Reviews: ‘#Female Pleasure,’ ‘¡Las Sandinistas!’ and more documentaries
Swiss filmmaker Barbara Miller’s documentary “#Female Pleasure” interweaves profiles of five feminist activists: American author Deborah Feldman, born into a New York City Hasidic community; Somali émigré Leyla Hussein, a female genital mutilation victim and psychotherapist in London; Japanese manga artist Rokudenashiko; Bavarian scholar Doris Wagner, a former nun; and Vithika Yadav, an Indian sex education publisher in Delhi.
Each provides an insider view of the unique brand of misogyny that informs their respective cultures. All are survivors of rape or other forms of sexual assault. The issues they confront are not new, yet the stories of their radicalization are engaging, and Miller’s deft editing and objective approach result in a surprisingly intimate and life-affirming film.
Rather than sexual pleasure, the women discuss patriarchal constraints on women’s sexuality. In one of the most arresting scenes in the documentary, Hussein demonstrates, with a clay model, the three progressively disfiguring cuts to girls’ genitals. Her male audience is outraged and, afterward, apparently transformed by their newfound consciousness of brutality.
Actually, Hussein is reenacting her wounding and her path to self-actualization — and that of every one of Miller’s subjects. In this cathartic process lies hope, a solution of sorts, although it is Rokudenashiko, who makes ceramic molds of vaginas, that offers a tangible redemption. In her art, biology is beauty. One flaw in Miller’s envisioning of global feminist solidarity is the eliding of older women whose living memory of injustice might have conferred context and meaning.
In English, German, Japanese with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts March 15, Laemmle Claremont
Reclaimed from the macho forces eager to dismiss women’s merits, the herstory of the Nicaraguan revolution comes alive in all its feminist glory thanks to Jenny Murray’s debut documentary feature “¡Las Sandinistas!”
For the female guerrillas of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), who defied patriarchal hindrances and bravely volunteered in the bloodstained armed struggle of the 1960s and ’70s to overthrow the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship, liberating the country from the ruthless regime was only half the battle. They were “fighting a revolution inside a revolution,” as rampant sexism plagued their efforts for collective advancement.
Though its construction is formally conventional, the doc’s compendium of archival footage showing women in combat and assuming positions of strategic power is categorical testament of their patriotic deeds. Murray pairs those strident images next to interviews with multiple Sandinistas who remain a vital part of their country’s political life in the face of abuses by current President Daniel Ortega, who rose through the FSLN ranks as their contemporary.
Pragmatic in her understanding of memory and how the movement pushed women to the sidelines, former commander Dora María Téllez is prominently featured among the exceptional group of subjects. Spanning several decades, the film also touches on the aftermath of the conflict and the U.S.-funded Contras who violently halted progress under the pretense of confronting communism.
An enthralling and imperative ode to forgotten heroines for whom monuments haven’t been erected, “¡Las Sandinistas!” is simultaneously a wake-up call for Americans to confront their country’s responsibility in the instability across Latin America and the world at large.
— Carlos Aguilar
In English and Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Starts March 15, Laemmle Monica Film Center
‘Island of the Hungry Ghosts’
Christmas Island is a place of limbo for not only the red crabs migrating across its jungles, but the asylum seekers stuck in its detention center and the spirits of those believed to be left behind. With “Island of the Hungry Ghosts,” director Gabrielle Brady crafts a haunting documentary filled with devastating stories and images.
Poh Lin Lee is a trauma counselor for the refugees who come to the Australian-controlled island, south of Indonesia in the Indian Ocean, fleeing terrors in their home countries. Her job is a challenging one as she struggles to help these displaced people, unsure of whether they’ll be at the detention center for days, weeks or months. That lack of certainty weighs on them all, adding to their previous pain.
Brady parallels their experiences alongside the mass migration of red crabs, offering images that express the enormity of the crisis and the seeming futility of helping just one of them. When words fail, the poetry of the visuals takes over. But “Island of the Hungry Ghosts” is also meditative, with the subtle calming sounds of fingers running through sand and crabs crawling across the road en masse.
This documentary understands that it can’t solve an issue that expands beyond the borders of the small island into the rest of the world, but it does offer insight into the plight of people caught in the tide. It’s a humane, compassionate film, simultaneously full of beauty, sadness and struggle.
— Kimber Myers
‘Island of the Hungry Ghosts’
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Starts March 15, Downtown Independent, Los Angeles
If you like your war images raw, unfiltered and as anxious and haphazard as battle itself, then the brief documentary “Combat Obscura” may be for you. But if you prefer a bit of context and structure to your feature footage, then this film, co-shot in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012 by Marine Corps combat cameraman Miles Lagoze, might test your patience — and interest.
Producer-director Lagoze, tasked with taking “wholesome” footage for military recruiting and archival purposes, also turned his cameras on the kind of raucous, overly frank examples of dicey war-zone life anathema to the Corps’ upright messaging.
Lagoze gave his bosses what they wanted and then, several years later, assembled the more sensitive, potentially incriminating material into a collage-like look at his battalion’s daily experiences — the good, the bad and the ugly.
These scenes feature misguided deaths and injuries, dubious interactions with local kids, dope smoking (“Luckily for us Afghanistan is a hash farm!”), constant F-bombs, sexual references, trash talk, chaos, and overly gung-ho attitudes (“When I get shot at it’s fun!”).
But it’s hardly all negative: There’s a memorial soccer game, lively camaraderie among the grunts and a distinct sense of loyalty and commitment.
Still, due to the movie’s deliberate lack of narrative arc, thematic stance and clear characterizations (the soldiers feel interchangeable and Logaze’s interview style is weak), we’re never always sure what we’re watching — or why.
— Gary Goldstein
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Playing: Starts March 15, Laemmle Glendale
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