Since time immemorial, when two or more women have entered a public powder room together, men have grown anxious. Their worries about what women do in there range from reviling the male kind to fomenting revolution.
"We talk about sex most of the time," reveals one of the female "bathroom club" members in Katja Esson's 2003 Oscar-nominated short documentary "Ferry Tales," airing tonight on Cinemax.
Esson, a German filmmaker who lives in New York, has uncovered a private club of sorts of women who spend their half-hour ferry ride in the restroom, applying makeup and talking. They commute from their homes on Staten Island to work in Manhattan.
This floating boudoir is a scene of gossip, intrigue, drama, even a bit of psychodrama. It resembles nothing so much as a backstage, with private women preparing for the play that is their public life.
Esson began filming in the ferry's women's restroom in 2001, ultimately shooting 60 hours of video over a 14-month period. She identified a core group of about 10 women -- ranging from domestic abuse survivor Valerie Campbell to Elizabeth Ferris, who works in administration for the New York City Ballet -- and interviewed them at length on camera. The resulting 40-minute film is both entertaining and moving.
Sociologists would call the Staten Island ferry's women's restroom a subculture; psychologists might label it an encounter group; feminists, perhaps, a (powder) room of their own. All of those descriptions would be accurate. "The women's bathroom is a phenomenon," says one woman. "You have no idea the scope of what goes on in there."
What seems at first to be superficial interaction -- jockeying for seats near the mirror, swapping makeup tips, otiose squabbling -- soon is revealed as something far more meaningful for the regulars, most of them working mothers. Secrets are shared, from a husband's infidelity to molestation as a child to parenting problems. The women's concerns transcend differences in race and class -- "I consider the powder room the great equalizer," one says.
For a time, it's revealed, the wife and mistress of the same man shared the ferry bathroom space every morning, which created a division of loyalty among the women. At another point in the film, we learn that one woman came to the ferry bathroom even though she was bleeding profusely after an abortion. When another woman asked why she was there, she replied, "I just wanted to see somebody I could connect with."
"It's a break from whatever they just left before they came in here and whatever they have to face when they leave," another powder room regular says. "And it might be the break that keeps them going."
Just as production on "Ferry Tales" began, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. At first, filmmaker Esson thought she might have to scrap the project. Instead, she decided to keep shooting after 9/11. The result is a tangent almost as jarring as the day itself, as the women relate their experiences on that day. But Esson manages to skirt bathos as she ties their 9/11 stories into the culture of the powder room, with the women explaining how they were brought even closer. After 9/11, the group "became more family in a way," said one.
In the end, the film is a celebration of women's resilience, especially when they've got a network of female friends to catch them when they tumble.
"Twenty minutes -- that's all chicks need to get it together," one ferry sage concludes.
When: 7 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)
Director: Katja Esson. Producers: Esson, Sabine Schneck, Corinna Sager. Executive producer: Sheila Nevins