Women fight back

by Gina Marchetti

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 34-35
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

Films sponsored by police departments, mental health institutions, welfare services and various other governmental or private institution attempt to instruct women on how to deal with violence. Their clichéd images come quickly and powerfully to all of our minds: A young, attractive woman, wearing high-heels that click ominously in the night, walks down a dark alley. An anonymous assailant appears out of the darkness. He is often black or dark-complexioned, blending into the shadows, until he strikes out at the woman with a fist or a knife. There's a graphic depiction of the assault that's often racist and not representative but is a sure-fire attention grabber. Then a policeman appears on the screen to instruct the viewer that she should not walk down dark, deserted alleys without a male escort. The lessons are always too clear. Stay at home and lock the doors. Venturing out into the dark world invites victimization. Remain passive. Avoid trouble.

A few films actually try to give pointers on self-defense, but they seem to begin with the same image — the dark alley, the beautiful victim, and the anonymous, ever-watchful, ever-waiting attacker. In this light, Lydia Dean Pilcher's documentary film KIAI! WOMEN IN SELF-DEFENSE (1983) studiously avoids sensational depictions of violence and victimization. KIAI! does not dish out easy-to-forget or easy-to-ignore advice. No privileged voice of authority booms out at the viewer.[1][open notes in new window]

Rather, KIAI! presents a picture of women's self-defense activities, of how they respond to and analyze violence, of how they organize for self-education. The film does not illustrate step-by-step how to down an attacker or tell what kind of bolt to use on the front door. Instead, the film supports women who have decided to defend themselves. It delineates processes of self-education and public awareness, women's organization and optimism. Drawing on the lives of the women involved with the Brooklyn Women's Martial Arts Group, KIAI! focuses on their everyday experiences, analyzing how women deal with all sorts of violence — from intimidation, humiliation, and unsolicited advances to incest, wife-beating and rape.

KIAI!'s unique tone can be traced to filmmaker Lydia Dean Filcher's intimate contact with a. group in her neighborhood, the Brooklyn Women's Martial Arts Organization.[2] This group originally attracted Pilcher because it has a commitment to community service, to teaching self-defense to all women. The group's outreach programs have made self-defense classes inviting to women who normally would not feel comfortable with any kind of physical training, let alone in the martial arts, Unlike most traditional martial arts schools, the Brooklyn Women's Martial Arts Organization primarily teaches practical self-defense. Although it offers goju (soft-hand) karate instruction to interested women, most women come just for self-defense training. Thus, there are workshops in senior citizens' homes, feminist events and other such service programs in the Brooklyn community. At these events, the students challenge the stereotype that karate is only for the young and physically fit.

After observing classes and getting to know the women personally, Pilcher began shooting. She received a number of grants to complete the project, and it became her master's thesis for her degree from New York University.

As the film opens, we see a Brooklyn Women's Martial Arts public education event. In these events, they combine street theatre, practical self-defense training, and grassroots organizing. KIAI!'s first shots allow viewers to identify with women filmed in a crowd watching the outdoor demonstration. The opening montage shows medium close-ups and close-ups of women of different races, ages (including senior citizens and young children), economic, and cultural backgrounds. Some seem skeptical. Others enthusiastically follow the demonstration.

As the film progresses, this varied audience evolves into the equally varied group of women involved in the Brooklyn self-defense organization. These women's experiences of violence and reasons for learning martial arts are as different as their ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds. Yet the teachers share a common experience with the women watching the street exhibition and — by extension — with the film's viewers. That is, the women share a common feeling of impotence in the face of male aggression.

The film immediately challenges the notion that being born female means being born to victimization. A woman there exclaims loudly, "All women can defend themselves." The screen then fades to black, and an older woman — well into her sixties — appears. As we hear her voice off-screen, we see her daily routine at a senior citizen's center where she talks and laughs with other women. Her story contradicts this cheerful image. As we see her in the security of the senior center, she discusses her terrifying experierice of a mugging. Accompanying that story of violence is an image that shows the possibility of security and camaraderie. Senior women are doubly victimized — by age and by gender. Thus it becomes doubly important to show that they too have a right and an ability to fight back. Later in the film, we see this woman training, developing skills to use her cane as a weapon.

Another interview continues in the same vein. We see a young graphic designer working securely in her home and concentrating intensely. On the soundtrack we hear her talk about her close friend's rape. The artist continues her story on camera. Once again, the film keeps violence in perspective. In contrast to the story about violence, the image shows an active working woman.

The next interview takes place in a group situation. A West Indian woman describes her experience confronting an attempted rape. Again, her description is juxtaposed against an image which counters that story of fear, isolation and impotence, an image of group sympathy, security and support. Moreover, the film viewer is intimately drawn into the group when the interviewee speaks directly to the camera. It is as if the camera-operator (and the audience) were also part of the group.

The first three interviews discuss women's fears of the anonymous attacker, of being threatened in the public sphere, and of random urban violence. This is the type of violence so graphically presented to the female viewer by Hollywood and the news. In KIAI!, however, the emotional impact of these experiences softens as the visual track shows women in secure, active community contexts. Anonymous violence becomes something to confront and tackle together.

Statistically this type of violence is rare. However, in its depiction, it gets privileged as the most common type of violence against women shown in fictional films and on the news. In reality, women are most often victimized by men they know, very often family members. KIAI!'s further interviews show this other, more common, side of the coin — domestic violence and incest. A woman appears on screen, seated comfortably in her home, relaxed. She tells how her brothers repeatedly raped her as she was growing up.

Within a similarly placid, domestic setting, a woman sits in her living room with a young child on one knee and family photos displayed on the wall. She tells in voice-over how her husband beat her. While we hear her, the camera tracks across these photos of the woman, her husband and her six children. Later this woman reappears to discuss how incompetent and insensitive the police are and how inadequate the criminal justice system is in dealing with domestic violence. The film brings the issue of self-defense into the home, where self-defense is most often needed.

KIAI! translates feelings of impotence and victimization into activity. The interviews are never presented in isolation. At first the film shows the need for action in the face of threatening circumstances. Then we see women taking action. Using upbeat music and fast-paced editing, KIAI! shows the power and dynamism of the Brooklyn Women's Martial Arts group activities.

The graphic artist again relates another incident in which a friend was raped while on vacation. Her anger becomes translated into activity. She appears wearing a karate gi (traditional Japanese karate uniform), devoting the same concentration she demonstrated while drawing to her martial arts exercises.

The music swells. Group classes appear on screen. An "instructor" teaches kicks, punches and other techniques. We see the power and energy of collective activity. In fact, although some women in the film appear to have quite a bit more skill than others, no "voice of authority" stands out. Personal experience leads to collective action. Women with experience teach self-defense sessions, but the film does not privilege them with more screen time or give their comments more weight. Moreover, the beltless, non-hierarchical karate style that the group practices emphasizes mutual learning and support over competitiveness.

The group solidarity takes on another dimension as women discuss how they felt embarrassed at first. Once again, concrete images place past experiences in a new context. Feelings of awkwardness give way to images of women — young, old, fat, thin, graceful, or uncoordinated-doing various exercises powerfully, skillfully, and with determination.

KIAI! demonstrates that violence against women is not always physical. Martial arts training also helps women deal with emotional and verbal aggression. One woman tells how she practices in front of a mirror to look at people differently. After a woman observes, "We're too nice," we see a scene in which women practice saying "no" to men. An instructor discusses the importance of the kiai. That's a Japanese word for a powerful yell, which originates in the gut and demonstrates power and courage to the opponent. This same spirit of kiai begins to permeate the women's lives completely.

The training changes negative feelings women have about their bodies, their right to occupy public space, or their right to disagree with or ignore a man. This mental growth becomes an integral part of the training. One woman realizes that now she walks differently, with more confidence and occupying more space. Another woman, shown as a bookkeeper, tells how the self-defense training helped her be more assertive at her new job. And another tells how good it felt to be able to tell a man to stop his sexual advances.

KIAI! not only chronicles women's development from personal experience to group activity, but also shows the next step — community outreach and organizing. The street demonstration which opens the film is not presented as an isolated event, but plays a role in the group's organizing process. Such demonstrations dramatically reclaim the public sphere for women's productive and creative use, free of intimidation. All women are encouraged to participate.

In addition to demonstrating dramatic group forms (katas) and teaching some basic self-defense techniques to the women gathered, the group also puts on a skit to emphasize self-defense consciousness. One woman portays a housewife, another the front door (she holds a placard saying "door" to indicate her role), and the third an ex-husband who had beaten her. The woman playing the husband cajoles, threatens and pleads with his wife to open the door. The woman playing the wife is firm; she has learned to say "no" to male violence. This little Brechtian bit of street theatre makes a statement in a witty, innovative fashion. We see no blows or physical violence, but rather other possibilities are voiced and alternatives shown to the audience on the street and in the movie auditorium.

In her essay, "The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film," Julia Lesage postulates a relation between feminist consciousness-raising groups and the feminist documentary film.[3] Within the context of community organizing and outreach, KIAI! effectively operates on a number of levels: First, women in the audience can compare themselves to or sympathize with the women who speak in the film. We hear "ordinary" women — black, white, Hispanic, bookkeepers, artists, housewives, young, and old. They confront both extraordinary and common violence — from verbal harassment to rape, incest and wife-beating. Women in the audience can come to see themselves as part of a class which is "kept in its place" in a variety of ways.

KIAI! also gives women viewers "permission." Various self-defense tactics have previously been considered inappropriate for women. In the film, we see women of all sizes, ages and shapes working out and learning to be effective martial artists. This allows women viewers to be more comfortable about taking the first steps, especially when learning to punch or kick no longer seems so alien. The film helps to alleviate a paralyzing self-consciousness. It works against women's deeply ingrained, socialized feelings of passivity and ineffectiveness.

Third, the film offers support to both women involved in martial arts and to those considering learning self-defense. Organizational activities and ideas are suggested throughout the film, but with no step-by-step or rigid instructional program. Women can blend their own styles or ideas about self-defense with those presented in the film. The film simply and powerfully encourages women to organize and take action.

While in North Carolina, I saw how a women's self-defense group there, the Triangle Women's Karate Association, used KIAI! as an organizational aid. Working in teams, the head instructor, Kathy Hopwood, and one or two more advanced students or assistant instructors show the film to various organizations, such as university women's groups, convalescent homes, hospitals, or women's crisis centers. Then in discussion, viewers are always given the opportunity to ask questions, draw parallels to their own experiences, and receive some special instructions on self-defense. Some screenings are for women only, to avoid feelings of intimidation evoked by the presence of man. In those screenings, actual self-defense techniques are demonstrated, and audience members encouraged to participate, learning simple kicks and jabs. The sessions conclude with an exercise in which women team up and take turns punching through pieces of newspaper, as they prove the efficacy of what they learned. In this way, the film screening creates an atmosphere for women to participate comfortably in gestures which may seem odd, difficult, or "unfeminine."

The film's use as an organizing tool seems tied to its formal departure from the style of either contemporary news documentaries or instructional films. KIAI! does not present a dramatic example of violence and then follow with expert advice and precautions. It also avoids sexism, racism and sensationalism, so much a part of the dominant media's representation of female victimization. KIAI! energetically cross-cuts from the personal to the public, from stories of victimization to images of energy, activity and productivity. It offers women a different kind of information in a critically different fashion.


1. I would like to thank the Triangle Women's Karate Association (of North Carolina) for making a print of this film available to me. The film is available for rental from Filmmakers' Library, 133 East 58th Street, Suite 703A, New York, NY 10022.

2. I gathered this information from a conversation with the filmmakers. See also Robyn Kovat, "Documentary Filmmaker Interested in Women's Issues," Prospect Press, Oct. 22-Nov. 10, 1983, pp. 15ff.

3. Julia Lesage, "The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film," Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 3, No. 4 (Fall, 1978), pp. 50723.