“I don’t know why I’m doing this — playing show and tell with the times I’ve walked in the dark. Maybe I see myself in the worst of it.”
— Olivia Gatwood, My Grandmother Asks Why I Don’t Trust Men
Some things you just hold differently: fear, truth, trauma. Like shifting your weight off a sprained ankle onto the uninjured one, it’s a necessary adjustment. One that might improve your chances of survival regardless of the starting point, especially when the life that requires it looks more or less the same before the fall. Especially when we pretend the fall never happened. In the latest installment of our LIFE IS SHORT series, two female-written and directed short films — Hazel McKibbin’s Doublespeak (2020) and Adinah Dancyger’s Cheer up Baby (2017) — explore psychological and sensory displacement in the wake of female sexual violence.
McKibbin and Dancyger’s films make for a deeply textured cinematic experience that chills and sears in equal measure, establishing one another as both parallel and polar to the other. With dark tones and unnerving greys, Doublespeak pivots on sexual harassment in the workplace. A young woman’s report lands her a meeting with superiors seemingly hell-bent on ensuring her safety within the company. What happens next is unsurprising yet still discomfiting, but lead character Emma (Angela Wong Carbone) doesn’t give in without a fight. Likewise, Anna (India Menuez) of Cheer Up Baby bares her teeth in the wake of her assault on the subway, anger and grit emerging like an afterthought in a world that never once stops buzzing with neon urgency.
Time is particularly pertinent to these narratives. We are only able to establish a connection between Anna’s outbursts and the assault she suffers due to the nature of its depiction, which Dancyger carefully executed. A deliberate show of fleeting spatial awareness scampers offscreen just as abruptly as it crept on: teetering close-ups of quivering lips, wandering hands, and imperfect teeth saturated in slow-mo. It feels a lot like a robbery or a killing, bathed in fluorescence with not much dialogue to render Dancyger’s artfulness shallow or eclipse Menuez’s compelling performance.
In the presence of her harasser, the lens blurs over. The camera begins to sway. A clever bit of sleight of hand now imbues every frame with emotion — namely fear and confusion — as a garble of memories take center stage. A similar trick deployed after the meeting puts Emma on full display. We watch as she scoots closer to her desk, pivots away from her harasser and drums a beat against her temple in a futile attempt of enacting a shield between them – all without gleaning a clear shot at him. It is that swirl of unstated emotion that manifests plainly in perfect resolution, indicating some connection between time and space and its simultaneous effects on perception and the mind.
It takes Emma months to lodge that report and possibly days for Anna to rage after the incident on the subway, but it is never in the presence of her assailant. She doesn’t get the chance. Even without the specifics, we can ascertain the reasons, because we know the stories of those who fought back.
If we were to play a game of spot the difference between those who do and don’t endure, there would be very little to find. If art is a reflection of the times we live in, then the fact that both leads chose endurance over self-defence is more than narrative fodder. It’s realism that is still being denied and overlooked today. The displacement that Emma and Anna both face due to fear and disbelief from others mimics the lived experiences of countless sexual assault survivors in both manner and cadence. We know it’s coming when Emma’s superiors raise the question of the gap between her report and the harassment she’s faced. We feel it each time Anna lashes out in the absence of that one specific danger. These women have finally permitted themselves a moment to react yet it is obscured, whether explicitly or contextually, by the desire to do so on their own time.
The importance of these two films could be emphasized, but that would prove redundant due, in part, to a lack of originality. Of course, this can be argued of any work of art in any medium but only further strips them of the singular experiences that inspired their conception. This line of reasoning also disrupts the foundation of genre which is another topic, for another day. There is, however, a reason why Doublespeak and Cheer Up Baby cannot inherently function as a tool for workplace etiquette or a cautionary tale against sleeping on the subway beyond their resolutions, and that is because they simply aren’t tools. There isn’t anything to caution. Sexual violence is not a boogeyman that rears its head in a quiet corner of a dark room. In fact, how do you protect yourself from an unseeable danger that manifests in the form of strangers and loved ones alike?
By the same logic with which we can predict possible outcomes upon viewing these short films, so lies the truth of their “unoriginality”: if we were to catalogue all the world’s art, they would be mere examples in a vast category. To assert that stories like these (or Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Olivia Gatwood’s Life Of The Party, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, the near countless feminist retellings of classical myths) are tools or deterrents is an insult to the creators and their audiences. For one, these pieces are not created to warn you that sexual violence exists nor does it act as counsel against it. They are the products of self-expression, of catharsis, and typify chapters of their creators’ lives.
If there is one thing to be taken away from these works, let it be the knowledge that their creators are still standing. Let it be the techniques employed in their execution. Let it serve as a question of your stance. What does your vehement disbelief sow? What does it reap? And if seeing is believing, what makes your eyes better than the victim?
Edited by Camilla Bains