Yes, that is a mouthful up there and quite a loaded title, I agree.
But Barbara Miller's latest documentary, '#Female Pleasure' which premiered in Locarno in their Semaine de la Critique sidebar and walked away with the Zonta Club Locarno Price for Extraordinary Social Commitment is a film chock-full of important messages and loaded with human causes. So, nothing less than a long title could do.
'#Female Pleasure' is a documentary yes but also a story of how women's pleasure has been kept hostage at the hands of men who believe that by controlling our sexuality they'll be able to control us and thus, ultimately, the world. Miller's stunning, infuriating, poignant, at times funny and entertaining throughout film is told from the viewpoint of five phenomenal women. They are Vithika Yadav, the founder of "Love Matters" a website on sexuality from India, Deborah Feldmann, a writer from Brooklyn's Hasidic community who escaped and wrote her story in 'Unorthodox', Rokudenashiko an artist from Japan who was arrested for making art inspired by a mold of her own vagina, Leyla Hussein, an activist from Somalia fighting the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, to which she was subjected as a child, and Doris Wagner, an ex-nun from Germany who wrote a tell-all book on how the Church allowed her to be raped by the priest who was in charge of her religious training.
It goes without saying that these women are courage personified.
During the Locarno Festival, I had the chance to spend a bit of time in their presence and strong does not even begin to describe them. I asked director Miller, with Hussain, Yadav and Rokudenashiko about their journey and what they wish audiences will take away from their powerful film. On a personal note, I'll admit it was difficult at times for me to even say the word "vagina"... I can hear in my recording that my voice is uncertain. So I believe that even talking about, or in this case watching a wondrous film on female sexuality is the beginning of a revolution. The revolution to fight the religion of patriarchy.
How did you come up with this idea and decide on these very specific heroines?
Barbara Miller: The idea came up five years ago when I was wondering what is the situation of women all over the world today. I was traveling a lot and was wondering how are women living, how is their sexual life? I really wanted to find out where is the idea coming from that women can’t be in charge of their sexuality, of their bodies and their relationships also. It was a long research and I came slowly across the protagonists. The moment I heard about them, was in contact with them for me it was clear that they are the right ones.
It’s challenging for a woman anywhere to talk about sex, and her own pleasure. But how difficult is it in India today -- a society that has come a long way, yet has still a long way to travel?
Vithika Yadav: Very difficult, because it is a taboo topic. Families don’t talk about it and young people is assumed will learn about sex somehow because everybody learns. Women for the most part, you grow up in a culture where it is much more taboo for a woman to talk about sex and about desire and pleasure. I remember when I was growing up, you wanted to be a good girl, you wanted to fit in as a good girl and a good girl will essentially not talk about sex and will be someone who the society will be comfortable with. And like Leyla says in the film, for a seven year old, you want people to play with you, you have questions but you want to fit in. Because you just want to be accepted. It’s difficult because people don’t want to acknowledge that in a country that is soon going to surpass China as far as population, of course people have sex!
It's strange the journey we have had since the time the ‘Kama Sutra’ was written in the country, going from teaching the world about sex, to a country where talking about sex and female desire and anything to do with women and desire is taboo…
Of course, you just reminded me that it’s not about sex here -- it’s about women’s pleasure. There are many things in your film, Barbara, that made me very angry. Like what Rokudenashiko says at one point about what men think women enjoy having done to them… I traveled back to many a relationship and realized how I’d been wronged…
Leyla Hussein: (to Miller) You know you’re going to be responsible for a lot of breakups!
Leyla, you talk about experiencing first hand something that made the hairs on my arms stand on end, female genital mutilation, FGM and yet you are so wonderfully strong about it. There is no anger, which in my opinion is never a strong feeling. What you have is resolve and you’re an activist. Tell me how this film helped you?
Hussein: To me this film was never about religion. It is calling out the misogyny in religion -- I think we confuse that all the time. That’s what really sold me about the idea of this film. Because it’s easy to go and make a film about Muslim women and how terrible it is for Muslim women around the world. I don’t need to prove that to anyone, that we can see. But as a Muslim woman I stand in a position where I should challenge the misogyny in religion. I had not seen a conversation like that in film.
This was really different. I was a loner for a long time in saying that it’s not Islam or Christianity, or Judaism, or Buddhism practices -- it’s patriarchy. If we want to talk about a hateful religion, patriarchy is it! And it’s practiced by all religions. .
If you actually read the Bible, it never condemns women’s sexuality. Deborah [Feldmann] made it very clear herself, men took over the Torah and turned it into their own version. No one talks about Khadijah and Aisha as being frontline feminists, no, they actually took out 150 Hadith from the Qu’ran. So for me there is no difference, if we talk about fundamentalist Islam we need to talk about fundamentalist Christians in Texas. Same behavior.
For example in the US now there is a movement amongst conservative Christians who are now practicing FGM because they think it’s a good idea. Do you know why? Because controlling women is always a good idea. I met white American women who’ve had FGM type three, because their parents were missionaries in Africa who thought, “this is great!” There is a whole FBI team now working in the US specifically with white girls from Christian communities.
You control the women, you control the world.
Hussein: Exactly! So if anything this film will do is make that message very clear.
So what you say and do is not my idea of an angry woman. It’s helpful. What you are doing is finding solutions to an age-old problem.
Hussein: Thank you. For centuries women like me were told it’s a cultural thing, don’t be angry about it. I practice my anger, I want people to know. So it’s about how you use your anger, I guess. I learned to use my anger properly.
What really struck me about your story Rokudenashiko is how acceptable and even encouraged it is in Japanese society to showcase a penis -- a sign of prosperity and good luck -- and how you were arrested for making a 3D art version of your vagina.
Rokudenashiko: The reason I made the vaginas glow in the dark is because this older man came to one of my exhibits and said, you cannot show this, vaginas should be only seen in the dark, sneaking under the bed covers. One has to look at them very secretly, so I thought, lets make them shining and bright, so they glow in the dark.
Were you always rebellious as a girl growing up in Japan?
Rokudenashiko: I didn’t go the usual way of getting employed in a company and I was working as a manga artist so in that sense, I was already not leading a normal life for Japanese standards. In Japan it is known that people who work in a company, it’s not like in Europe where you can go home at five or six o’clock. There they expect from you that you invest all of your life to this company, people are even dying in Japan from overwork. So they expect you to be ready to even give your life to your company but for myself it was clear that was not my way. I would not join this kind of society.
And finally Barbara, if audiences could only walk away with one message, one image or one theme from your film, what you want that to be?
Miller: That these incredible women have done so much, gone through so much and yet they haven’t lost their humor, or their energy. They’re there and they’re strong and outspoken and, I hope, with their way they will change the world.
Photos courtesy of NOISE Film PR