Cinema Against the Age: Feminism and Contemporary Documentary

In 2006, B. Ruby Rich’s editorial for a special “documentary studies” issue of Cinema Journal observed that the “landscape for documentary production, history, and theory is richer than it has been in the United States at any time since, perhaps, the last explosion: the direct cinema or cinema verite movement of the early 1960s.”[1] Documentary cinema has seen a revival over the last decade with the market for feature length non-fiction film intensifying not only in North America, but also Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia. Greater audience interest and a favourable commercial environment have led to a considerable rise in the number of feature length films gaining theatrical release. Notably, documentaries exploring issues of gender or even other axes of identity and subjectivity seem largely absent from the corpus of films that make up the most visible and commercially successful products of this revival. However, beyond this grouping, there exists a diverse and persistent (albeit often less visible) body of documentary film work that represents the multidimensional issues, experiences and institutions that expand around the socio-cultural formation of gender.

In this essay I wish to explore the intersection of contemporary documentary and feminism. Specifically, I am interested in identifying and classifying “feminist documentary” with reference to both contemporary film culture and a history of film feminism. In the present moment feminism achieves little currency in the public sphere or in popular cinema,[2] including theatrical release documentary. Much of this cinema is addressed to a market or demographic who might be generally aware of the project of second or third wave feminism, but would likely perceive a category such as “feminist documentary” as out of sync with the film sensibilities of the time. In order to investigate how recent documentary works to be at once contemporary and feminist, given the prevailing marginalisation of feminism, I will look closely at two recent examples, Love, Lust and Lies (Australia 2009) and Pink Saris (United Kingdom 2010). I suggest that these films bring to the fore themes and subjectivities that seek out an alternative recognition in the viewer, one that emerges from the untimeliness of the representations.

Current documentary trends are marked not only by a renewed generalised popularity of the genre, but also a proliferation of documentary styles. This shift owes much to the influences brought by a changing media environment, not least the rise of reality television and digital media. Reality television, while strongly influenced by direct cinema and first person filmmaking, has in turn intensified the turn in documentary film towards the embodied presence of the narrator/director and character based documentary. Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore are perhaps the most prominent exponents of this style. Films such as Gasland (USA 2010) or The Cove (USA 2009) offer more recent manifestations of this mode. It could also be argued that new media technologies have enhanced the visual potential of feature length documentary, with the use of digital graphics (An Inconvenient Truth [USA 2006]), animation (March of the Penguins [France 2005]) and a greater exploitation of spectacle (Touching the Void [United Kingdom 2003], Under the Sea [Canada/USA 2009]). These changes have all contributed to the materialisation, every year, of a handful of films that are highly visible, usually highly produced and circulate successfully in the market media complex as high grossing documentaries.[3] This media complex facilitates a documentary feature culture that is changing to keep pace with the aesthetic innovations that appeal to audiences, especially with the development of digital cinema. It also produces a political documentary cinema that narrowly intersects with the interests of changing public investment in social political movements. Films focusing on social and activist issues that have less currency rely on other circuits of distribution such as DVD, the internet, festivals and, where possible, television.

A significant portion of these high profile documentaries are concerned with socio-political issues, including The Corporation (Canada 2003), Darwin’s Nightmare (Austria/France/Belgium 2004), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (USA 2005), Control Room (USA 2004), Waiting For Superman (USA 2010), McLibel (United Kingdom 1997, 2005), South of the Border (USA 2009) and Michael Moore’s oeuvre just to name a few. Many of these films employ stylistic techniques, as I have noted, that move beyond the traditional modes of exposition and observational cinema. Further, the most prominent films in the revival have privileged certain thematic strands – war, corporate power, governmental politics, globalisation and the demise of the environment and natural resources. There is a clear link between these films and a long history of radical leftist documentary filmmaking or what Thomas Waugh, in 1984, referred to as “committed documentary.” [4]

As Rich notes however, this link is seldom observed. She notes that in the academy the revival has been saluted with tributes to individual auteurs, effectively ignoring the “rich history of U.S. activist film”[5] including feminist documentary. Observing the further diminishment of activist filmmaking, Rich writes that in coverage of the documentary boom in the popular press “documentaries are assessed one at a time, according to normative criteria: box-office performance, directorial intention, and preexisting popular interest in particular documentary subjects.”[6] There is a double omission occurring simultaneously at the level of popular reception and at the level of the academy. The first contributes to the conditions under which documentary is consumed and preference for locating films within a public sphere that minimizes political cinema histories. With regard to the second, it may be that there has been increased attention to the political histories of the documentary in intellectual work since Rich’s observations were published. Nevertheless, my interest is in not only the present trends in documentary studies, but also the history of feminist film studies. This is due to the way this history has functioned in particularly complex ways to both identify and marginalise feminist documentary for students and scholars of documentary.

Film Studies and Feminist Documentary Histories

To look at the historical positioning of what has been termed by scholars “realist feminist documentary” filmmaking in the academy, is to observe a sequence of erasures that have hindered a full critical grasp of this documentary endeavour. As Diane Waldman and Janet Walker describe, this is evident from the early critiques of the documentary genre when:

the relationship of ‘70s documentary studies to feminist concerns was primarily one of omission. Early ‘70s work on documentary neglected both the representation of women in the classics of the documentary tradition and the contributions of women to the documentary form.[7]

By the 1980s, however, it became difficult to ignore the sheer numbers of women working in documentary filmmaking.[8] However, as Waldman and Walker also identify, there has been a “relative lack of attention to the documentary form and the discourse that describes it”[9] in the field of feminist film studies.

The term “realist” is inexact and has been used largely to demarcate a boundary between documentary that employs classical modes of exposition (including interviews and observational techniques) and non-fiction avant-garde, experimental and essayist forms. Realist political documentary is in actuality a large basket that might include documentaries made with different motivations and within different traditions such as consciousness-raising and educational films, agit-prop and activist films, television journalism, biography and autobiography amongst others. In her 1978 article, “The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film”, Julia Lesage poses feminist documentary as a genre that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. Some of the variants of realist film I have noted are identified in her outline of the genre. This body of work emerged following not only the rise of second wave feminism, but also the direct cinema movement. As Lesage writes, women learning filmmaking in the 1970s, particularly within the anti-war movement, took up the style of cinema verite:

It not only demanded less mastery of the medium than Hollywood or experimental film, but also the very documentary recording of women’s real environments and their stories immediately established and valorised a new order of cinematic iconography, connotation, and range of subject matter in the portrayal of women’s lives.[10]

Documentary was, and perhaps still is, an accessible way to gain access to film production and a vehicle for expression. What Lesage’s work testifies to is a visible body of work being produced in North America, if not elsewhere, in the 1970s that was grouped together by feminist intellectuals as an established documentary concern that was, in some instances, classified as a genre. However, there are only a handful of scholarly publications that account for this cohesive feminist film work, at the time, or in retrospect.[11] There is a greater body of work that has focused on formalism and critiqued the use of observational and expository techniques for political filmmaking.

The “realist debates” in feminist film theory grappled with the notion that realist filmmaking, fiction or non-fiction, encouraged spectator identification in a way that reinscribed the consciousness of the dominant patriarchal culture. A theoretically informed approach to non-realist film aesthetics was seen as a pathway to producing and critiquing film that could generate an alternative consciousness. While there has been much written in support of and against realism (and the possibilities for revising realist documentary practice)[12] the urgency and allure of theorising new conceptually sophisticated paradigms resulted in the canonisation of largely North American non-fiction works by Rainer, Citron, Friedrich, Hammer and later Benning, at the expense of offering full critical attention to realist feminist documentary. Observational and expository styles can easily seem pedestrian in a teaching context when viewed against the conceptual sophistication of modernist and post-modernist experimental cinema. Following this, Alexandra Juhasz writes that “due to the insidious economic relationship between film scholarship and alternative film distribution, many of these [realist] films are lost for re-evaluation because only twenty years later they are very difficult, if not impossible, to find.”[13]   The films by or in some part featuring women’s concerns that entered the leftist political film canon or gained accolades as individual documentaries, such as Harlan County USA (USA 1976), Union Maids (USA 1976) or in Australia, For Love or Money (Australia 1983) continue to have a strong profile.

As a genre founded in the 1960s, feminist documentary has never been fully in sync with the hopes and expectations of the times, at least in a way that has been recognised by the feminist academy. Nevertheless, the persistent interest of documentary filmmakers and audiences in documentaries that confront the ontological, cultural and institutional problematic of sexism demonstrates that realist feminist documentary is a robust form despite the lack of attention from the academy or theatrical distributors. The work of New York distributor, Women Make Movies, testifies to the importance of the form in educational contexts and for grassroots movements, if not mainstream distribution. Many of these films are not identified as “feminist” but are rather appropriated into, or produced to suit, classifications determined by festival and distribution agendas. For example, many appear under the umbrella of the prominent speciality field of human rights film and find a strong festival and internet presence through this classification. Television, especially public television, continues to be a robust forum for feminist documentary internationally as commissioning editors maintain an interest in character driven films, including those focused on women. The two films I discuss below are key examples of this trend. Documentary filmmakers continue to explore and depict feminist questions and while the genre may have been marginalised in particular ways, contemporary examples continue to find niche audiences. These films can also offer a rich critical opportunity.

In considering documentary as a site for both reading and reflecting on the tenor of the age, my aim is to view Pink Saris and Love, Lust and Lies as interventions that open up the possibility for an alternative recognition in the viewer. Identifying contemporary examples as feminist documentaries and as contributing to a field and history of feminist filmmaking is to recognize them as untimely and as out of joint with the mediatised public sphere. There is much to be gained by acknowledging and offering a critique of the way documentaries that explore gendered issues can work against prevailing paradigms to potentially engender an awareness of the contingency of these paradigms. Following Wendy Brown, I propose that one way to fully grasp the times is to think against the times, to explore how “untimely critique insists on alternative possibilities in a seemingly closed political and epistemological universe”.[14]  In this spirit, I suggest that an analysis of contemporary feminist documentary requires an affirmation of their particular untimeliness and the address to the viewer it facilitates.

Love Lust and Lies is directed by internationally renowned Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong and Pink Saris is directed by award-winning British documentary filmmaker, Kim Longinotto. The first example, a longitudinal study of three Adelaide women, offers an almost anachronistic vision of gendered politics while the second explores what it means to struggle against gendered oppression in India. Pink Saris and Love, Lust and Lies do not mirror, in a tidy way, the grouping of films Lesage describes in 1978 as feminist documentaries. Rather, they offer an avenue to reflect on new modalities of realist feminist documentary. Neither documentary advocates an explicit political vision or narrates a feminist appraisal of a cultural situation. The critique in these films draws on the biographical and the observational to suggest a larger cultural terrain. They appeal to contemporary audience sensibilities by emphasising personal narratives. The films are thus expressive rather than didactic and through this expressivity they assert female speaking subjects who offer an expanded notion of female subjectivity. In order to understand the untimely qualities of these films, my analysis is particularly concerned with the relationship between the formal construction of time, the presentation of history and how both influence the formulation of subjectivity.

Love Lust and Lies

Love Lust and Lies is the most recent installment of a documentary series that has focused, since 1976, on the lives of three Adelaide women. It is preceded by four documentaries in the series; Smokes and Lollies (1976), 14 Good, 18’s Better (1980), Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces (1988) and Not Fourteen Again (1996). The films, three of them feature length, have circulated via international festivals, screened on television in Australia and elsewhere and the features have achieved theatrical release in Australia. Love, Lust and Lies was financed through the film-funding infrastructure (Screen Australia, Screen New South Wales and the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC)) after it had achieved a public service television presale through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). In Australia the film’s theatrical release and its television broadcast were accompanied by a sizable promotional campaign. Thus, while the film was, essentially, produced for television, its feature length and the promotion surrounding it contribute to its status as a form of prestige documentary that exceeds the confines of television.

Indeed, Smokes and Lollies, the first installment, was never intended to be the beginning of a series – it was commissioned as a stand-alone documentary for a television half-hour. Armstrong had been asked to make a short film for the SAFC that would be part of a series on topics relating to women’s issues. As Armstrong notes, “I’d been chosen to make the one on what it’s like to be a 14-year-old girl. It could have been a girl from any walk of life at all, and I think in some ways the feeling was that this would be the new liberated 14-year-old.”[15] Armstrong subsequently found Kerry, Diana and Josie at a youth “drop in” centre. While the SAFC brief encouraged a selection of girls from any “walk of life,” Armstrong settled on her three subjects immediately and they all happened to be Anglo-Australian and from a nearby working class Adelaide suburb. These details of the origin of the series are important. They underpin the core thematic thread that is present throughout the unfolding series – an implicit concern with the relationship between individuals and socio-political forces, particularly those shaping gender and class.

Armstrong’s series follows the format of longitudinal documentary, established with the British Up series by Michael Apted, and each subsequent film intercuts recent footage with material from the previous films. With the juxtaposition of new and historical footage, this technique emphasizes the passing of time and personal change. As the culmination of 34 years of audio visual material, Love, Lust and Lies offers a striking example of the longitudinal documentary’s preoccupation with the problem of time and its relationship to spectacle, narrative and history. In this example of the form, this problem is closely tied to the social history of feminism in Australia. My interest is in the particular framing of the individual, the female subject, presented by the film and how this seeks to evoke both an alternative to contemporary dominant modes of femininity and a recognition, or a haunting, regarding the project of feminism. In both cases, the documentary is anomalous, working against the ethos of the current historical moment.

In a discussion of earlier documentaries in the series Felicity Collins observes that:

although Armstrong’s documentary series is sometimes regarded as a social history of women, and thus of working class Australia, no historical events are documented in the films. This lack of History, of socially significant events, makes it difficult to determine precisely what happens in the films.[16]

Collins’s words echo the critique, noted above, often leveled at the observational mode and documentaries that focus largely on the self-narrated stories of individuals. Further, Lesage notes that while this feature is a strength of feminist documentary, “the emphasis on the experiential, can sometimes be a political limitation, especially when the film limits itself to the individual and offers little or no analysis of sense of collective process leading to social change.”[17] While Collins understands the focus on the female subject in the series to eclipse the history of events, including feminist eventfulness, Lesage warns of the propensity, more generally, for a focus on the individual to be deployed at the expense of modeling the processes of activism and change.

I argue that Love, Lust and Lies privileges a relationship with the audience that is more concerned with identification and recognition than education (whether regarding change or history). It foregrounds the female speaking subject, specifically individual histories, in a manner that seeks the spectator’s recognition of cultural differences and similarities, such as class, gender, race or generation. There may be no voiceover offering a sociological interpretation of the forces and events that situate these women within a social history of feminism, but nevertheless the three subjects implicitly perform, throughout 34 years of interviews, what it means to move through history as a woman. In many ways, and inevitably, they perform subjectification for the camera. Explicitly drawing attention to the lives of white, underclass Adelaide women, Love, Lust and Lies presents a clear reading of the social world while echoing the gendered motivations of the first film, Smokes and Lollies.

Moreover, the film is not in the activist style that Lesage describes. Rather than portraying the processes of change, the film performs an historical intervention by offering an alternative to prevalent images of femininity in popular entertainment cinema, particularly those that emphasize girlhood or the return to the traditional ideal of marriage and the nuclear family. If many contemporary narratives of femininity signal a forgetfulness, (forgetting the goals of feminism and the impact of women’s subordination to male privilege),[18] Armstrong’s 2010 documentary firmly locates the female subject in history. Moreover, it seeks an acknowledgement from the viewer of changing social attitudes and discourses, which is reinforced by situating the individual “in time,” changing as the years progress.

Drawing on over three decades of footage and interviews, the film condenses time. The three different kitchen tables in the homes of Kerry, Diana and Josie are central motifs in the film. Domestic scenes at tables and at kitchen sinks proliferate alongside them as the adult lives of the women unfold. In interview footage of the girls when they are 14 years old, the face of Kerry’s mother is shown in close up as Armstrong questions her about how she would feel if her daughter became pregnant at fourteen. In her responses she talks, reluctantly, about sex education and the film shown at school that “had everything in it” and which replaced the need for her to talk to her daughter about sex. Diana is shown at the kitchen table with her parents. She theatrically crosses her eyes in response to her father’s remark that “a girl can get into trouble. A boy can’t.” At eighteen Josie describes being in hospital after having her first baby at fifteen. Alone and without visitors, she sent herself flowers under a random name picked from the telephone book. These scenes are a reminder of social mores of the 1970s, such as the stigma of single teenage motherhood, attitudes towards sex and the dangers facing adolescent girls. Including these scenes, and their sentiments, in the later film reveals them as moments of transition that locate the female subject in history, and in contrast with present day values and attitudes concerning gender.

While, as I have noted, history and especially a history of feminist politics is not featured explicitly in the series, it remains an implicit backdrop and is consistently referred to by reviewers when they offer a context to the genesis of the documentaries.[19] In many respects, while the premise of the first film was to explore the figure of the new, liberated young woman, a product of feminism, the three girls Armstrong felt drawn to make the film about reflected a very different experience. Their views and environment were almost untouched by the rights and equality based popular feminism of the 1970s. Yet, paradoxically, the personal freedoms advocated by the “sexual revolution” were expressed in the girls’ articulation of their own sexual agency. Nevertheless, the footage drawn from the early films are artifacts that testify that feminism was not engendering universal change in women’s lives. For the three, feminism itself was “untimely” in the sense that it did not occur in time to have a significant impact on their worlds.

The spectre of a broadly articulated historical politics of feminism haunts the series and its reception. In reference to political histories, Brown writes:

While ghosts are ‘furtive and untimely,’ coming and going as they please, they can also be conjured and exorcised – solicited, beckoned, invoked, dismissed – and thus made to live in the present or leave the present in a manner that shapes both the possibilities for and constraints on the future.[20]

The notion of haunting presents a compelling way to understand the address of Love, Lust and Lies as I have outlined it. Particular histories are ever-present, but are made use of selectively.[21] They return in untimely ways to offer an alternative reflection on the age–not as an explicit reference, but as a haunting. If the social history of feminism poses such a haunting, it is certainly untimely and its presence in the film contributes to the documentary’s status as out step with the time. However, it also reveals the narrowness and contingency of images of femininity that erase this history. This process of evocation and recognition is reinforced by the formal qualities of the documentary that produce an expressive illustration of this changing history and the unfolding of women’s lives within it, rather than an explicit explanatory account.

Pink Saris

Set in Utter Pradesh, Northern India, Pink Saris is a portrait of the life and work of Sampat Pal, the leader of the Gulapi Gang. The Gang represent a group of women who have banded together to support women and girls who are grappling with the often violent hegemony of traditional culture. The documentary follows Sampat as she advocates for four different individuals who are facing situations of domestic abuse or potential ostracism from the community. Pink Saris shares much with a number of other films that Longinotto has directed, particularly those set in Iran and sub-Saharan Africa, such as Divorce Iranian Style (United Kingdom 1998) Runaway (United Kingdom 2001), both made in Tehran and co-directed with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, The Day I Will Never Forget (United Kingdom 2002) made in Kenya, and Sisters in Law (United Kingdom 2005), co-directed with Florence Ayisi in Cameroon. These documentaries present women who are negotiating the impact of oppressive traditional values in ways that actively challenge the assumptions implicit in these values. In this respect, her documentaries consistently undertake feminist work. Like Love, Lust and Lies, Pink Saris offers a form of biographical investigation. However, in Longinotto’s film Sampat alone takes centre stage as a successful, charismatic and also inconsistent personality. The complex issues surrounding life in rural India expand as this portrait unfolds, privileging the perspective of female third-world subjects.

Pink Saris was commissioned by the UK’s Channel Four and so, like Armstrong’s film, was funded through television. Its circulation on the festival circuit has resulted in a number of coveted awards and HBO screened Pink Saris in 2011. The film is, again, a feature length documentary that has benefited from renewed audience interest in documentary and succeeded on the coat tails of the documentary revival without demonstrating a clear fit with the dominant trends of this revival.

While it represents a very different undertaking to Lust, Love and Lies, issues of temporality and historical time are again crucial to the composition of the film and its reception. There are two dimensions of temporality that I wish to highlight. The first is the focus on the time of the individual in observational documentary and how this might position the female subject in history. The second explores how Pink Saris confronts the contemporary Western conceptualization of the Indian subaltern as outside of modernity, even outside of history, and its narratives of progress.

In the opening scenes of the film, fourteen-year-old Rehka comes to see Sampat in a village location where she is seemingly holding court, surrounded by women of the Gulapi Gang who are distinguished by their brightly coloured pink saris. Rehka is shy and reluctant to talk. Sampat, subtitled in English states “if girls spoke up the world would change [. . .] speak up girl, if you’re shy, you’ll die.” It becomes evident that Rehka, an untouchable, is pregnant to a boy of a higher caste she has been with for two years. The boy, promised to another marriage, has left her due to pressure from his family. The viewer is informed in intertitles: “Rehka must get married. Unmarried girls that get pregnant are often killed by their own families.” In the following scene Sampat, sitting outside the police station where the boy is now being held, pressures the boy and police with a comment: if Rehka does not marry she will hang herself. She negotiates and cajoles with the group assembled as she wipes the eyes of the crying boy (now released) with her sari, a gesture that is repeated throughout the film. Eventually, the boy and his family agree to marriage and the Gulapi Gang attends the wedding to ensure it goes ahead.

As demonstrated in this sequence, Pink Saris employs a fly on the wall style, supplemented with a judicious use of intertitles. In comparison with Armstrong’s film, Longinotto places more emphasis on the formal techniques of cinéma vérité. Yet, while they differ in many respects, both films gesture towards cultural expectations and social change without stating this explicitly. Longinotto’s documentary utilizes observations of intersubjectivity to foreground relationships, subordination and alliances that are formulated within a social terrain. In this respect Pink Saris highlights the time of the female subjects and situates these subjects in relation to the social world.

Time in the film is structured by the four women’s cases as the camera follows Pal’s attempts to represent the women (advocating for them as she visits police, in-laws and husbands) and listens to their stories. Women, including Pal, are constantly telling their stories to one another as the camera looks. This re-telling, sometimes manifesting as a gradual disclosure, provides a rhythm to the film. Thus, the foregrounding of individual experience is achieved through the observation of the intersubjective and the communication between on-screen actors. With only occasional direct address to the camera, duration in Pink Saris is inflected by the relationship between bodies on screen as they betray shyness, outrage or sadness. The opening scenes featuring Rehka and Pal offer one indication of this. More importantly, the relationships between characters and their exchanges demonstrate the clear power relationships that exist between husbands, wives, daughters and in-laws. There is no mistaking when Pal’s actions and words disrupt the assumed social order.

Pal’s story and her personality are central to the film and serve to focus the observational timing of the documentary. Longinotto’s camera usually focuses on women who are the agents of change, often remarkable in their composure and resolve. In this case Sampat presents a more complex psychological picture. She oscillates between careful negotiation, empathy, arrogance, impulsiveness and self-lament. The film is careful to show her position as exceptional – constantly interviewed by journalists, she is famous throughout India for her work. No doubt her visibility affords her some influence and authority when dealing with families who have abused their daughters or daughters-in-law and men who have abused or abandoned their wives. Given this exceptionalism, it is impossible to universalize her image in the global marketplace of documentary representations of the third world other. Yet, her experiences, of being married by her family as a twelve year old girl, leaving her husband, being cast out by the village and living on the streets with the threat of starvation, the film suggests, are not extraordinary. They are reflected in the stories of the four young girls she helps, and presumably the hundreds of lower caste women who make up the Gulapi Gang.

The untimeliness of Pink Saris again lies in the manner in which it establishes the female subject and her personal narratives within history and within the formal structures of the documentary. Pink Saris, like Love Lust and Lies, presents a dimension of female experience out of step with dominant conceptions of femininity in Western media and cinema, and thus it seeks audience recognition of diverse subjective histories. However, in the case of Pink Saris, this representation of female subjectivity opens out onto a critique of the assumptions embedded in the alignment between modernity and “the West.”

The largest audience for Longinotto’s documentary has been found amongst audiences in Europe and North America. This is an audience who increasingly perceive India through the prism of uneven modernity: megacities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore have become visible as centers of commerce and increasing corporate capitalism. Rural India, however, is imagined as static and pre-modern and, where popular media is concerned, spectatorial pleasure in this instance revolves around expectations of an archaic culture enshrining subaltern poverty. Pink Saris presents a challenge to this straightforward duality of telos and stasis by offering a cogent example of women working within, rather outside, modernity and its anomalies and inconsistencies. Rey Chow addresses the need to understand the coeval relationship between cultures and writes that, inevitably, cultures of the third world or non-West are “themselves transforming and translating into the present” in ways that “are equally engaged in the contradictions of modernity.”[22] This coevalness, for Chow, requires an acknowledgement that  “structures of domination are as typical of non-European cultural histories as they are of European imperialism.”[23]

In Pink Saris the project of modernity is realized through the work of women in Utter Pradesh, and Pal in particular. In some ways, this work resembles that of non-professionalised social work, mobilized by the precepts of a liberal humanist discourse of human rights. The film depicts the struggle for change and represents, by way of this struggle, the promise of a better future. Sampat’s words, “if girls spoke up the world would change,” are suggestive in this respect. Referring to the caste system she notes, “Things won’t change overnight. We have to wake people up.” Yet change and movement towards improving the lives of women occurs slowly and is influenced by the resources available to the Gulapi Gang, which are limited. The solutions reached for the women are far from ideal; they are often retuned to or married into abusive families. However, in all cases represented in the film, some kind of improvement in conditions, and importantly, some form of female agency, has been realized by the interventions of Pal and her supporters. Given the weight of tradition they are confronting, these improvements are significant.

Although Longinotto aspires to have the film circulate in India where it will be seen by other girls and effect their self-perception,[24] The film lends itself to the problem, identified within second wave feminism, of white women speaking to one other about, rather than with, the racialised female other, often constructing her as a victim rather than agent. In an analysis of Longinotto’s earlier films, Patricia White is referring to the work of Chandra Mohanty when she describes the critique of:

Western feminist social science practice and development work in which ‘third world women’ are portrayed as victims, not agents of change—a strategy evident in a wide swath of well-meaning global social-issue documentaries. Does the fact that Longinotto works in so many different cultural contexts similarly convey the sense that “what binds women together is a sociological notion of the ‘sameness’ of their oppression? Longinotto’s work scrupulously avoids this structure; her subjects, methods, and emphases are transnational rather than global(izing).[25]

White’s argument is instructive in the way it defends Longinotto’s work in the face of both Western feminist approaches and human rights documentaries. For White, Longinotto’s work is more aligned with a transnational feminism that acknowledges the connections between gendered spaces without universalizing these spaces. I argue these sites can also be understood as alternative contemporary spaces of modernity.

Pink Saris and Love, Lust and Lies pose a new modality of realist feminist documentary. They utilize observational and interview formats to provide expressive portraits of female subjectivity that are inflected by the aesthetic deployment of time in the texts. By foregrounding particular forms of female subjectivity, they ask the viewer to acknowledge what is frequently effaced in the popular terrain I have outlined. They seek an untimely recognition of the historical real of women’s experiences and either the (historical) work of second wave feminism or instances of agency and change in cultural spheres in the non-West.

In concluding, I would like to call on one further frame of reference for these two documentaries. I have outlined the manner in which previous iterations of the feminist film theoretical project have not fully grasped the relationship between feminism and documentary work. Recent threads of film practice and film analysis have aligned in such a way that these two documentaries can now be seen as salient objects of critique in the contemporary field of feminist film theory. One influential new strand of feminist film theory attends to the female director, the conditions of global institutions and practices and how these intersect with the transnational specificities of women’s film work. This writing includes White’s focus on women’s transnational film practices noted above and Kathleen McHugh’s attention to the career trajectories of female directors when she seeks to account for the “discourses and structures of opportunity enabled by various feminisms, and how those structures influence or frame narratives of production or reception.”[26] Both Armstrong and Longinotto present as examples well suited to McHugh’s analysis: both came of age in an era of accelerating globalization and at a time when the category “woman” was undergoing significant cultural transformation. They are individuals at ease with and subjected to the forces coinciding around transnationalism and feminism.

Armstrong’s career began in Australia where she was one of the few female directors to build a career out of the favorable conditions of the 1970s Australian film renaissance. She first rose to prominence with My Brilliant Career (1979). Her career took on greater transnational emphasis in the mid-nineties when she started directing films in Hollywood (Little Women (1994), Charlotte Gray (2001) and Death Defying Acts (2008). In some respects, Armstrong herself brings a supplementary feminist aura to Love, Lust and Lies. In many ways Armstrong, with her accomplished international film career, haunts the series as the ‘liberated’ and enabled young 1970s woman that Smokes and Lollies was to initially focus on. Longinotto has been making films since the late 1970s and while she has a sizable documentary oeuvre that has consistently gained critical acclaim on the festival circuit and an established reputation with television commissioning editors, her name as a director has a relatively low profile.[27] In a way that almost eschews the masculinised doco-auteur label, Longinotto often offers co-direction credits with women she works with in the process of making her work and usually acts as cinematographer, securing her position as one who looks on, rather than directs or participates in the on-screen events. This approach to filmmaking resembles those favored by feminist practitioners in the 70s and 80s. Moreover, she regularly makes films that look across cultures, into the experiences of women in North and sub-Saharan Africa, Iran and Japan. These films are produced transnationally and seek transnational audiences.

Attention to considerations beyond the film text, such as the career pathways of women directors and the institutions that shape them, opens out the possibilities for more fully assessing and historicizing a diverse range of women’s film work. This recent scholarship is, in part, motivated by a self-conscious desire to consider questions of gender in a sustained way, especially in the face of post-feminist narratives that proclaim the “pastness” of feminism. Significantly, White calls for “a public sphere in which transnational women’s media and conversations about its limits and promises can shape the future” and for White, such attention can “still reverse a potentially post-feminist future.”[28] This further demonstrates the relevance of these untimely films and how they might return feminist investigation with rich possibilities for understanding the impact of (film) feminisms and the place of the female director in the 21st century. They may be out of sync with the popular times, but the time is ripe for them to feed back into the academy and the theorization of women’s film practice.


Brown, Wendy. Politics Out of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

—. Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Chow, Rey. Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Collins, Felicity. The Films of Gillian Armstrong. St Kilda: Atom, 1999.

Halpern Martineau, Barbara. “Talking About our Lives and Experiences: Some Thoughts about Feminism, Documentary and ‘Talking Heads.’” Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. Ed. Thomas Waugh. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1984. 252-273.

Holmlund, Chris. “Postfeminism from A to G.” Cinema Journal 44:2 (2005): 116-121.

Juhasz, Alexandra. “”They said We Were Trying to Show Reality – All I Want to Show Is My Video: The Politics of Realist Feminist Documentary.” Collecting Visible Evidence. Eds. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 190-215.

Kaplan, E. Ann. “Theory and Practice of the Documentary Form in Harlan County, USA.” Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. Ed. Thomas Waugh. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1984. 212-222.

McGarry, Eileen. “Documentary, Realism and Women’s Cinema.” Women and Film, 2:7 (1975): 50-59.

McHugh, Kathleen. “The World Soup: Historicising Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts.” Camera Obscura 72, 24:3 (2009): 111-150.

McRobbie, Angela. “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture.” Feminist Media Studies 4:3 (2004): 255-264.

Michael, Sonya. “”Feminism, Film, and Public History.” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 238-249.

Lesage, Julia. “The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 3:4 (1978): 507-523.

Rich, B. Ruby. “Documentary Disciplines: An Introduction.” Cinema Journal 46:1 (2006): 108-115.

Salfield, Alice, Christian and Elliot Smith. “Pink Saris: ‘My Dream is that this Film will be Part of a Change of Consciousness.’” The Guardian, 24 December 2010.

Siemienowicz, Rochelle. “Love, Lust & Lies: An Interview with Gillian Armstrong.” Australian Film Institute: 2010 Stories and Interviews. May 2010

Tasker, Yvonne and Diane Negra. “Introduction: Feminist Politics and Post-Feminist Culture.” Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Eds. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Radner, Hilary. Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks and Consumer Culture. Routledge: New York, 2011.

Waldman, Diane and Janet Walker. “Introduction.” Feminism and Documentary. Eds. Diane Waldman and Janet Walker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 1-35.

Waugh, Thomas. “Introduction.” Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. Thomas Waugh (ed.). Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1984. xi-xxvii.

White, Patricia. “Cinema Solidarity: The Documentary Practice of Kim Longinotto.” Cinema Journal, 46: 1 (2006): 120-128.

—. “The Last Days of Women’s Cinema.” Camera Obscura 21:3 (2006): 145-152

[1] B. Ruby Rich, “Documentary Disciplines: An Introduction”, Cinema Journal 46, no. 1 (2006): 109.

[2] As many scholars have observed, popular imagery has taken a turn towards “postfeminism,” and in this epoch femininity is narrated in a way that relegates feminism to the past, deeming it no longer necessary or influential. Accounts by Angela McRobbie, Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, Chris Holmlund or Hilary Radner observe the construction of a mode of female agency that draws on conservative, neo-liberal precepts rather than second wave feminism.

[3] On the heels of this are many more films that are less visible and circulate in a less exalted fashion through television, smaller festivals and on DVD.

[4] Thomas Waugh (ed), Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary, Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1984.

[5] Rich, 109.

[6] Rich, 109-110.

[7] Diane Waldman and Janet Walker, “Introduction,” in Feminism and Documentary, ed. Diane Waldman and Janet Walker (eds) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999) 4.

[8] Waldman and Walker, 5

[9] Waldman and Walker, 8.

[10] Julia Lesage, “The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3, no. 4 (1978): 514.

[11] See Waldman and Walker; Lesage; McGarry; Michael; Halpern Martineau; and Kaplan.

[12] See Waldman and Walker for an account of this debate.

[13] Alexandra Juhasz, “”They said We Were Trying to Show Reality – All I Want to Show Is My Video: The Politics of Realist Feminist Documentary” in Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 192.

[14] Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 14.

[15] Rochelle Siemienowicz, “Love, Lust & Lies: An Interview with Gillian Armstrong,” Australian Film Institute: 2010 Stories and Interviews, May 2010,
(February 2012)

[16] Felicity Collins, The Films of Gillian Armstrong (St Kilda: Atom, 1999), 70.

[17] Collins, 509.

[18] Here I gesture again towards the momentum of ‘postfeminist’ representations. This movement in popular culture presents female types that are endowed with agency, but on the terms of neo-liberal valuation rather than the collective transformation of the structural oppression of women, the project of much feminist politics. Moreover, this agency is mobilised by a very narrow conceptualisation of the female subject. Such a subject is youthful in age and demeanour, often effecting the “girling” of femininity (Holmlund). The traditional fiction of marriage and the nuclear family as an ideal is reinstated while the figure of the charismatic “working woman” is also celebrated (Radner).

[19] See, for example, Liz Galinovic, ‘Love, Lust & Lies.’ Jive TV. 30 September 2010. <>, Accessed 8 November 2010; Kirsten Krauth, ‘Confessions and Generations: Gillian Armstrong’s Love, Lust and Lies.’ Realtime 97. 24 May 2010. <>, accessed 8 November 2010.

[20] Wendy Brown, Politics Out of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 151.

[21] Moreover, by conjuring a history of feminism and untimely female subjects, the film itself recognizes a particular audience—those who see, even in some small way, their own lives reflected in the lives of the three women. The film speaks especially to those who are old enough to have also experienced this unfolding history. The notoriety and longevity the series has achieved in 2010 owes much to the many Australians who have followed the instalments of Armstrong’s series over a number of years.

[22] Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 196.

[23] Chow, 195.

[24] Alice Salfield, Christian and Elliot Smith, “Pink Saris: ‘My Dream is that this Film will be Part of a Change of Consciousness,’” The Guardian, 24 December 2010, (February 2012).

[25] Patricia White, “Cinema Solidarity: The Documentary Practice of Kim Longinotto,” Cinema Journal 46, no. 1 (2006): 121.

[26] Kathleen McHugh, “The World Soup: Historicising Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts,” Camera Obscura 72, 24:3 (2009): 122.

[27] This is particularly when compared to her male contemporaries whose status as doco-autuers is significant, such as Michael Moore in the US or Nick Broomfield in the UK, Longinotto’s classmate at the National Film and Television School.

[28] Patricia White, “The Last Days of Women’s Cinema,” Camera Obscura 21:3 (2006): 149.

About the Author

Belinda Smaill

About the Author

Belinda Smaill

Belinda Smaill is a senior lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Monash University. She is co-editor of Youth, Media and Culture in the Asia Pacific (2008) and author of The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture (2010). Her research has appeared in a number of international journals including Camera Obscura, Jump Cut, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Screening the Past and Studies in Australasian Cinema.View all posts by Belinda Smaill →