Director: Marijke de Belie
Running time: 2mins
In his recent review of experimental short Icon, Aftab Bose recently touched upon the toxic paradox at the heart of idolatry. While it might seem like an act of admiration – or even liberation, when the person deemed Iconic is from a exploited or persecuted social constituency – to worship a person, to elevate their material existence to some transcendental ideal to be devoted to there is a very unhealthy relationship being formed, with the reimagining of a human life into a consumable commodity, or an ideological signifier. The chosen Icon rapidly loses any agency they have in this process, and will pay the price the moment they exert any form of self-determination their public deems improper.
While this is a pattern we might most closely associate with modern fan culture, the ideological blueprints for this behaviour stretch back much further. While it has become a common train of liberal feminist thought to claim that the regular representation of women in ancient religion is a sign of empowerment – “they must have really revered women to have placed them at the centre of an entire religion” – the roles they serve are the ones which arguably offer them the absolute least amount of agency; that is they are healers, carers and symbols of fertility.
While pagan artefacts might at least seem more accepting of the diversity of the female form than those associated with the following Abrahamic religions, they serve to emphasise the physical assets required to bear children – and so the lot of women in that life remains similar to that of the Virgin Mary – to birth the new world, but not to have any say in it afterwards. As a result, there is little room for women existing alongside these images supposedly celebrating feminity to deviate from those roles, without being deemed heretics.
What makes Marijke de Belie’s experimental short Feminam such a fascinating work is that it manages to straddle the contradiction at the heart of centuries of patriarchal ideology in under 90 seconds. Similarly to Cheng Qui’s Where am I?, the film’s intricate animation style consists of repeated pencil sketches of a lone woman on the same piece of wood – leaving a ghostly echo the previous depictions hanging on the shoulder of each new incarnation. With each new sketch, the form of the woman evolves to take on new characteristics, ebbing and flowing from the Venus of Willendorf – with its famous accentuations of child-bearing hips and breasts – to the seeming antithesis of a stern, sexless Nun, to the chilling image of a torture device shaped like a woman.
This third image seems to provide the unspoken synthesis between the other seemingly opposed situations – echoing devices such as the Scold’s Bridle, an iron mask complete with tongue-clamp, fastened to women accused of gossiping, or simply complaining too much. The excuse for this behaviour used at the time was that gossiping was feared to be ‘the work of the Devil’, but the ideological function was to reinforce the role women were assigned in both the religious epochs previously mentioned; shut up and breed.
The impeccable visuals are meanwhile accompanied by a floating audio track, over which many voices whisper adjectives and labels to accompanying the shifting shape of the female figure. Initially these seem to revolve largely around the birthing of life – “fertile” comes up several times – new words increasingly become prominent amid the clamour of gasping speech. From amid terms of passivity, more active terms relating to eagerness, bravery, movement, wildness and self-realisation come to the fore.
Feminam subsequently manages to move from a recreation of representations women have been given over past centuries, and encourage a new discourse of positive choice surrounding their lives into the future. Fertility and creation may continue to be part of that – but that should be down to the choice of each and every woman. Perhaps they will opt to create life, perhaps they will be wild and inventive – perhaps they will be all of the above and more.
Feminam is a stunning snap-shot of representation in flux, a wonderfully crafted cross-section of evolving ideology, which prompts introspective thought regarding our consumption of people as images, and encourages us to move beyond such limitations. Managing to put together an abstract short film which could lead its audience to such intricate chains of thought is an amazing achievement in itself – and I can only say that it is a shame De Belie does not seem to have produced a new film in three years. The world clearly has need of talents like hers in times like these.