Daughter Rite
Living with our pain, and love

by Jane Feuer

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 12-13
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Michelle Citron's film DAUGHTER RITE commences with the voice of a narrator, speaking in a dull tone as if reading from a diary. At the age of 28, the voice tells us, she began working out her conflicting feelings toward her mother. Now, two years later, she is able to dedicate this film to her mother, "a woman whom I am very much like and not like at all." Presumably the 50-minute film we are about to see will detail this process. Under the voice, however, we receive a different message. In a blown-up home-movie image, slowed down to a crawl and printed over and over again, a little girl and her mother run toward each other, always missing each other's embrace. Finally, the mother grabs the daughter and the film's title comes up. A curious "daughter rite," indeed. For the remainder of the film, similar narrated home-movie footage alternates with "documentary" segments (described below) in which two grown sisters discuss their mother. Each "story" expresses with visual and verbal force the schizophrenia every woman I know feels toward her mother: total hatred amidst total love. The diarist appears to move toward a resolution of this conflict; the sisters in the documentary do not.

Throughout the film, the diarist speaks directly of her ambivalence. As home movie images of the two little sisters carrying suitcases appear to float slowly off to screen-left (as if trying to escape their mother's grasp), the voice intones: "I hate my weaknesses…, my weaknesses are my mother." The image switches to the little girls, dressed daintily and identically in blue dresses, leaving the house. The voice continues: "I hate … my bitchiness and my selfishness. That part, too, is my mother." The little girls come toward the camera as the voice finishes: "And in hating my mother, I hate myself." Yet later in the film the diarist deals with that other side of mother-hating which is mother-loving. The home-movie footage is of a baby buggy race in which dozens of little girls in lace dresses are socialized into frilly feminine roles as their mothers cheer from the sidelines. And yet, over this scene, which would appear the ultimate in indoctrination into passivity and weakness, the voice speaks of forgiveness: "I am not the angry one. I am filled with sadness and love for this woman." In the final home-movie sequence of the film we see the mother as a young woman, laughing with her daughters, walking across a green field with her arm around the older daughter. The narrator tells of a dream in which her sister dies and the mother helps clean up the remains. The sequence ends with images of reconciliation and the words. "She holds me in her arms and I start to cry."

I have trouble finding the proper language with which to write about this film. Molly Haskell said she was a film critic first and a feminist second, but DAUGHTER RITE does not allow for such dichotomizing. I shall speak of Michelle Citron's film with the voice of the film critic, but I watched it as a daughter.

Already the film critic is dissatisfied with the daughter's description of the film. For in describing alternating "documentary" and "homemovie" segments, I have already imposed a questionable reading on the film. Although traditional viewing habits cause me to see only two segments, in fact, there are three separate "channels," each seemingly belonging to the three major phyla of the filmmaking kingdom: fiction, documentary, and experimental. The first channel consists of a voice-over narration in the first person, a literary device associated with fiction film (but also a traditional documentary technique). The second channel, under the narration on the image track, consists of optically reprinted scenes from home movies reminiscent of experimental technique. The third channel, presented separately, consists of "documentary" footage of two sisters talking about their mother. It is both natural and tempting to interpret the narration as dominant and as the voice of the author due to a longstanding convention of "voice of god" narration in documentary film. It is also tempting, because most films we see employ sound synchronously, to assume that the narration is describing the home movie footage under it. Finally, it is almost impossible on the first viewing not to try to create relationships among the narrative voice, the little girls in the home movie footage, and the adult women in the "documentary" footage.

In trying to unify the three channels prematurely, one is tempted to call DAUGHTER RITE a "documentary." This brings with it a set of expectations (which the film frustrates). If it is a documentary, then the home movie footage (which otherwise may seem staged due to the reprinting) must represent "real" images of the relationship the narrator (who must be the filmmaker) has with her mother (presumably the women in the home movie footage and the woman whom the sisters speak of obsessively but whom we never see). One student of mine even went so far as to assume that the older sister who narrates was the same as the older sister in the home movies and the older sister in the "cinema verité" footage. He deduced that the older sister must be played by the director herself. Years of watching films which demand such a unified reading make this a most sensible interpretation.

When we look at the film microscopically, however, the surface unity fissures. First of all, the "reality" of the home movie footage is suspect, not because the raw material is not actually home movie footage (it is), but because that footage has already been subjected to a process of interpretation by the filmmaker. Typical moments and movements are selected and printed over and over again: the mother grabs the little girls, pokes them; the girls wear "party" dresses, hair curlers, wash dishes, learn feminine behavior. Camera movements are added to provide new meanings; shots are taken from their original continuity and juxtaposed for effect. The original hone movies no longer exist for us; the filmmaker has revealed the "reality" behind the facade of happy family celebration the father's camera recorded.

Moreover, this patchwork document of some woman's childhood is not necessarily there in subordination to that identical woman's narrrtive voice. The images not only possess their own ambiguity but also frequently contradict the voice. In the second segment of the film, the little girls ride with mother on the Swan boat at Boston's Public Garden. The mother sticks out her tongue at the camera, she waves at the camera. Is this not a joyous occasion? Yet the voice-always somewhat neutral and flat — speaks angry words: "I hate her dishonesty." Because the images do not pin down meaning to the extent that the words do, one's first temptation is to bind the words to that particular image. But might not the words apply equally well (in this case better) to other images, angrier images, not just those in the home movie footage but those in the "cinema verité" footage as well? Why not apply these words to the image of the older daughter in the home movies seeming to kiss the younger but also seemingly trying to strangle her? Or to a birthday party during which the mother's hand stabs repeatedly at her daughter's hair?

If we think of the information carried by the three channels as a kind of floating free play of associations, each viewer will be able to discover for herself a wealth of connections within the film without ever having to say, this is what the film means or this is the author speaking. Nor will there be a need to find a narrative progression in the film. The relationship among the channels and segments becomes thematic, not linear or chronological, and the voices that speak take on a more generalized identity. The voices speak not one neurotic woman who got messed up by her mother but rather the common experience of many daughters and many mothers caught up in cultural inevitabilities.

In this way the interaction among the channels becomes complex. Sometimes the voice over is autonomous. At the end the voice speaks over black leader: "I imagine my mother seeing this; feeling the pain, eroding the pleasure. 'Why do you have to say all this?' she asks." Sometimes the voice seems to refer to the home movie footage, sometimes not. We see the little girls sitting at a table with mother. As the voice intones, "We would never be close." the camera flash pans down the mother's arm to the child, the mother reaching out for the child but not quite making it. A seeming synchrony. But in many other cases no such obvious connection exists.

Similarly, at times the "cinema verité" segments seem to relate to the home movie footage or to the voice or both — sometimes not. As in the home movie footage, we see two females ambivalent in relation to a mother figure. Both sets of sisters both hate and love the mother. In both, the mother is painted as devouring and yet nurturing. In both each sister in turn reveals a "good" and a "bad" relationship to the mother. And the voice could be describing either mother. How many mothers are there? How many daughters? The film forces us to ask such questions as we view.

This call for an ongoing intellectual as well as emotional involvement in the film seems to be issued by the "cinema verité" documentary segments as well. Those, too, like the "reconstituted" home movies, are not what they seem. As the film progresses, the "cinema verité" footage challenges a whole filmmaking style. It's necessary to see DAUGHTER RITE in a tradition of feminist filmmaking in order to comprehend just what is being deconstructed. "Cinema verité," often referred to in the U.S. as "direct cinema," evolved in the early sixties in reaction against heavily narrated documentaries, which imposed a preconceived point of view of the material. Direct cinema, in theory, represents an extreme "realist" aesthetic in which the profilmic event is allowed to unfold before the camera, unscripted and without preconception on the part of the filmmaker. [1] Julia Lesage has explained why feminist filmmakers of the early seventies were attracted to this form of documentary, approximating as it did the structure of the consciousness-raising group and of openness and trust among women. As Lesage explains it,

"Many of the first feminist documentaries used a simple format to present to the audience (presumably composed primarily of women) a picture of the ordinary details of women's lives, their thoughts — told directly by the protagonists to the camera." [2]

DAUGHTER RITE begins firmly within this tradition. Two sisters sit at their mother's kitchen table, and in one take, the younger sister describes her hostility at her mother's hovering over her at the birth of her child. The sister seems to be talking to the filmmaker, presumably another woman, seated to one side of the camera. The sisters' interaction is natural and shows no camera awareness because they are addressing the camera/filmmaker as women, simply and directly. In the second segment, the sisters sit side by side on a sofa, and their interaction (in direct address) is recorded with the full repertoire of "cinema verité" techniques. Out of respect for real space and time, there are no cuts. The camera pans to pick up each sister as she talks, coming to rest on the older sister for a monologue about her mother's invasion of her youthful privacy. As the older sister talks, we see the younger sister's hand come into the frame to brush back her sister's hair, again emphasizing the presence of the younger in the offscreen space just to the left of the frame. Another "verité" technique — zooming in for a closer shot and focusing up on screen (rack focus) — also avoids the necessity of cutting out any segment of the interaction as well as proving that the zoom was spontaneous, the lens not prefocused. The entire segment is "coded" in "cinema verité" style. But we tend to interpret this stylistic coding as "reality." Both the "naive" and the "sophisticated" viewer are likely to assume that what they see is "real."

As the "cinema verité" segments progress, mode of address shifts from one of direct address to the camera to one of objective observation of the sisters as they interact in increasingly intimate ways with one another. In a seemingly unmotivated segment, we watch them collaborating on a fruit salad with which neither winds up satisfied (echoes of the narrator's mother?). We watch them sitting on the floor hooting over their mother's phonograph records. An argument ensues over their mother's finances (again echoing the earlier narration). The camera pans the distance that has appeared between them. In the next segment, the younger sister returns to the mode of direct address as she narrates the story of a rape. Finally, we observe them again, going through the mother's bedroom drawers, making discoveries. In each case, whether the address is direct or observational, the panoply of "verité" techniques clues us that this footage is somehow "true" or "natural" or "real." Therefore many viewers are shocked to discover at the end of the film that these scenes have been played by actresses. A careful observer may have noticed that the camera work anticipated certain actions and that the sisters do things no one is likely to do in front of a camera, but in my experience even professional documentary filmmakers have been "deceived" by the footage of the sisters. "Why is the filmmaker trying to dupe us in this way?" many have asked.

I believe this is a legitimate question and one whose answer opens up an inquiry into the appropriateness of the "cinema verité" mode for feminist film practice. It should also help us to question the meaning of terms such as "truth," "fiction," and "documentary."

"Verité" means "truth," but "cinema verité" never gives us a transcendent truth. The French school of "cinema verité" was far more honest than the Americans in acknowledging that the "realist" style is merely another ideologically determined method of recording images on film. [3] Nonetheless, we tend to interpret footage shot in this "realist" style as "true." DAUGHTER RITE deconstructs such equations, substituting an enacted or "fictional" version which grasps a number of contradictory truths about women's lives with mother, "truths" which deny the easy resolution provided by narrative closure. Using actresses is arguably more "true" in the philosophical sense than using "real women" in such roles. This is because, in practice, "cinema verité" films become films about "real" people dealing with the intrusion of a camera into their lives, a fact the French acknowledged from the beginning but that the Americans came to grips with much later or not at all (the Maysles' GREY GARDENS takes the presence of the filmmakers into account; the Raymonds' AN AMERICAN FAMILY does not).

In slowly revealing to us the "fictional" nature of her film, Citron is not deceiving us; rather, she is making us see that "documentaries," in purporting to be "truer" than fiction, may have been deceiving us all along. DAUGHTER RITE in this sense interrogates traditional forms of filmmaking adapted by early feminist filmmakers, asking us to consider what forms feminist "documentaries" may take in the future.

The beauty of Citron's subject and of her treatment of it is that the more personal it becomes, the more political it becomes. The formal complexity of the film is necessitated by the complexity of the subject. Since even one woman's reaction to her mother is bound to be fraught with contradictions. And since Citron is broaching the long-taboo subject of sister-hating, it is necessary for the film to question its own roots as a feminist film. DAUGHTER RITE has to avoid the easy Utopian solution that the verité approach implies. Just as women can't suddenly love each other because it's politically correct, so also a film need not provide "solutions" in order to be a valuable feminist document.

Ultimately, the value of the form DAUGHTER RITE takes lies in the way it forces each woman to reflect upon her own daughter rites. DAUGHTER RITE provides a sublimely painful experience not easily reduced to a message. In its emotive power, DAUGHTER RITE might well teach a lesson to those avant-garde radical filmmakers set upon sacrificing identification and emotional involvement on the altar of mere cognition. Every woman who has a mother ought to see this film.


1. See Stephen Mamber, Cinema Verité in America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974), for a presentation of the philosophy animating early American direct cinema. See also Eileen McGarry, "Documentary, Realism, and Women's Cinema," Women and Film, 2 (Summer 1975), for a feminist critique of this notion of "realism." It should be noted that the French cinema verité tradition (Chris Marker, Jean Rouch) was far more interested in acknowledging the presence of the camera as part of the diegesis.

2. "The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film," Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 3, No. 4 (Fall 1g78).

3. Eileen McGarry's article, cited above, as well as recent articles on documentary in Screen and Jump Cut deconstruct the notion of cinema verité documentary as "realist."