by: Natalia Brammen , January 24, 2020
by: Natalia Brammen , January 24, 2020
Beginnings is my student film experiment—my non-narrative, somewhat feminist, take on the dominance of narrativity in our western culture and our cinemas, which, as I was brought up to believe, bring a sparkle of magic into our otherwise dull reality. Similarly, an independent filmmaker, Nina Menken suggests that cinema is a type of sorcery because ‘it constructs and evokes reality while acting as a spell that tries to change reality’. (Petrolle & Wexman 2005: 1)
Reality is the keyword here. It suggests a depiction of the state of things as they are, rather than as they are imagined to be. The patriarchal traditions often encourage us to believe that stories are a reflection of reality. Still, to be seen as such, they must follow certain structures and quite a specific narrative logic. They nurture us to trust in an illusion that reality is subject to rational rules of causality and objectivity. And cinema is one of the primary vehicles of consolidating and promoting such convictions.
Once upon a time, my film studies lecturer asked us how we would define the primary goal of cinema. ‘A means of escapism’ and ‘a reflection of reality’ were the two most popular answers. Then she asked us how cinema could provide an escape from something while actively mirroring it. After a minute or so, in response to absolute silence in the room, she suggested that perhaps reality could otherwise be imagined as liquid with no fixed shape or form.
It all came to one, not-so-easy-to-accept conclusion, particularly for the young cinephiles in the room for whom the belief in the power of the screen and the camera was comparable to that of an old-school altar or a holy eucharist among religious devotees. Life was film and film was life, no questions. But the lecturer still decided to rain on our parade: ‘Reality might be different for every single one of us, and therefore, it’s impossible to reflect it on the screen with any approximate accuracy’.
‘Think about a busy street in London’, she continued. ‘It seems like something quite easy to depict. However, every person on that busy street is an individual who perceives it in their particular way. Even a simple shot of a street can’t aspire to complete objectivity. The lens distorts the reality, presenting us not with a mirror image but with a representation of the reality as seen, or captured, by this particular filmmaker and not by anyone else.’
This idea stuck with me for some time and it came back to me when I started shooting Beginnings. In theory, making non-narrative films seems to be a liberating experience. You don’t have to adhere to any set of rules. Strangely enough, in this case for me the prospect of endless possibilities proved to be quite limiting, if not overwhelming. In the face of lacking a specific structure, countless options flooded my mind; I was overwhelmed by hundreds and thousands of ideas. However, I caught myself repeatedly asking the same question: ‘Does it make sense?’. Then it struck me: what I was referring to was ‘the narrative sense’.
Looking at my fellow students, I realised I was not alone—not the only one trying to bring some logical order to my mind, my filmic visions. I was trying to adhere to known film and story structures, but my brain refused to follow and seemingly enjoyed chaotic, labyrinth-like wandering. At that time, I started looking for excuses: ‘Sometimes, when we try our hardest to find reasonable explanations and causal connections, we tend to fail the most. The futile search for meaning manipulates our perception of reality from an early age. We grow up trying to make sense of everything around us, forgetting that life does not always make narrative sense. That sometimes things happen for no reason at all’.
And then I knew it! I wanted to expose the flaws and the illusory magnetism of the traditional narrative structure, to re-evaluate the familiar cinematic conventions of causality I’ve known since I was a little girl.
At a very young age, we are introduced to stories which follow the three-act-structure which divides them into the beginning, middle, and end. Fairytales played a crucial role in shaping my childhood. My parents read a bedtime story to me every night. What was etched into my mind was the phrase I’d heard thousands of times: ‘once upon a time’. At the time, I didn’t think much about this idiom; it was just something people said to inform others that what they were about to tell happened a long time and most probably was a fairytale, which, at least for the time we listen to it, seems to make perfect logical sense. And because it follows the cause and effect progression from fact to fact, we take it for reality.
As I grew up, I’ve learnt that ‘once upon a time’ is not only a widely recognisable way to start a story in many languages and cultures (Warner 2014), but it also makes people want to listen to the story more. I thought what then if we said ‘once upon a time’ before something that would otherwise seem banal or totally pointless? Would viewers engage with it? So I asked people to say this phrase and finish it with the first thing that came to their mind.
The answers oscillated from obvious choices, as, for example, ‘there was a man’ to more complex ones such as ‘my mother took me for a walk’. I edited the audio files into an expressive rhythmic structure which now accompanies the visuals in Beginnings without overshadowing them. The calming, almost meditative rhythm also balances out the burden of some existential questions, like the one at the start of the film: ‘Once upon a time, the end?’ which implies that because people choose to believe that everything must come to an end, they don’t always notice the beauty of beginnings or their daily surroundings that, in fact, may be very interesting despite looking dull at first.
By merging Super8 shots with some digital footage, the focus in Beginnings shifted to the subdued tones of the inverted negative of the analogue. The visual unpleasantness turned into curiosity. The square of the analogue footage is the only constant in the film. It embodies the idea that humans are unable to take a purely aesthetic attitude. We always bring our biases and prejudices to the table which veils the full picture, leaving a grey, indistinct place for speculation. The binary palette of logical distinctions in classic stories barely relates to our day-to-day lives, if it all.
I ended up creating a strangely organised chaos—something that resisted the recommended patriarchal logic of ‘the story’; as I see it now, this is just one more imagined fairytale, which we’ve been manipulated to take for reality. As a woman and filmmaker, I often wonder if my art is feminist enough or even if it has to be. What does constitute feminist art or film? Julia Kristeva is pessimistic and does not believe that there can be a truly ‘feminine’ or ‘feminist’ art. She even asks if women’s art is ever completely free from masculine and patriarchal influences. (Ives 2013)
Nevertheless, Beginnings was my attempt to create a feminist film – not to be free from patriarchal influences, but rather to play with them in order to reveal their nonsensical search for narrative sense. I chose a universal concept: the idea that life is a story. Everyone seems to believe that they play a leading role in their own lives and that it makes perfect sense. After all, we are the ones who get to decide what we think, do or say. No one wants to be a sidekick in their own story. Patriarchy teaches us how to tell those stories, how to evaluate them, how to be the hero, or how to support one. In this world designed by and for men, women continually play a secondary, supporting role, and they will as long as the narrative sense favours cause and effect and the structure of the story is maintained in line with the available patriarchal traditions. Even though I didn’t intend to make Beginnings solely about the female experience, it was important to me that the female voice was more pronounced than the male one.
I turned the tables.
Growing up, we all related to the main characters in fairytales. We wanted to feel different and unique in a way that was admired and accepted by others. Being fed all of those fantastical stories about overcoming one’s weaknesses and finding true meaning made us believe that we should figure out our purpose by the midpoint—an end to all doubt, or a dominant role in our story-reality, where power was again defined and rewarded by the patriarchal logic of cause and effect.
But what if there’s no purpose? And no logic?
Non-narrative films don’t try to reflect objective reality. They reveal and mirror our fears, ideals, yearnings—feelings we choose to stifle deep inside because they won’t make us into heroes. We put ourselves in a box in a desperate attempt to fit in. Think about Russian dolls and their layers. All human beings resemble those Russian dolls: we put on many different masks, trying to find acceptance, aiming for perfection. It affects our internal reality. We end up being the smallest doll, hidden from the outside world, perhaps hidden behind the blank square in the middle of the screen in Beginnings. Is it a feminist screen that needs neither a full story nor a hero? A screen where the story starts to no end at all? A dull screen that does not pretend to be a fairytale dressed up as a reality.
To be meaningful, life doesn’t have to make narrative sense. Neither do Beginnings.
Ives, Kelly (2013), Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva: The Jouissance of French Feminism, 5th edition, Maidstone: Crescent Moon Publishing.
Petrolle, Jean & Virginia Wexman (2005), Women and Experimental Filmmaking, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Warner, Marina (2014), Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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