Director: “Okay so you have a week to write this. I have one weekend to shoot it. It has to pass the Bechdel test, with two guys and two girls as actors. We have one room in a really old house to shoot in. Oh, and one guy wants to be Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet. Can you pull that off?”
This was how Fury came about, a script I wrote for a One Month Film Challenge, run by The Dublin Filmmakers Collective. It’s one of those self-explanatory Ronseal scenarios–a small group of filmmakers take on the challenge to write, shoot and edit a film in a month. So why agree to all that?
At the moment the only real quality associated with women in film, at least in Ireland, is their meticulous absence, both in production and on-screen. It’s a high-profile industry topic but like many women’s issues, translating the over-tasted thirst for change into action is tricky. How exactly do you make more female media? Do we exclude men? Should we correct our creative urges until they start looking more feminine? All of these questions are ridiculous. My goal approaching the project was to see how well the feminist film themes I picked up and ran with in college could be blended the shooting requirements.
The thing is, I’m not sure my finished script or the film passes the Bechdel test at all. In fact, my attempt to talk in a female language from a female space became an unintentional body horror. It’s true to say we shouldn’t manipulate ourselves into creating what seems to be more female media, but that being said, should we shy away from those stories for fear of looking hyper-feminist? Body horror or not, I think we achieved something unique.
The Bechdel test comes from cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose work first appeared in feminist newspaper Womannews. From here the Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip emerged. The strip’s characters come up with a set of rules for evaluating whether a work of fiction, including film, can portray women without deferring to men.
- Have at least two women in it
- Who speak with one another
- About something other than a man
Writing toward the Bechdel test was insightful, no doubt. It forces the writer to make gendered narrative decisions and stimulates a constant criticism of gender balance from one page to the next. The finished work still had me begging the question of what exactly female content is however, and with further consideration I think the mistake of the Bechdel test is forcing us to read and write in terms of a gender dichotomy. Sexuality and gender identities just don’t read as simply as this, either politically or on-screen. To approach the so-called problem of female content with this assumption therefore starts us off writing with prejudice and not our heads.
THE SEARCH FOR FEMALE CONTENT
According to the Irish Film Board’s Gender Statistics 2010-2015, only 16% of all writers attached to applications for funding were female. The level of female directors falls to 13.6%. Dr. Susan Liddy’s 2015 article Missing in Action: Where Are the Irish Women Screenwriters? turned a few heads on Film Ireland last year when she bent Irish filmmakers’ ears with the same subject. She begins by pointing out the gender disparity in funding, then qualifies this point by reminding us that funded films are supposed to tell stories about ourselves to ourselves and wider audiences. She continues:
“The IFB talks about investing in ‘Irish stories’ and yet the majority of our stories are told by men and are about men. How do we make sense of that? Are we to believe Irish women writers are uninterested in, or incapable of, writing for film? Or is their work being side-lined because screenplays written by women just fail to measure up?”
Some have deferred to the financial facts to generate the panic this issue deserves, such as the mission statement of voluntary group Women in Television Ireland, which calls on us to resolve the issue, “…to ensure the sustainability, and growth of Ireland’s €550 million audiovisual sector.” More recent examples include the Guiding Lights Scheme, which bridges both Irish and UK funding to support female writers and directors.
These explicit requests for change have continued and intensified since last year but my point remains the same; how do you translate this into action on a personal level, without losing the integrity of your content? I’m not an established writer or director. I don’t have a lengthy filmography just yet, nor enough time to concentrate on my writing in tandem with a full-time content job, essentially honing the craft without guidance.
The ten-minute short I made recently fails to meet the essential requirements of the Bechdel test and yet, to my mind, the themes are implicitly female; motherhood, pregnancy, birthing, miscarriage and comfort in a non-narrative structure. Fury is the name given to one character who is defined by her rejection of any symbolism or interactions which are not feminine. She is the driving force rejecting culture, politics, traditional language and body identity. As logic goes, this should enable Fury to shed masculine concepts in order to finish with nothing but implicitly feminine content.
Four strangers wake in a barricaded room. One is a poet, another a slut, the next a vulgar drag queen and the last a mysterious mute. The group’s panic gives way to intrigue as the walls and floor grow mushrooms and leak water. What meaning can survive in a place when culture is irrelevant, language is subjective and history no longer matters? What gender norms survive the horror of a place where nothing has been defined just yet, but life must continue? What follows is a difficult examination of how masculinity and diverse femininity can survive in that ultimately female environment.
The script is extreme as far as attempting to write female content goes; the densely packed metaphors combine psychoanalysis with sexology, feminism and queer theory, stacked against the constant theme of the maternal body’s dramatic interior. That’s exactly how I wanted to write it. As mentioned above, I think the foremost issue with the Bechdel test is that it assumes gender and sexuality are simple divisions of male and female issues. There are many forms of femininity and sexuality and part of the disillusionment in trying to make more feminine cinema is the assumption that it involves only women.
The Fury script includes sensitive men, queer men, weak women finding genuine confidence and a psychotic embodiment of motherhood. I don’t believe we should shy away from what can be misunderstood as feminist content to create more feminine cinema. As complicated as the female psyche is to articulate cinematically, we should be more willing to interact with and unfold the complexities and contradictions of the female gender, rather than the limitations of the industry. Including female writers and production staff in the industry will be a lengthy process. If this includes looking at feminine men, masculine women, or indiscernible combinations of the two, then so be it.
Note: Fury is currently being edited and will available soon.