70 Women tell better universal stories
**As researched and demonstrated at #MIFF2017 by me
Well that got your attention.
Perhaps before we wade in here, before you chuck back a litany of feminist hate, let’s place some parameters around the concept of what constitutes a universal story.
Writers work with themes. Theme is the spine upon which all our stories hang. Writing with a theme in mind, generally means the write is trying to say something with their work. Theme is often laser focussed such as Crash, Oscar winner for the Best Picture in 2006 and it’s exploration of racism from multiple points of view. Alternatively, a story may explore numerous themes, that are instead, used to answer a central question - such as in Pulp Fiction - Can a bad-ass gangster find god? Though of course you could argue, if you take the line that Pulp Fiction is the story of Jules, it follows that the theme here is redemption. However, Pulp feels bigger than Jules and what we are watching is an array of Bad-Ass peps, faced with a litany of challenges, as they question and attempt to find, or lose, their maker - it's more like redemption in varying guises.
So back to themes and questions.
The best films ask them, explore them and answer them. Themes, stories and questions are considered universal, when they are easily relatable, by a wide audience. What this means is that irrespective of race, religion, location, socio-economic background or education, the story of the film offers you something. There’s no mystery behind the global success of franchise blockbusters. Baddies are baddies, goodies are good, car chases chase, exploding buildings explode, super human powers are super human, gun fights kill and these outcomes are quintessentially understood in all cultures. Every person on the planet physically shares the physicality of rushing adrenalin. Die Hard sucks us all in.
It’s generally smaller, more intimate stories where universality is a tougher nut to crack.
Over the last three weeks I’ve watched 17 movies as part of MIFF2017. I attended the Opening Night where every fibre of my body ached with boredom, in most part due to the dull and wonder-lacking-boys-own-schlock-adventure of….(god, can't even remember the name, going to have to google it, so unmemorable….) I’m back, yep it was The Jungle. Daniel Radcliffe, you clunky chunk. Did you even turn up? Or was that a cardboard version of you they tied a rope to and dragged about through the undergrowth. Capital B. Bad. (Sorry DR, I'm seriously up to no good, but methinks this is no surprise.)
Now, I’m a great walker, I’ve been in a jungle or two and whilst lost in mud in Laos with two small children, I too have run the gauntlet of – how the hell will I ever get out of here? (Though my version was more along the lines of shouting the following words at my husband – “You got us into this! You get us the freak out!” Note - the word freak is a recent addition to the story.) So one would think that the story of facing ones mortality, lost in dense bush would most likely connect with me. Viewed across the heads of my fellow punters, Daniel should have been smacking me right in my third eye and getting me nodding with a – "Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like and how it feels to be lost".
Great universal story is not about connecting with action. Universal story is about connecting with emotion. In essence, we’re talking empathy, we’re talking understanding and connecting with an inner journey, the inner struggle of our hero. Daniel Radcliffe’s character, was so thinly drawn (and I’m not just talking physically – though while we’re on it, someone throw the boy a steak!) that I had no idea what he was truly experiencing or feeling on his inner journey and more importantly, nor did I care. This is not due to me being a heartless wench, but rather because the Writer/Director simply offered me nothing to make me care.
And now for my contention – I believe that female writers create for their characters stronger, more satisfying, more accessible, deeper, inner journeys. Female writers are better at it. Much, much better. It’s our inherent strength and during MIFF2017, I saw it on screen.
Two films have inspired my thinking - by upcoming female Writer, Directors - Most Beautiful Island by Spanish, Ana Asensio and Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts by Indonesian, Mouly Surya - both are case in point.
The survival story of an illegal Spanish immigrant as she ekes out a living in New York's underbelly while taking degrading jobs for cash; the revenge story of a young Indonesian widow who following the theft of her livestock and related rape, decapitates the leader of said thugs, then carries his head on a journey to a distant police station.
With not one plot point, from either story, do I happen to have any first hand experience. But connect with Marlina and Luciana I did due to the craft and power of these Writers and Directors to invite me inside the heads of their protagonists. Both direct their actors to act not just with their bodies, but with their minds. At all times, on screen, I ‘know’ what Marlina and Luciana are thinking and if I don’t, I’m on the edge of seat trying to work it out because I care. And I care deeply. These people are ‘real’, my time with them feels like I’m stepping into their lives and truly sharing their journey.
Both Directors use location as character, so I ‘feel’ what it’s like to be in the landscape. Both of these films are visually stunning to watch on the big screen. Asensio takes us down into a slice of New York, you’d prefer not to see, though suspect must be there; while Surya sweeps before us landscape as a painting, a static camera position high on a hill, allows a small bus to trundle from top right to bottom left as it winds it’s way along the crest of the hill, all the while the story is comedically filled by voice over from characters we know are on the bus. It’s gorgeous and artful.
Now, what I’m suggesting and all that I’m discussing is pointless in regards to that old chestnut, the un-win-able competition of Men vs Women. This is my personal take on what I believe makes for a better story and better film. Sadly – as I won’t be here to see it – we need the next 100 years to unfold to see if the cannon of story in film will be redressed to reflect equity on the gender of maker. I point you to the ridiculous fact that only one woman – ONE WOMAN – Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, 2010 – has to date been the recipient of an Academy Award for Best Director. This skew is not due to the fact that men tell better stories. No way Jose, it’s simply that since the age of screen, men have had greater opportunity to tell stories.
I’m openly stating, that women have the power to create better universal stories. We do and I’m happy to own the concept. With creative powerhouses such as Asensio and Surya; with Studios being continually challenged that films by women sell; with the force of incredible women out there doing and making incredible stuff, the scales will begin to tip, faster. All that's required is the the quiet confidence to own the concept that story is Queen! followed by the louder confidence to stand up, be counted and push the line. Hard.