In certain parts of historic Albania, it was understood that if a woman dressed as a man, then she was a man. Traditionally it was possible for a woman to choose to become a man, or for that choice to be made for her by her family. A sworn oath was taken, recognised by traditional Albanian laws. The woman swore to remain a virgin for life. She might have chosen to do this to avoid a pre-arranged marriage without bringing shame upon her family. Or if she had no brothers. In traditional Albania, only a man could become the head of a household, only a man could inherit the family wealth. For a woman, the opportunity to become a sworn virgin was just that: an opportunity. Sworn virgins were held in esteem, respected in the community.
In Marianna Simnett’s film ‘Blood’, it’s main protagonist, a little English girl named Issy, has undergone a turbinectomy: the removal of the inferior turbinate bones of the nose, that had been causing her headaches and nose bleeds. Her convalescence is spent, literally or fantastically or both, in the Albanian mountains, under the guardianship of Lali, a sworn virgin. The film interweaves slices of traditional Albanian life with surreal scenes, perhaps from Issy’s imagination: giant papier-mâché noses, her nasty friends dressed in pink sleeping bags and looking like enormous pink slugs, role-playing the erstwhile turbinate bones, the sleeping bags eating the papier-mâché nostrils.
Simnett draws wonderful, bizarre parallels between the notion of womanhood as disavowed by a sworn virgin and Issy’s nuisance turbinate bones: ‘a curse, a growing burden’. The veil between fantasy and truth is seen to be constantly shifting. Perceived opposites are highlighted and refuted: inside / outside, male / female, truth / lies. The film captures the world of childhood, wherein multiple opposing truths can happily co-exist and the adult world, of dichotomy and separateness, of the inevitable turning away from truth towards falsehood. ‘Is it going to hurt?’ Issy asks the doctor. ‘You’ll just feel a little bit of pressure, nothing more,’ the doctor replies. Is this the apparent onset of the world of adult lies? The turning away from truth, turning away from pain. ‘A woman is a sack made to endure,’ says Lali. ‘I’d rather be a sack than a fake,’ says Issy.
‘Blood’ is intimate, visceral, spooky, disconcerting, in the way that little children are. Or can be.
Lucy Clout’s film ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ features snippets of interviews with women journalists, filmed in anonymous hotel rooms. On the face of it, these snippets are uninteresting. The protagonists speak of self-effacement in manners quite un-self-effacing. Also included are various outtakes. We see camera equipment, lights, the interviewers-come-interviewees speaking informally to the crew about their own performances. So, we are seeing more than one identity for each protagonist. One for the camera, one for the crew. There are many more. Identity, clearly, is a multi-faceted thing.
Interspersed with this are images of a computer animated woman. Sometimes she sits beside the women, nodding or frowning. At other times we see her alone. She wears a power-bob, clumpy black PVC high-heeled sandals, and some sort of sexless underwear, beneath a tailored jacket. At one point, she sits with her legs spread wide in what should be a very vulnerablising pose, but with no atmosphere of vulnerability about her. At another point, she wears a fried egg on the side of her face. We watch it slide down her face, her arm, her leg and to the floor. At the end of the film, she lies on a bed in front of a hotel window in somewhere that could be Waterloo or Kings Cross. She is talking about a recent scandal, ‘a man in public office who had posted, briefly, an image of his genitals to his professional Twitter account. He’d quickly taken the picture down but people took screen shots and it spread and spread’. She goes on to explain how the man at first tried to distance himself from the story, but eventually had ‘called a press conference in a down-town hotel, and mea-culpa’d his behaviour’. The story, already a cliché, is repeated and repeated, twisted, changed, supplemented via the internet, that extraordinary universe that seems to hyper-embody the mark of impermanence. ‘Eventually,’ she says, ‘I grew bored and fell asleep’.
Lucy Clout and Marianna Simnett were both winners of the Jerwood / FVU Awards 2015. These films were made for that in response to the project title, ‘What Will They See of Me?’
The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ is at Jerwood Space, London, until 26 April 2015 and CCA, Glasgow, from 30 May to 12 July 2015. The Jerwood/FVU Awards are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) in association with CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. www.jerwoodfvuawards.com