movie review

Sister: An Unflinching Look at Maternal Health Worldwide

Title still for Sister, showing the word "Sister" over a world mapby Roxanna Bennett

“Pregnancy is a normal physiological event,” states Goitom Berhane, a health officer in residency at a rural hospital in Ethiopia. “This is not a disease. It is only that society is not organized enough to handle it, to appreciate its risks. It has risks whether it’s in Europe or Africa. Wherever you are, pregnancy is always a challenge.”

An unflinching look at the stark and bloody reality of infant and maternal mortality, the new documentary Sister follows maternal health care workers in Ethiopia, Haiti and Cambodia. Beautifully shot, Sister captures both agonizing and ecstatic moments in birth and delivery. from a woman whose fetus is dead inside of her, to a successful emergency Caesarian operation.

In the U.S., one in 4,800 women die from childbirth-related causes. The statistics in other parts of the world are staggering. In Haiti, one in 48 women will die of childbirth related causes. In Cambodia, one in 44 women will die of childbirth related causes. In Ethiopia, one in 27 women will die of childbirth related causes – that’s 55 every day. Sister is the story behind the statistics, putting a human face on the very real suffering and death of women and infants across the planet.

Photo of Madam Bwa, maternal health worker in Haiti

Madam Bwa, photo by Alexandra Swati Guild

Madam Bwa, a 65 year old TBA (Traditional Birth Attendant), living in Haiti, started delivering babies when she was 12 years old.

“I have delivered about 12, 000 babies,” she boasts. While she has no formal medical training, she provides the the majority of primary maternal and prenatal health care and education in her community.

“God blessed me to serve the people in this community,” she says, “Mostly to prevent them from dying during delivery.”

“Shada is the most miserable part of the city,” Madam Bwa says as she navigates the narrow alleyways between rickety shelters, “It’s badly built. If you have to transport a sick or pregnant person there are no roads in Shada.” Read more

Posted on by Roxanna Bennett in Feminism Leave a comment

Contributors Pick the Best of 2013

photo of pink and white fireworksEach year I ask the Gender Focus contributors about some of their highlights from the past year. Here’s what they came up with for 2013:

Favourite Movie:

Chanel Dubofsky: I never go to the movies, but I did see American Promise in the theatres. It’s about two middle class black families who send their sons to an elite school in Manhattan. It was spectacular and troubling and all of the good things.

Jarrah Hodge: I saw a lot of good movies this year and I’d have to say it’s a tie between two amazing movies by and about women. The first is Wadjda, a movie about a 10-year-old Saudi girl who pushes the boundaries of her society with humour and joy, directed by Haifa Al Mansour. The second was a fabulous documentary that showed at DOXA: Anne Braden, Southern Patriot. Gender Focus was a community partner for the screening of this inspiring film, which uses one woman’s remarkable life to teach us about interconnections between racial, gender and class equality.

Jessica Critcher: The Heat had a few hang-ups with intersectionality, similar to my critique of Catching Fire (which I also loved). But seeing a female buddy cop movie was a rare treat. I want more of that, with a woman behind the camera as well. Baby steps, I guess. Did anyone else pretend it was a sequel to Miss Congeniality? I want more Sandra Bullock FBI agent movies. I’ll write them myself if I have to.

Roxanna Bennett: 12 Years a SlaveHarrowing but crucial film, based on the real life account of  Solomon Northrup, a free-born Black man in pre-Civil war America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Directed by the inimitable Steve McQueen.

Cover of Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonFavourite Book Read in 2013:

Jenni Podolski: I love Morrissey, so I devoured Morrissey’s Autobiography in a weekend. It’s exactly what I expected; witty, smart, and so eloquent. The first 100 pages or so where he describes his upbringing in Manchester were incredibly evocative and real.

Roxanna: Life after Life by Kate AtkinsonCaptivating. The premise of the book, “what if you could live your life over and over again, until becoming conscious of the smallest events that change your destiny” at the outset seemed as though it would make for tiresome prose but instead is riveting. I mulled this book over in my mind for weeks after reading.

Chanel: Remember How I Told You I Loved You? by Gillian Linden. It’s very slim- about 100 pages, I think? It’s gorgeous and reminds me why I write fiction.

Favourite Band/Song:

Jessica Mason McFadden: Annie Lennox wins for this year; she is a politically and humanistically-conscious musician whose work evolves in surprising ways. She’s truly both an artist, a model of compassion and authenticity, and a mentor for civilization.

Chanel:  Lucy Wainwright Roche made a new record called “There’s A Last Time For Everything,” and I’ve been listening to it day after day after every day since it came out.

Jessica Critcher: Kings of Spade are my favorite local band from Oahu, and this year they released their highly anticipated second album with help from Kickstarter backers (like me). They’re urban funk mixed with rock and roll. Their lead singer has a flourescent pink mohawk and ovaries of steel. I can’t wait until they come my way again on tour. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Books, Pop Culture Leave a comment

Saving Mr. Banks is More than Just a Spoonful of Sugar

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks)by Jarrah Hodge

When I saw Disney was making a movie about Walt Disney convincing P. L. Travers to sign over the rights to Mary Poppins, I was expecting to come away at least slightly annoyed. As much as I adore Emma Thompson, who plays Travers, I thought this was going to be a story about a stubborn artist who’s convinced by the magic of Disney to stop being so up-tight.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t quite that simple and I found a lot to like about the movie, Saving Mr. Banks.

First off, both Disney and Travers are portrayed as complicated and imperfect human beings, though obviously she’s got more serious issues to resolve here than he does. The film moves back and forth between her trip to Los Angeles to see Disney, having been pushed into it by financial need; and her childhood in Australia struggling with an alcoholic, big-dreaming father (Colin Farrell).

And the film pokes fun at the whole candy-coated Disney empire, mostly through Thompson as a delightfully bitter, acerbic, stiff Travers, who’s appalled at the mountains of cakes and donuts brought in for lunch and the way her hotel room is crammed full of stuffed Disney cartoon characters.

Second, the supporting actors, particularly the women, are outstanding. Ruth Wilson plays Travers’ mother in her flashbacks and every single facial expression and word out of her mouth shows her internal conflict and struggle to get by taking care of three children and worrying about her husband. Disney’s female staffers – Kathy Wilson as Tommie and Melanie Paxson as Dolly – also make a lot out of their relatively small roles.

- Spoiler Alert - 

Third, while I wouldn’t call it a feminist film on the whole (there’s not a single person of colour to be found, and ultimately it’s still about a woman whose life is defined by men) there are some feminist scenes. In one, Disney asks his staffer Tommie to help him decipher what’s really going on with Mrs. Travers. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Pop Culture 1 Comment

Hunger Games: Catching Fire Meets Hunger for Female Representation

Poster for Catching Fireby Jessica Critcher

I managed to get tickets to a Hunger Games / Hunger Games: Catching Fire opening night double feature this week. As the theater began to fill up, I thought about the fact that I was about to see a movie with a stellar female cast and a complicated female protagonist, based on a bestselling book written by a woman.

It’s not an experience I get to have very often, so I decided to savor it. With ticket prices skyrocketing, the media we support makes a very real political statement.

As the Guardian points out:

Of the top 100 US films in 2011, women accounted for 33% of all characters and only 11% of the protagonists, according to a study by the San Diego-based Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

With a few exceptions (like in groups, where I’m out-voted), I don’t like to pay at the box office for movies that don’t pass the Bechdel Test. To pass, a film must have two female characters with names, and they have to talk to each other about something besides a man. It’s not a measure of whether or not a film is feminist. It’s a basic check-mark for female representation. Even though it’s simple to pass, a staggering amount of films can’t seem to manage it. Cinemas in Sweden have started applying a Bechdel-based rating on films, and The Hunger Games films pass easily.

I’m still buzzing over the film and the franchise as a whole. But I have been reflecting on a few things since I left the theater. There are spoilers below, so go see the movie, or better yet, check out the books for free at your local library.

Range of Female Characters

I don’t love these films just because there are a ton of female characters. Katniss is courageous and she does whatever she has to do to keep her family safe. Everyone loves an underdog. But the depth of the story is enhanced by the different types of women we see, and the ways they grow in the films.

Prim starts out as a scared girl who would have died in the Hunger Games if her sister hadn’t volunteered to save her. But she grows into a level-headed healer with a blossoming political awareness. Katniss’s mother slipped into a severe depression after her husband was killed, which forced Katniss to provide for the family. While this primarily shows Katniss and her ability to survive, it also shows a humanized picture of motherhood. Sometimes moms drop the ball– it’s almost like they’re human beings with their own thoughts and feelings.

Effie Trinket might be my favorite character in the story, though her role is minor. And it’s not just because of her amazing outfits. Being from The Capitol, she starts out in favour of the Hunger Games, full of patriotism at the idea that young children should kill each other on national television. But as she gets to know Katniss and Peeta, the gravity of the situation slowly dawns on her, and when they are sent into the Games a second time, she tears up, telling them they deserved better. For someone as obsessed with rules and manners, (and for someone born and raised in The Capitol with no real stake in The Games or a reason to care about kids from District 12) this might as well be her open rebellion against the Capitol.

Effie is not particularly brave or even very smart. But when there are a variety of female characters (instead of sexy lamps) their flaws and differences enhance their humanity. We are shown women not just as mothers or love interests, but as wise mentors like Mags, tech geniuses like Wiress, and vicious killers like Enobaria and Johanna.

Acceptable Reasons Not To Like Peeta

It took me a while to warm up to Peeta. And, to be honest, I was pretty miffed that I got the Peeta collectible cup at the theater instead of the Katniss one. Not everyone has to like him, but I feel like we should all be on the same page if we’re going to hate him.

Not liking Peeta because he has a stalker crush on Katniss and watches her walk home every day for ten years is fine. Not liking him because he’s “a wuss” is actually just misogyny, and it means you don’t really hate Peeta, just traits that are traditionally associated with women.

Let’s do another one. Hating Peeta because he probably could have managed to help the (obviously starving to death) girl of his dreams a little more than he actually did is fair. Hating Peeta because he didn’t kill any children in the Hunger Games is not cool. Hating Peeta because his motives with regard to Katniss often seemed sinister is ok. Hating him because he gets hurt a lot and needs Katniss to help him doesn’t even make sense. Read more

Posted on by Jessica Critcher in Books, Feminism, Pop Culture, Racism 2 Comments


Still from movie H&G, showing Gemma holding Harley's hand

by Jarrah Hodge

(Spoiler alert. Trigger Warning: discussions of depictions of child abuse, violence against women)

It’s been another great summer of film fests here in Vancouver and I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks seeing some fantastic movies at the Vancouver International Film Festival. My first pick was H&G, a film by Canadian director Danishka Esterhazy and a majority female creative team.

H&G is a “modern, neorealist twist” on the classic fairy tale Hansel & Gretel. In this modern version 8-year-old Gemma and 6-year-old Harley are children growing up in poverty in Winnipeg. Their mother, Krysstal, clearly loves them but is unable to get things together enough to properly feed or take care of them, leaving a ton of responsibility on Gemma. One night Krysstal takes the kids along on a car trip with her new, clearly manipulative boyfriend and a fight leads to him pulling her out of the car, and later abandoning the kids in the forest far from home.

The added complexity given to the mother is the first major twist on the tale. In her statement on the film website, director Danishka Esterhazy writes:

“I have always been struck by this fable’s portrayal of adult women. The stepmother and the witch are portrayed as heartless villains. Whereas the father, although also complicit in the abandonment of the children, is portrayed as caring and loveable. In reading about the history of the tale, I discovered that Wilhelm Grimm revised the traditional tale several times. He changed the mother character into a stepmother and he also made her less sympathetic. According to folklorist Jack Zipes, Wilhelm Grimm “deepened the characterization of the father and stepmother so that he becomes much more caring and concerned about the children and she becomes more coldhearted and cruel.” This sharp gender dichotomy, this demonization of the adult female characters, was an element of the story that I wanted to explore and challenge. 

This was my starting place for writing H&G.”

The house they eventually come across is owned by a pig farmer, Brendan, who at first starts by being kind and feeding them delicious food. He lets Gemma try to call home several times but her mother doesn’t answer. Time is given to show a range of Gemma and Harley’s activities and emotions as they settle into life with Brendan. But things change when Brendan’s brother shows up, drunk, and starts insinuating the kids should be scared of Brendan. The filmmakers do a great job creating audience uncertainty here so it takes quite a while before we know whether Brendan or his brother is the real danger (or both).

That the danger is very real becomes apparent near the end when Gemma finds Brendan’s scrapbook of pictures of young boys cut out of catalogues. Not long after, Brendan’s brother brings over some male friends and a “date”, Martini, (I read this as her being a sex worker but it’s not explicitly stated). After being teased by his friends that he can’t control the children, Brendan drags them out and locks them in a shed in the yard. There they find a bucket of bones and something horrifying (we’re never shown what) in a freezer. A bit later in the evening, Martini comes running out of the house, screaming that she’s leaving and that the men are “a bunch of psychos”. Gemma and Harley watch as she climbs into her car and Brendan drags her out and back into the house, with her screaming.

Even though the children escape the ending is uncertain and not necessarily optimistic. Like pretty much everything else in the movie, it’s complex.  Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism, Pop Culture Leave a comment

Zero Dark Thirty. Strong Female Character, But Dangerous Messages


Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

by A. Lynn. Cross-posted from Nerdy Feminist with permission.

So I started writing this piece yesterday. I came home all amped up from having enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty and I wanted to blog about how awesome I felt the female character was in it. In the process of researching what other people were saying to bolster my views, I came across some very legitimate concerns of the film’s depictions of torture (details later.)

It changed how I felt about the film in general, and I decided to go back and think about things with this new found information. Below are my reworked thoughts. (What an important reminder that your own personal interpretation of things, while valid and important, can often be incomplete without interacting with others and listening to what’s out there.)

I’ll try to keep this relatively spoiler free, but no guarantees. But, let’s be honest…this one of those pre-spoiled movies. It’s called history.

Anyway, I had the chance to see Zero Dark Thirty last night at an advanced screening. I went in interested, but skeptical. I like Kathryn Bigelow. I liked The Hurt Locker. And I was excited when she became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director. But I wasn’t surprised that the honor went to woman who had just directed a film that was so deeply male centric. So when I heard that Bigelow’s next feature was another war film, I kind of rolled my eyes. But then I saw the trailer and I became really intrigued. It had something which The Hurt Locker lacked…a prominent female character.

Ok, Bigelow, you have my attention. Read more

Posted on by A Lynn in Feminism, Pop Culture Leave a comment

The Invisible War Exposes the Banality of Sexual Violence in the US Military

by Tracy Bealer

In Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she argues that profound historical evils are not usually committed by deranged psychopaths, but rather otherwise ordinary people who have been conditioned through state institutions to accept and perpetuate dehumanizing fictions about other human beings.

The Invisible War (now available on DVD and streaming on Netflix), filmmaker Kirby Dick’s 2012 documentary on the epidemic of sexual violence in all branches of the United States military, extends this thesis to not only the perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, but also the command structure that actively colludes with military justice to shield these criminals from prosecution, and to stigmatize and in some cases criminalize the male and female victims.

There isn’t anything particularly innovative or groundbreaking in the form or style of The Invisible War. What is shocking, sickening, and enraging is the content. The film chronicles the stories of a half dozen former servicewomen and servicemen in detail, with their individual traumas meant to stand for the thousands of women who endured the twin betrayals of physical and institutional violation while serving. To the film’s credit, it also includes the often overlooked voices of male victims of sexual assault. In so doing, The Invisible War implicitly asserts the truth that rape is not about sexual desire, but rather violence and domination.

Though each interviewee’s story of escalating harassment and stalking culminating in rape is treated with dignity and care, the similarities among the accounts, particularly in the treatment of the victims after reporting the crimes, reveal the way misogyny and sexual violence have become institutionalized into military culture. The women and men endure not only physical but also emotional and professional violation, as their experiences are alternately dismissed, devalued and denied by the military commanders who held (until a recent directive by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta) the sole authority to prosecute their rapists. Read more

Posted on by Tracy Bealer in Feminism, Politics, Pop Culture 1 Comment