Program: 9, Traditions and Trajectories
The MadCat Film Festival takes place every year in San Francisco, CA in early fall and showcases the works of women filmmakers all over the world. The 2003 festival was held in September and October and included eleven programs. The Ninth and Tenth programs were Traditions and Trajectories, and Educated Ladies respectively. Though scheduled as separate screenings, the two share significant ideological similarities.
Traditions and Trajectories consists of seven short films, three of which are “Cum Pane” (Anna Linder, 2002) from Sweden; “Post Mark Lick” (Sonia Bridge, 2002) of the UK and Canada; and “Dim Sum (a little bit of heart)” (Jane Wong, 2002) of the UK.
When “Cum Pane” begins, you’ll think you’re looking at a cream-colored stucco wall, but it turns out to be dough. Linder’s eight-minute long short follows the hands of two bakers who are making flat bread. The film depicts the preparation as a labor of love. The film speed varies from slow to staccato to high-speed. There’s a moment when the woman’s hand is stroking waves against the powdered, wooden counter. Elapsing in slow-motion, there’s a hint of sensuality in her movements. It almost makes you think a sultry saxophone will start playing, but no such woodwind sounds. The musical score is, however, comprised of jazz you can’t dance to, a cat being slaughtered, and a fly buzzing. If Linder can film the process of baking and make it look like love-making, one can only imagine what pastry-making would look like from her eyes (* * *.5).
Reminiscent of a Stan Brakhage piece, Sonia Bridge’s animated experimental short “Post Mark Lick” is an intimate examination of stamps and letters. Caroline John is the voice of the narrator who reads excerpts from the contents of letters while the camera fixes itself on close-up images of European cities, a zebra, and buildings, which are all tinted in reds and blues. There’s also an extended sequence of various Queen Elizabeth II stamps. The audio in this Royal College of Art production goes from snare drum to piano, flute to airplane-taking-off to bubbling water. John’s voice accompanies the images throughout the nearly four minute-long film (* * *).
Jane Wong’s documentary “Dim Sum (a little bit of heart) starts at a Chinese take-out/grocery store on 10 Knight Street in Manchester, England. In capturing glimpses into the lives of her parents and their friends, Wong creates a film that is self-aware. Wong’s mother talks directly to the camera and Wong herself appears in the documentary a few times as well. “Dim Sum” begins with Wong’s mother Marietta and her two friends Wah So and Linda Ka making dumplings. Conversational topics include why Wong is making the film and how satisfied they are with their lives. It’s an incredibly familiar scenario—making ethnic food and talking about how happy one is with one’s life.
Marietta and her friends also discuss whether or not there is a bathroom in Manchester Coach Station as a tangent to Wah So relating that she found a twenty pound note at a train station once while looking for a toilet. A production of the UK’s National Film and Television School, Wong’s film addresses the issue of personal identity and the struggle to assimilate into another culture and society. Wong treats the subjects with an honesty that attracts you them. Heart-warming and humorous, “Dim Sum” recalls early Ang Lee films like “Pushing Hands” (1992) and “The Wedding Banquet” (1993). It’s what a joy, luck club ought to be: making dumplings and telling stories (* * * *).
Program: 10, Educated Ladies: Films from the PFA Collection
The tenth program at the 2003 MadCat Film Festival, Educated Ladies features seven works from the Pacific Film Archive Collection. The first piece is a 1946 Encyclopedia Britannica Film called “Cotton” (Harriet L. Herring), which examines the voyage of cotton from the fields to the cloth. In its depiction of the process of picking cotton, this twelve-minute long classroom film only hints at racial inequalities. For instance, before the film shows the black cotton pickers, it shoots Freddy Hickman and his dad, who owns the fields, looking at the cotton. Freddy even demonstrates in close-up how the cotton is plucked from the bulb. The narrator comments that as long as there is cotton in the fields, it must be picked (which is the only reason why children occasionally help).
The workers labor in the fields as long as they can because they’re paid according to how much cotton they pick. One man’s sack weighs eighty pounds, but there is no mentioning of whether he gets paid $0.80 or $8.00. “Cotton” also briefly addresses the issue of man versus machine when the camera records a tractor picking cotton in a neighboring field. This educational film raises the question of whether or not human labor would be necessary to work the cotton fields in the future. If one tractor can retrieve the same amount of cotton as six men, which would be a better financial investment for the owner of the field? Is it better to be overworked and underpaid or not to have any work or pay at all? “Cotton” is still an educational film, though, not deliberate social commentary. Its focus is to reveal what happens to cotton once it is picked and shipped to the plants (* * *).
The second film “Folklore Research” (Henwar Rodakiewicz, 1955) follows Mary Parler, Professor of English and Director of Folklore Research at the University of Arkansas, as she goes to the Ozark Mountains to track down the great, great, great grand-daughter of one of the oldest surviving British traditional ballads “The Two Sisters.” Host Charles Romine joins her on her trip. Produced by Irving Gitlin for CBS Television, “Folklore Research” is combination of an educational film and a documentary. Writer Stephen Fleischman is careful to incorporate into the conversations between Professor Parler and Romine some information that would be helpful to the films’ viewers. For example, before they set off for the Ozarks in a jeep-like vehicle, Romine asks Professor Parler to discuss the differences between a folk song and any other old song. Parler explains that a folk song isn’t written down or printed, and is “taught by singing and learned by hearing.” In other words, just as folktales are passed down from generation to generation through storytelling, folksongs are also a part of oral tradition. By the end of the film’s twenty-five minutes, you will have learned much about folk research but also about the people whose lives are full of this rich knowledge (* * *).
“Springboard Diving,” the third film, is a production of the Department of Physical Education for Women at UC Berkeley. Made in the 1950s in color, this instructional piece discusses the steps involved in successful springboard diving. Precision, control, and concentration are essential in terms of attitude. Approach, body position, and entry are vital in the mechanics of executing a good dive. The film takes the viewer through exercises and techniques that help condition a diver’s body to move in the proper fashion. You don’t have to be a fan of or hopeful expert diver to appreciate “Springboard Diving” (* * *).
UCLA’s Motion Picture Division and Department of Theater Arts’ film “Making Theatrical Wigs” (Mary Mainwaring, 1951) is the fourth installment in the Educated Ladies program. Running eleven minutes in length, this film shows how theatrical wigs are made, covering the process of making the cap to weaving the hair. The camera records a pair of hands cutting, sewing, marking, and weaving. The model’s face is visible but the wigmaker’s remains in the dark. There’s something addictive to the simplicity with which the film illustrates the steps to making a theatrical wig. You almost want to run to your neighborhood arts and crafts store and try it yourself (* * *.5).
The fifth and sixth portions of the program both deal with the human body. McGraw-Hill Text-Films “Your Body During Adolescence” (1954) is one in a series of films by Harold S. Diehl, MD, Dean of Medical Sciences at the University of Minnesota, and Anita D. Laton, PhD, Professor of Health and Hygiene at San Jose State College. “Your Body During Adolescence” is very informative in relating how a boy becomes a man and a girl a woman. The essential physiological changes are addressed as well as which of the glands in the endocrine system are responsible for them. The drawings are understandably overly simplistic in context of its release year. Furthermore, because the film aims to educate rather than entice its viewers, representations of reproductive organs are approached from a cross-sectional and underneath-the-skin perspective (* * *).
While “Your Body During Adolescence” is strictly educational, “Having A Healthy Baby” (Lillian and Spencer Peel et al, 1969) carries propagandistic undertones. The film begins on a somewhat morbid note that if 5,000,000 babies are conceived in a given period of time, 1,000,000 will be miscarried or born dead. In case you missed the narrator speaking this statistic, a mathematical equation appears on screen and reiterates his words. “Having A Healthy Baby” covers the stages of pregnancy from conception to birth, detailing when the various parts of the fetus begin to develop. Since the first twelve weeks are the most important in a baby’s growth, the film suggests that the mother ought to think only of her unborn child’s well-being. Considering when this film was made, a mother should eat well, avoid unsafe sexual activity, and refrain from consuming drugs and being X-rayed in the womb region. “Having A Healthy Baby” concludes by reminding the viewer that one out of four babies are miscarried or born dead. Hmmm, not a very happy note at all (* * *).
Michael and Mimi Warshaw’s experimental animation/live-action film “How to Make a Movie without a Camera” (1972) is the seventh and last part of Educated Ladies. The five minute-long film begins with a bulldozer running over a movie camera. The viewers’ eyes are then bombarded by a variety of shapes and images such as stripes, circles, flowers, swirls, letters, as well as symmetrical and asymmetrical patterns. There are also traffic signs, highway signs, and insertions of footage from old westerns, silent films, and animated Disney clips (Mickey Mouse plays the piano in one of them). The music starts off with something very Radio City Rockettes, shifts to a somewhat somber song about a blackbird that abandons the singer, and then returns to the Rockettesy tune (* * *).
The many films that are part of Programs Nine and Ten differ in production values, country of origin, and subject, but they all incorporate the depiction of how something progresses from one stage to another. Furthermore, the films offer a glimpse into the visual and social histories of the past.