by Linda Greene
Cut, no. 12-13, 1976, p. 7
That traditionally fatalistic, helpless attitude women have toward their capacity to change their lives, that sense of being doomed biologically and outside the mainstream history “down among the women”—that Wanda expresses at the beginning of Weldon’s novel, is what the film WOMAN TO WOMAN attempts to combat. In 48 minutes, WOMAN TO WOMAN explores the changes in the nature and status of U.S. women’s work throughout this century. It uses such diverse materials as formal interviews with and casual observations of women and groups of women, stills, music, animation, and old film clips of women working. Director, producer, cinematographer, and editor of the film, Donna Deitch has pulled together an amazing assortment of materials and done it superbly: the pace never flags, the sequences are just the right length, the transitions are smooth and imaginative, the tone is lively and often humorous.(1)
As a feminist educational film, WOMAN TO W014EN teaches by trying to help women educate themselves. Rather than presenting a carefully argued case, WOMAN TO WOMAN attempts to catalyze discussion by offering a variety of materials the viewers can pick over, examine, and discuss among themselves. Ultimately, this kind of film should help women to struggle together toward a greater understanding of themselves as members of an oppressed group and should help them take charge of their lives by becoming politically active. Unlike a fiction/ entertainment film, then, WOMAN TO WOMAN isn't an end in itself but an indirect means to social change.
If the idea of an educational film suggests a dry, dull one narrated by an anesthetic, oracular male voice (the kind of thing I was glad to see in high school because it got me out of classes), it couldn't be more misleading as applied to WOMAN TO WOMAN. And if the notion of interviews suggests TV—a government official going stiffly through a rehearsed ritual or the “man” on the street nervously answering reporters’ questions— that’s not the case with WOMAN TO WOMAN, either. The film shows, for example, some women talking among themselves and some talking to the camera. Two housewives affectionately but insistently try, with some success, to politicize a third. A young housewife and mother detachedly describes her experiences without commentary. Another woman analyzes her situation as typical of that of others like her, a lesbian and a professional. There are women with a fairly high level of political consciousness. For example, a young black woman recently out of jail talks about being black and poor. A white suburbanite eulogizes wifehood and motherhood in the most hackneyed terms. There are women in the film whom any woman will find similar to herself and others she'll find different.
WOMAN TO WOMAN is a political film although it doesn't agitate about a specific issue, event, or struggle. It isn't topical or immediate. It does try to generate interest in the unglamorous, everyday problems of work in the home and on the job. The film helps define what it is to be a woman in terms of the kinds of activities women may do, may not do, and must do in this society.
WOMAN TO WOMAN doesn't mean to answer questions but to pose and arouse them. It invites and even demands viewer involvement by juxtaposing discordant fragments of ideas through the different kinds of women who speak. For instance, a young woman describes in a deadened tone her monotonous days of chores as she hangs wet diapers on the line. The suburbanite, leaning cozily against her washing machine, lauds wifehood and motherhood as all any woman could want as a “career.”
The juxtaposition is bound to create sparks. “What should we make of these women?” the viewers might ask among themselves. Why are their views so different? Is either one “right?” Whose interests do their lifestyles and ideas serve? To watch the film is only to begin using it. Women can utilize its full potential by talking about the issues it raises and going out and doing something about them.
Since it’s a discussion film, WOMAN TO WOMAN shouldn't be screened as commercial films are. In theaters, the film runs and the audience goes home. Rather, a screening of WOMAN TO WOMAN would be incomplete if no discussion followed. Though coherent, WOMAN TO WOMAN doesn't have the kind of coherence a dramatic narrative film has, so there'd be no difficulty in stopping it during a screening to discuss something interesting at the stopping point. The essence of the editing is the juxtaposition of disparate materials, which stimulate thought and controversy. There’s no reason why you couldn't discuss parts of the film out of order. Whatever would catch a particular audience’s imagination would be the place to start a discussion, for the aim of the film is to get particular women to talk about their particular problems in a larger context.
I showed WOMAN TO WOMAN to some women from the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, all socialist feminist activists in the city, and asked them how they felt about it and how they'd use it. They agreed that the film was a good organizing tool and that it was especially good at covering housework, but they had a common criticism of it. The film’s politics were weak, they thought. WOMAN TO WOMAN doesn't identify the systematic nature or the economic sources of women’s oppression or get to the roots or mechanisms of women’s exploitation. They wondered if, without an overall political analysis, the film was justified in including such disparate portraits and ideas. They were bothered by the fact that the film ends up describing but not analyzing women’s oppression. It doesn't answer the question, what can women do to change things?
As the CWLU women also pointed out, one of the film’s virtues is that the women it presents talk about their actual work-related experiences of oppression. We even see some of them formulating their ideas spontaneously, apparently with some women thinking about feminism for the first time. And, as the CWLU women noted, the looseness of WOMAN TO WOMAN makes it available to a great range of women. That, my viewers agreed, is what’s so good about the film. With the help of such a work, women whose level of consciousness is not yet very developed can move further. More politically developed women have a lot to learn from it, too.
Along with the CWLU women, I think WOMAN TO WOMAN is a well-made film and an excellent organizing tool. But I also share their feeling that there are some problems with the film’s political vagueness or lack of an analysis. The women in the film don't have a clear understanding of who’s doing the oppressing (men? institutions?), and nothing in the film supplies such an explanation.(2) Some of the women in the film blame “them” or “society,” the great national blob so convenient to blame injustices on and also a concept that obfuscates the real structures of power and powerlessness. What is the “society” that doesn't recognize housework as work (“She doesn't work—she’s just a housewife”) and busts hookers instead of their customers? Who are the blurry “they” out there, the people whom one imprisoned prostitute blames for letting her rot in jail instead of training her for a better job? The film barely hints at the answers.
At the very worst, women viewers could come away from WOMAN TO WOMAN feeling depressed. When a child says near the end of the film that she'd fight if not allowed to do what she wanted when she grew up, one can feel a sense of futility because the film hasn't shown any adult women fighting successfully—either struggling or talking about struggling in an organized fashion. The film does give us a clearer sense of what it’s like to be down among the women, and it does give us a sense, very valuable, of women’s rich capacities and vast energy. But it doesn't show a woman who’s committed to working with other women for change and really doing it. I think this is the core of the problem that the CWLU women were getting at. Since WOMAN TO WOMAN doesn't present women in organized struggle together, it presents no real alternatives or strategies for change.
Several women in the film do stress the need for women to get together as comrades. It would have been helpful if Deitch had filmed a woman talking, say, about her experiences with other women running a self-help clinic, organizing working women, putting out a women’s paper—someone who could talk about the problems and the rewards of working on a political project. The omission of such a woman, however, doesn't damage the film seriously. As a character says in Marge Piercy’s novel, Woman on the Edge of Time says,
Furthermore, WOMAN TO WOMAN’s one flaw might matter very little at a particular screening if the viewers are imaginative, thoughtful and eloquent and if there’s a group of skillful, politically sophisticated discussion leaders or viewers present. After all, with a film such as this, the viewers’ responses finally determine the usefulness and value of the film.
1. There are some nice touches—red fade-outs (a device Deitch might have taken from CRIES AND WHISPERS) and credit given to all the women in the film and on the crew through brief clips with the women’s names underneath. These clips really make the film seem like a joint effort and minimize the traditional director-as-superhero idea. There was only one poorly executed sequence in the film, as a friend of mine pointed out: it’s an interview with an old woman who makes dolls. The scene opens with the camera moving slowly over the face of a woman who, judging from the voice-over monologue, seems to be the dollmaker. Yet the camera finally comes to rest on the face of another woman, the real dollmaker. It’s disorienting to have the camera linger over the face of someone other than the speaker. What Deitch could have done here was to have the camera focus on the dolls, particularly the sad clown dolls, whose faces are strikingly like that of their creator.
2. The only time I could detect the filmmaker’s intervention, or a comment on the “action,” was an eerie, greenish, dream-like, silent, repeated shot of prison gates shutting, as though she were trying to suggest that women are trapped—a pretty depressing and destructive idea, especially considering that most of the rest of the film tries to point out just the opposite, that women can and should change their lives.
Credits and distribution information
WOMAN TO WOMAN, 1975. Color, 48 min. Produced, directed, photographed, and edited by Donna Deitch. Music: Barbara Jackson, Sandi Agida. Cindy Fitzpatrick, Virginia Rubino. Available for rental at $60 or sale at $525 from Donna Deitch, 17 Ironside, Venice, CA 90291 (213/ 392-3550).