Even though women have come a long way in terms of equal rights and getting a voice in a patriarchal society, they still don’t get as much attention from film as they should. The situation is so evident that even a test was created to measure the role of women in movies: the Bechdel Test.
However, this list isn’t specifically about short films that pass the test, but instead it’s about works that portray the various concerns of modern women, such as their bodies, their sexuality, their identity, and their place in society, among others.
The following compilation varies not only in the content of the themes they explore, but also in their form. From animations to documentaries, these 10 filmmakers show the multiple ways in which the previously mentioned issues can be approached. Of course, there are hundreds of institutional videos against gender abuse and women’s rights, but this list is more concerned with what the seventh art can do to address modern women.
1. Meshes of the Afternoon – Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid (1943)
Everything here screams surrealist. Husband and wife Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, who also play the main characters in the short film, created dreamlike sequences full of psychological symbolism and hidden meanings. This is not a work of linear storytelling; it is more an experience that the spectator has as he or she is carried into puzzling visual loops. Deren’s third husband created the music 16 years later, and it adds to the sense of paranoia and anxiety of the piece.
It shows a woman who looks at various versions of herself chase a hooded figure, enter her house, or fall asleep. Elements around the house are recurrent in each version: a flower, a key, a phone that is off the hook, a knife, and mirrors in different forms. Eventually, a man enters the scene and mimics some of the previous actions done by the hooded figure, and when he enters a second time, he sees that the woman has tried to escape from all of it by committing suicide.
The shots come together with a remarkable montage in order to communicate the concern of an individual regarding her multiple inner realities and how she comes to know these realities, but risking her sanity in the process. Some argue that the film comments on the role of women at home, and how she struggles to find her identity independent of men and social standards, represented by all the mirrors.
In the end she breaks a mirror in an attempt to liberate herself. Whether this was the intention of the film or not doesn’t really matter, for one of the aspects that make it so great is that it is open to very different interpretations. However, it is undoubtedly concerned with the subconscious of the protagonist.
2. Window Water Baby Moving – Stan Brakhage (1959)
When Kodak received this film, sent by its creator for developing, they considered the possibility of destroying it and calling the cops. Consequently, the director Stan Brakhage had to ask for a doctor’s intermediation to get his footage back.
This work by the little-known filmmaker of the New American Cinema registers the birth of his first daughter, Myrrena, in a peculiar way. The film was shot in his house and it begins with a few close-ups of his wife’s nude body. She is lying on a bathtub filled with water in which the silhouette of a window is reflected. From that point on, accelerated cuts and many close-ups of the mother’s facial expressions and gestures turn a birth that is like any other into a work of art.
The pain and viscosity that comes with giving birth conjugates with the tension and emotion of what it means to be a mother for the first time. This film is charged with warm colors and subtle shimmers generated by the reflection of the light that comes through the window and hits the water. Hence the tittle is Window Water Baby Moving.
Back when the short film was released, it was labeled as provoking and pornographic due to its display of the female body. Other artists like Andy Warhol and Jack Smith were doing similar works around the same time, but these did have the mentioned connotations. However, in this piece nudity is justified because it is shown in a way that portrays what it means to be a woman, and adds to the experience that is being shown.
3. She Had Her Gun All Ready – Vivienne Dick (1978)
This short film was completed using a 8mm format, and it is the second short film directed by one of the most representative figures of the No Wave Cinema: the Irish Vivienne Dick. It stars Lydia Lunch and Pat Place, two women that were important for the underground music scene of New York in the 1970’s.
It starts with the image of one woman being challenged by another woman, for the latter keeps asking the former what it is that she is going to do. It is hard to tell what is going on exactly, but a mood of unrest and uncertainty can be perceived through different formal elements that are specific to the No Wave Cinema, which is interested in creating pieces that offend and oppose to conventions: an unstable use of the camera in which the horizontal line is often ignored causing the image to be tilted, as well as an intermittent and arbitrary use of zoom.
The energetic colors that are presented throughout the story reinforce the feeling of an unbalanced relationship between these two women within their chaotic environment.
The transgression of chronological time and narrative linearity is most evident in one of the sequences where the character played by Lydia Lunch, while zapping channels in a small black and white TV, tunes the first scene of this same short film, generating a loop. She Had Her Gun All Ready is a punk film that earned an important place within the films from the 70’s thanks to its formal decisions and the clear feminist view of its director.
4. Asparagus – Suzan Pitt (1978)
Most known for being screened with David Lynch’s Eraserhead for two years on the midnight movie circuit, this short film by painter and animator Suzan Pitt is a candy-colored, sexually charged dream. It is an experimental piece that uses different animation techniques, giving it a bizarre overall look.
It follows a faceless woman as she interacts with the world around her, first inside her house and then in a theater. Small, apparently isolated actions are portrayed, but symbols are everywhere.
A strong theme of identity crosses the short film, shown in sequences like the dollhouse loop or her exit to the world outside her house, for she first has to put on a mask. Afterwards, when she is in the theater, many stage curtains have to open before the show starts, and that is when she gives to the audience parts of her world from behind the stage. What does it all mean?
But the most evident symbol is, of course, the asparagus, for its phallic shape adds to the sexual tone of the film. Other odd-shaped vegetation that she sees through her window resembles the female reproductive system as well. The last scene is probably the most startling one, but it is precisely the lack of clear meaning what makes it so great. Nonetheless, it is evident that this short film speaks to female sexuality and identity altogether.
5. Voices (1985)
Joanna Priestley, who has been animating for over 30 years, is one of the most outstanding representatives of independent animation internationally. With Voices, she created a short film that works as an animated self-portrait where she explores the topic of fear.
Hinting a tint of humor, it shows a woman speaking directly to the camera about the things that she is afraid of, and while she does it, her testimony gradually transforms into reality showing how she can modify her environment as she pleases. This is how her surreal world takes the shapes that the animator, who is also the narrator, conceives, which is a direct reference to the process of animation itself.
The first image of the film is a cinema slate drawn frame-by-frame to evidence the reality behind the artifice of animation. The use of black and white dominates the screen as the creator starts her testimony. From that moment on, the amount of color and the use of more complex shapes increase.
Regarding the concept, one of the aspects that is most significant to this work is the following paradox: the fears mentioned by the narrator like her fears of darkness, old age, gaining weight, or the destruction of the planet, are exposed visually by the animator and caricaturized, allowing her to finally tame them.
It is important to note that even though the short film presents an animator as the protagonist, the fears exposed and the introspections made are relevant for every woman who watches the film, regardless of her profession.