The seldom seen world of women without men

Films about female kinship and community are rare, precious exceptions to cinema’s enduring focus on groups of men, says Davina Quinlivan

April 23, 2015

Source: Rex

Generation XX: brotherhood and the male perspective is the focus in films such as Boyhood, Tombstone and The Three Musketeers; Bhaji on the Beach (above) refreshingly takes the female view

It is rare to see three stages in women’s lives in a film about creative potential and the conversations it opens up about nature and nurture, inspiration and love

Imagine this: a grandmother, her daughter, extended family and friends hop on a minibus and take a day trip to the seaside. While there is much idle chatter, gossip and the sharing of ice cream on the pier, the trip also serves a more symbolic purpose, encouraging the women to bond, heal rifts and restore their sense of kinship. Most of all, it is about women across generations getting together and seeing each other in a different light, outside the humdrum domestic environs dominated by husbands, uncles and boyfriends.

I first saw Gurinder Chadha’s 1993 film Bhaji on the Beach with my retired mother and thirtysomething sister when I was a teenager. This comedic tale about a community group of British Asian women going to Blackpool struck a chord with all of us, not simply because we were of similar ethnic origin, but rather because it articulated so well that uncanny, ambivalent feeling of belonging and intimacy that can exist only between generations of women (I won’t use the word “sisterhood” here because it conjures a kind of mawkishness and sentimentality that Chadha’s film veers away from in favour of an edgier, naturalistic approach). Discovered in our semi-detached home in London, via a shaky videotape, were precious, revelatory images of women just being together, at times clashing, but ultimately doing very well without their male counterparts, helping each other to make sense of the world.

Perhaps surprisingly in the light of its subject matter, Bhaji on the Beach achieved a fair degree of critical and commercial success. Yet, as the trailers on my ancient VHS copy remind me, a much wider proliferation of patriarchal narratives form the heart of Hollywood and other mainstream commercial cinema – films either explicitly or symbolically about fatherhood in its various guises, or following groups of men with women at the margins of their stories.

In the year Chadha’s film was released, there were tales of gangland-related brotherhood (Carlito’s Way, A Bronx Tale), as well as valorisations of fraternity in The Three Musketeers and Tombstone. More recently, films such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) emphasise the point that male perspectives of family life are held in the highest regard. Groups of women, especially those related through familial ties, seem to fit within only one category – the chick flick, that much derided form of cultural expression that largely fails “the Bechdel test”, named for graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, because it lacks two female characters having a conversation about something other than a relationship with a man.

The rare but notable exceptions are films such as Chadha’s, which privilege insight into female familial bonds and sorority, daughters and mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Yes, the women in Bhaji on the Beach do speak about men – indeed, one fantasises about eloping – but, crucially, it is the discussion of other aspects of their lives and their tentative curiosity about each other’s differences that drive the narrative.

Resonating with Chadha’s representation of intergenerational bonds and her wry meditation on the wisdom of women, Marleen Gorris’ Antonia’s Line (1995) is an overtly feminist film about four generations of strong-willed women, unfolding against the backdrop of rural post-Second World War Holland. It focuses on the widowed Antonia, her daughter Danielle, granddaughter Thérèse and great-granddaughter Sarah, evoking a kind of fairy tale in which men rarely figure. Through Gorris’ foregrounding of female relationships, and especially her symbolic employment of Sarah’s voice as the film’s narrator, viewers become finely attuned to each of the “daughters” of her tale, as their desires and dreams take their place at the forefront of the narrative.

The mood of the film encourages spirited reflection on the common sense of women and their collective abilities to right wrongs and encourage peacefulness. This is particularly true of the film’s opening scenes, which follow Antonia as she returns to the ruins of her war-struck village. It also subverts stereotypes, with Gorris’ characters building a cottage and running a farm, using their hands for more practical activities as well as for creating art. Certainly one of the film’s strongest visual metaphors is Antonia’s farmhouse. It houses every generation of her extended family, enduring the elements while the women make plans, paint and compose music inside its stone walls, in a dream of matriarchal communality.

While Gorris’ film conjures up a beautiful tapestry of a female genealogy, Julie Dash’s masterpiece Daughters of the Dust (1991) opens with the soft, contemplative voice of a young girl known only as “the unborn child”. Her birth will be part of a rich exploration of three generations of an African American family in South Carolina and the migration of some of them to the North at the turn of the 20th century. Dash’s title does not only refer to the girl whose voice ushers in the first images of the island where the film is set, but also underscores the narrative’s emphasis on matriarchy and a central scene that features a gathering of all the daughters from one family for a final farewell supper. Here we see all the women of the family taking part in creation, and the sensual pleasure of eating together for the last time, as a domestic labour of love is transformed into a ritual of celebration. Most strikingly, the consumption of food underscores the point made by the film’s matriarch about the generational bonds they share: “We are two people in one body. The last of the old and the first of the new.”

Female creativity and familial bonds are also incisively explored by Lena Dunham in her 2010 film Tiny Furniture. Returning home with a film studies degree, her character Aura seeks help from her mother as she struggles to settle into her new life. She aspires to be creative and admires her mother’s work as a successful photographer. Aura also reconnects with her teenage sister, enduring a healthy dose of rivalry as she learns of her younger sibling’s similar aspirations. It is rare to see three stages of women’s lives in a film about creative potential and the conversations it opens up about nature and nurture, inspiration and love in a specifically female context.

Films such as Antonia’s Line and Tiny Furniture, especially, explore the lineage of creativity from one generation to the next and the impulse to express oneself through art. Unusually here, creative mothers, photographers and artists, are represented, thus undermining the stereotype of the woman fulfilled entirely through her maternal role. As a writer and mother, I recognise myself in these women and take pleasure in knowing them for a while in glorious close-up. More than anything, these images move me and, after all, isn’t that what cinema is for?

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