As a filmmaker, now I am asking myself, where does the camera go? What am I looking at? Am I showing what it feels like to be looked at? Am I showing how it feels to see while I’m being looked at? What is the heroine’s journey?” asks Joey Soloway (producer and director of Transparent and I Love Dick), one of the interviewees in Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power. Soloway sums up the views of the filmmakers, actors, activists and researchers in Brainwashed, calling the objectification of women in cinema “a state of emergency.”
With Brainwashed, director Nina Menkes (Queen of Diamonds, The Bloody Child, Phantom Love) draws a straight line from the language of visual storytelling in film to gender discrimination in the film industry and to a culture of sexual violence and abuse against women. But, much of the work of supporting this argument has already been done, leaving Menkes with the task of presenting it in a new and engaging way and trying to answer the question, “where do we go from here?”
The documentary is structured around a lecture given by Menkes and supplemented by professional interviews and a barrage of clips that hammer home how radically different the camera shoots women compared to how it shoots men. Menkes explains that women are frequently displayed as objects for the use, support and pleasure of male subjects. “This systematic law of cinematic language can be seen in almost all the ‘best films,’ the ones young women are told to study, absorb and emulate when they arrive at film school.”
Brainwashed doesn’t hesitate from pulling examples of gendered shot design from Academy Award-winning films, blockbusters or long-proclaimed cinematic masterpieces. (Even a scene with festival founder Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid gets called out.) At first, the seemingly endless film clips of female actors and female bodies—often shot from the same angles, with the same perspectives, with the same lighting and same slow camera movements and close-ups of disparate body parts—seems novel. Then the barrage starts to feel like compelling visual evidence for Menkes’ argument, then it’s disquieting and then sickening by the time we are seeing violence against women presented through the same kind of objectifying lens and sensual shot design. All-told, Brainwashed contains 175 film clips, ranging from 1896 through the present.
Brainwashed isn’t the first time someone has made an argument about how visual storytelling in film, firstly, is gendered and, secondly, contributes to a culture of misogyny, sexism, discrimination and sexual violence. The evidence for that has been well-tread and is re-tread in Brainwashed. After all, the #MeToo movement is a few years old now and, before that, film theorist Laura Mulvey, who is interviewed in Brainwashed, coined the term “male gaze” back in the 70s with her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” This documentary feels unique not for its dissection of films clips, nor the inclusion of psychoanalysts proving both the societal and personal impacts, nor the stories of people in the industry who had careers destroyed for saying “no,” but for trying to show another way to visually tell stories other than the way we have come to consider the (problematic) standard.
When Menkes tries to show “another way” of visual storytelling, she often begins with the phrase, “in my own films.” Indeed, we see scenes from Menkes’ films in which she endeavors to make external the internal experiences of women as truthfully as possible, including their experiences during sex. Thankfully, Menkes doesn’t just use her own work as examples of another way. She asks the question, “what would desire look like on film when it’s not about subject and object?” They use Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019), which features a mutual desire between two women, to show how an “object” can discover their own subjectivity, i.e.: power, within a story. They use films like Promising Young Woman (2020) which attempt to subvert the standard narrative and upend power dynamics. They also argue that Oscar wins for Nomadland (2020), told from the perspective of a woman in her 60s (Frances McDormand), and director Chloé Zhao as a hopeful herald of changing times.
The documentary concludes with a series of questions, imploring the audience to examine their own lives and their own world and compare their truth to what they have been taught to believe instead: the world we see on film. “How do I actually experience desire? How do I actually experience my day? Because we’ve been taught what is time, what is sex, what a man is, what a woman is—we’ve been taught all of these things. And if we just accept it, we are trapped in a collective consciousness.”
To other filmmakers Menkes asks, “What happens if you try to listen inward? What happens if you try to tune in, in a very delicate and quiet way, to what you’re actually experiencing? And what would actually be a true expression of that experience translated into a shot?”
If you’re familiar with the work of the #MeToo movement, the revelations following the accusation and conviction of Harvey Weinstein, or any of the body of work and research that forms the pillars of this documentary (like The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film or The Women’s Media Center), Brainwashed might not present anything new. The effect of the film clips presented one after the other in an endless string of evidence is upsetting but aids the argument in a way a scholarly article cannot. However, even though the problem was pointed out long before Brainwashed, it still can’t give us a satisfactory answer to what comes next. For just under two hours, Brainwashed offers a thorough examination of sex and power in shot design and the personal and societal ills that stem from it. But, as far as presenting a manual of how filmmaking and the industry should proceed from here, we’re left with a lot of questions.
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power premiered on day three of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is available for ticket-holders to watch online until 8 a.m. (MST) Jan. 25.
ABOUT PRODUCER/DIRECTOR NINA MENKES
Called “brilliant, one of the most provocative artists in film today,” by The Los Angeles Times, and a “cinematic sorceress” by The New York Times, Menkes’ films synthesize inner dream worlds with brutal, outer realities. Her work has been shown widely in major international film festivals, including Sundance (four feature premieres), the Berlinale, Locarno, Toronto, and MOMA in NYC. She has had numerous international retrospectives and her early work has been selected for restoration by the Academy Film Archive and Scorsese’s Film Foundation. Menkes is a Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellow and on the faculty at California Institute of the Arts. For more information: ninamenkes.com