One of the most important documentaries of our time: “If the camera is predatory then the culture is predatory as well.”

“If the camera is predatory, then the culture is predatory as well.” — 2022 Documentary, Brainwashed: Sex—Camera—Power from filmmaker Nina Menkes.

If you don’t know Nina Menkes or her films, then it will help to peruse her website now to get a feel for who she is and what she stands for. You can view the official Brainwashed website HERE.

Menkes work has a long history of dissecting the way females are represented in film, and coming right up against that male gaze and confronting it. Her 2022 documentary Brainwashed: Sex—Camera—Power, an Official 2022 Sundance selection, hits that argument even harder and makes a convincing (and devastating) argument about how predatory films are towards women, how it’s accomplished through film, and how that discriminatory lens has laid a foundation for sexual harassment and abuse against women in the workplace and beyond.

It’s available to stream now on Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Kino Now!, iTunes, and for purchase on Blu Ray/DVD. You can get those links on the movie’s website home page HERE.

I believe this documentary is the single most important documentary for women at this moment in time. Particularly for those of us women in film, and for me also as a writer. I talk a lot in my book On Fire about the feeling of invisibility, and I quote Rebecca Solnit frequently, who is an amazing author and feminist. She writes a lot about the obliteration of women in our society and how we are made to be invisible by a patriarchal system.

I see a lot of similarities in this film about the obliteration and subjugation of women through the camera lens, that then lays the foundation for this same treatment in the real world. This theory was first observed and given language by Laura Mulvey. Mulvey gave us the terminology of the “male gaze” in her 1973 academic paper titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” It was then published two years later in Screen magazine. Menkes interviews Mulvey in Brainwashed and helps to again lay the foundation for the male gaze and to further build upon it.

I’m not going to lie—this was an incredibly difficult documentary for me to watch. It was, at times, so painful I had to put my hand over the screen. The disgust, the shame, the helplessness, the vulgarity, of the lens against women is so devastating to absorb into the female psyche, that you don’t realize how painful it is until the moment you have to turn away. I don’t know why, but as I watched it, it felt like years of pent up pain coming out.

What Menkes has done with Brainwashed is give an even broader and detailed vocabulary and platform (in very much the same way Mulvey did originally) to further the discussion of a predatory lens in a way that will allow women to actually change film and media. What women have always lacked is the ability to name their pain. Menkes has now given us a vocabulary to name the film dynamics that cause that pain. One vocabulary lesson was “the standard line of identification.” Which essentially ends up saying that men have the money, they direct the films, they run the lens, and so most films are devoid (top-down) of female perspective. To change film and media, we must change who has the power, who has the money, and who runs the lens. 

In fact, most of the women in the documentary recognized that the hardest part of the women’s movement in film is identifying how to change it. We have been so hoodwinked into how women should be shot by the camera that we don’t currently have a ton of solutions of how to fix shots and lighting and lenses. But at least we have a place to start with Brainwashed. The next step will be handbooks and videos that teach women how to eradicate the male gaze from a technical perspective.

If you watch this film (and you should), I would love to hear your thoughts and understand how YOU are changing the film dynamics for women.

xo— S.

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