August 3, 2018

How Do You Define and Identify the Female Gaze?

Can your gaze be determined by your sex?

Is there a difference between a film shot by a man and a film shot by a woman? That question was at the heart of the panel titled The Female Gaze, hosted last week by the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of its two-week eponymous film series.

The panel included Agnes Godard (Let the Sunshine In), Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon, The Milk of Sorrow), Joan Churchill (Kurt and Courtney, Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer), and Ashley Connor (Madeline’s Madeline, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), whose work showcased a diverse range of genres and styles, from verite documentary to experimental film.

The cinematographers discussed their inspirations, their criteria for selecting which projects to work on, and whether “the female gaze” is an actual phenomenon or a fabricated concept that only serves to hold women shooters back.

As female cinematographers themselves, most of the panelists were boosted by the championing of other established filmmakers who helped them rise up despite being the minority. Others were inspired by watching the films of early pioneers (such as Maya Deren) in film school. “I never thought I could be a cameraperson,” shared Churchill, “There wasn't any such thing [as a camerawoman] in those days, but they encouraged me.” 

Churchill is referring to her film “family”, an elite circle of documentary filmmakers she fell in with as she was starting her career, such as Nick Broomfield, Barbara Kopple, Chris Hedges and D.A. Pennebaker. Churchill's mentors noticed her eye and her ability to “bring back the goods,” as she put it, and trusted her to shoot. She built on their faith, even though she did not have a female cameraperson to look up to at the time. 

“We are not only responsible for the image, but also finding the mode of collaboration."—Agnes Godard

Both Connor and Braier sited Deren as a major influence as they were starting out. For Connor, Deren opened her mind to different ways of moving with the camera. She saw other experimental films, such as Lemon by Hollis Frampton. “It blew my mind and I integrated it into my narrative work,” Connor said.

Formerly a dancer, Braier said that everything crystallized for her when she started to see cinematography as a form of dancing, a sentiment that Godard and Connor also shared. While working on a film, Godard is “trying to find the rhythm with the actors, and I dare to add my own rhythm.”

What makes these cinematographers so attracted to the projects they to commit to? For Godard, the combination of a script she believes in and a director she can work with make for a winning formula. However, she has learned that she can’t rely on a coffee date to know a director, but that their personality and work style comes to life on a set. “We are not only responsible for the image, but also finding the mode of collaboration. There is a wide range of personalities [on the set], as in life,” she has found.

Churchill has a simple litmus test when she’s considering a project. She asks herself, “Am I going to like myself after doing this film?” As mentioned above, she was lucky enough to find ongoing creative collaborators, so the risk of working with new people has been less of an issue since the trust had already been built. So much so, that occasionally the director isn’t even present. “Very often ... with Barbara Kopple, she’s not on the set,” Churchill revealed. She recalled being sent off to Iraq for a few weeks to work on one such film, with Kopple waving goodbye to her at JFK airport.

For Connor, her decision to work on a project is a combination of whether she believes in a script morally and what her gut instinct on a director. “I think scripts often lie to you in a lot of ways," Connor admitted, "You can read a script  and you think it’s going to be great and it makes a terrible movie or you think it’s going to be awful and it makes a great movie.” As a result, Connor bypasses judgment on the quality of the script and asks herself about the subject on a moral level.

Agreeing with Godard’s experience of not relying on a coffee date to know a director but realizing one must work with them for true colors to emerge, Connor has learned the hard way to rely on her instincts. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes,” she admits, “Usually the films I’ve done where I didn't have a good relationship on set I had red flag after red flag being thrown at me and I was like, 'Oh I’m sure it will be ok, everyone’s nice’, but, it’s not.” 

"I’m still going to fight for the film every day even if I have to fight with the director!”​—Natasha Braier 

Now that Connor has gained valuable experience, she finds that she can be much more selective about the films she works on and has come to ask herself questions such as, “Does this movie need to be seen by people?” and “Does it matter?” She always asks the director why they want to make this movie, learning that if they don't have an answer right then and there, it’s not going get answered on set.

Similarly, Braier said that she needs to feel that there is a really strong reason to make the film. That often comes through in the director’s passion for the project. If she has this, she finds she can surmount other obstacles that arise during production.

“If everything goes wrong, personality-wise, on the set, my passion for the story, the things we had in common for telling the story, that’s what’s going to sustain the relationship and keep me there,” Braier says, “I’m still going to fight for the film every day even if I have to fight with the director!”

"[Men] wouldn't be trying to insinuate themselves right into the heart of the action, which is what I’m always trying to do."—Joan Churchill

For a forum centered around a title which suggests that women have a particular way of looking at things, there was little consensus on whether this is fact or mere speculation. The question finally posed to the filmmakers at the panel's conclusion led to diverse opinions.

“We work for directors, so our ‘gaze’ is at the service of somebody else’s vision; it’s already a collaboration process,” offered Braier, “Some male directors have a very strong empathy and a very feminine gaze, and some female directors can be very masculine. It doesn't make sense to talk about gender. Every individual artist has a world. Every person is a world.”

Connor’s experience of watching films shot by women is that they bring her to a different level emotionally, although she admitted that the notion was abstract and hard to pin down exactly why this is or how it happens.

“In English, you have a fantastic word: cinematographer. There is no question of gender, it’s a question of work."​—Agnes Godard 

Godard was even uncomfortable with the title of the talk, which, to her French ear and translation, seemed to refer to women as animals. “For me, 'female' is very violent ... because it sounds like I am a dog.”  She took issue with the delineation of female-versus-male way of seeing. “In English, you have a fantastic word: cinematographer. There is no question of gender, it’s a question of work. It’s cinematography; it’s a language. We are all talking the same language here, men and women. So why should it be two languages?”

Churchill has embraced what she sees as the benefits of the attributes of being a woman on set, finding that it has allowed her to get in closer, physically and emotionally, and to gain the trust of tricky subjects. “Sometimes I’m shocked when I open my other eye and see how close I am,” she laughs, “but the guys would be shooting over the shoulder with a longer lens. They wouldn't be trying to insinuate themselves right into the heart of the action, which is what I’m always trying to do.”

“It’s kind of sad that we are at such basic level today where we have to talk about the female gaze and this rare group of women who are just four percent of a male-dominated field."​—Natasha Braier 

While Churchill’s view seems to empower her shooting practice, Braier countered, “It’s kind of sad that we are at such basic level today where we have to talk about the female gaze and this rare group of women who are just four percent of a male-dominated field. I understand the conversation is needed because we need to improve that. But I wish that, in the near future, this conversation will be obsolete.”

With such differing stances on the topic, what seems most important is that more and more women are empowered to keep shooting (and that more directors seek to even the playing field by hiring more diversified DPs). After all, when the work is powerful, it speaks for itself.      

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