertility is a recurring subject for her and the female form is often the basis for her work. The act of creating life holds some fascination for her.

So it’s not unsurprising that when she is diagnosed with breast cancer at age 31 the shock waves reverberate not only through her life but through her work as well. This documentary essentially functions as both a video journal of her fight against cancer, from her chemotherapy to her surgeries, as well as a career retrospective (and prospective as we see her working on her massive Terracotta Daughters project which will not be fully revealed to the public until 2030.

It isn’t easy to come to terms with one’s own mortality – we all know abstractly that our time is finite, but to actually be confronted with a potential end of our existence is another thing entirely. Rather than dwelling on it in a negative way, Nourry uses it as an inspiration for her creativity, experiencing a flurry of ideas that are as healing to her as the medicines and treatments her oncologists prescribe. Never underestimate the power of having something to do in one’s healing process.

There is a little bit of the avant garde to this; Nourry mounts a Go-Pro on her hospital gurney so that we can see her wheeled around from her room to the operating room and back again. The result comes off as a bit of a cross between an art film and a horror film set in a hospital. I suspect people who have recently spent time in a hospital will get that more than those that haven’t.

Much of Nourry’s work has a whimsical quality to it, even if it can be somewhat dark. For example she sets up a “sperm bar” in a food cart where people can come up and order the genetic traits of prospective offspring, although “The Procreative Dinner,” an installation set up in a five-star restaurant imagines the process of giving birth as a five-course meal which some may find a bit offensive, although it isn’t a bad thing to have one’s sensibilities challenged.

The movie, although short, gives us a sense of intimacy as Nourry shares some aspects of her life that most women would prefer to keep to themselves. She also involves her mentor, the late great French filmmaker Agnes Varda in the ceremonial cutting of her hair prior to chemotherapy (Nourry eventually shaves herself bald). Curiously, she chooses not to reveal as much about her creative process as she does about the removal of her breasts and the effects of chemotherapy upon her body. Then again, as mentioned earlier, for some artists their art is their life and certainly Nourry treats it as such.

This isn’t for everyone. Artists by their nature can sometimes be pretentious and we get a little bit of art therapy versus medicine here (you can guess which side Nourry is on) which for the likes of me tends to underestimate the positive effect of doctors and other medical practitioners. I don’t have anything against art therapy – I do believe that some of my own recovery is being facilitated by my insistence to continue writing my reviews even though my energy levels are fluctuating wildly as I recover from my own surgery – but I don’t agree that is the sole reason that we survive. The body may be a vessel for the mind, but without the body the mind can’t exist.

Those who have gone through cancer treatments of their own will likely find this a bit more compelling, as will those who are not only lovers of Nourry’s work but of art in general. Those who don’t find themselves in either category may well find this a bit dull, particularly if they have no interest in art or connection to cancer. Then again, not every movie is meant for everybody although those cinema buffs who are a bit more adventurous may find this of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating and intimate portrait of an artist who is rethinking her outlook on life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Definitely not for everyone; some may find it a bit too “artsy.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and a bit of profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nourry, born in France, now lives in Brooklyn where she is the artist-in-residence at the Invisible Dog Art Center since 2011.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
#Female Pleasure