2016 was … well … challenging, to say the least. A lot of really terrible things happened. I did more crying between November 2015 and December 2016 than I probably did in the entirety of the rest of my life so far. Having acknowledged that, I also realised that, more than ever, we need to spend some time focusing on the little things that make us feel good if we don’t want to completely lose it. For me, one of the things that gives me most pleasure in life is film, and I learnt a lot about how I perceive, enjoy, consume and criticise film in 2016. Below is a selection of learnings, ponderings and confirmations of previous wonderings.
52 FILMS BY WOMEN
One of the best things to happen to me this year was to pledge to Women In Film’s 52 Films By Women. It’s simple, aim to watch 52 films directed or co-directed by women over the course of one year. That’s one a week. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, and I went in thinking I’d watch more, but in the end, I watched precisely 52. The main thing I learnt through that pledge is that even if you’re aware of the problem and you’re proactively trying to widen the breadth of what you watch, you can still very quickly fall back into bad habits and what you’ve been used to your entire life. At one point, I was four films/weeks behind and basically had to re-assess my entire life. Because on paper, it was only four films, but that actually meant I hadn’t seen a woman’s vision in four weeks, and then I started realising how terrifying that was when compared to my entire life, when I hadn’t paid attention to any of it. I mean, I knew I had been deprived of a number of voices on screen in my lifetime, but 52 Films By Women really did help me paint the whole picture and realise the measure of it all. And that’s just looking at the gender gap, it gets absolutely horrifying when you consider *all* the voices you could and should hear from, and the amount you’ve actually experienced. Having said that, I approached the pledge in very much the same manner I approach any other film watching situation. Sometimes I just know a film isn’t for me, and for the past few years I have not forced myself to watch anything I knew before going in I wouldn’t enjoy. Sometimes, very rarely actually, I’ll think something isn’t for me and people who know me who’ve seen it will tell me to give it a go and I will, and they will be right, but unless I get a very strong recommendation from someone I absolutely trust, some films will just never make the cut. I applied that rule to my 52 Films By Women pledge. I didn’t watch anything “just because” it was directed by a woman. Women can make terrible films too. But I did put my money where my mouth was, and spent my VOD money exclusively on films directed or co-directed by women this year. I am very privileged in that I rarely have to pay for cinema tickets thanks to my job, but whenever I had to pay for a film, I made sure to choose a female-directed one. If anything, 52 Films By Women taught me to pay attention. As mentioned previously, we’re aware, but we’re not really until it hits you in the face. I’ll continue the pledge in 2017, this time aiming to watch much more than 52, and I’ll continue to pledge until I don’t have to; until I don’t need a reminder; until my habits are completely changed – because I think as much as it’s important to complete it and pat yourself on the back for it, it’s also important to acknowledge that it takes time for habits to change. I’m more careful and aware now but I also know that even though the landscape is changing, it’s not changing fast enough to help us kick off our old habits, and so we have to continue showing that we want something different, something we’ve been deprived of for too long. Literally put your money where your mouth is and support the change you want to see. You can still pledge here.
“PURELY FOR FILMIC REASONS”
Never have I heard the phrase “for filmic reasons” more than in 2016; a year in which a whole bunch of people unconvincingly tried to make us believe the reason why they were against the Ghostbusters reboot was “for filmic reasons”. I borderline have more respect for the men who flat-out said women were the problem, because at least they didn’t try to pass for nice guys. I spoke to people who genuinely didn’t like the film and had genuine arguments, but I also spoke to a number of guys who went to see the film because they had to and mentioned “purely for filmic reasons” to me 5 times in their 3-minute review. Now, if you have to repeat something that much over that short a period of time, you’re clearly trying to convince yourself of the thing you’re saying. This is “how to know if someone is lying” 101. I haven’t seen it myself and, dare I say it, even though I liked the 1984 version, I don’t think it’s that much of a masterpiece, so I actually have no opinion on Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters. I do want to watch it at some point, so I can figure out if I like it “for filmic reasons”.
In further hypocrisy news, the other major over-reaction of 2016 in the UK was over the Absolutely Fabulous movie. Now, I have seen this one, and it is problematic and has a number of issues which I will not discuss here. But with Ab Fab, the hypocrisy wasn’t on the “filmic reasons” front, but rather on the double standard of female-led TV show adaptation vs. male-led TV show adaptation. July saw the release of Absolutely Fabulous: the Movie and August saw the release of David Brent: Life on the Road. In June/July, I read a lot of apocalypse warnings due to imminent Ab Fab arrival on screens – before anyone had even seen the film. In July/August, I saw nothing about the arrival of David Brent on the big screen – the people who didn’t like The Office, or didn’t care about it, simply did not comment about the film release. Those same people who had an awful lot to say about the “cinematic apocalypse” the previous month. Which made me think back to the release of the Inbetweeners movies and how again, there was no crisis to speak of. Three incredibly successful shows moving on to the big screen. Each very different from the other. And yet only one, the one with, by, and about women, seems to be a sign of the upcoming end of humanity. It does make you wonder. And on the subject of double standards…
IT’S COMPLICATED BUT…
The biggest double standard of 2016 however remains the death of Nate Parker’s career vs. Casey Affleck’s golden road to the Oscar despite both having out-in-the-open sexual assaults baggage. I don’t know how people make the difference between the two. I also have a certain amount of questions for anyone who boycotted The Birth of a Nation, but watched Manchester By the Sea. I’m open to hearing your reasoning. If you are one of those people, please do enlighten me. As viewers, we all make choices as to what we will and will not watch. We may create our own rules as to what we tolerate and what we don’t. Rules are made and lines are drawn to suit us best and I don’t think I will ever judge anyone for drawing or not drawing a line. I have my own set of beliefs too. It gets complicated to draw lines, and constantly try to change things for the better; it’s up to each individual to find his/her own limits to try to make a difference, but if you’re creating a rule, then stick to it, because things start looking dodgy as hell pretty quickly, and in this particular scenario, I don’t think either of those people deserve a better treatment than the other.
ALWAYS BE OPEN TO NEW VOICES
Whether you’re trying to define the limits of your film-watching enjoyment, or whether you just love film and spending time with film, always be open to new voices. Even if you’re incredibly knowledgable on the subject of film, don’t ever assume you know more than everyone else. Other people will bring a different perspective, they’ll see things from a different angle. I know it sounds super obvious but I’m honestly tired of the know-it-alls of the film world. I’m more than happy to admit that I actually don’t know that much about film and I just want people to tell me what they see, how they see it and how it makes them feel so I can constantly learn more. And if you love something and someone doesn’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong, and you don’t need to block them. If that’s how it worked, I would basically no longer be speaking to anyone I know because I hated Sicario and they all loved it. And sometimes, you might be wrong, and that’s okay too. Leave your pride and ego at home, eat some truth and become a better informed person. This is applicable to life in general, not just film commenting. I predominantly use Twitter for my film education (beyond the cinema screen), so here are some recommendations, in no particular order: @oldfilmsflicker @medicinema @noirfoundation @BWDR @christinalefou @MovieMezzanine @FemaleCritics @angelicabastien @vaguevisages @womeninfilm
FILM IS CHANGING
Over the past few years, I’ve had to re-assess how I “consume” storytelling on screen. Television has shifted and its storytelling format is much closer to that previously exclusive to the big screen. TV is probably at its best right now, the offer is endless and its cinematic power is incredible. I certainly consume it the same way I would a film, only it’s a 10-hour long film. In fact, TV is making its way into cinema screens and film festivals. But film is changing too. Storytelling, generally, is changing. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is probably one of the best films of 2016 and you could argue it isn’t even a film. VR is also slowly happening. For that reason, I will no longer score films the way I used to, and I will probably no longer rank films the way I used to. Instead, I’ll try to pick screen highlights so not to limit myself to boundaries that start to seem a little obsolete. Especially when some now try to belittle the value of a film depending on whether or not it has had a theatrical window. One of the best films I watched this year was Divines, it was a Netflix release. I was sad not to watch in on a big screen but it is as much of a film as La La Land or Captain America. Distribution models are changing, the way we consume movies is changing, only academies and critics of a certain age try to hold onto a tradition no one in the real world would be particularly offended to see go. We still all love film. It looks a bit different now, but at the end of the day, it’s still storytelling and the change that’s coming has been long overdue.
Having established all of the above, all of those changes which I truly believe are taking us somewhere great, even if it has to take some time to get there, I must say no to two things. Two trends that I have seen growing over the past couple of years and that truly must stop now:
- Studios and PR people who will try to sell you a film as feminist or inclusive because of their casting decisions. Having a woman in the lead does not necessarily mean your movie is feminist. Having people of colour in your film, doesn’t mean it isn’t racist. Just because you’ve cast a woman as a badass FBI agent, doesn’t mean your movie isn’t a piece of sexist trash. My point is, sometimes, we’re sold something through false advertising, and it’s okay to be tricked and go watch that film because we wanted to believe it was true, but if you watch it and realise it’s not what it said on the tin, you’ve got to speak up about it. Sicario is a piece of sexist, misogynistic and racist trash. I will stand by that until the day I die and no quantity of fancy VFX will make me look past it. It doesn’t mean Emily Blunt is bad in it – her performance is great – but that movie is awful. Also, Little Men is a racist piece of trash. You can’t sell me the movie by saying “of course, it is dealing with the harsh reality of gentrification but look at how cute those kids are!” Yes, the kids are cute but your movie is still racist AND pro-gentrification so… no, thank you. There are countless more examples, those two made me angry the most. If you see it, SPEAK UP.
- People around you who feel things deeper than you because they need to feel important. This one is harder to notice because it is very likely you’ve experienced it a million times before and you’ve never really stopped to think about it. I’ve mostly had to endure this with people who have children and think that because I don’t have any kids, I am void of any basic emotions. Those people will watch something like Room or Manchester By the Sea and when you start talking to them about it, they’ll say something like: “well, I have kids so…” So what? Just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I can’t relate to what is going on. Empathy isn’t something that solely applies if you have kids. I have siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces – what is your point? Also, look closely at what actually happened in those films and tell me, have you *really* experienced this? No, I didn’t think so. Your argument is invalid. Now, those people must not be mistaken with people who actually have something important to say about how a movie has reflected something in their life. For example, someone may watch Moonlight and want to talk to you about how it reminded them of what is was like to discover their sexuality growing up. That’s different and that is actually really important and you should listen to it. But if someone just throws you a “well, I have kids so…” or “I once spent 12 hours in Detroit so I know exactly what this is like” then please feel free to shut them up. It’s patronising and quite frankly offensive.
WHERE I’M GOING
On a personal front, 2016 was a film festival kind of year and a reiteration that this is where my heart belong. Whether I work them, attend them as delegate or patron, I find myself at my happiest in a film festival environment, surrounded by similarly passionate people and an overabundance of films. So here’s to making the festival life permanent!