by Lizzie Finnegan
The Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender opens its 15th annual International Women’s Film Festival Thursday, February 17, offering a diversity of feature and short films—fiction, documentary, and animation—by women. Festival programmer Ruth Goldman comments, “Despite women’s tremendous creativity, talent, perseverance and success, they still have trouble getting consistent funding. Our intention is to highlight the depth and breadth that independent women filmmakers offer.”
The festival opens with Orlando, Sally Potter’s adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel about a young nobleman who transforms overnight into a woman. Potter immediately establishes that this will not be the typical period spectacle. As the narrator introduces Orlando (“There can be no doubt about his sex,” she admonishes), the camera reveals the indubitably female Tilda Swinton. When the narrator continues: “He—” Swinton looks squarely into the camera, interrupting: “That is—I.”
That direct gaze into the camera, that reflexive assertion of “I” as she turns her eye upon us, is one way Potter’s ingenious cinematic language enacts Woolf’s own revolutionary representation of woman as subject rather than object. Potter not only translates Woolf’s feminist vision, but also playfully interrogates a major principle of feminist film theory: that the viewer’s gaze is always “male,” and that the female body on film is always the object of that male gaze. In Orlando, the slippage of the protagonist’s gender subverts this binary.
Moreover, Orlando’s male frippery ironically exceeds the ostensible femininity of Lady Orlando’s skirts. His long, flowing blonde wig irresistibly suggests a drag performance. When his gender transformation is signaled by removing the wig, we begin to wonder if “There could be no doubt about his sex” can ever be said about anyone. As we watch her contemplating her own naked body in the mirror, we think: Okay, now she’s an object, a vanitas to be looked at. But suddenly she meets our eye again and grins—and the joke’s on us.
Orlando will be preceded by Juggling Gender, a short portrait of bearded woman performance artist Jennifer Miller. Films will be shown Thursdays at 7pm at the Market Arcade through March 31, with additional screenings at Hallwalls and Squeaky Wheel. The schedule can be found at genderin.buffalo.edu/filmfest.
Watch the trailer for Orlando
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