SELMA REZGUI discusses the series of shorts Men by Women at Underwire Film Festival.

Part of Underwire Film Festival — which celebrates filmmaking by and about women, aiming to address gender inequality in the film industry and redress the balance from the inside out — this series of shorts is unusual in its focus. Men by Women showcases a series of films by women, about men. The idea is to inspect masculinity through the female gaze, to place men under the lens in the same way that women have been scrutinised, psychoanalysed and objectified by the camera since time immemorial. Now it’s the men’s turn.

The films are wildly varied in their themes and subject matter, but strangely enough it never seems like an arbitrary category to lump all the films together in. There really is something intangible that these films have in common in their respective compassionate explorations of male experiences. Loneliness, family, kinship and companionship are ever-present in almost all of the films – from 13th Century North Wales to 1990s Finsbury Park, men have always needed their families, loved their mothers and kept dark secrets.

Still from ‘Men Talk About Mother.’ Image courtesy of underwirefestival.com

The first of the films in the series is the touching Men Talk About Mother. Crude, childlike line animation (this is the only animated film of the evening) is combined with interviews with three sons about their mothers, tracing their relationships from their very first memories of first days at school and rhubarb crumble to tears of grief shared with fathers at a hospital bedside. This film runs at around 5 minutes, and the director initially had over two hours of interview material with each man to work with. The result is a poignant and distilled picture of three individual lives and three individual relationships. Its concision in no way compromises its tenderness, and as a result it’s one of the strongest shorts shown in this series.

Other highlights include Kin and Leroy, two films which ostensibly tackle similar themes: loss, brotherhood, grief and sexuality. Their execution, however, is completely individual. Leroy puts an irreverent, comedic spin on a young man trying to come to terms with bereavement, his burgeoning sexuality, his music taste, and how to beat his best friend at the dance mat game ‘Planet Funk’ at Rowan’s Bowling Alley. 

Kin, meanwhile, is a sombre portrayal of a young man’s custody battle for his younger brother, who is in care. It begins with grainy home footage of the two brothers’ early childhood with their mother: we never find out what happens to her. By the time the older brother has reached adulthood, she is gone. The two boys’ love for one another is manifested in aggression, and the influence of the female director undeniably tinges the depiction of this violent, vulnerable love.

Still from ‘Beddgelert.’ Image courtesy of underwirefestival.com

Male loneliness is an overarching theme in many of the short films, and is particularly prominent in 13 and Beddgelert. 13, devoid completely of dialogue, is easily the most disturbing of the films shown this evening, with its oppressive vision of a London that seethes with human bodies but is entirely anonymous. The nameless protagonist is a saggy and exhausted man living alone in a mouldy flat on the 13th floor of the iconically bleak Trellick Tower. He lives in 13a, and he is consumed by his obsession with the mysterious inhabitant of 13B. The film shies away from giving any indication of what lies behind the door, tantalising the viewer and inviting us the project our own dark ideas into it. The film is relentless in its cultivation of paranoia and anxiety, and the figure of the man, striking against the blur of London that constantly surrounds him and threatens to envelop him, is extremely unsettling.

Beddgelert, the final film, shares this skill in creating the sense of a quiet, pervasive threat. The setting couldn’t be further removed from 21st Century London. Based on an ancient Welsh myth, shot on location in the wilderness of North Wales and spoken in Middle Welsh, the film follows Llywelyn, a grizzled father trying to look after his newborn son with his dog Gelert. The setting is breathtaking, reminiscent of the sweeping shots of the Scottish Highlands in Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation of Macbeth. The colours, for the most part, are muted, becoming warm and vibrant only for brief moments as Llywelyn remembers happier times with the mother of his son. Once again, the fate of the mother is unclear, all we know is that his baby is all Llywellyn has left of her. By this point in the screening, it has become apparent that a major interest across the female director’s portrayals of men is their relationships to absent women, and the ways in which the men left behind cultivate their memories of them. The hazy flashbacks here are reminiscent of the home video clips in Kin.

These films provide a valuable insight into the complex inner world of men of all kinds. Their experiences are sensitively portrayed, as the films necessarily involve close collaboration between the directors and producers and the male actors they work with. The presence of a non-male perspective is genuinely illuminating, especially when seen alongside other films which explore a similar dynamic.

Men by Women screened on the 23rd November at the Barbican cinema 3 as part of Underwire Film Festival. More information on the festival can be found here.

Featured image courtesy of underwirefestival.com.