On Sunday at noon, I saw Going on 13, a documentary that followed four San Francisco Bay-Area girls: Ariana, Isha, Rosie, and Esme, as they grew from ages nine to thirteen. In some way, each girl's story represented a particular ethnic group or "social problem." Ariana is African-American; Isha an Indian immigrant in a traditional family as one of my friends said, she's ABCD (American-born confused Desi); Rosie's parents (one white, one Nicaraguan) are divorced and her mother struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and Esme is Latina. Most of them come from working-class homes, so their experiences of adolescence are quite different from those that we see in most commercial fictional "teen problems" shows.
The film-makers spent a very long time with these girls and their families and eventually shot 300 hours of film or video, so much of the work for the 90 minute film, as it is for any documentary was in the editing process. They also did a cool museum installation - check it out. When I was recruiting friends to go with me to the movies, this one is the one that almost everyone wanted to see, and I think it's because it's such a rare thing to see a documentary focused on girls. I really enjoyed this film; its explicitly feminist point-of-view was refreshing, and the depiction of life in school and the relationship between school and home was especially enlightening to me as a teacher. We see, for instance, how Rosie's mother's illness led to her depression, truancy, and lateness. We see how Ariana's family corrects the (unbelievably bad) sex-education class that she attended in school one day. We also see the importance of peer relationships; at one point Isha cries because she's not included by other children on the playground at age nine. We see Ariana reject a boy who likes her and the role that other kids play in relaying information back and forth between the two - and we see his reaction. We see Esme struggle with low self-esteem as she talks about how others taunt her about her weight. In general it forces the viewer to think about how much pressure girls are under at this age because of the expectations of beauty and sexuality that our popular culture creates. Most of us know just from seeing videos and hearing pop songs today that there is much more explicitly sexual material available to young people than there was even twenty years ago (when I was coming out of my teens), but it's a different thing to see that from the point of view of the kids themselves. The identification of people who are still children with hyper-sexualized notions of womanhood are apparent everywhere in the film. At one point we see the teen-aged Ariana at a birthday party where everyone dances (and sings along) to the song "Get Low" (the if you couldn't figure them out, here are the lyrics). In another scene, Ariana rolls her eyes and openly criticizes the video chosen for a class party by her fifth grade classmates. "they just want to see those girls in their panties," she says, as the class watches "Bring it On" which her fifth grade teacher had apparently not seen before popping in the video machine. Especially in the medium of film it is very unusual to see complicated young girls who don't physically fit the normative concepts of beauty. I wonder if we did a study of the family tv-shows currently on television just how many 12 -13 year olds are played by either older or younger children.
By the time my students reach me, they are done with this difficult time in their lives, but the film reminds the viewer of how much impact the experience of puberty has on a person's later development.
The film was very intimate - though there was one important issue that it didn't touch - masturbation. I wonder if there were student-to-student conversations on that topic that didn't make it into the film and if it was because it was too difficult to handle without sexualizing the girls or offending their parents. That was the one omission of something VERY important to the experience of puberty that would have been good to include, even in, or perhaps especially in a "family" film. Apparently there are (according to IMDB reviewers) some very bad sex-ed documentaries that deal with the issue of masturbation, so I wish this film had made the attempt.
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The second film I saw on Sunday was also a feminist one, but about a different age group,the imomrtals. Sita Sings the Blues is an animated feature by New-Yorker, Nina Paley. (No, to those who wondered, she is not Grace Paley's daughter.)
This film has been a very long-time in the making, and it was great to see it in its full version. I had seen a short from it at the Tribeca NY animated shorts program two years ago, and the complete film is quite wonderful. Paley has really pulled off a unique feat: she's put the story of the Ramayana, as told by some Desi friends of hers, (represented by shadow puppets in the movie), together with the story of the end of her marriage, and sewed the whole thing together with musical numbers by (white) blues singer Anette Hanshaw. The film is beautiful to look at; she uses several different animation styles to represent the characters of Sita and Rama, and said during the Q&A that it was to represent different versions of the story from different regions of the world, such as Thailand. Her own character of Sita must be modeled on those Hindu statues that feature round breasts sometimes compared to "golden pots" in Sanskrit poetry. The music, which includes contemporary Indian music along with the Anette Hanshaw musical numbers, is also fabulous.
Some may wonder, should a white woman tell this Indian story? She's had some critics for this who see it as appropriation, but the Desi cartoonists at sepiamutiny love the work and Paley collaborated with a number of Indian actors, singers, musicians, and friends in the making of the film, and she did work very hard in her studyof the story. I'd say it's more homage than appropriation.
So... my ranking? I tore off the audience award ballot at "5" for excellent, and I'd buy a t-shirt to promote the movie for sure.
All together, my Tribeca Film Fest Feminist Sunday was a good one, and I made two new friends who were there as part of an indie-film meet-up group. So what if I fell asleep during the trial by fire? I've been to a lot of movies in the last couple of days, and I look forward to catching the part that I missed when the DVD comes out.