Examining Space and Gender in Woman with a Movie Camera (2022): Atal Krishnan’s Woman with a Movie Camera (WWAMC) contextualizes how collectivism facilitates individual healing by fostering sisterhood and sharing of trauma. The film is a metanarrative that presents a documentary within a feature film adopting the cinematic language of cinema verité. It follows Mahita, a journalism student documenting ‘A Day in a Woman’s Life’ with her friend Athira Santhosh as the subject. Spectators are invited to experience the life of a woman in contemporary Kerala society through Mahita’s camera eyes as she follows Athira performing daily household chores and contemplating her career choices.
Made with a shoestring budget of ₹5000, the film is completely shot within a single household with a limited cast of seven people who all play their real selves. The film begins in a light-hearted slice-of-life tone. Eventually, it transforms into a biographical documentary on survivors of sexual harassment who share their experiences and create a safe space for support and acceptance.
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Woman with a Movie Camera takes place in Athira’s home and is narrated through Mahita’s camera. It follows Mahita recording Athira performing her morning routine as well as conversations on career anxieties, menstrual problems, and social media scopophilia. Sreekala, Athira’s mother, denies her request to pursue education at JNU, Delhi, citing it to be too distant from home and, therefore, unsafe. Athira’s cousin warns Sreekala against educating Athira at JNU, claiming it would ‘corrupt’ her and that she should be ‘married off’ as soon as possible. Athira’s mother supports her cousin’s claims. On his departure, Athira is visually annoyed and shaken.
As more of Athira’s friends visit, the film climaxes into a steady long-take shot where Aathira reveals the history of her molestation by the same cousin. Sreekala initially dismisses this but ultimately agrees and further reveals her history of sexual harassment. Aathira Joseph and Manikarnika also share similar experiences. The film ends with Athira turning the camera on Mahita (who was recording the action till then) as Mahita too reveals her experience of being molested, ending with the girls in tears but relieved at sharing their pain and with the realization that they are not alone.
Inspired by (yet contrary to) Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1921), which explored the external spaces of a capitalist world, WWAMC depicts the home’s internal space with the oppressed woman as its subject. The oppression is conveyed subtly through the confinement of women in certain spaces, constrained from expressing personal desires or professional ambitions. In the space of her room, Athira is free to talk about period cramps, menstrual cups, career anxiety, and her annoyance with social media scopophilia. Mahita’s camera allows candid conversations often neglected on the mainstream silver screen and provides spectators with a glimpse of what women discuss beyond the cliched conversations traditional cinema projects women to engage in; discussions of marriage and men.
This manner of filmmaking resembles Julia Lesage’s observation of the first feminist documentaries, which comprised ordinary details of women’s lives and their thoughts being directly told to the camera by the protagonist (1978: 507). Sreekala rejects Athira’s request to pursue higher studies at JNU under the pretense that she would be ‘safer’ within the familial household. However, even the domestic space is depicted to be hostile, as exemplified by Athira’s cousin.
Domestic spheres of the household have rarely been presented as interesting spaces with political significance or points of excitement concerning the action of narrative films. Often these spaces exist for women to be shown as possessed by men to glorify their control over the domain. Concurrently, Lesage notes that films have often judged women in households to be narrow-minded and morally inferior to the male protagonists who engage in public duty and carry out acts of heroism in the external world.
As the action transitions from Athira’s room to the kitchen, Mahita’s camera informs spectators of biased gender roles as Athira is asked to prepare and serve tea for the patriarch of the household. The film further contextualizes male authority through Athira’s cousin. His hostility towards Athira being educated at JNU and the suggestion of marriage to confine and control her indicates his recognition of the subversive potential of the educated woman and the threat it poses to undermining his authority. Atal Krishnan lays bare how marriage has been used as a tool to curb dissent. The film refrains from showing his face and only allows his voice to be heard in order to universalize patriarchal oppression.
Simultaneously, WWAMC attempts to subvert patriarchal presuppositions of gender roles. For example, by having a camerawoman film the action, WWAMC reimagines the de-facto appropriation of cinematography as a masculine art. The action consists mostly of women talking amongst themselves, foregrounding the self-conscious, intellectual discussion of their roles and sexual politics. Being stuck within the confines of Mahita’s camera eye and observant of candid talks on period hygiene, career anxieties, and criticism of male scopophilia, any form of spectatorial pleasure and male agency expected in watching a film exploring the private space of women is diffused.
Woman with a Movie Camera further experiments with compositions and aspect ratios. As the narrative progresses and new characters enter the frame, the aspect ratio changes from 16:9 to 4:3, shrinking the screen and creating a sense of suffocation for spectators as more bodies take up the shrinking compositions of the frame. This suffocation symbolizes the suppression of female expression. The film also forgoes professional filmmaking techniques of mainstream narrative cinema by adopting a guerrilla-style through its use of a handheld camera. Sequences are cut and edited together irregularly, with many shots being out of focus and blurry with faulty lighting, generating images with unbalanced exposure.
This not only contextualizes that Mahita was an amateur technician working with a limited budget but also presents an alternate cinematic language contrary to the still, focused, and ‘professional’ filming of mainstream cinema. Instead of using stylistic editing or rapid montages for climatic grandeur, the film uses a long steady take to slowly invite Athira, Mahita, and their friends to share their stories of sexual harassment instead of pressing for action.
Atal Krishnan argues that the use of the verité style refrained the dramatization of the film’s central yet sensitive topic of sexual harassment and therefore curbed accusations of exaggeration, preventing distortion of the film’s political ethos (pers. comm., 30th July 2022). Employing a genre that reduced production cost, WWAMC documents and presents a range of subject matter in the portrayal of women’s lives, previously ignored on the silver screen.
The film negotiates the importance of female friendship by bringing to light the political issues in the private sphere. When the women sit together and share their experiences of sexual harassment through emotions of anger, frustration, depression, and helplessness, a sense of solidarity is created in the commonalities of their experiences. The film depicts and encourages a politicized conversation among women by narrating their stories as named and identifiable individuals making the act of conversing a tool for resistance and liberation as “there is healing in the very act of naming and understanding women’s general oppression” (Lesage, 1978: 520; 515-516).
Through this act, the film champions homosocial bonding over romantic love and marriage by presenting empathy and relatability amongst its female characters as suitable tools for sustenance and emotional growth. Nancy Chodorow (1978) argues that women’s identities are largely shaped in the domestic sphere, where men are mostly absent, as they grow in an emotional continuum with their mother and other women in intimate environments, deepening their emotional ties. Elizabeth Abel compares female friendships to psychoanalytic therapy, arguing that they “generate understanding through intimacy and collaborative construction of meaning from experience” (1981: 419).
This is visible in the climactic scene as well when Manikarnika and Aathira Joseph share their history of sexual assault after Athira. As a result, they begin to understand not only their friend’s situation but theirs as well, as “identification in female friendship is a means of mutual recognition and interpretation” (Hollinger, 1998: 15). A deep sense of connection and empathy allows them to speak and share their experiences in the act of transferring blame and shame from the survivors to the perpetrators.
The depiction of these private problems through a public medium like film propagates a dissenting ethos. It uses the cinema verité genre to present real people sharing real-life stories of sexual molestation as a performance of #MeToo on the silver screen. The real-life stories of the actors shared in the climax were shot without rehearsals or a script, generating genuine emotions and deeply resonating with audiences.
Atal Krishnan weaponizes the realistic quality of the documentary medium through cinema verité in rooting the events of the films beyond the temporally fictional space of the cinematic screen to bring audiences closer to the collective #MeToo performance by the actors. Therefore, I argue that WWAMC predicates itself on a relationship with the audience that is more concerned with empathy and recognition than education to inculcate a sense of solidarity with its viewers. The film attempts to forego a singular female-speaking subject and focuses on a collective expression that bridges the subjects within the screen with its spectator.
WWAMC’s coupling of the verité style with a women’s collective as its subject functions as a critique and antidote to past masculine cinematic renditions of women’s existence within the household. It does so by limiting women’s actions of performing traditional household chores and instead engaging in discourse about rape culture and inviting its spectators to partake in the conversation while simultaneously denying any pleasure from the action on the screen.
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Abel, Elizabeth. 1981. “(E)Merging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women,” Signs 6, no. 3: 413–35. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3173754
Chodorow, Nancy. 1978. “Mothering, Object-Relations and the Female Oedipal Configuration” Feminist Studies 4, no. 1: 137-158. https://doi.org/10.2307/3177630
Lesage, Julia. 1978. “The political aesthetics of the feminist documentary film.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3, no. 4: 507-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10509207809391421
Hollinger, Karen. 1998. In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films. Minneapolis: the University of Minnesota Press.