Violence Reframed: Constructing Subjugated Individuals as Agents, Not Images, through Screen Narratives

Larissa Sexton-Finck

Abstract


What creative techniques of resistance are available to a female filmmaker when she is the victim of a violent event and filmed at her most vulnerable? This article uses an autoethnographic lens to discuss my experience of a serious car crash my family and I were inadvertently involved in due to police negligence and a criminal act. Employing Creative Analytical Practice (CAP) ethnography, a reflexive form of research which recognises that the creative process, producer and product are “deeply intertwined” (Richardson, “Writing: A Method” 930), I investigate how the crash’s violent affects crippled my agency, manifested in my creative praxis and catalysed my identification of latent forms of institutionalised violence in film culture, its discourse and pedagogy that also contributed to my inertia. The article maps my process of writing a feature length screenplay during the aftermath of the crash as I set out to articulate my story of survival and resistance. Using this narrative inquiry, in which we can “investigate how we construct the world, ourselves, and others, and how standard objectifying practices...unnecessarily limit us” (Richardson, “Writing: A Method” 924), I outline how I attempted to disrupt the entrenched power structures that exist in dominant narratives of violence in film and challenge my subjugated positioning as a woman within this canon. I describe my engagement with the deconstructionist practices of writing the body and militant feminist cinema, which suggest subversive opportunities for women’s self-determination by encouraging us to embrace our exiled positioning in dominant discourse through creative experimentation, and identify some of the possibilities and limitations of this for female agency. Drawing on CAP ethnography, existentialism, film feminism, and narrative reframing, I assert that these reconstructive practices are more effective for the creative enfranchisement of women by not relegating us to the periphery of social systems and cultural forms. Instead, they enable us to speak back to violent structures in a language that has greater social access, context and impact.

My strong desire to tell screen stories lies in my belief that storytelling is a crucial evolutionary mechanism of resilience. Narratives do not simply represent the social world but also have the ability to change it by enabling us to “try to figure out how to live our lives meaningfully” (Ellis 760). This conviction has been directly influenced by my personal story of trauma and survival when myself, my siblings, and our respective life partners became involved in a major car crash. Two police officers attending to a drunken brawl in an inner city park had, in their haste, left the keys in the ignition of their vehicle. We were travelling across a major intersection when the police car, which had subsequently been stolen by a man involved in the brawl – a man who was wanted on parole, had a blood alcohol level three times over the legal limit, and was driving at speeds exceeding 110kms per hour - ran a red light and crossed our path, causing us to crash into his vehicle. From the impact, the small four-wheel drive we were travelling in was catapulted metres into the air, rolling numerous times before smashing head on into oncoming traffic. My heavily pregnant sister was driving our vehicle.

The incident attracted national media attention and our story became a sensationalist spectacle. Each news station reported erroneous and conflicting information, one stating that my sister had lost her unborn daughter, another even going so far as to claim my sister had died in the crash. This tabloidised, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, culture of journalism, along with new digital technologies, encourages and facilitates the normalisation of violent acts, often inflicted on women. Moreover, in their pursuit of high-rating stories, news bodies motivate dehumanising acts of citizen journalism that see witnesses often inspired to film, rather than assist, victims involved in a violent event. Through a connection with someone working for a major news station, we discovered that leading news broadcasters had bought a tape shot by a group of men who call themselves the ‘Paparazzi of Perth’. These men were some of the first on the scene and began filming us from only a few metres away while we were still trapped upside down and unconscious in our vehicle. In the recording, the men are heard laughing and celebrating our tragedy as they realise the lucrative possibilities of the shocking imagery they are capturing as witnesses pull us out of the back of the car, and my pregnant sister incredibly frees herself from the wreckage by kicking out the window.

As a female filmmaker, I saw the bitter irony of this event as the camera was now turned on me and my loved ones at our most vulnerable. In her discussion of the male gaze, a culturally sanctioned form of narrational violence against women that is ubiquitous in most mainstream media, Mulvey proposes that women are generally the passive image, trapped by the physical limits of the frame in a permanent state of powerlessness as our identity is reduced to her “to-be-looked-at-ness” (40). For a long period of time, the experience of performing the role of this commodified woman of a weaponised male gaze, along with the threat of annihilation associated with our near-death experience, immobilised my spirit. I felt I belonged “more to the dead than to the living” (Herman 34). When I eventually returned to my creative praxis, I decided to use scriptwriting as both my “mode of reasoning and a mode of representation” (Richardson, Writing Strategies 21), test whether I could work through my feelings of alienation and violation and reclaim my agency. This was a complex and harrowing task because my memories “lack[ed] verbal narrative and context” (Herman 38) and were deeply rooted in my body. Cixous confirms that for women, “writing and voice...are woven together” and “spring from the deepest layers of her psyche” (Moi 112). For many months, I struggled to write. I attempted to block out this violent ordeal and censor my self. I soon learnt, however, that my body could not be silenced and was slow to forget. As I tried to write around this experience, the trauma worked itself deeper inside of me, and my physical symptoms worsened, as did the quality of my writing.

In the early version of the screenplay I found myself writing a female-centred film about violence, identity and death, using the fictional narrative to express the numbness I experienced. I wrote the female protagonist with detachment as though she were an object devoid of agency. Sartre claims that we make objects of others and of ourselves in an attempt to control the uncertainty of life and the ever-changing nature of humanity (242). Making something into an object is to deprive it of life (and death); it is our attempt to keep ourselves ‘safe’. While I recognise that the car crash’s reminder of my mortality was no doubt part of the reason why I rendered myself, and the script’s female protagonist, lifeless as agentic beings, I sensed that there were subtler operations of power and control behind my self-objectification and self-censorship, which deeply concerned me. What had influenced this dea(r)th of female agency in my creative imaginings? Why did I write my female character with such a red pen? Why did I seem so compelled to ‘kill’ her? I wanted to investigate my gender construction, the complex relationship between my scriptwriting praxis, and the context within which it is produced to discover whether I could write a different future for myself, and my female characters. Kiesinger supports “contextualizing our stories within the framework of a larger picture” (108), so as to remain open to the possibility that there might not be anything ‘wrong’ with us, per se, “but rather something very wrong with the dynamics that dominate the communicative system” (109) within which we operate: in the case of my creative praxis, the oppressive structures present in the culture of film and its pedagogy.

Pulling Focus

Women are supposed to be the view and when the view talks back, it is uncomfortable.
— Jane Campion (Filming Desire)

It is a terrible thing to see that no one has ever taught us how to develop our vision as women neither in the history of arts nor in film schools.
— Marie Mandy (Filming Desire)

The democratisation of today’s media landscape through new technologies, the recent rise in female-run production companies (Zemler) in Hollywood, along with the ground-breaking #MeToo and Time’s Up movements has elevated the global consciousness of gender-based violence, and has seen the screen industry seek to redress its history of gender imbalance. While it is too early to assess the impact these developments may have on women’s standing in film, today the ‘celluloid ceiling’ still operates on multiple levels of indoctrination and control through a systemic pattern of exclusion for women that upholds the “nearly seamless dialogue among men in cinema” (Lauzen, Thumbs Down 2). Female filmmakers occupy a tenuous position of influence in the mainstream industry and things are not any better on the other side of the camera (Lauzen, The Celluloid Ceiling). For the most part, Hollywood’s male gaze and penchant for sexualising and (physically or figuratively) killing female characters, which normalises violence against women and is “almost inversely proportional to the liberation of women in society” (Mandy), continues to limit women to performing as the image rather than the agent on screen.

Film funding bodies and censorship boards, mostly comprised of men, remain exceptionally averse to independent female filmmakers who go against the odds to tell their stories, which often violate taboos about femininity and radically redefine female agency through the construction of the female gaze: a narrational technique of resistance that enables reel woman to govern the point of view, imagery and action of the film (Smelik 51-52). This generally sees their films unjustly ghettoised through incongruent classification or censorship, and forced into independent or underground distribution (Sexton-Finck 165-182). Not only does censorship propose the idea that female agency is abject and dangerous and needs to be restrained, it prevents access to this important cinema by women that aims to counter the male gaze and “shield us from this type of violence” (Gillain 210).  

This form of ideological and institutional gatekeeping is not only enforced in the film industry, it is also insidiously (re)constituted in the epistemological construction of film discourse and pedagogy, which in their design, are still largely intrinsically gendered institutions, encoded with phallocentric signification that rejects a woman’s specificity and approach to knowledge. Drawing on my mutually informative roles as a former film student and experienced screen educator, I assert that most screen curricula in Australia still uphold entrenched androcentric norms that assume the male gaze and advocate popular cinema’s didactic three-act structure, which conditions our value systems to favour masculinity and men’s worldview. This restorative storytelling approach is argued to be fatally limiting to reel women (Smith 136; Dancyger and Rush 25) as it propagates the Enlightenment notion of a universal subjectivity, based on free will and reason, which neutralises the power structures of society (and film) and repudiates the influence of social positioning on our opportunity for agency. Moreover, through its omniscient consciousness, which seeks to efface the presence of a specific narrator, the three-act method disavows this policing of female agency and absolves any specific individual of responsibility for its structural violence (Dyer 98).

By pulling focus on some of these problematic mechanisms in the hostile climate of the film industry and its spaces of learning for women, I became acutely aware of the more latent forms of violence that had conditioned my scriptwriting praxis, the ambivalence I felt towards my female identity, and my consequent gagging of the female character in the screenplay.

Changing Lenses

How do the specific circumstances in which we write affect what we write? How does what we write affect who we become?
— Laurel Richardson (Fields of Play 1)

In the beginning, there is an end. Don’t be afraid: it’s your death that is dying. Then: all the beginnings.
— Helene Cixous (Cixous and Jensen 41)

The discoveries I made during my process of CAP ethnography saw a strong feeling of dissidence arrive inside me. I vehemently wanted to write my way out of my subjugated state and release some of the anguish that my traumatised body was carrying around. I was drawn to militant feminist cinema and the French poststructuralist approach of ‘writing the body’ (l’ecriture feminine) given these deconstructive practices “create images and ideas that have the power to inspire to revolt against oppression and exploitation” (Moi 120). Feminist cinema’s visual treatise of writing the body through its departure from androcentric codes - its unformulaic approach to structure, plot, character and narration (De Lauretis 106) - revealed to me ways in which I could use the scriptwriting process to validate my debilitating experience of physical and psychic violence, decensor my self and move towards rejoining the living. Cixous affirms that, “by writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into…the ailing or dead figure” (Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa 880). It became clear to me that the persistent themes of death that manifested in the first draft of the script were not, as I first suspected, me ‘rehearsing to die’, or wanting to kill off the woman inside me. I was in fact “not driven towards death but by death” (Homer 89), the close proximity to my mortality, acting as a limit, was calling for a strengthening of my life force, a rebirth of my agency (Bettelheim 36). Mansfield acknowledges that death “offers us a freedom outside of the repression and logic that dominate our daily practices of keeping ourselves in order, within the lines” (87).

I challenged myself to write the uncomfortable, the unfamiliar, the unexplored and to allow myself to go to places in me that I had never before let speak by investigating my agency from a much more layered and critical perspective. This was both incredibly terrifying and liberating and enabled me to discard the agentic ‘corset’ I had previously worn in my creative praxis. Dancyger and Rush confirm that “one of the things that happens when we break out of the restorative three-act form is that the effaced narrator becomes increasingly visible and overt” (38). I experienced an invigorating feeling of empowerment through my appropriation of the female gaze in the screenplay which initially appeased some of the post-crash turmoil and general sense of injustice I was experiencing. However, I soon, found something toxic rising inside of me. Like the acrimonious feminist cinema I was immersed in – Raw (Ducournau), A Girl Walks Home at Night (Amirpour), Romance (Breillat), Trouble Every Day (Denis), Baise-Moi (Despentes and Thi), In My Skin (Van), Anatomy of Hell (Breillat) – the screenplay I had produced involved a female character turning the tables on men and using acts of revenge to satisfy her needs. Not only was I creating a highly dystopian world filled with explicit themes of suffering in the screenplay, I too existed in a displaced state of rage and ‘psychic nausea’ in my daily life (Baldick and Sartre). I became haunted by vivid flashbacks of the car crash as abject images, sounds and sensations played over and over in my mind and body like a horror movie on loop. I struggled to find the necessary clarity and counterbalance of stability required to successfully handle this type of experimentation.

I do not wish to undermine the creative potential of deconstructive practices, such as writing the body and militant cinema, for female filmmakers. However, I believe my post-trauma sensitivity to visceral entrapment and spiritual violence magnifies some of the psychological and physiological risks involved. Deconstructive experimentation “happens much more easily in the realm of “texts” than in the world of human interaction” (hooks 22) and presents agentic limitations for women since it offers a “utopian vision of female creativity” (Moi 119) that is “devoid of reality...except in a poetic sense” (Moi 122). In jettisoning the restorative qualities of narrative film, new boundaries for women are inadvertently created through restricting us to “intellectual pleasure but rarely emotional pleasure” (Citron 51). Moreover, by reducing women’s agency to retaliation we are denied the opportunity for catharsis and transformation; something I desperately longed to experience in my injured state. Kaplan acknowledges this problem, arguing that female filmmakers need to move theoretically beyond deconstruction to reconstruction, “to manipulate the recognized, dominating discourses so as to begin to free ourselves through rather than beyond them (for what is there ‘beyond’?)” (Women and Film 141).

A potent desire to regain a sense of connectedness and control pushed itself out from deep inside me. I yearned for a tonic to move myself and my female character to an active position, rather than a reactive one that merely repeats the victimising dynamic of mainstream film by appropriating a reversed (female) gaze and now makes women the violent victors (Kaplan, Feminism and Film 130). We have arrived at a point where we must destabilise the dominance-submission structure and “think about ways of transcending a polarity that has only brought us all pain” (Kaplan, Feminism and Film 135). I became determined to write a screen narrative that, while dealing with some of the harsh realities of humanity I had become exposed to, involved an existentialist movement towards catharsis and activity.

Reframing

When our stories break down or no longer serve us well, it is imperative that we examine the quality of the stories we are telling and actively reinvent our accounts in ways that permit us to live more fulfilling lives.
— Christine Kiesinger (107)

I’m frightened by life’s randomness, so I want to deal with it, make some sense of it by telling a film story. But it’s not without hope. I don’t believe in telling stories without some hope.
— Susanne Bier (Thomas)

Narrative reframing is underlined by the existentialist belief that our spiritual freedom is an artistic process of self-creation, dependent on our free will to organise the elements of our lives, many determined out of our control, into the subjective frame that is to be our experience of our selves and the world around us (107). As a filmmaker, I recognise the power of selective editing and composition. Narrative reframing’s demand for a rational assessment of “the degree to which we live our stories versus the degree to which our stories live us” (Kiesinger 109), helped me to understand how I could use these filmmaking skills to take a step back from my trauma so as to look at it objectively “as a text for study” (Ellis 108) and to exercise power over the creative-destructive forces it, and the deconstructive writing methods I had employed, produced. Richardson confirms the benefits of this practice, since narrative “is the universal way in which humans accommodate to finitude” (Writing Strategies 65).

In the script’s development, I found my resilience lay in my capacity to imagine more positive alternatives for female agency. I focussed on writing a narrative that did not avoid life’s hardships and injustices, or require them to be “attenuated, veiled, sweetened, blunted, and falsified” (Nietzsche and Hollingdale 68), yet still involved a life-affirming sentiment. With this in mind, I reintroduced the three-act structure in the revised script as its affectivity and therapeutic denouement enabled me to experience a sense of agentic catharsis that turned “nauseous thoughts into imaginations with which it is possible to live” (Nietzsche 52). Nevertheless, I remained vigilant not to lapse into didacticism; to allow my female character to be free to transgress social conventions surrounding women’s agency. Indebted to Kaplan’s writing on the cinematic gaze, I chose to take up what she identifies as a ‘mutual gaze’; an ethical framework that enabled me to privilege the female character’s perspective and autonomy with a neutral subject-subject gaze rather than the “subject-object kind that reduces one of the parties to the place of submission” (Feminism and Film 135). I incorporated the filmic technique of the point of view (POV) shot for key narrative moments as it allows an audience to literally view the world through a character’s eyes, as well as direct address, which involves the character looking back down the lens at the viewer (us); establishing the highest level of identification between the spectator and the subject on screen.

The most pertinent illustration of these significant scriptwriting changes through my engagement with narrative reframing and feminist film theory, is in the reworking of my family’s car crash which became a pivotal turning point in the final draft. In the scene, I use POV and direct address to turn the weaponised gaze back around onto the ‘paparazzi’ who are filming the spectacle. When the central (pregnant) character frees herself from the wreckage, she notices these men filming her and we see the moment from her point of view as she looks at these men laughing and revelling in the commercial potential of their mediatised act. Switching between POV and direct address, the men soon notice they have been exposed as the woman looks back down the lens at them (us) with disbelief, reproaching them (us) for daring to film her in this traumatic moment. She holds her determined gaze while they glance awkwardly back at her, until their laughter dissipates, they stop recording and appear to recognise the culpability of their actions. With these techniques of mutual gazing, I set out to humanise and empower the female victim and neutralise the power dynamic: the woman is now also a viewing agent, and the men equally perform the role of the viewed. In this creative reframing, I hope to provide an antidote to filmic violence against and/or by women as this female character reclaims her (my) experience of survival without adhering to the culture of female passivity or ressentiment.

This article has examined how a serious car crash, being filmed against my will in its aftermath and the attendant damages that prevailed from this experience, catalysed a critical change of direction in my scriptwriting. The victimising event helped me recognise the manifest and latent forms of violence against women that are normalised through everyday ideological and institutional systems in film and prevent us from performing as active agents in our creative praxis. There is a critical need for more inclusive modes of practice – across the film industry, discourse and pedagogy – that are cognisant and respectful of women’s specificity and our difference to the androcentric landscape of mainstream film. We need to continue to exert pressure on changing violent mechanisms that marginalise us and ghettoise our stories. As this article has demonstrated, working outside dominant forms can enable important emancipatory opportunities for women, however, this type or deconstruction also presents risks that generally leave us powerless in everyday spaces. While I advocate that female filmmakers should look to techniques of feminist cinema for an alternative lens, we must also work within popular film to critique and subvert it, and not deny women the pleasures and political advantages of its restorative structure. By enabling female filmmakers to (re)humanise woman though encouraging empathy and compassion, this affective storytelling form has the potential to counter violence against women and mobilise female agency. Equally, CAP ethnography and narrative reframing are critical discourses for the retrieval and actualisation of female filmmakers’ agency as they allow us to contextualise our stories of resistance and survival within the framework of a larger picture of violence to gain perspective on our subjective experiences and render them as significant, informative and useful to the lives of others. This enables us to move from the isolated margins of subcultural film and discourse to reclaim our stories at the centre.

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Keywords


Narrative reframing; autoethnography; film feminism; violence; female filmmakers; trauma; scriptwriting; Creative Analytical Practice ethnography



Copyright (c) 2020 Larissa Sexton-Finck

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