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In the more than three hours long documentary Human from 2015, the French photographer and filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand let people from all over the world talk about their lives straight into the camera – and thus directly to us as spectators. In total, he had interviewed 2020 people from 60 different countries, all of whom were asked the same questions, filmed against a neutral, black background.
This resulted in a film that highlighted both inequalities and similarities between us and made the audience reflect on what it means to be human. Human appealed to the spectator’s empathy, being a portrait of humanity in general that underlined the importance of humanitarianism in particular.
Brutal and heart-warming
As the title suggests, the sequel portrays the female part of the world’s population, using the same form and approach. Therefore, it feels timely that Arthus-Bertrand isn’t the sole director this time, but shares the task with the female Ukrainian-born journalist and filmmaker Anastasia Mikova. The new film is based on interviews they did with 2000 women from a total of 50 countries.
Like the previous film, Woman is divided into different thematic sections, addressing different aspects of what it means to be a woman. Already from the opening sequence, where a woman tells about her experience of being a victim of human trafficking, it becomes clear that the film does not shy away from the violence and abuse the women of the world are exposed to. But the many confessions also contain humorous and heart-warming moments.
A man’s world?
With such a gender-based premise, this project is in some danger of emphasizing a romanticised perception of females as opposed to males – and the world hardly needs another pretentious, old-fashioned tribute to womanhood. Fortunately, Woman avoids this, simply by letting the women speak for themselves.
Since the last movie, the world has witnessed the emergence of the MeToo movement, and its renewed awareness that certain, mostly negative, experiences are more of a concern to women than to men. To use the words of a male soul singer, it certainly still is a man’s world. And therefore, it has become even more necessary for women to be seen and heard.
In light of this, the film could have been more focused on women’s challenges (and impact) in our western part of the world, although misogynism is often more apparent in other cultures. I would also have preferred that Woman spent slightly less time on motherhood and the «life-giving» aspect of the female gender since this can easily be associated with outdated perceptions of women’s place in home and society. Admittedly, it would have been unnatural (in the proper sense of the word) to ignore this theme completely, and there is little doubt that giving birth and the role of maternity is of great importance to a huge amount of women. But I am nonetheless surprised that so few of the interviewees say anything about not wanting to have children – and when this subject is raised, it is with some ambivalence about this choice.
Power and Injustice
In Human, the talking heads were combined with breath-taking aerial photo sequences filmed across the globe, which, in a more literal sense, depicted humanity from a macro perspective. Whereas in Woman, the filmmakers have instead chosen to break up the interviews with full-character portraits of women from different cultures and walks of life. These include pictures of families, also being an important theme in the film. And so, the film is not completely free of men, at least not on the visual side.
The word that best describes Woman is empowering. The sum of the testimonies creates a sense of strength and opportunity, but also of gross injustice. A striking example of the latter is the acid attacks against women who have broken with men’s demands on how they should behave. It is tempting to use the phrase «crippling injustice» if it wasn’t for the young woman in the film who has managed to find strength in what she has been through, an attack that also characterizes her physical appearance.
it has become even more necessary for women to be seen and heard.
The absence of the large-scale panoramic images, as well as the shorter duration of 105 minutes, makes Woman slightly less overwhelming than Human. But it is still a powerful, moving and thought-provoking film.
So, should Arthus-Bertrand and Mikova follow up this documentary with a movie about men, which might be seen as the logical continuation of this project? One could, of course, object that this is not really needed, considering that the male gender is still the most privileged – but Woman is presumably not made solely because women tend to have less power. Speaking for myself, I would like to see a similar portrait of the world’s men, with all their diversity of roles, identities, power, and privileges – as well as lack of power and privileges.
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