The Personal Is Still Political: Films 'By and for Women" by the New Documentariste

Italica, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The Personal Is Still Political: Films 'By and for Women" by the New Documentariste


Adhering to the common practice in Italian film criticism of classifying and characterizing trends among Italian filmmakers of the same generation, Vito Zagarrio, in his volume on the cinema of the first six years of the new millennium, has described the new generation of filmmakers as "la meglio gioventu (in homage to Marco Tullio Giordana's film of the same name) (12). Among the distinguishing features of this "New-New Italian Film" that Zagarrio identifies, there are two in particular, which, in our mind, are closely interrelated: the increase in documentary production and the emergence of women in key positions (as directors, screenwriters and actors in more 'dignified' roles) in the Italian film industry. Through the close examination of documentary films by three "new-new" women filmmakers, we would like to suggest that the women filmmakers of this generation, while not overtly feminist, are making films which increasingly foreground a desire to engage, create and conceive of female subjectivity on screen. (1) The results are often intimate, self-reflexive films that engage the female spectator by blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction and between the intimately private and the public, and that ultimately challenge traditional representations of women in Italian cinema.

For Italian women filmmakers, documentaries are often an easier option given the relatively closed, patriarchal nature of the Italian film industry in a culture that also remains highly patriarchal and that makes it virtually impossible for women to break through the "celluloid ceiling." (2) Negotiating with male institutions and reconciling personal goals and aspirations with the pragmatic need to find production money and distributors have led many Italian women into a cinematic genre which allows them to bring to the screen films that might otherwise never be financed or produced due to the overtly 'personal' nature of the issues addressed in their documentaries. (3) It is not unlikely, in fact, that still today many women attempting to make films that deal with aspects of their own lives would be accused as they were in the 1970s of 'navel gazing,' the kind of accusation that led to the feminist battle cry that the personal is political.

In this article we focus our discussion on Alina Marazzi's Un'ora solati vorrei (2002), Fabiana Sargentini's Di madre in figlia (2004) and Susanna Nicchiarelli's Il terzo occhio (2003). These films are part of a growing number of experimental documentaries, both in Italy and internationally, that increasingly call into question the possibility of the role of the camera in creating a version of 'the way it really was,' as well as questioning what in the past has often been the didactic role of documentaries. (4)

What we consider 'new' in the films discussed in this article are the ways in which the filmmakers' concern for the private and the intimacy of personal relationships, which may seem like a retreat from the public, is in fact a political reflection on female agency. The political effectiveness of these films resides in the filmmakers' attention to the female spectator and to making the kind of cinema that allows her to engage with a different social subject, a perspective virtually non-existent in films representing women as the object of the male gaze. As Teresa de Lauretis points out, "what is at stake is not so much how to 'make visible the invisible' as how to produce the conditions of representability for a different social subject" (de Lauretis 1984: 7-8). In attempting to produce such conditions, each of these interventionist filmmakers, to varying degrees, calls our attention to the construction of this new subject and our relationship to her through a constant negotiation between the on-screen and off-screen identities of the filmmakers and their subjects.

The documentaries by Marazzi, Sargentini, and Nicchiarelli discussed in this article prioritize female subjectivity (of both authors and spectators), which is conceived as a position "in a network of power relations of which sexual difference is a major constitutive factor" (Smelik 3) along with other factors such as class, age and geographical location. …

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