The Story Women Have Been Trying to Tell for Years Now
Recently, I had to correct a friend of mine who referred to Thelma & Louise as an independent film. “Actually,” I said, “Thelma & Louise was 100% Hollywood, incredible as that may seem today.” It is not surprising that the Callie Khouri-penned story of two women escaping the law after killing a man for his attempted rape has developed an outlier reputation considering Hollywood’s response to it. Despite its critical and box office success, there were no copycat films made, no new genre emerged, no film movement was sparked. Since then, Hollywood has come nowhere close to producing another such revelation of the abuses suffered by women. Odd behavior for an industry that is usually more than happy to exploit its own successes.
In all the talk about the persistent low percentages of women in positions of creative leadership, it is frequently pointed out that, when analyzed for return on investment, films by and about women actually do comparatively well. Then the question is bewilderingly posed: Why don’t the Hollywood check writers, who we know love nothing more than getting back more money than they give out, therefore write more checks to women? It just doesn’t make sense!
With the continuing revelations about Harvey Weinstein and his kind, it is beginning to appear that, whether consciously or unconsciously, there may be a stronger set of motivations at work than the mighty dollar for not giving women the opportunity to tell their stories. A few weeks ago, we began to hear a big collective story of pervasive sexual harassment and assault that women have been needing to tell for some time, a 30-year backlog gushing out all at once. Considering that fear of financial loss from women’s creativity has been demonstrated to be irrational, could it be that there is a rational fear in the film industry and it has something to do with that collective story?
It’s the same story that Khouri told over 25 years ago when she felt a sudden urge to shoot an old man trailing her in a car as she walked down the street and who called out, “I’d like to see you suck my dick!” She channeled her anger into her first screenplay, and the film’s overwhelming success revealed then that her story spoke of a universal experience among women. But recent celebrations of the film’s 25th anniversary had to include a rueful acknowledgement that, despite the film’s radical message and considerable impact, in the intervening years not much has changed.
Now that the story has burst forth again but in a raw form that is all too real, some powerful men have deservedly seen their careers go up in flames. It turns out there is power in telling these closely held, deeply painful stories, as long as there is a supportive platform on which to bring them forth and a receptive climate to receive them. Women are standing back watching, in disbelief at what they have achieved, like Thelma and Louise’s jaw-dropped awe at the sky-high flames of the abusive trucker’s exploding tanker. It is a new experience to be able to speak freely and in public about such matters.
Nonetheless, in the years since Thelma & Louise, despite Hollywood’s cold shoulder treatment, there have been other attempts by women creatives to speak their minds about abuse. These films have come out slowly and sporadically and have not always been received in a hospitable climate or fully appreciated for what they are saying. Now that the climate is beginning to shift, they deserve another look.
Among the first was Monsoon Wedding, a full ten years on. In the same way that Callie Khouri had gained critical support from veteran director Ridley Scott, first-time writer Sabrina Dhawan was lucky to see her screenplay midwifed by veteran director Mira Nair, assisted by producer Caroline Baron and an international co-production partnership. Dhawan traces intertwining threads of family drama at a Punjabi wedding celebration, ultimately coming to focus on the niece and her accusations of childhood molestation towards the slimy, benefactor brother-in-law. The bride’s father tries to mollify his niece to keep peace for the wedding. But seeing her pain and feeling his own guilt, he finally casts the predator out of the family. A joyful wedding ensues.
When this film came out, it was hailed by critics as one of the great cinematic romances, as if politely ignoring that nasty little business with the brother-in-law. But if you think the sexual abuse story is a subplot, try imaging the film without it. In fact, the entire story hinges on the niece’s courage to expose the pedophile and the father’s courage to stand up to the abuser’s power within the family. We are given a large scoopful of sugar to help the medicine go down in the brilliant colors and textures of India, the Bollywood-style singing and dancing and all the surrounding happy-ending love stories. But without the emotional substance and satisfaction of seeing justice done, all that sugar would be nauseating. A great cinematic romance? Hardly. The power of Monsoon Wedding is in its story of how sexual abuse within a family will proliferate until one speaks it out loud and another follows with action.
A couple of years after that, and for something completely different in tone and style, there was Monster. Writer/director Patty Jenkins was looking for a vehicle for her first feature and heard that serial killer scripts could get financed. She proposed the story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute in Florida who killed several of her johns and became known as the “first female serial killer.” A co-production partnership was formed among several American independent companies, and Charlize Theron signed on for the role that would bring her an academy award.
But the closer Jenkins got to her subject, through her own correspondence with Wuornos and a look at the voluminous correspondence between Wuornos and a long-time friend, the more she felt a moral imperative to portray the emotional truth of Wuornos’ experience. Jenkins learned that Wuornos had been raped over and over in childhood and became a prostitute at age thirteen. When she was brutalized by one of her customers, she escaped by killing him. But her subsequent targets were average johns who simply said or did the wrong thing, triggering a post-traumatic stress reaction that caused her to kill them, too. Despite the eagerness of the film’s producers to exploit a serial killer story, Jenkins turned it into a character portrait in which she traced the line from child sexual abuse to prostitution to more sexual violence to PTSD to trauma-induced murder. At the end of the film, when Wuornos is sentenced to die, Jenkins allows her to have her final say in the courtroom (taken from court transcripts): “Thank you, Judge. And may you rot in hell! Sending a raped woman to death?! You’re all a bunch of scum! That’s what you are!”
I like to call this film “Thelma & Louise’s Evil Twin.” Underlying its parallel theme of how society vilifies women who respond to aggression with aggression is a much harsher and more authentic picture of the level of trauma experienced by women who are raped.
Sometimes I feel like I’m one of about five people in the world who saw Angelina Jolie’s 2011 directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey, an unflinching portrayal of the use of rape as a weapon of war financed by a European production company. I might have missed it if I’d heeded the critics’ nitpicking about poorly drawn bad guys and failure to give political context. Sadly, this reception appears to have had more to do with who made the film than the film itself. The audacity of our favorite Hollywood bombshell to confront us with so much reality! If the same film had been made by a Bosnian woman, it’s hard to imagine that it would not have been afforded more respect and hailed for its courageousness. If it got any attention at all, that is. Such is the double bind of the mouthpiece that stardom affords. (I elaborated further on this unfair treatment in a blog post at the time.)
In truth, the film is a very spare, muted blue-grey, European-style Bosnian war drama that posits what might happen when two people in love suddenly find themselves on opposing sides of a rape-infused war conflict. Danijel, a Serbian military officer, and Ajla, a Bosnian muslim civilian, are dancing in a nightclub when the war is announced by a bomb explosion. Weeks later, she is rounded up with other women and taken to a rape camp where he happens to be among those in charge. He tries to protect her, but his power only goes so far. The slow erosion of their genuine attachment in a culture of sexual violence provides the fullest possible picture of how much is lost in the perpetuation of brutality, rape and war.
The skewering critics and disparaging press made sure that very few people saw this film. However, in the end, Jolie, who was inspired to write the screenplay by her humanitarian work in that region, had a far greater success than mere box office. When British Foreign Secretary William Hague saw the film he was motivated to partner with Jolie in forming the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, which continues to be active in its work to end sexual violence in armed conflicts around the world. How’s that for power?
Another favorite of mine is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 feature debut, produced in the ultra-low budget fashion of crowdfunding and maxed-out credit cards. Although there is no explicit victim of sexual violence at the center of this film, every word in the title suggests female vulnerability and susceptibility to exploitation. A girl, not a woman, who walks rather than drives, seeks the safe harbor of home but is not there yet. Being alone she is defenseless and being surrounded by the dark of night is at even greater disadvantage. We know well what all this can lead to. In the viewing, however, the film does a reverse on us as we soon learn that it is this solitary female who is to be feared. She is a vampire who relishes the opportunity to sink her teeth into the necks of bad behaving men.
The film casts a wide net to incorporate all manner of transgressive behavior and social ills — drug dealing, drug addiction, pimping, prostitution, urban decay, environmental degradation, the decadence of the ultra-rich. Connecting all these elements with a traditionally structured plot is not a priority for Amirpour. Instead, she operates from instinct and emotion, and at the emotional core of this disjointed narrative is an unmistakable vein of anger and disgust at men who cross the line of civilized comportment. “Are you a good boy?” our she-vampire asks an innocent boy with a skateboard. “Don’t lie to me. Tell the truth. Are you a good boy? I can take your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat. Till the end of your life, I‘ll be watching you. Understand? Be a good boy.”
Amirpour’s film has a common theme with Khouri’s film in its underlying fantasy of female aggression. But she cloaks her expression in horror movie tropes, subtitled foreign language, black and white cinematography and a barely cohesive narrative with a riding-into-the-sunset ending. Our she-vampire finally leaves Bad City with the one sympathetic man in the story, but we don’t know for sure what his fate will be. No doubt it all depends on if he continues to be a good boy.
These are the voices of women filmmakers. This is the story they want to tell. Not the only story, to be sure. But in a way the most important one, without which the other stories are half-truths. We are no longer surprised when African-American and Native-American filmmakers want to tell stories of the oppressions they have endured. We have learned over time to tolerate that expression and make space for it, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to witness. Now we know, despite all the beautiful, alluring images we are fed, there is an ugly reality in women’s lives. We also know that silencing is key to its continuance. The good news is that there is a way that thoughtful men can take action against the bad behavior of other men. It is to enable women to speak freely in whatever forum they choose. And then to make sure they are heard.
Jennine Lanouette is a story consultant and lecturer on screenwriting. She has written digital screenbooks analyzing the story structure of the films Thelma & Louise, The African Queen and Kramer vs. Kramer. Her work can be found at www.screentakes.com.