A Truth Objectified – Women-Focused Films at 2018 Freedom Film Fest (part 1)

Fikri Jermadi gets round to looking at ‘Woman at Home’ and ‘Retouch’, screened at the 2018 Freedom Film Fest.

I’ve been meaning to do this for the longest time, but for a number of different reasons, I’ve been putting it off. And off. And off. It must have annoyed some people, so let me dust off the Word document simply entitled ‘Women at FFF’, and get going with finalising these thoughts.

Screened at the 2018 Freedom Film Fest, the programme featured four very different short films, all of which entail a more critical consideration of the different contexts in which female identity is formed. The time has never been more relevant for such a discussion, given how things have progressed over the past few years. It is therefore exciting to see how very different such visions of identity negotiation and representation can be. At the same time, there is also a discomforting and universal truth, reflecting how prevalent these issues can be.

Directed by Megan Wonowidjoyo, ‘Woman At Home’ is a more experimental piece relative to the others, one looking at the objectification of women in the domestic domain. It tells is the story of a stay-at-home wife (the director herself), who proceeds through her routine on a daily basis with little inspiration. The twist here is that there is a reframing of the perspective and proportion, with close up shots of domestic paraphernalia serving as the background for the wife doing her activities. There’s not much to spark the fire here, as her husband is not shown, unnoticed beyond a few text messages on screen here and there.

What the film does very well is to reframe the narrative in the context of everyday objects, using their own dynamics to represent the inner turmoil that lies within. This could easily be seen in the washing machine, whose turns and tumbles showcases the unease that comes with a restriction of the self; we also see this compression with her being ‘bottled up’ in a jar. This hints at a kind of depression, one which mainstream media often precipitate with a form of daytime drinking. Our protagonist does exactly that, though whether the mineral water is a fine substitute for its alcoholic alternative is probably another story.

‘Woman At Home’ places at its forefront the issue of a silent labour force, one which afflicts everyone everywhere; Andrew Yang, running to be the Democratic candidate in the 2020 American presidential elections, is placing this firmly in his political crosshair. I would like to localise this further for the purposes of this review, but in truth… it’s not so easy to do that. The director’s name suggests a more Indonesian background, but further research revealed her to be more firmly ensconced in the Singaporean scene. Yet in watching this, it feels like much of the (in)action on screen could also take place in a place like Kuala Lumpur or Subang Jaya, for instance. It’s a debilitating scenario, hammered home by the grill on the windows, whose shadows are reminiscent of prison bars.

Speaking of visual foreplay, ‘Retouch’ goes a lot further than that. Its logline is simple, yet effective: “Maryam’s husband has an accident at home and, rather than saving him, she stops helping and watches him die.” That’s the kind of stuff that, if I had been rifling through a film festival guide, would stop me cold and immediately highlight the title and its director, Kaveh Mazaheri. The film develops a little more beyond that, of course, as Maryam (Sonia Sanjari) would also work to cover her tracks in the death of her husband, Siyavash (Mohammad Hossein Ziksari).

There are three things I’d like to note with regards to the film. The first is that the film itself does not serve as an exposition into the background of our protagonist. Indeed, as the director decided to stick firmly to the linear timeline of this one single day, we are not privy of what had happened in the past, of the fights and the disagreements that discombobulates a lesser person. All we have is the almost-child-like behaviour of her husband, calling to his wife for every. Single. Little. Thing.

Yet, even as we are left in this void of knowledge… we know. We know that deep in our heart of hearts, there has been some terrible things done to Maryam. Perhaps we ourselves are guilty of it, or we may have borne witness to such acts. Whatever it is, the adage of less is more is never truer, for in holding back the specific details of such acts, we have the worst of our imaginations as our accomplice, working out why a wife would not only refuse to save her husband, but would willingly watch him as he writhes slowly to his death.

That leads to the second point, in which I am actually left more intrigued by her actual daytime occupation. After having left her daughter at the daycare, she would proceed to her office, where we discover that she is a graphic artist. More to the point, she works in a publication where her job is to cover up pictures of Western celebrities, to ensure that they are seen as more appropriate for the domestic context. That term is used as a double-edged sword; not only do I mean it as opposing the idea of the global, it is also a form of resocialisation, in which women are very much (re)educated to see what is (and is not) appropriate for them. This covering up of the truth (as she did that very morning) is another layer of meaning-making I appreciate in this film.

Speaking of covering up, Kaveh Mazaheri deserve a lot of credit for making this a very visual film. There is indeed dialogue, but a lot of the scenes are extended, long takes that allow for the characters and action to breathe. One of the most exciting shots I can recall seeing in recent memory is of her walking towards the office to take a call. The camera tracks in from behind, a medium close-up that hides the janitor in front of her. He’s doing nothing more than his job, mopping the floor clean, yet the blocking strongly suggest how she is thinking about covering up her tracks. Perhaps I need to see more movies, but I’ve seen enough to know how rare it is for the figurative to be made literal right before our very eyes.

The second part will be published soon. ‘Woman at Home’ and ‘Retouch’ were screened at the 2018 Freedom Film Fest. This year’s edition will run from 20th to 28th September 2019. Click on the link for the latest information. 

Featured image credit: Wallpaper from the 70s

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