Embracing femininity as a form of empowerment

    FEMININITY / Two films from Nordisk Panorama observe groups of women going against social conventions in claiming back youth on their own terms.

    Ageism is the last prejudice we still accept in western society. The internet flourishes with advice for women past 50 on how to dress in neutral colours and be subtle in their manners. Women passed their reproduction years are often ridiculed if they are alluringly dressed or have flirtatious behaviour. It is as if conventional norms are encouraging mature women to remain invisible. Are we pacifying women intentionally in order to make them more acceptant of their caretaking roles of children, ageing husbands and parents?

    Both films, Calendar Girls and Band are coming-of-age stories that shatter the myth that age has to define a woman and her role. Winston Churchill presumably once said, «we start to grow old when we resign on our youthfulness!” How true. In both films, we observe women who go against social conventions by claiming their youth back.

    Calendar Girls, directed by the first-timer filmmakers Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen, tells a story of women well over 60 who dance in a successful troupe in southwest Florida. In Band, directed by the actress and band member, Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir, we follow three women on the brink of their 40s who try to make it big in the music scene of Iceland. As Örnólfsdóttir stated at her premiere at Hot Docs, she wanted to explore «when is the right time to give up following your dreams? And when are you too old to be up and coming?»

    Band Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir
    Band, a film by Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir

    Unique storytelling

    Band is enjoyable to watch as a cross-section between a fictional and a documentary film. The scenes are filmed with an observational camera, and the action unfolds as if in a fiction film. It opens with one of their concert performances, an event that is saturated with neurotic as well as erotic energy. Örnólfsdóttir crawls around in her golden snakeskin bodysuit while another band member has a spasm on the floor. Their electro-punk music style is hard to pinpoint and perhaps even harder to listen to, but their performance is more about theatre than music. Their expression is based on whatever feminine energy flows through them at the moment. Perhaps that is why their lyrics cover relationships with their mothers, waffles with cream and co-dependent relationships. Their artistic expression is embedded with self-irony, and so is the film.

    They are impressively gorgeous when dressed as rock and roll stars, parading at night-time Reykjavík, and looking for new bars to perform in. They will do anything to avoid the blues after a happening, hence the name of their band, The Post Performance Blues. The party must never stop; however, there is a day after.

    The babysitter doesn’t turn up as planned. While driving her kid to school – presumably with a hangover – a police officer gives her a fine she can barely deal with. At the pawnshop, she sells her wedding ring for a disappointingly low price that will only cover half of the fine she just received. What a dichotomy! At night they are rebellious predators roaming the streets of Reykjavík, and the next, they are soft caretaking mothers who try to make ends meet. Again we are presented with the contrasting aspects of being a mother and an upcoming artist.

    Ageism is the last prejudice we still accept in western society.

    Halfway through the film, some sequences are constructed as a music video and come off as strangely constructed. We accept the cross genres as long as the film has a flow that is not interrupted by poor acting or other disharmonies. However, when we are torn out of the illusion, we question what is authentic and what is not.

    Nevertheless, the film gives us unique insight into the highly diversified artistic scene of the island. Even though Iceland only populates 350,000 citizens, it exports more music to Hollywood per capita than any other country. When our band members approach big stars for mentoring, we get a tiny peek into Iceland’s flourishing music scene. This is an environment where nothing is too outrageous, strange or dislikeable.

    As Örnólfsdóttir expressed herself at Hot Docs, «older women come to see us and say they love us! I was wondering why it touches them so much. We can be crazy all over the place, but women haven’t always been allowed to do that. They still aren’t, in some places in the world.»

    Calendar Girls Maria Loohufvud Love Martinsen
    Calendar Girls, a film by Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen

    Calendar Girls

    Calendar Girls premiered at Sundance and recently enjoyed a theatrical release in both Miami and New York. . Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen, a married couple from Sweden, had no film experience before this film. While enjoying maternity leave in southwest Florida, they thought they would like to do a project together when they saw The Calendar Girls at an event. «Our first thought was ‘, are they supposed to dress like this?’ and then we felt ashamed of our prejudice. We realised that we didn’t know anything about people of this age. We started to interview The Calendar Girls, and they all said that the dancing had caused a transformation in their lives.»

    «For every step in the filmmaking, we had to stop and google the next step of the filmmaking process. Then we were lucky and ran into a pdf intended for high school students, and that was really helpful because it explained everything simply and clearly.» In order to enhance the power of the dance expression, they choreographed some music video sequences within the film. Loohufvud is by profession film composer, and he created new music for the dance sequences in Calendar Girls. He had to follow the beat of the original track, but he created new music that would enhance the emotion he wanted to evoke in the individual scenes. «Film composing and film edition work on similar principles», he says, «it is based on emotions, structure and rhythm.» The first time film directors decided to do all the parts themselves, from funding to shooting, recording, editing and postproduction. «Our naiveté brought us far, everyone was advising us to do a small project, but we tried to stay positive and learn as we go along.»

    I anticipated Calendar Girls would give me a good laugh watching silly old American ladies dressed in short pink dresses and fury booths. I was ashamedly wrong. Calendar Girls is an encouraging film about emancipation. These are serious women who practice three times a week and have over a hundred performances a year. How can one not feel a sense of awe while watching women in their 70s with perfect posture and elegant movements? The dance scenes are powerful, and the women embrace femininity as a source of empowerment.

    In both films, we observe women who go against social conventions by claiming their youth back.

    Dressing does not only influence how others see us; it deeply affects our own sense of being. As one of the ladies says, «when you are 20, 30, everyone pays attention to you and then one day it all of the sudden stops, and you are invisible… I can’t wait to get all glammed up and look sexy!» Feeling sexy is a powerful source of life energy. These ladies enjoy wearing sexy outfits, showing off their legs and wearing feathers in their hair. It makes them stronger and more confident, which leads them to take steps to gain more control of their own lives. As one dancer states, «I am 71, and I am done being isolated. I just want to have a good time.»

    They are inspiring, and their biggest fan club are women. «At every projection we have had, there are women in the audience who say that they are going to change their wardrobe!» Maybe that is why Band and Calendar Girls enjoy such a warm response from the audience. These are encouraging stories of triumphant sisterhood, of daring to take the step to realise your dream. At a mature age, one does not have the possibility to put to the side their dreams. It is now or never!

    Margareta Hruza
    Margareta Hruza
    Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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