Not so very long ago, most documentaries were short films and most shorts were documentaries. The Berlin International Film Festival – the Berlinale – introduced the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at its sixth renewal in 1956, and the first thirteen winners were documentaries. It wasn’t until 1971 that a live-action fiction triumphed: Paul B. Price’s 1501½.
Nearly five decades on, the tables have decisively turned. At the 68th edition of the hugely popular festival that ran from February 15-25 this year; 22 shorts vied for the Golden Bear – 13 of them fiction. But even this ratio far exceeded the features slate, in which only one of the 19 contenders could be classed as a documentary.
Of the 21 directors in the Golden Bear features competition, four were female (19 per cent). Among the shorts, however, the gender-balance was almost exactly twice as healthy: 9/24, or 38 per cent. Among these, two documentary standouts dealt most directly and powerfully with women’s experiences: Jayisha Patel’s Circle and Maris Curran’s While I Yet Live.
In each instance, the directors deploy the short-film format – both films run roughly a quarter of an hour – to explore subjects and topic that could easily form the basis for a picture of conventional feature-length duration. Their works take differing but similarly productive approaches to the economy and brevity of their chosen medium.
Circle – Indian inter-generational exploitation
Born in London in 1987, Jayisha Patel studied economics at Nottingham University and documentary-making at Cuba’s International Film & TV School. She returned to the Caribbean island to make A Paradise, which competed for the Golden Bear in 2014, and also Adentro (2015). A commission from Al Jazeera resulted in the same year’s Power Girls, chronicling the exploits of India’s ‘female Red Brigade’ –an urban anti-rape vigilante movement based in Lucknow – the bustling capital of the northern state Uttar Pradesh, India.
Circle is a logical development from Power Girls, Patel moving from the urban centres of ‘UP’ — India’s most populous area, with 200 million inhabitants – to a remote village in the north-east of the state. Here the focus is on a single village and family – indeed, on a single teenage girl, Kushbu – who is about to be married to a man she has barely met and whom she doesn’t know. Through scraps of overheard dialogue («they tied a scarf over my mouth») it becomes apparent that this demure and downcast young woman has suffered rape, apparently «organised» by her own grandmother.
«It becomes apparent that this demure and downcast young woman has suffered rape, apparently «organised» by her own grandmother.»
Divided into three chapters – December, February and April – the 14-minute Circle captures a solemnly beautiful, rural area in wintry moments of ominous calm. The misty, forested landscape provides a mute backdrop for a story of inter-generational exploitation and oppression that is all the more affecting and anger-provoking for being handled in such a matter-of-fact, low-key way.
Rape of women every hour in India
Patel eschews editorialising and directorial commentary, instead foregrounding the measured voices of women and girls. Trapped in a traditional, patriarchal society, where corporal punishment and casual violence are the norm, they accept their grim fate – having instead come to regard it as the normal course of events («If they want to beat you, they should.»)
Man hands on misery to man – or rather, woman to woman: Kushbu’s laconic ancestor «expects her granddaughter to suffer; that’s just how it is.» The circle thus goes around and around: viciously, quietly and endlessly. In the film’s raucous concluding segment, Kushbu’s wedding takes place – during the elaborate ceremony, her nervous gazes at the camera are those of an inextricably, heartbreakingly ensared animal.
Patel’s film is evidently intended as an awareness-raising exercise, in tandem with the efforts by NGOs to illuminate and thus ultimately eradicate the «rape culture» which afflicts Uttar Pradesh and the wider nation. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were just over 10,000 child rapes in 2015; that shocking figure more than doubled the following year, and many of the cases also featured the murder of the victim.
«Man hands on misery to man – or rather, woman to woman.»
As the First Post newspaper reported in January, «NCRB data confirms that with 164 rapes being reported everyday, a woman is being raped every hour in India.» According to the article, an increasing number of the raped women end up being murdered. Still, there are many unrecorded numbers and little effort from the side of the government to reverse these devastating tendencies.
While I Yet Live – self-expression through quilting
Of roughly comparable latitude to the setting of Circle but some 13,000km further west, the small village of Boykin, Alabama (pop. 116 in the 2010 census) is the focus of Maris Curran’s affecting miniature While I Yet Live. Curran is a California-based filmmaker whose work has encompassed narrative and documentary material: her debut fiction-feature Five Nights in Maine, starring David Oyelowo, premiered at Toronto in 2015. She directed and also produced While I Yet Live –a 15-minute look at a group of quilt-making African-American women and their remarkable handicrafts – which emerges as a rousing paean to feminine solidarity and matrilineal traditions.
While the grandmother in Circle is a sinister – a silent presence whose shadow hangs heavy over her brutalised kin – the cheery ladies of While I Yet Live speak with great fondness about their female forebears: «my grandma taught me how to quilt», one recalls with beaming happiness.
These women – most of them in their seventies and eighties – exude a beatific calm that partly derives from the genuine pride they feel in their work: the quilts of «Gee’s Bend» (the locals’ name for Boykin) have attracted national and international attention as true folk-art, particularly after a 2002 exhibition at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan.
«For generations», wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times review of the Whitney show, «women of the Bend have passed down an indigenous style of geometric patterns out of… whatever happened to be around, which was never much. The results, turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.»
«In a film that lauds the women’s capacity for self-expression via their quilting, Curran gives them ample scope to speak.»
As Curran subtly indicates, this cotton-picking corner of Alabama wasn’t immune from the cruelties and turbulence that eventually led to the Civil Rights breakthroughs of the 1950s. «It’s OK now», remarks one of the ladies, «but not like it should be!»
In a film that lauds the women’s capacity for self-expression via their quilting, Curran gives them ample scope to speak – and indeed sing, joining together in an uplifting polyphony in the closing moments. The power of community is palpably evident here; in this warm light its harsh absence in the Uttar Pradesh of Circle cuts even more savagely deep.