Reframing Women – a History of New Zealand Film
Books that set out to be histories of an art form are always doing two things simultaneously – documenting and criticising. Deborah Shepard’s Reframing Women is very informative as documentation. As criticism it is on shakier ground.
This is an account of women’s involvement in film in New Zealand. The indefinite article in the subtitle – “A History of New Zealand Film” – very properly acknowledges that other approaches to New Zealand film are possible. But the focus here is on celebrating the achievements of women who, the author believes, have not been adequately credited in other surveys of New Zealand cinema. It is both instructive and interesting to have rehearsed for us the careers of pioneer film-making women who are in danger of being forgotten – Hilda Hayward, for example, or Margaret Thompson and others at the old National Film Unit. It is equally interesting to be given the internal history of the making of polemical feminist movies in the 1970s and 1980s, and the career moves of directors who had specific things to say about the workplace or childbirth or social attitudes.
Sometimes scores are neatly settled. Shepard’s research unearths women who have been ignored by male chroniclers. Geoff Steven’s 1991 documentary on New Zealand film, Cowboys of Culture, interviewed only one woman (Sue May). Shepard proceeds to tell us the names of all the other women who worked as art directors, editors, camera operators, location managers, continuity assistants and so on, on the very same male-directed films that Steven did mention. Inevitably there are references to women who have been “silenced”, “marginalised” and “made invisible” by patriarchal structures, androcentric bias and the lack of adequate childcare.
Save for the odd factual glitch (Pallet on the Floor was not an adaptation of a novel called One of Those Blighters), such documentation is scrupulous and honest. Shepard does, for instance, dive into the contentious subject of the possible literary origins of Jane Campion’s The Piano. This is more than Helen Martin did in her entry on The Piano in the Oxford New Zealand Film 1912-1996. Shepard also honestly acknowledges that the notion of womanly solidarity and “sisterhood” has not really stood the test of time. Women making films in the 1970s and 1980s sometimes assumed that “women” constituted one homogenous category. But a different story is told by Shepard’s accounts of emergent Maori women film-makers who resent the participation of white middle-class academic feminists as much as the intrusion of white middle-class men. Ruefully, Shepard comments that sisterhood is “a worthy goal but perhaps an unattainable one”. She notes a number of films by women that attack the whole myth of instinctive female solidarity. (In this respect, I think she could have made more of Alison Maclean’s Crush, the only New Zealand feature film specifically to set different women on a collision course.)
Mind you, even on the level of sheer documentation, Shepard’s determination to “do justice” to women can lead her up strange paths. She spends some time expounding on the “wild zone”. This is the notion that women should commit gratuitous acts of disruption or violence or social mayhem in order to confound male expectations of them as carers and nurturers. It sounds suspiciously like a high-falutin’ intellectual’s rationalisation of recent “bad girl” movies, or for that matter the Spice Girls running around displaying “girl power”. Alas for Deborah Shepard, it turns out that New Zealand’s most powerful cinematic expression of female delinquency was in a film directed by a man – Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. So her text comes as near as possible to suggesting that the real credit for Heavenly Creatures belongs to Jackson’s co-writer Frances Walsh. Whereupon her endnotes have to perform backflips trying to dissociate Walsh from Jackson’s laddish features Meet the Feebles and Braindead, for which Walsh was also co-writer.
Rather than denying a man credit for making the movie, wouldn’t it have been easier to admit that a man-and-woman team had achieved something significant?
Where documentation is concerned, though, these are mainly quibbles on my part. In nearly 300 pages, Shepard gives us a very full survey of all the women who have made films or worked on films in New Zealand. It is judiciously illustrated with apt photographs (they all have the merit of representing films that are actually discussed on the same page). It concludes with a very comprehensive filmography of all the film-makers discussed. Obviously it is going to be a standard reference book and textbook for some years to come.
Why, then, does it fail so badly as criticism of the individual films? I believe Shepard is so intent on celebrating the achievements of New Zealand women in film that she tends to see all films by women as artistic successes. This does turn long sections of the text into little more than cheerleading. Words such as “landmark” are liberally scattered about. Often I had to remind myself that many of the films extravagantly praised here for their insightfulness and “subversion” were the selfsame films which I, and other members of the audience, had patiently endured while waiting for the big feature to begin at film festival screenings. Most of the films discussed are, after all, short subjects, many of them crude, one-dimensional pieces of feminist agitprop or parody – Rud’s Wife, One Man’s Meat, Para Recordar, Overnight etc, etc, etc. That so many of these shorter films can be given a neat symbolic reading is in fact a sign of their artistic failure. Made to predetermined theses, they reflect no recognisable human reality.
Of course Shepard (like many male and female critics before her) rejects the foolish stereotypes of women perpetrated by New Zealand’s earlier macho hoon movies. But she eagerly embraces equally foolish stereotypes of men (rapists, child molesters, insensitive brutes and so on) in her privileged texts. Doubtless, the relentlessly positive nature of her assessments has much to do with the fact that her chief informants, and the people most often quoted, are the 61 women film-makers she interviewed. Enter the dreaded intentional fallacy. Because film-maker XYZ says she intended to make profound comment on the status of women, that is what Shepard too often assumes she has made.
Other weaknesses of her critique are obvious. New Zealand’s best women film-makers (Gaylene Preston, Merata Mita, Alison Maclean) become somewhat buried under the eager endorsement given to all woman film-makers. Further, there is little awareness of the awkward fact that a deconstructive feminist “countercinema”, reacting to “male” norms in story-telling, can at best be a short-term parasitic phenomenon, dependent for its existence on the thing it rejects. And there are some fearful contradictions that Shepard simply does not tease out. One woman (Fiona Samuel) complains that mainstream cinema, with its idealised sexual stereotypes, never allows for “a diversity of real people, even, let it be whispered, those with weight problems and spotty skin”. Yet a mere four pages later a woman in the advertising industry is talking about helping women to “look their best” in advertisements. Later Shepard herself heaps praise on director Christine Jeffs for her “mesmerising” television advertisements for the weight-control preparation Xenical. True, she does add a few hesitant words about the sexist nature of advertising. But the impression is still created that advertisements which make people self-conscious about their weight are perfectly acceptable, so long as they are directed by women.
What are the contexts that are badly missing from this critique? One is an honest recognition that most women (like most men) who enter film-making do so for reasons of personal career-building. Once they attain the commercial mainstream and its salary, they can cheerfully discard the experimental film school feminist polemics. No names, no pack drill. Read between the lines of the text for examples.
Another missing context is the audience. How many people actually got to see the films under discussion? I am happy to defend Deborah Shepard’s decision to praise and to analyse films that only a handful of people have ever seen. I reject the glib notion that the box-office is the only criterion of merit. But if a writer is going to adopt a sociological approach, and claim that films have altered society’s way of seeing things, then she had better be prepared to prove that the films in question really have had an audience. When, for example, Shepard claims that one feature “appealed to the women in the audience”, my first inclination is to ask “Which women?”. After all, the film in question was not exactly a commercial blockbuster.
In the end, then, this is a dutiful book, which chronicles and documents carefully the achievements of New Zealand women in film, but which is naively uncritical in its enthusiasms. Students will read it with profit in Film Studies and Women’s Studies courses. But I hope they join me in cursing the person at HarperCollins who has allowed the numbering of endnotes to get out of synch.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland reviewer and writer.