Carnival of Self-Recovery: Impoverished Women as Objets de Curiosite in Documentary

Bill Nichols attempts to clearly define the documentary mode in his book Introduction to Documentary, and while the terms and submodes he illustrates are creative and helpful, even he thinks that “documentary can be no more easily defined than ‘love’ or ‘culture’” (Intro, p.20). I found through my own research that the blending, intermingling and hybridization of Nichols’ submodes are nearly infinite, and that this discovery is, in fact, a more solid definition of documentary: to morph, edit, and represent actual events to suit the purpose of the filmmaker who wants to tell a story or show “a particular view of the world, one we may never have encountered before, even if the aspects of the world that is represented are familiar to us” (Intro, p.20).

Nichols says that the documentary form is a “fuzzy concept” and uses the analogy that “many disparate sorts of transportation devices can count as a ‘vehicle’” and so it is in the tendency I have uncovered in watching films about women’s experiences that actually function as “vehicles” themselves: star vehicles for their subjects. For my project, I initially chose to look at Lynne Littman’s 1976 Oscar-winning short film Number Our Days, in which anthropologist-ethnographer Barbara Myerhoff examines a small enclave of impoverished Jewish senior citizens living in Venice, California. The concepts of community and her own background in Judaism, as well as a self-projected future as one of these little old bubbes, posited Myerhoff as an authority on this subject.  Myerhoff inserts herself into the action, interacting with the participants and drawing out of them heartbreaking, madcap little histories that illustrate the plight of women who don’t have enough money to live a “normal” life – they worry about paying their rent, about where their next meal will come from, about the violence that surrounds their homes – problems that more affluent women their age do not share. They have been forgotten by “proper” society and consigned to a life of anonymity and poverty, and Myerhoff gives them power by turning the camera onto them and using her own voice to amplify her subjects’ voices.

Soon, while screening films such as Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok, as well as a treasured personal favorite, the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens, I uncovered a tendency in documentary film to hoist poor women into the position of objects of curiosity not unlike freaks in a circus sideshow, while simultaneously allowing their subjects, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to be the focus of something that would give them more autonomy with their public images. They are not like the women we see in fiction filmmaking. They are a new kind of woman: outspoken, dangerous, not traditionally beautiful, possibly unstable, impoverished, old or perceived as being “used up.” The filmmakers, while not always intentionally unkind to their subjects, brutally deconstruct these women for a rabid public’s insatiable consumption of stories of female oddities, turning their misery into narrative, their everyday life into something episodically structured to satisfy the spectator’s need for a relatable dramatic arc in all modes of filmed entertainment, but specifically the documentary.

Stylistically, many modes are blended together in these selected films: Aileen veers recklessly between expository and participatory modes, while Number Our Days could be seen partly as observational, partly performative. In watching the exploits of the senior citizens, I was surprised to find many parallels to Good Woman of Bangkok, Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer and even Grey Gardens, all of which look at the impact of poverty on the mental health of women (most, with the exception of the prostitute in The Good Woman of Bangkok, over the age of forty). The physical and emotional consequences of what it means to be a woman in crisis, trying to figure out how to navigate life without the assistance of an extended family or romantic partners, is a thread that binds these movies together in spirit. Many of the women are “left” by men (whether by death, desertion or choice) and must find a way to eke out their own space in the world. Aileen and Aoi do this by resorting to the world’s oldest profession, while Big and Little Edie live in denial and squalor. Only the seniors of Number Our Days try to sustain a “traditional” life. In many of these films, the idea of romance was dead. There was an acerbic nature to all of them, and each woman, keenly aware that she might be giving her last “performance,” goes for the gusto. A common motif in these wildly disparate stories of women is having innate strength in the face of extreme adversity. (In The Good Woman of Bangkok, the “leading lady” says that killing herself “would only show weakness.”) Each of the women is performing an idealized version of herself for the camera and each wants to be perceived as being strong and in control of her own life, when really the opposite is true: they are in control of very little.

Are the filmmakers who shoot these films exoticizing these characters they create? The subjects all become empowered by the camera while performing themselves, which in a way comes from the director – they are performing what they want the world to believe of them, the “best” version of themselves that they think is most appropriate for the film. (”I don’t want to be a bad woman,” says Aoi. “I am fragile. I am weak. I must act against my will.”) They are in concert with their directors, creating characters just like any fiction film might construct. In The Good Woman of Bangkok, Aoi has a canny sense of what should be filmed and what should not as, highly aware of when she is eating noodles, she quips, “this isn’t for your film.” They are all self-effacing. “You pulled me out of the rubbish heap by putting me in this film,” says Aoi. But is she being truthful or is she merely giving the director the performance she thinks he wants out of her? As Jean Rouche said, “the camera is not a brake, it is an accelerator,” and so it is for the women in these films – each is playing an amplified version of herself.

In the process of constructing these characters, the women portrayed in all four of the films are inadvertently re-constructing people’s preconceptions of indigent womanhood, which is a subversive, perhaps unintentional feminist action on the part of the participants and the filmmakers. None of the women is what a typical fiction film might find attractive: Aoi has a false eye and has had children; Aileen’s teeth and skin are ragged while her past as a truck stop prostitute is unsavory; Big Edie’s girth and immobility due to arthritis render her benign and grotesque; Little Edie’s mental instability and alopecia make her unattractive; and the senior ladies of Number Our Days all have quickly failing bodies that would never be seen in a fiction film. By showing these facets of women, in a warts-and-all portrait, the filmmakers and participants showcase a dynamic range of age, body type, social class, and headspaces of women, thus redefining traditional filmic stereotypes about what a woman should be.

What eventually transpires is the reclaiming and realization of the women’s self-worth through playing these idealized versions of themselves as characters in a documentary film for, in the cases of The Good Woman of Bangkok, Grey Gardens and Aileen, positive male reinforcement that is sorely lacking in the women’s lives, given by their male directors (the creative team behind Number Our Days is largely female). So this raises pertinent questions: is the life of a woman suffering through poverty and relative misery (and in many cases mental illness) a viable source of entertainment? Are the filmmakers romanticizing the poverty of these women who are basically homeless, faced with the threat of being homeless or whose problems all stemmed from being homeless? The filmmakers seduce their subjects by giving them a “voice” (and in some cases money), even though in almost every case the women are too far gone for any film to make a concrete difference in their lives and this voice they are given might even be their last hurrah. Aileen is on death row; the seniors of Number our Days are in the twilight of their lives. Perhaps this is the “indexical whammy” Nichols speaks of: these are doomed women that we are watching in mournful close-ups at sex clubs in Bangkok, beachside in California, and en route to the execution chamber. “Survival is their career,” Myherhoff says of the old women in Number Our Days, and this serves as a solid motto for all four films.

“Death is the invisible protagonist of every little scene you see played out,” says Myerhoff. “Death can be a great consciousness-raiser.” Thoughts of death permeate these films – in Nichols’ Introduction to Documentary, the author states that “the emotional impact of close-up images of the dead and dying changes considerably when we know that there is no point at which the director can say ‘cut’ and lives can be resumed” (Intro, 38-39) – and in all of the films I include there are no happy endings for the female subjects, they are “the dead and dying.” The specter of death haunts Number Our Days, not only for the elderly subjects, but also for writer Myerhoff who would die from cancer less than ten years after filming the documentary. (“I will be old,” she says in a tight close-up, and the viewer knows this will not come to pass.)

What the directors seem to be doing, other than infusing the films with their own moral voices (in the case of all four, there are judgments made on the subjects by the makers, whether good or bad), is turning the misery of women into a sideshow attraction where the writers and directors also figure into the action as barkers heralding the handicapped hookers, destitute former socialites, old ladies, and “scary” women-on-the-fringe who beg for your sympathy. When really, the women are all survivors – the women of Number Our Days have survived immigration and poverty; Aileen survives incest and teen pregnancy; Aoi survives rural poverty to support her entire family; and the Beales survive both a society life and a condemned home. The women all do have a degree of autonomy and have earned money through any means necessary – prostitution, hand-outs, stealing and crime are all fair game for them. “If it makes money, I won’t complain,” says Aoi in The Good Woman of Bangkok.

Like Elaine Friedman in Capturing the Friedmans, who gave viewers a chillingly unsentimental, non-traditional peek at motherhood, each of the women in the four films I looked at not only redefines femininity, but also motherhood, aided by directors who render them credible, convincing, and compelling. So are these women, as Aileen Wuornos might be considered, playing as “monsters in a horror genre fiction film” simply for challenging the norm? Being a bad mother can be akin to being a “monster” in our culture, or a “freak.” We expect mothers to say they love their children, and not to give them up as Aoi, Aileen and to an extent Mrs. Friedman have (or, the opposite, cling to them as Big Edie did). Mothers probably feel it is necessary to talk about their love for their children, but is a mother espousing this “love” actually just a cliché?

Big Edie, Mrs. Friedman, Aileen, Aoi and the women of Number Our Days all go the opposite route. They play unexpected “characters.” They show that sometimes mothers and women do not feel as warm and fuzzy as we’d maybe like them to be, thus playing with the spectator’s expectations and perhaps inadvertently cementing their status as “freaks,” making their stories and their images even more alluring or pleasurable for the curious viewer. Aided by the strong points of view of their directors and narrative structures that allow the spectator to be drawn into a personal, dramatic character arc, the women in these four films characterize a type of woman that is rarely seen or represented in popular culture but could be living next door to any of us. For unknown reasons, viewers of the documentary have become fascinated by seeing the stories of eccentric, poor, tragic women play out with a distinct narrative, dramatic flair not dissimilar to fiction filmmaking.