Sexuality as She Sees It

Film directing is, unfortunately, still a male-dominated field, apparently one of the last artistic endeavors in which gender inequality is still clearly visible.

Film directing is, unfortunately, still a male-dominated field, apparently one of the last artistic endeavors in which gender inequality is still clearly visible. The number of women directors is on the rise, but is still amazingly small. Out of 13,400 members of the Directors Guild of America, only 1,000 were women - about 7 percent, according to figures reported last month by The Associated Press. Women are believed to constitute less than 5 percent of all directors active in the world today.

Male control is obvious in that most prestigious bastion of American filmmaking, the Academy Awards. No woman has so far won an Oscar for direction; over the years only three women directors have been nominated (Lena Wertmuller for "Seven Beauties" in 1975; Jane Campion for "The Piano" in 1993; and Sofia Coppola for "Lost in Translation" in 2003), but none has yet taken home the gilded, muscle-bound, male figurine.

"Out of 30 films made in Israel each year, only one or two are directed by women," director Michal Aviad says. "I believe this is a nefarious combination: Women have a harder time getting into this industry, as they do in other money-rich fields, and this is demanding work that requires women to give up what they are not always prepared to give up. In the Tel Aviv University film department, where I teach, for example, there are more or less an equal number of male and female students. But after a few years, you see the women drop out of the field, probably because of family life and the need for a secure income. Students ask me and themselves, 'films or love?'"

Cinema theoreticians have been talking for years about the way the director looks at his or her characters and at the world in which they operate. In the five-day International Women's Film Festival opening today in Rehovot, the spotlight will focus on the cinematic representation of passion and sexuality in films created by women, with an examination of the works of women directors and how they offer a different look at passion than the one we are accustomed to seeing in mainstream, mainly male-directed, films.

"Since so few women are making films, you almost never see in films how they view the world. This is particularly so when it comes to passion and sexuality, because the leading characters are men, and all the supporting roles are supposed to serve them. And so in mainstream films, the question of women's pleasure is shunted to the margins," says Aviad, who is the festival's artistic adviser. "In the films we have chosen to present, the pleasure principle is not marginalized," she says, adding that questions arise as to how pleasure is achieved, what means are used, who is hunting whom, what pleasure is and when does it become suffering.

Many films to be shown in the festival address love, sex and intimacy, and allow the feminine view of these issues to be scrutinized. The difference between the feminine and masculine experience of passion, and the original and independent cinematic tools of woman filmmakers, rather than those borrowed from the male cinematic world, result in an original, different examination of passion and sexuality.

Marie Mandy's "Filming Desire" (France 2002), which will be screened at the festival, attempts to examine how women directors from various countries are dealing with this challenge. Mandy speaks with the filmmakers and presents scenes from their films as illustration. "I believe that men cut the female body much more, showing more erogenous zones - buttocks and breasts, and in porno films - the rectum," says French director Agnes Varda. "In contrast, when women film women, they show them whole, the pieces are bigger, there is a tendency to show the woman's whole body."

To explain how she prefers to show female sexuality, Varda presents an example from her film "Documenteur" (1981). In one scene, the heroine is shown undressing in her boss' bedroom and stretching out nude on the bed. After some time she turns to the side and sees her reflection in a mirror on the wall. Throughout the scene, her whole body is seen in the frame, not only parts of it. "In men's films, nudity is usually the end of the process, of voyeurism or exposure leading to the situation in which the woman is nude, usually ahead of a sex scene," Varda says. "In this scene, I wanted to show the woman alone, naked, without it leading to something else."

Also appearing in "Filming Desire" is Catherine Breillat ("Anatomy of Hell"), Sally Potter ("Orlando"), Deepa Mehta ("Water"), and Jane Campion ("The Piano") and other directors. They talk inter alia about the relative ease of filming sex scenes, about the challenge in illustrating internal events cinematically and feelings of love and sacrifice. They mention the unchallenged dominance of female nudity in mainstream films and the almost total absence of male nudity and they wonder about the lack of the penis on the big screen.

"Filming Desire" presents scenes from the films of women directors to illustrate the cinematic language they have developed to deal with love and passion. They move with the camera over the woman's body as if it were a landscape, showing close-ups of various body parts of female and male nude bodies, not hesitating to show the penis, undressing men as much as women, letting one character describe a sex scene in a voice-over without showing the act itself, etc.

When a woman describes sexuality in cinema in a new language, it often incurs angry opposition. For example, the Italian director Liliana Cavani recalls how she was told to cut sex scenes in which a woman was shown on top of a man. The Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta was showered with curses at mass demonstrations outside movie theaters in India when her film "Fire" was screened. And here in Israel, director Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy of Hell" was censored for its sexual content.

"Filming Desire" will be shown on Saturday at 11 A.M. at the Chen movie theater in Rehovot. A subsequent panel discussion will include Aviad, Gesher Theater actress Yevgenia Dodina, director Hagar Ben-Asher and Dr. Amalia Ziv, who teaches literature at Tel Aviv University. The panel will try, together with the audience, to delve into such questions as what passion is for women and how it is expressed cinematically, how men whom women desire appear in films and how female passion can be represented in cinematic language that differs from that of the mainstream.

"We could have all turned into men; that is a possibility," director and actress Paula Baillargeon ("I've Heard the Mermaids Singing") says in "Filming Desire." "We could all have become young, white, American men, but it's very important to us to tell our story, to our daughters, our sons, to everyone. It's a different view of the world."