by Catriona Mitchell
Ladies, forget Netflix. I just made a wonderful discovery. It’s called the Women’s Voices Now Online Film Archive, and it offers a plethora of well-curated documentary films made by and/or about women, from far-flung parts of the globe.
For anyone who loves seeing women’s stories on screen as a counterbalance to the largely male-dominated narratives of mainstream cinema; for anyone keen to know what it’s like to walk in a woman’s shoes in a range of different cultural situations, this site is for you.
You can browse between documentary features, documentary shorts and experimental shorts, from countries as diverse as Turkey, Afghanistan, USA, Australia, Italy, Ireland and Bangladesh.
Each one offers a window into women’s intimate experiences in some way, and is available to stream for free.
I’ve highlighted some excellent examples below, but I strongly advise that you take an afternoon (or even a whole weekend – unplug your phone, stock up on snacks, get comfy and dive in) to browse what’s on offer, and pick and choose according to which ones leap out.
A non-profit based out of the US, Women’s Voices Now harnesses the power of film to amplify the voices of all women – and this online archive is only one of many ways it’s achieving this.
“We look for films to sponsor and to host on the free Women’s Voices Now film archive to raise awareness, influence discourse, and effect on-the-ground change in the status of women on a global scale,” says Heidi Basch-Harod, Women’s Voices Now Executive Director. “It’s truly amazing to see filmmakers and audiences come together from around the world, despite perceived differences, in a united effort to champion women’s rights.”
You can learn more about Women’s Voices Now here.
MEN BUY SEX
Alice Russell | UK | 2015 | 8 mins
This little film blew me away: it’s a perfect example of how a deceptively simple concept and small budget can pack enormous power – because of the mastery with which it’s executed. For any aspiring filmmakers out there, this will get your creative wheels turning.
The film opens with the pronouncement that the majority of those who buy sex are men; and the majority of those who sell sex are women. Of course we know this, but the film drives the reality home in a highly original way.
Three women tell a story in first person, in close up, the inventive part being that they don’t use their own words: they are impeccably lip-synching narratives recorded by men who visit sex workers, offering a detailed account of those men’s experiences of a woman’s body.
Personally I’ve never had an open conversation with a man who pays for sex – doubtless I know men who do, but do they fess up to it?
The narratives are raw, unflinching, unsettling.
Even though none of the men speaks in a violent or pornographic way – the stories are more subtle than that – their use of words is nonetheless indicative of the entitlement and gender bias that accompanies the economic transaction between a man and a woman for sex.
With its uncomfortable, confronting content juxtaposed with neutral domestic settings (a kitchen, a home office and living room), Men Buy Sex is fascinating, and ingenious in the way it carries enormous pathos in spite of (actually, because of) an impassive delivery by the three actresses.
Men Buy Sex was an official selection of the 2017 WVN Online Film Festival.
WHEN THE TIME COMES
Charles Gay | Kenya | 2013 | 13 mins
When the Time Comes manages to capture the essential arguments for and against female genital mutilation, from those living within a traditional society, in just 13 minutes of gorgeous visual footage (none of which shows the brutal reality of the subject). Simple statements are made to camera by both male and female members of the Samburu semi-nomadic tribe of Kenya, some of whom intractably subscribe to the traditional ancestral beliefs around the necessity of female circumcision; others of whom want immediate change.
“Cut women are more easily controllable,” says one senior male tribe member. “They work better for the community. So leave things as they are.”
“The elders believed it was good for us, that it would help girls become women… Now we know we have to stop,” says another. “God didn’t create woman to be cut. God created woman as she is, and we don’t have to change what God created.”
Some of the young women are not yet old enough to have been circumcised, but old enough to fully grasp the implications of what they’ll have to endure if the cutting goes ahead. “I don’t know if my parents want to cut me,” says one. “I’m afraid. I know it causes complications. Where they cut is very painful. We lose a lot of blood….”
A middle-aged woman says, “When I was cut, I felt pain up to my shoulders. From this day, I lost all my strength.”
Perhaps most surprising – and therefore memorable – is a scene featuring a group of young men together in a classroom. They are being educated by a gutsy woman who tells them, in plain language, how mutilating a young woman’s genitals will mean their wives – once they’re married – will avoid sex.
When the Time Comes includes spectacular footage of traditional ceremonies involving elaborate costumery and dance – in this way demonstrating both the beauty and the harshness inherent in this society.
Significantly, the film tells us that no one knows why or how the tradition of female circumcision actually took root.
When the Time Comes was an official selection of the 2017 WVN Online Film Festival.
30%: WOMEN AND POLITICS IN SIERRA LEONE
Anna Cady & Em Cooper | Sierra Leone | 2013 | 11 mins
As its name suggests, 30%: Women and Politics in Sierra Leone explores the difficulties women face in accessing political power in post-conflict Sierra Leone. For ten years, women have been campaigning for a 30% quota in parliament, a long-drawn-out process because of the ‘roadblocks’ put up to stop them.
What makes this film unique, however, is not so much its subject, important as it is – but rather, its stunning visual artistry. Parts of the story are told through animated oil paintings.
The animation sequences are interwoven between live action. Three protagonists are featured, from different backgrounds, all of them charismatic, outspoken, fearless, despite an upbringing that taught them they ‘should be subservient; a woman should not argue with her husband…’
“Politics is about preparing a space for yourself. Nobody will just give it to you,” says Salamatu Kamara, who is running for local elections.
Activist Barbara Bangura points out how sexuality is used as a weapon against women aspiring to political life: “They’ll tell you you’re a prostitute, they’ll say you’re going out with this man, and if your husband hasn’t been prepared, it could break the marriage…”
“Politics is seen as being dirty and violent,” she says, “and I think it’s deliberate to keep us out. So we need to get in there and make it clean. Make it safer, for everybody.”
The animated oil paintings are a visual tool to enhance the women’s narratives, with results that will take your breath away. See below for a sample of some of the painterly visuals.
Women’s Voices Now fosters awareness of women’s rights issues through compelling storytelling and provides clear channels of action that encourage viewers to join the movement for women’s rights.
You can access the film archive here.
WOMEN’S VOICES NOW is at womensvoicesnow.org