Author: Fernando Chaves Espinach
The final sequence of The Interview (1966) is jarring. After watching a woman preparing for her wedding and listening to middle-class women voicing their opinions on sexuallity and education, we cut to agitation in the streets. Manifestations, placards, masses: society in turmoil, at the gates of a military dictatorship. Such a break in mood emphasizes what later became appreciated in the Brazilian director’s cinema: her relentless highlighting of the political dimension of women’s private lives.
The Interview was the first of three short films shown on February 8th at the Birkbeck Cinema in a programme curated by Patricia Sequeira Bras, lecturer in Portuguese Modern Studies at Birkbeck. Solberg’s first American film, the short history of feminism The Emerging Woman (1974), and The Double Day (1975), an inquiry into women’s labour in Latin America, complemented an overview of a key filmmaker in the Cinema Novo generation who rose to prominence in the United States in the 80s. Catherine Grant, professor of Digital Media and Screen Studies at Birkbeck, discussed the films with Sequeira and the audience after the screening.
The Interview had started out in 1963 as ‘a very personal exploration,’ triggered by intense self-questioning about her position as a woman in Brazilian society. Her first pregnancy had left her “paralysed” at home; this time around, pregnant with her second child, Solberg was much more reluctant to playing the role of the nice, educated middle-class woman who stays at home and keeps quiet. ‘I was just supposed to learn French and read literature and be prepared to be a good wife with a little veneer of culture,’ she would later recall (Burton, 1986: 82). She had been close to artists and filmmakers since she started studying in the 50s and now she would articulate her own form of expression.
As her country changed dramatically, Solberg felt the need to say something about the deeper issues she saw in women of her generation. Armed with a Nagra recorder, she interviewed around 70 women between 19 and 27 years old, educated, like herself, at a Catholic school, La Sacre Coeur de Jesu. ‘Too much freedom is bad in every sense,’ one of them says. ‘I’m rather old-fashioned. I still think it’s better if sex is through marriage,’ argues another. They know their French; they’ve read Margaret Mead. But they are convinced that their education is merely decoration for their husbands’ lives, a mere intellectual adornment hung on a body unfit for professional growth. As they speak, we only see a woman quietly putting makeup on, dressing up for her wedding day.
Their voices ‘undermine’ the beauty of the images, as Solberg puts it, as a way of rupturing the fantasy of placid, quiet married life.The women unwittingly create a mosaic of class, race, and gender politics in a society bound to suffer a grave shock. ‘Middle-class women had in fact played a significant role in that military takeover (…) When they took to the streets claiming that the family and traditional values were being endangered by the progressive direction of national politics, much of the rest of the population was moved to support the reactionary elements that orchestrated the coup d’etat,’ argued Solberg (Burton, 1986: 83). The eerie resonance of such analysis with contemporary Brazilian politics bestows The Interview with a sense of urgency and highlights its penetrating intelligence.
After moving to the United States in 1971, Solberg took a different approach to women’s politics by historicising the feminist movement in The Emerging Woman (1974). Using archival material, the film traces the history of the suffragists while reminding us of how intertwined the struggle for women’s political rights was with the fight against slavery and its consequences. While didactic in purpose, the film does not eschew showing the contradictions and tensions inherent to first wave feminism. It proved a popular educational tool and led Solberg to wonder how a similar historical overview of Latin America’s women’s struggle would play out.
Produced by the International Women’s Film Project with a nearly 100% female crew, The Double Day (1975) travels through Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, and Venezuela to denounce the difficulties of women’s inclusion in the workplace and the weight that the ‘doble jornada’ places upon them, with domestic labour taken for granted and unrecognised as the burden it imposes on them.
Despite its international wanderings, the star of the film is undoubtedly the famous Bolivian activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara (1937-2012), regrettably unnamed in the documentary save for the credits. As she would later expound on her 1978 Let Me Speak, issues of family life, unjust salary schemes, and a general lack of access to education and work prevent working-class women from living full, dignified lives. Her voice and her presence anchor the ideas of the film, in which the director is shown doing interviews but the collective nature of the project is never obscured. We sense the collective nature of the project constantly, as the women on screen talk about the need for organisation and political action.
David William Foster has argued that the film falters by flattening differences between each country, but The Double Day appeals to a more universal preoccupation. ‘I had been afraid that it was too intellectual, but there were obviously sections in which these women could see their own reflected,’ Solberg thought (Burton, 1986: 91). And even as its structure is less compact and less focussed that that of the previous two films, it offers moments of chilling brutality and also everyday beauty that underline the multifaceted causes of women’s oppression.
For films so embedded in the thinking and politics of their time, Solberg’s shorts prove as contemporary as ever in their call to collective action and penetrating insight. By letting the group speak, as Sequeira and Grant commented, the importance of storytelling as a feminist practice shines through, as well as the historical internationalist perspective of socialist feminism. In many ways, the films were reminders of the potential of film as a political testing ground and as an arena for debate. By enacting their feminist outlook in their approach to narration, they show Solberg’s piercing intellect in full bloom, right before From the Ashes: Nicaragua Today (1982) cemented her stateside reputation. In a time of uncertainties, looking back to witness such a clear voice is certainly appreciated.
Burton, Julianne (1986) Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with Filmmakers, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 81-102
Foster, David (2012) ‘This Woman Which Is One: Helena Solberg-Ladd’s The Double Day’, Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 55-64