Director: Daniel Sultan
Running time: 29mins
It’s not my place to comment on the topic of this half hour documentary, but I will offer my thoughts on the making of it.
Women at War! is about a protest movement that began in Chile in late 2019, and spread rapidly around the world. Specifically it’s a single choreographed song performance, that has been replicated in many countries. The backdrop to the protest was Chile’s ‘social insurrection’, and the performance was created by feminist collective Las Tesis.
I’m told by a Chilean friend that “the Chilean feminist movement has been decades in the making and was one of many pressure groups that called for street protest, among others (such as the students, the ecologists etc)”. Also, she notes that this performance was one of many artistic expressions of dissent taking place, but perhaps took on a particular significance given the prevalence of “extreme violence, including sexual torture” in the state’s crackdown on the uprising.
Since then, Chile has elected a leftist President, who has attempted to challenge this violent status-quo. However, his attempts to overhaul the country’s Pinochet-era constitution, with a new document that enshrines the rights of women (among others), have so far been thwarted. The new constitution’s recent referendum defeat was greeted by scenes of jubilation from conservatives there – illustrating the continued importance of activists such as Las Tesis.
While I could opine worthily that the Las Tesis performance is a Good Thing, it’s blatantly obvious that a Chilean women’s protest about the violatory nature of patriarchal society needs neither the blessing, nor the interpretation of a 50-year-old bloke from Norwich. But, wearing my film reviewer’s hat, I think it’s legitimate to question whether the movement is best documented by a 65-year-old bloke from Paris.
There are two reasons for this: a general one in terms of the composition of the film; and a specific one in terms of the interview that fills the bulk of the running time.
To begin with the specific, the centrepiece of the film is an interview with three members of Las Tesis. Sibila Sotomayor, Dafne Valdés and Paula Cometo sit on an uncomfortable-looking bench in a distractingly echoey concrete shelter within, we are told via a caption, the Parque Cutural in Valparaiso. The three speak comprehensively and with great clarity about the protest, its aims and the social problems it’s addressing. We don’t hear any questions from an interviewer, but we do catch occasional interjections of agreement: “Si, si.” Presumably this voice belongs either to producer / director Daniel Sultan or possibly camera operator / translator René Davila. It’s jarring to hear a male voice in the midst of a discussion about the harms of the patriarchy.
While it’s clearly intended to be supportive, it’s hard to escape a slight sense of gatekeeping, of mediation. Are we getting a version of events that’s been certified as ‘OK for men to understand’? How might the interview have differed with a female crew? Maybe not at all – the women of Las Tesis know their stuff and are very comfortable communicating it. Their background is academic but with a profound urge to connect scholarly insight to street-level action. But maybe it would have been a bit more candid, more knowing, more personal, and more enlightening.
As part of another project, I’ve recently been reading Talking to Women, by Nell Dunn, in which the author of excoriating social dramas Up the Junction and Poor Cow speaks with startling openness to various women about life in (very patriarchal) 1964 Britain. In these interviews, Dunn gives a lot of herself, but also unlocks fascinating revelations from her subjects with questions and prompts that frequently seem tangential. Reading them as a man, even in 2022, is not always comfortable and they’re not necessarily straightforward to understand. But there’s a tremendous sense of realness that repays an honest attempt. The frustration with Women at War! is that we might have had something much closer to this.
Which brings me to the second, wider point about composition. While it’s great to meet the people behind the protest, theirs are the only voices we hear. Valdés tells us that they’ve received heartening letters and emails from women around the world who’ve taken part in performances of the song. But we don’t meet a single participant except in the footage of performances. The first two minutes of the film is mostly a compilation of performance videos, several gleaned from online sources, and it’s the most energising part of the film by far; because it’s the one-time Sultan is showing us what’s happening, rather than have the Las Tesis trio tell us about it. “Show, don’t tell.” There’s a reason that’s the golden rule of film making.
This documentary would have benefitted so greatly from featuring more on-the-ground footage and some participants describing what the protest meant to them; why they took part, how it affected their lives etc. Maybe a more ‘insider’ director would have made those choices instinctively. Instead, it feels as though someone who is very much an ‘outsider’ looking in has given visibility to an important movement; and while that is great in its own right, it is done in a manner more akin to academic curation, than a more vibrant call-to-arms.