Film writers Fariha Roísín and Sara Black McCulloch are covering the Toronto International Film Festival this year as a series of conversations about the festival and its programming. This, the third dispatch includes the films The Keeping Room and Girlhood.
Sara: This is our final TIFF dispatch and today it's all about girls, girls, girls! We begin with The Keeping Room, written by Julia Hart and directed by Daniel Barber. In the last days of the American Civil War, three women—Augusta (Brit Marling), Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and Mad (Muna Otaru)—are left to defend the family farm against two treacherous Union Army soldiers. Then we have Céline Sciamma's Girlhood (Bande de Filles) about a group of girls living in the banlieues of Paris, trying to carve out space in a world made for boys.
Fariha: These were probably two of my most favorite films of the whole festival. Let's start off with The Keeping Room, which was such an intensely extraordinary story. Secretly, I was really reluctant to watch this. I thought it might be like Kelly Reichart's Meek's Cutoff (2010) which I didn't really enjoy—but the pacing, style, and story of this movie were such a juxtaposition to the other pallid and tautological films of this style and historical angle. For this, we really have to commend Julia Hart, whose characterization of all three women was fiercely beautiful. They were defiant, textured and had these dynamic interior lives that were fleshed out. There was a diversity to all of them, a diversity of "womanhood" which is so refreshing. They were layered with pain, circumstance, desire, and frustration—but also gilded by societal confines.
I loved this film. I loved it!
Sara: During the Q&A, Julia Hart mentioned what inspired the script. She was staying at a friend's farmhouse and there was a rumor that the bodies of three Union Army soldiers were buried in the yard. And she knew that because the war was still going on, the women of the house were the only ones who could have possibly been home at the time. What kind of women, she asked, could put Union Army soldiers in a grave? And she essentially worked her way back from this. The dominant story is that of the woman left behind, writing letters to her betrothed while he fought in the trenches.
These women are close, but they don't all consider each other equals. Louise, Augusta's younger sister, still treats Mad like a slave and calls her the n-word. There is this scene where Louise is bitten by a raccoon and Augusta screams at Mad, because, she says, Mad was supposed to be watching her. Mad and Augusta are close, but Augusta still slaps Mad across the face, reinstating a slave-owner relationship. There is this painfully long pause. Both women stare at each other. And then Mad slaps Augusta across the face. Augusta doesn't react, but then nods and both women pick up Louise and bring her in. Though they are a group, together, there are still these old power dynamics that resurface, and suddenly these women are thrusted back into their roles before the war. We watch these women struggle with this throughout the film—no matter how close they seem, the strength of their bond is always challenged.
Fariha: I think that's why this is really superb writing. Hart's not trying to idolize a type of woman. She's not talking about strength within an absence of weakness, or challenge—she's talking about how vulnerability can often be a powerful tool to mobilize and strengthen you to resolve a situation. Women are rarely given a choice to fuck up on screen. If they are, that's always their character's schtick, like—"I'm the fuck up!" But here, Hart shows that you can be graceful, prudish, intelligent, or whatever, and still make mistakes, and be a woman—just like men. That's why that scene is so great between Augusta and Mad. They're both learning, or for Augusta—and Louise, unlearning certain ideas that they've been taught.
These narratives often focus on women being as strong as men, or like men—that they have to be rational and unemotional to conquer all, or save themselves, and sure there's a certain play on that idea—especially at the end of the film when they decide they have to dress like men to survive—but I think that majority of the film features three women who find strength within themselves to keep going. That within their own vulnerability, they find a world of stamina, and innate power. That raison d'etre is never really focused on when we talk about women. Which is odd, because women ARE the ultimate warriors. They are mothers! The fierce strength it takes to be a mother is unprecedented—and I felt this movie really glorify the complexity of womanhood—and challenge the norms, and stereotypes, that we're so often confined by.
Also, can we just talk about how the three of them are so distinct as people—Augusta is this powerhouse; she's impassioned, yet indeterminate—she's still confused about who she is and scared that she'll never find love. I loved her sexuality. I thought that was a really interesting addition to her character. When she asks Mad about sex, and what it's like—that was an incredibly endearing moment of reality. The curiousness within a body, the craving that exists in times of war and social ineptitude, was such an essential focal point, especially within this context as it's usually done from a man's perspective. Understandably, there's this fear that the world will end after the war, and what will happen to civilization? Or their individual needs? To focus on sex, and the tangibility of another body, was a beautiful way to translate this state of loss and disruption in their lives. That fear that the things you want for yourself will never come into fruition, and to characterize that into something that is so primal—to want a connection with a human being—was a really great choice by Hart.
Also, the tension between Louise and Mad was a great perspective. We'd like to hope that Louise is as aware, and as loving as Augusta, but there's an institutionalized racism that still exists within her—the power structures of yore—that are still very much ingrained. It makes sense. She's younger, more impressionable, spoilt, and bitter by the state of things. It's only when she has these real life experiences, that happen through the course of the film, that she begins to mature. I felt that progress of her transition from this ignorant girl into a dynamic woman done in a very organic way.
Sara: There is also this idea of women as tethered to the home and what that once meant. These women brandish guns and defend the household, but they also they also react after they've killed someone. When the two soldiers come to their house, the men assume this is going to be a very fun, cat-and-mouse game—that they're the predators. And yet, to their horror, they soon become prey. I have never been in a theatre where men and women cheered on as a woman snapped up and shot a man. Hart's script takes the idea of donning and performing household roles and turns it on its head. These women are noticing the complexity of their roles, but because they are developing their roles outside of the home—they are people first and foremost, as you say. In the end, in order to survive, they have to disguise themselves as Union Army soldiers and they have to burn the down the house, their pasts, their roles and move on.
What is also so powerful is how, before these women can fully rid themselves of these intruders, they have to recognize each other as people. And as much as I despise the overused trick of knocking out someone cold in a movie and having them come to at the most convenient time—we don't get this necessarily in Hart's script. Instead, these women come to far too late. For instance, Mad is knocked out by one of the men and while she's out, Louise is raped. The story and brutality never stop. The other thing to this is that, in order for these women to be rendered powerless, they have to be hurt, but they regain consciousness no matter how hard they've been hit. And when these women stand up, boy, do they ever exact their vengeance.
As much as the home is supposed to be this welcoming, protective structure, the women also learn that it can house and hide some horrible things. The home, and what it stands for, challenges these women and thrusts them into new lives and new insights. As Mad explains to Louise and Augusta, the old power structures that were in place also opened the door to rape and abuse.
Fariha: Well that's exactly it. There's this questioning of the power structures that have enabled such brutality—I mean they're in a war! But, as women there's this constant fear that they'll be abused in other ways. On a micro level, they are each constantly questioning their placement as women. The war rhetoric is often that men go to battle, and the women stay at home and tend to their houses—but what if their men never come back? Do their lives end there? Hart's answer is a resounding: hell no! Which is such a juxtaposition to what women are told on a macro level. As I watched this film I kept thinking back to the act of anumarana—which is where some Hindu women "voluntarily" self immolate themselves after their husband's death. Their value is their marital prospects. Women are objects of desire—tainted when another man has touched them. So, in that way, the defiance of Augusta, Mad and Louise seems to be a larger challenge of not only the institution, but a more general resistance to the patriarchy—and the various impacts of that.
I felt the film always highlighting the stupidity of men—due to their elemental desire to wreak and ravage—and the two soldiers that come to the house were emblematic of this idea. The only time there's a moment's hesitation from Augusta to kill one of the soldiers is when he begins to flatter her. He's shown interest in her from an earlier interaction, and you see her gravitational pull to that desire—but she understands that this is a game to him. He doesn't want her heart, he wants her body, and ultimately she has to protect herself and the other two, so she kills him. I felt Hart play with the idea of female kindness and maternal instinct within that scene—how far will she go, we ask? It's a smart transaction between those two characters. Ultimately Augusta exerts her power.
The fact that they were Yankee soldiers (Union Soldiers were conscripted by the North) was really surprising as I've always somehow thought that the North was more just, but here we see them as savages, or really, just men. It was a beautiful additional point to how the destructiveness of war is rarely "honest" or "fair." There might be a "good side," but ultimately there will be forces within those movements that lack humanity. They will always prey on women, disregard their bodies, and their entities. That was a really vital perspective to add into the film.
When all three women dress as men at the end of the film, it's within their agency to do so, because they know that it will inherently protect them from life's nefarious sexism. They are emboldened by their desire to live, and that is such a revolutionary thing to see on screen. This film is a feminist film, yes—but it is most importantly a profound film about the complexity of humans—humans plural; meaning women also—during times of war.
Sara: Well yes, there are the men we still celebrate for having waged wars. We have statues of them erected. We get days off work. There is this idea of honor and how these people were great because they were brave and killed other people.
I keep thinking about how differently this film would have been had a woman directed it. I say this because, as much as this film touted the idea of male stupidity, the way it shot—there's almost a justification for the destruction because these men were the heroes of the war and they're coming home and burning down everything in their path. The film even opens with a quotation from Union Army soldier, stating that "War is hell," this sets the tone. Throughout the film, we hear echoes of this—it's constantly repeated to the women in different instances, and it almost feels belittling. It still feels like a justification for ignoring what all these women went through. The reason behind war is absolutely justifiable (to abolish slavery), but the problem is that the only way men want to solve a conflict or civil rights issue is by killing each other and setting everything on fire. The film ends with these women joining the large group of men, scattered throughout the landscape, also setting everything on fire. We end with a wide landscape shot, showing the full breadth of their destruction. I still felt that, despite everything these women just did, they got swallowed up by this larger group of men.
The film is still presented to us as this kind of home-intruder thriller—like these women are being invaded, and I think Julia Hart was trying do much more with her screenplay—like some of her ideas didn't translate as well visually. I just think that Daniel Barber handled it a little more differently. The question that prompted the writing of this screenplay was what kind of women could bury these three men. I felt like the driving force, on screen, was the fear of these women—the focus was shifted to fear of what men could do to them and not how they had to adapt and develop these survival skills—it's still this fear of male destruction.
Fariha: I know what you're trying to say, but I didn't feel that way as I walked away. I think Hart did a really great job of characterizing the scenes with an undercurrent of femininity. Sure there was that ominous sense of male destruction, but that was the context, and also arguably the catalyst for these women to survive. It's almost as if the story was insinuating that men ruin, but women create and prosper—and continue forward, to a better future.
I felt as though Barber carried the film with a grace that lent itself perfectly to the film. In my opinion, he captured the essence of it—the turmoil, but also the inevitable resolution. The symbiosis of this brilliant writing, paired with this delightful cinematography—the direction, and story, felt very kind to all three characters, and their respective journeys. All in all, I want to see this with the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. You have my vote, Julia!
Speaking of brilliant filmmaking, I guess we can start talking about Girlhood now, which was just such a gorgeous, gorgeous movie! Just on pure basis of aesthetic (and that great sound scape) Sciamma is really proving herself to be a really thoughtful filmmaker. Also, I love how the french title of Girlhood is Bande de Filles, which literally translates to "girl gang." Lots of girl gangs in this dispatch, today—just the way I like it! Sara, what did you think of this film?
Sara: This film was beautiful for so many different reasons. This is Céline Sciamma's third women-coming-of-age film, but it is one of her most powerful and nuanced films. This is more than just a story of four girls banning together to shop in malls and scream at rival girl gangs in metro cars—it's about girls learning how to navigate their feelings and how to put themselves first.
I think this film is going to be compared to La Haine a lot, because it's also set in the banlieues of Paris, but my god, this film is obviously so different. This is more about female identity and how women come together during pivotal moments of change to better understand themselves and each other. Sciamma's characterization of these girls as constantly growing gives us a full spectrum of feels and how they influence decision-making and actions. There's an added dimension to every girl and their moods change with the bat of a lash. Every fervent gaze is imbued with a rush of different emotions.
Fariha, we need to talk about the girls singing "Diamonds" in a hotel room together.
Fariha: I just want to say that I sung that song at karaoke the other night with my good friend David Ehrlich, who is not a girl (for shame!) but it was as satisfying as I thought it would be.
Okay. That. Scene. Tho.
It's beautiful for so many reasons other than just the fact that cinematically it was engaging, because, also—again, contextually, it's so empowering to see four black girls on screen singing about being as precious as diamonds. Black girls on screen, and in society, are often relegated to being a faceless sea of butts, à la Miley, Lily Allen, and most recently Taylor Swift. Like, I get it was a joke—TS, but no one was asking you, so? And to see no tropes—no tokenism, Mariame is not a caricature, she is a real life girl who likes a guy, isn't doing so well at school, and who has a tenuous relationship with her aggressive brother—these things are relatable! I wish people would stop thinking it's too much when people of color ask for representation—as it's so greedy for us to ask in the first place. Wanting more PoCs representation is comparable to wanting more diverse stories for women on screen! It's the same thing! And no, they aren't mutually exclusive.
Black female artists like Beyonce, Nicki, and here—Rihanna, are, and mean, so much more than just pop cultural icons, they are emblematic of a larger force of women of color, banding together, to create a face, and entity, a support system for us to look to and not feel ashamed about our bodies, or what we represent. This is why this scene was particularly beautiful. We see four girls interact positively, helping each other, encouraging each other, whilst singing this song. It was so moving—and so representative of a feminist anthem.
And—don't get me wrong—of course, there have been exceptional coming of age films about WoC/PoC before—a favorite of mine is Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2003)—but that was eleven years ago, and how many endlessly mundane coming of age stories have there been about white kids? Is that because white kids are us and we are white kids? Is there a white kid trapped in all of us? IDK. Needless to say—as much as I "enjoyed" Boyhood by Richard Linklater, I could have done without it. I get that it was done over so many years! And it's a masterpiece! But I felt it hinged on a lot clichés. I definitely can't say the same about this film. Girlhood was unnerving, it was positive, it was heartbreaking.
Sara: Girlhood is a necessary film. To add to what you said about that "Diamonds" scene—it was a group of girls enjoying a song together, too. They're united and having a moment where they accept themselves. In the shot, all of them take up the same amount of space, and our attention isn't drawn to one single girl, but to all of them.
These girls are also navigating a world where all they're told is no. No, you can't go to high school even though the reason you weren't doing well in school was because you were helping your mother take care of your sisters. No, you can't sleep with a boy you're dating because then everyone will call you a slut. No, you can't call yourselves badass bitches until you beat the shit out of a rival girl gang. No, you can't go to this store because you're black and the white shopgirl is going to follow you around and accuse you of stealing. So this entire film is about how those young girls carve out a space for themselves, in order to make the opening scene feel less like an impossible dream. Even the opening scene of the film feels surreal because you have girls playing football—but there's this electropop blasting. After the game ends, they all start walking home and they're loud and as soon as girls drift off to go home, they get quiet and they soon begin walking past more and more boys.
Also, this film draws so much attention to bodies, groups of bodies and how they take up space. The boys sit around stairs, and the girls have to climb over them or stop to answer their questions. At the end, we have this large group of women having a wonderful dance-off. It's something I have never seen before—just women taking up space in a film. It feels new. It also feels like this is less about female competitiveness, too.
Fariha: It's about inclusivity. It's no surprise that films with more representation—whether race, queer, transgender, or otherwise, generally have more dynamic stories. They appeal to a larger audience because the storytelling is very rarely clichéd—and they open up dialogues, like the ones we've had in these last few dispatches—about things that exist, even if there's no spotlight on them.
These two films are both necessary. They're both engaging in different ways, but they both remind us that film is a vehicle for an incredible amount of social change. The thought that a young Algerian girl, or Saudi girl, or Nigerian girl will watch Girlhood and finally feel that there's something that speaks to her—sends shivers down my spine. Nothing is truer, you are all diamonds.
I'm glad we finished our TIFF dispatches with these two superb films. If you liked our TIFF dispatches, we'll be covering NYFF later this month, so watch this space!
[Photo via AP]