The Runaways

At first glance, this is a story of a girl who wants out and a girl who wants to rock out and how their relationship forever changed the identity of rock and roll. The movie begins with a drop of menstrual blood that falls onto the pavement and runs down Cherie Currie’s leg as she stands on a public street in the middle of the afternoon. A rather traumatic, yet symbolic, moment for women everywhere that also evokes feelings of guilt and responsibility. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the irrevocable way rock music was changed when it tasted the blood of female rage. If only the people in charge of this film were willing to get some of that blood on their hands, this might have been the film to set fire to the celluloid ceiling.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the story of an all girl band and their passion, resistance, and struggle to be heard (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains!). Writer and first time feature film director Floria Sigismondi stated that she wanted to focus on the relationship between lead singer Currie and founding member Joan Jett, to make it more personal. However, as any card carrying feminist will tell you, the personal is not without the political. The screenplay is based on Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, in which she recounts being raped at the age of 15 by her sister’s boyfriend, prior to meeting Jett and joining The Runaways. This same boyfriend is present in the beginning of the film however the sexual assault is completely ignored. To present this strong imagery of womanhood and its consequences, but without the context of the actual assault is infuriating. It completely reinforces the culture of silence around rape and sexual assault, not to mention leaves out an extremely important aspect of Currie’s story. There is no doubt that casting Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, as Jett, and Dakota Fanning, as Currie, altered the primary audience and thus the film’s storyline. The narrative being pushed by Sigismondi is that she didn’t want the film to become too serious, yet in forsaking to acknowledge the political, the personal connection to the film is disrupted. If a 15 year-old can be raped why can’t a 15 year-old in the audience not be given some awareness of it? Currie’s experience of being violently forced into her first sexual experience affected not only her personality, identity and mental health but her relationship to the music, her band mates and her fans! By leaving this out, the character is under developed and fragmented, and so is the film. In contrast to the overwhelming attention given to Currie’s character – her sister has a larger role than most of her band mates – there is zero back-story to Jett. When we meet her she is already guitar in hand, shaggy black hair, asserting her desire to wear black leather.

Still, this was not a terrible film. The highlights include all of the performance moments, especially their first gig at a house party where Jett deflects beer cans with her guitar and Sigsimundi’s experience as a music-video director plays well in making the montage moments more tour diary than time kill. Fanning aptly embodies Currie’s fervor on stage, most notably in a pre-Madonna bustier-wearing performance of “Cherry Bomb,” but is a bit too delicate in the dialogue between. Stewart’s haircut and fierce one-liners are enough to rid the audience of Bella Swan, but she has yet to break out of her “acting” shell. Her lack of confidence pollutes all her work, as does her inability to push her own envelope. Make it bleed honey! Keeping it all rolling is a stellar performance by Michael Shannon as producer Kim Fowley, crudely preparing the band for the male-dominated world of rock and roll. Sadly, drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) are hardly given their due and bassist Jackie Fox was left out due to legal issues leaving Whip It’s Alia Shawkat, as the fictional bassist Robin, severely under-cast.

The fact that this was based on actual events is perhaps what worked against the movie’s authenticity. What was ultimately disappointing about this film was the realization that sexist values and imagery still permeate Hollywood. That, even in a true story about real, raw, angry, vulnerable, sexual, talented girls, studios and filmmakers are going to ignore the hard truths and ugly story lines in place of a more comfortable version. To make this the raucous and riotous story of The Runaways this film needed a lot more grrrl and a lot less Hollywood. While it definitely was enough to raise awareness of pioneering women who rock, it was not the homage I was hoping for nor the feminist riot I dream of.

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The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

The Carolina Film and Video Festival returned to Greensboro this weekend, with its spotlight aimed at women and documentaries. Prior to an evening of documentary films, I attended what I was sure would be the highlight of the festival, a two hour presentation by Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director of Women Make Movies (WMM) – the largest distributor of films by females. Looking forward to an engaging a thoughtful dialogue on her years of experience working with women in the film industry, I was disappointed that Zimmerman spoke only briefly – and from a podium so large I could barely see her face – about the realities of being an independent filmmaker. She used the bulk of her time slot to surprise the audience with a sneak preview of the most recent documentary distributed by WMM:

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

In one of the most beautiful and resourceful regions of the world, power and dominance are being abused and manipulated in a genocide so fierce it is the deadliest battle since World War II. For the past 10 years, civil war has ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo killing over four million people and that doesn’t count the estimated 200,000 women who have been murdered emotionally, spiritually and socially as their mutilated bodies are left to deteriorate. It is these women who filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson, seeks out hoping find; “If I tell my story will she break her silence?”

Winner of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize, this full length documentary is a brave attempt by Jackson to call attention to the realities of girls and women struggling to survive in a devastated nation. Jackson herself was a victim of gang rape – right here in our nation’s capital – at the age of 25 and it is this experience that she cites as inspiration for her journey to the Congo. From off screen Jackson recounts her personal history with rape and briefly ponders the differences between two cultures, both of which exploit women and their bodies for political and economic gain. Yet, as the film progresses, she fails to elaborate any of the political, economic or emotional issues she seeks to explore.

As a filmmaker and activist, Jackson’s motivation is compelling. As a researcher, however, she often falls short. Her attempt to dialogue with a group of male soldiers about why they rape only illustrates her naiveté and the soldiers own ignorance of their actions. No reference is made to the systematic and historical ideologies that have encouraged sexual violence and Jackson stays far away from her own country’s complicity in the Congolese conflict – Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, you know. While the film gives a brief yet informative history of Congolese violence and is heavy with statements on the political nature of rape, Jackson neglects to take the discussion any deeper. There is no commentary on why rape is used as a systematic tactic of war and her soft spoken voice-over serves only the echo what the women themselves are saying.

Visually, Jackson’s choices catapult from captivating – just outside a village a line of school girls walk by singing, in bold red head wraps, white shirts and deep blue skirts, to confusing – does the camera really need to be in the operating room as a young, scared girl receives treatment? Thankfully she steers clear of violent images, but the recollection of their rapes by the Congolese women are rife with imagery and it is in these interviews where the true magnitude of this story lies.

The most poignant moments come when Jackson is silent and the camera finds the women telling their stories in their own voice. Each woman Jackson interviews clearly and eloquently recounts the memory of her rape and the events of her life since. In a small room of one of the only hospitals available to rape victims in the Congo, twenty women, ranging in age from pre-pubescent to elderly, are crowded. They have been rescued from deep in the forest where they had been left for dead by the soldiers who raped them all. One woman stands tall among the group and challenges the way they have been treated, clearly identifying her own self worth and that of all humans. Her voice is strong, clear and filled with emotion. When she is finished she moves away from the group and turns toward the wall, sobbing quietly into the cloth of her dress.

Originally funded by Jackson herself, The Greatest Silence, is a testament to the individual filmmaker and the tremendous possibility that holding a camera yields. She struggles however to take this story further than it context and misses an opportunity translate what is being recorded through her viewfinder into a deeper social commentary with the possibility of creating tangible, global change.

JUNO

“Gee Juno; I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when”

“I don’t really know what kind of girl I am”

            And thus begins the journey of Juno MacGuff, a 16 year-old who finds herself pregnant after sleeping with her best friend in lieu of watching The Blair Witch Project. Written by newcomer Diablo Cody and winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Juno is a refreshingly frank and hilarious perspective on a very real and often controversial issue – teenage pregnancy. Impeccably directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), Cody’s script is brought to life by a brilliant ensemble cast who skillfully transcend what could easily have become Lifetime Movie territory. Canadian actress Ellen Page is dead on as Juno, flawlessly delivering Cody’s sharp dialogue as if she were enacting her own biography. She is backed by tremendously talented actors including J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, as her reluctantly supportive parents, and Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as a reproductively challenged young couple seeking to adopt. Of course there would be no story without Paulie Bleeker, the endearingly awkward object of Juno’s affection, played by a quietly comical and sensitive Michael Cera (Superbad, Arrested Development).  

            Relationships are the heart of this uniquely poignant film and Reitman deserves accolades for his exploration of parenting, specifically the journey of motherhood which is deftly navigated by his female leads. As is the case in many films with teen female protagonists, Juno’s mother is absent, relocated to New Mexico with a new husband and three replacement kids. Juno’s relationship to her is marked only by a cactus plant sent every year on her birthday – “Gee thanks mom, this cacto-gram stings worse than your abandonment.” However, she is not without female support having lived the past ten years with her stepmother Bren, played by the always amazing Janney who gracefully maneuvers the challenging emotions of not being an original parent with a genuine care for her step-daughter. In one of the most memorable and uncomfortably touching scenes Bren goes off during Juno’s ultrasound suggesting to the judgmental technician that she “Go back to night school in Manteo and learn a real trade.”

             As illustrated in Smoking, Reitman has a tremendous talent for tackling socially relevant topics in an extremely approachable and entertaining manner. Juno’s first response to her pregnancy is a suicide attempt with a licorice noose in her front yard, followed by a news-breaking conversation with her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) on a hamburger phone. And while the young director could have could easily ridden the success of what was already an exceptionally smart script and cast, it is surely his choices – from the animated opening credits to the flawless set and costume design – that woke audiences to this year’s surprise sleeper hit. The cherry on top of Reitman’s cinematic sundae is the film’s score. Motivated by a suggestion from Page, indie singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson contributes the bulk of the soundtrack, with additional tracks by The Velvet Underground, Belle & Sebastian and Cat Power. In an era where soundtracks have become revenue- generating after thought, Dawson’s bittersweet ditties are the musical manifestation of Juno herself. Released in rare form on orange vinyl, Juno’s soundtrack is the wrapping on the newest gift in the family of classic cult films.