Imogen and I recently attended the London Feminist Film Festival’s session on Women’s Bodies as Sites at Rio Cinema; a screening of four documentary shorts regarding the role and perception of women’s bodies in film and other forms of media, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. The experience was really insightful and moving: in particular What Happened to Her (Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, 2016), which provided an important platform amongst the audience for interrogating the repercussions of violence against women on screen.
The documentary presents a seemingly endless montage of dead women’s bodies from various film and television programmes, alongside actress Danyi Deat’s discussing her experience as a female corpse in River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986). Whilst audiences are subjected to a stream of nameless, lifeless bodies Deat’s provides an honest account of her uncomfortable, humiliating experience. She explains the extensive hours of make-up to painstakingly create authenticity, the continual prodding of her anatomy by crew members, the expectation of pushing her body to unnerving limits and the deeply unsettling feeling of recreating a violence against women.
Featuring no mention of her role as Jamie in River’s Edge throughout her monologue, Deat’s remains anonymous until the film’s closing credits. The recollection of her experience on set could easily relate to any one of the excerpts on screen, with nothing differentiating the collection of actresses from Deats. Almost every single female body in the film is naked and the camera glazes over their torsos from a position of power to create a disturbing sexualisation of each corpse. Here, What Happened to Her reveals the horrid reality of how female bodies in film and television are merely interchangeable plot pieces and how the same form of violence has been repeated through decades worth of popular movies and tv shows.
Furthermore, the actresses’ account reveals how other forms of violence are committed through showcasing dead women’s bodies on screen: the real-life female victim River’s Edge is based upon is recreated as entertainment, the violence towards Deat’s body as she prepares for her role (prodded, contorted and forced into uncomfortable situations) and the complicit nature of viewers who consume the images on screen. The last point is the most difficult to knowingly admit; that consuming images of violence towards women makes every single one of us accountable. There’s no denying any one of us will have recognised one, if not many, of the images relayed by Guevara-Flanagan.
During the Q&A, Camille Kumar raised an unsettling but very important point regarding the repercussions of violence against women on screen. Many people (mainly ignorant males) maintain the continual abuse towards female characters on cinema and television screens bares no relevance to our reality, and is merely fictional entertainment. Who cares if we are repeatedly subjected to women being raped in Game of Thrones or senselessly murdered in CSI, with slain female corpses a regularity of crime drama and horror films – it’s just a story, right?
No. It isn’t ‘just a story’. As Kumar rightfully stated, the media’s repetition of violence against women simultaneously dramatises abuse against women whilst creating a direct threat towards our well-being in society. Graphic, barbaric murders of female characters signifies to women audiences what will happen to our own bodies if we do not behave in a certain way.
So how can violence against women in film and television, such as domestic abuse, be represented on screen without creating a threat towards women? How do documentaries and docudramas informing people of issues regarding domestic violence relay situations on screen – without sexualising or sensationalising the acts?
By allowing women to tell their own stories. Instead of violence towards women (through domestic abuse, rape etc.) becoming a secondary narrative or a plot catalyst, or merely a scene filler for entertainment purposes, it must be thoughtfully and emotionally focused upon for the benefit of women. It must provide a narrative to help and inform audiences.
The second screening of the event, Faith (Eve Jeffery, 2016), is a brilliant example of a film successfully portrayal violence against women in a non-problematic way. It follows the eponymous female’s honest, heartbreaking and empowering account of her rape 22-years ago, and how the sexual attack has shaped the rest of her life. Although the documentary includes several uncomfortable reenactment scenes, with both physical and verbal abuse, the narrative remains firmly situated from Faith’s perspective at all times. Jeffery achieves this through a consistent voiceover, that unlike Deat’s monologue, is emotionally attached to the dramatisation – aided by her visual appearance on screen. The violence against her body is not used for sadistic, sexual or misogynistic purposes, but is instead intended to provide audiences with an important depiction of rape abuse cases and their effects on women in society. The direct attachment between Faith’s explanation of the event and the dramatisation on screen creates an important dialect on how violence on screen can be portrayed without being threatening to our very own bodies.