Life can be fast and sometimes it takes less than 80 minutes for a newborn to become a pensioner. The baby that was just lying on the blanket in the middle of the room starts to crawl in the next shot and then walks out of the door before it will have grown into a young girl that calls her daddy on her toy phone. The teenage girl will be a young woman, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and a widow and her story will be told through 68 different women. No man will ever be visible.
Filmmaker Ken Wardrop started an ambitious experiment when he set out to portray middle class families in the Irish Midlands by using only female protagonists and leaving them nameless and placeless. His touching documentary chronicle of life and death works with a very austere camera aesthetic and enfolds a complex and heart-warming portrait of time, tradition, and gender roles, while also raising questions of style and content.
There’s a little girl that tells us how her dad is very strict with her drinking a glass of milk a day and another girl recounts her father’s outbursts when there’s trouble at home. One teenage girl confesses that she drove into her mother’s flowerbed when getting private driving lessons, while another one wonders which boy is texting her to come to a club while the camera is rolling. The narrative floats towards a couple of newly-wed women who seem happy with their marriage but at the same time claim their individual right for a room of their own.
Through an elegant and completely effortless montage of personal oral history, His and Hers gives us little insights into the world of straight white womanhood in the rural areas of an Ireland that you rarely get to see. Many of these pieces of life may seem banal, but when put together as a kaleidoscope of everyday stories, they add up to a gripping tale of normativity, conventions, and local life.
One of the most interesting paradoxes of His and Hers is that despite the complete visual absence of male protagonists, men – fathers, husbands, and sons – build the core of most stories. One woman talks about her husband’s dirty laundry, another laughingly admits that her son has reached an age where it’s too cool for him to hug her, and later in the film an elderly widow misses her deceased husband so much that she wakes up every morning hugging her pillow. These monologues about men have an interesting gender effect that subverts any kind of feminist reading of the film and at the same time renders all men invisible and quite literally speechless.
Personally, I am very suspicious when a film, fiction or non-fiction, presents a norm, especially a sexual norm, as universal, which is something His and Hers definitely does. There are men and women, naturally they’re straight, coincidentally they are all white and middle-class too. This documentary doesn’t seem to know or care for any kind of minority, but once you take this film for what it is and shows, you might want to take a closer look at the images in which these women appear.
Most shots are carefully and strictly composed and show women framed by their interiors and, therefore, their domesticity. There are no establishing or outside shots and the unusual pictorial design often seems to confine its female protagonists to walls, rooms, and limited spaces. It’s also striking to see how tidy these houses are. That’s not very surprising since a camera is present, you might say, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that something uncomfortable or compulsive lies in these images.
Although His and Hers is a very positive and often very funny field study, you might also start to think about tradition, marriage, and heteronormativity as a cage or even a prison for humans, in general, and women, specifically. This thinking might appear to be far-fetched, but the fact that a small film like this even allows your mind to wander in such directions is proof of the strength of the documentary and the clever cinematographic strategies of its filmmaker.
His & Hers, Ireland 2009, 80 min
director: Ken Wardrop, cinematography: Kate McCullough/ Michael Lavelle, languages: (Irish) English, distribution: déjà-vu film
Berlin screenings: Fsk, Brotfabrik Kino
To win 2×1 ticket for His and Hers at Fsk on Saturday, July 6th at 6.30 pm, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org telling me how you picture yourself at the age of 80. Deadline is Friday at 1 pm.