In New Zealand, Koro, the leader of a Maori tribe, is eagerly awaiting the birth of his grandchild. He wants to train up a new leader of the tribe but his own two sons have proved unsuitable and all his hope is resting on the next generation. His daughter-in-law gives birth to twins, but he is devastated when the boy baby dies, leaving only a girl, Pai. When the mother dies too, her husband, Pai’s father, cannot cope and he leaves Pai, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, to be brought up by her grandparents. Pai adores Koro, but he can’t see beyond her gender to recognise the gifts and potential that she has. Rejected again and again by Koro because she is a girl, she somehow finds the inner strength to persevere in trying to win his love. Eventually Koro realises that the leader he was searching for has been living in his house all the time, and he acknowledges Pai’s calling to lead the tribe. I cry every time I see this film, probably because the themes are very close to home! There’s a lot here about reshaping tradition, of reimagining leadership while staying connected to our roots. Damaris has a study guide to this film on their Culturewatch website www.damaris.org/cw
Based on true events, North Country tells the story of the first class action sex-discrimination case to be won in the US. Josey Aimes, played by Charlize Theron, is a single mother who goes back to live with her parents to escape her abusive marriage. The only option for work is the local mine where she signs on as a labourer but then has to endure horrific abuse, along with the other female workers there. Some women just accept the discrimination as part of the job, and not all are willing to support Josey when she decides to speak out against it. This film highlights the need to stand up for justice and also raises interesting questions about the ways in which men and women can work together against sexism and oppression.
Another film based on a true story, this charts Erin’s journey from disaffected single mother to case-winning campaigning lawyer. Erin, played by Julia Roberts, is caught in a car accident and damages her neck, Unable to work, she loses her claim for damages because of her foul mouth and then badgers her lawyer, Ed Masry played by Albert Finney, for a job. Ed relents and lets her investigate claims that pollution from the Pacific Gas and Electricity Corporation in nearby Hinckley is making people seriously ill. Erin goes to interview the people concerned and starts to piece the case together, making it her own personal crusade. During the film, we see Erin growing in self-respect and empowerment, but also paying the price in terms of time with her children and a relationship with her neighbour.
What Women Want
Nick Marshall, played by Mel Gibson, is an executive in an advertising agency whose world is shaken when Darcy McGuire, played by Helen Hunt, is given the job that he thought he deserved. The agency is trying to win business from companies that are targeting women, and so Darcy gives all the creatives a box of women’s products to try out at home. Cue funny scenes of Mel Gibson trying on tights and lipstick. But then an accident with a hairdryer in the bathroom leaves him able to hear women’s thoughts. He’s amazed at what he hears and loses no time in using this new ‘gift’ to his advantage, although he also becomes more sensitive and understanding of the women in his life. If only it were that simple. Now, where’s my hairdryer…
Mona Lisa Smile
Katherine Watson, played by Julia Roberts, arrives at Wellesley College to teach history of art. She expects the students at the wealthy girls’ college to be ambitious and progressive but is shocked to find that they hold very traditional views about the role of women, with marriage the pinnacle of their aspirations. Katherine challenges the girls to think as individuals and to question their assumptions about their role in society. Some are more open to her views than others and one student, Betty, even launches a campaign against her. The film highlights just how much roles and expectations are formed by the society we live in. The film is set in the post-war 50s. A decade earlier women had willingly joined the war effort and filled the jobs left by servicemen. Now the war was over they needed to be persuaded back into traditional roles as dedicated wives, caring mothers and proud homemakers. Damaris has a study guide to this film on their Culturewatch website www.damaris.org/cw
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Toula, played by Nia Vardalos, works in her family’s Greek restaurant in Chicago while she waits to get married. She falls in love with Ian Miller, who isn’t Greek, and the predictable cultural misunderstandings and tensions follow. Toula’s family follow very traditional gender roles. She’s expected to work in the restaurant because that’s what unmarried daughters do, although she would prefer to work in her aunt and uncle’s travel agency. There’s a great scene where her mother and aunt persuade Toula’s father that this is his idea as that is the only way he will agree to the change, highlighting the communication games that men and women so easily play.
Bend it like Beckham and Billy Elliott
Two films that tell the stories of young people rejecting the cultural expectations of their gender to follow their dreams. Jess, played by Parminder Nagra, is an Indian Sikh whose parents want her to learn to cook Aloo Gobi, while all she wants is to play football. She goes behind their backs, encouraged by her friend Jules, played by Keira Knightley, to attend training and even a trip to Germany. The crunch comes when the chance to play in front of a key football scout clashes with her sister’s wedding. But it all works out in the end and she ends up going to the States to join a football academy. Billy Elliott, played by Jamie Bell, is growing up during the miners’ strikes in 1984 in north-east England. His Dad sends him to the local boxing club, but he’s more interested in the ballet dancing next door. His teacher, played by Julie Walters, sees his potential and encourages him to apply to ballet school. His Dad is opposed at first but then sees how important it is to Billy and even breaks the strike to earn some money to send him to an audition for the Royal Ballet School. Damaris has a study guide to both these films on their Culturewatch website www.damaris.org/cw
Mean Girls is based on the non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. It tells the story of Cady Heron who has been home-schooled in Africa until she's 16 when she moves to the States with her parents. Desperate to fit in, she makes friends with Janis and Damian who introduce her to all the school cliques, including the Plastics, a bitchy female threesome headed up by Regina George. Cady sets out to infiltrate the Plastics so she can report back to Janis and Damian, but ends up becoming just like them. Great vehicle to talk about female friendships.
Set in a village in Burkina Faso, this film tells the story of a group of girls who face female circumcision. Four of them manage to escape before they are cut and they run to Mama Colle’s house, as she did not allow her daughter to be circumcised. She takes the four girls into her house and protects them with a coloured cord stretched across the entrance - this represents 'moolaade', or sanctuary, and neither the women who are eager to perform the circumcision ceremony, nor the male elders, dare break the cord.
Water is the last of three films by the Indian director, Deepa Mehta, which highlight the patriarchal oppression endemic in her culture. Water tells the story of an eight-year-old girl who is already a widow. Married to an older man as a young girl, now he has died she has to go and live in a widow’s house for the rest of her life, shunned by the rest of society. The widows are trapped by the expectations of the society outside the ashram, but also by their own acquiescence to their ‘fate’, believing that this is what they deserve. Water is a stunningly beautiful film, and very thought provoking.