Looking in the mirror

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Looking in the mirror

In films, Jan Krawitz reflects on female body concepts, sexual assault

by J. Christian Jensen on Friday, May 4, 2012 - 12:06pm

Professor Jan KrawitzWhat do women see in the mirror that stares back at them? For some, the body can be a battleground – a site of struggle to wrest control of the female form's portrayal in popular society. While significant strides have been made over the past century to educate and empower women with respect to their bodies, there remains a disconnect between what society teaches women regarding anonymous violence and the reality of experiencing it, particularly as the target of random sexual assault. These distinct, but related questions are artfully and powerfully considered in two films by Jan Krawitz, which screened at the Women’s Community Center as part of the winter quarter events for Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism.

With a broad scope of work spanning her three decades as an independent documentary filmmaker, Krawitz has devoted a huge portion of her life to educating documentary filmmakers. She’s taught 24 years at Stanford University’s Graduate Program in Documentary Film & Video. Her films run the gamut and include documentaries about dwarves, circus performers, altruistic kidney donation and two films dealing directly with women’s issues: “Mirror Mirror” and “In Harm’s Way.”

Using humor and candor to explore ideal body forms

Utilizing both interviews and archival footage, “Mirror Mirror” is a short film that blends humor and candor to explore the relationship between a woman's body image and the ‘ideal’ female form. In the film, 13 women of varying age, race and body-type speak frankly from behind “homogenous” blank masks to answer the same four questions relating to their personal body image:

  • Do you remember when and why you first became aware of what you looked like?
  • How do you think people respond to you based on what your body looks like?
  • Can you describe your body from head to foot, talking about whatever parts you want?
  • If you could redesign your body, what would it look like?

The honesty of these women’s answers is visually contrasted with reoccurring images of disrobed mannequins that, as Krawitz put it in a discussion after the screening, “have no relationship to women whatsoever in terms of the veracity of their body-types.” Krawitz said she decided to mask the interviewees because she, “wanted the film to be about bodies, not faces.” 

“I had this idea of a ‘collective lament’ of women, a Greek chorus,” Krawitz said. As the viewer – no matter their gender – considers the film, it is easy to see their own reflection in the way that these women view their bodies. While the film roots itself wholly in the voice and perspective of women, Krawitz suggested the message might have increased meaning for men in recent years as well. “I’ve been interested in the current surge of plastic surgery among men… anorexia is affecting more men and boys as well,” she said. “I think our whole culture is really oppressed by these idealized body images.”

When the battlefield becomes personal

The second screening of the evening explored a sobering subject. “In Harm’s Way” is a personal and poetic visual memoir that was prompted by Krawitz’s adult experience as a victim of sexual assault. Unlike other films on the subject, Krawitz specifically intended “In Harm’s Way” to be her own “idiosyncratic” take on the assault that occurred. She said she hoped the specifics of her story would still resonate with others who must cope with their own legacies of anonymous violence.

Krawitz’s film begins not in the moments before her assault but rather as a child growing in Philadelphia in the late 1950s. As the film continues, she narrates memories from her childhood and revisits the “fragile myths” and assumptions that were instilled into her at a young age. In a cold-war era where government and authority were trusted entirely, Krawitz remembers being taught “the rules” to protect herself from harm, whether it be from predators or nuclear attack. These serious messages weren’t addressed overtly; instead, they were coyly disguised as cautionary tales. Stories that taught little girls not to take candy from strangers, or that advised young ladies to behave in certain ways promised peace of mind and professed that “everything will be alright” if you simply do what is right and proper.

“They really danced around the central point of the message,” recalled Krawitz, at the post-screening discussion. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, I’m a good girl. Here are the rules. I’m playing by the rules and I’ll skip through unscathed.’” But as the film continues through her formative life experiences – often amusingly illustrated by paternalistic archival clips from that era – the little girl of Krawitz’s childhood is hurtling toward a world-shifting moment. The incident occurs at age 32 when she is assaulted by a stranger upon returning to her motel room after a day of shooting another film. This stark transition from the apparent safety of childhood to sudden savagery comes unexpectedly and is the final stroke that undermines the simplistic messages from her youth.

“I always felt that I never would have made this film if the assault had happened within the framework of how the threat was presented in those messages– in terms of how or where it could happen,” Krawitz said. “But that wasn’t the case. Everything about my encounter with this violent stranger defied the rules.” The situation was completely disconnected from anything she did “right” or “wrong,” she clarified. “It was just a moment of caprice with a capital ‘C.’”

Inspiring new thinking on identity

When Krawitz is occasionally praised for having the courage to tell her story, she politely eschews the compliment, explaining that she feels society’s tendency to cover up or hide the identity of the person who is raped or assaulted is a negative one. “It just perpetuates the blaming of the victim,” Krawitz said, adding that she hopes society can be more frank about the issue. “It didn’t feel brave to (make the film,)” she said. “It felt like more of a responsibility. It was this defining thing in my life but it was still invisible, hiding under the surface. I had this story. I had this experience and I had the tools – aesthetically and conceptually – to create something… so I did.”

While readily admitting that these films represent her own distinct perspective and experiences and not necessarily those of all women, Krawitz has come into contact with many individuals that echo the emotions described in both her films. “Ultimately,” she said, “you have to have realistic expectations about the kind of influence your film can truly have on the world. I just want people to think about the issue from a different perspective than they otherwise might – or to think about it for the first time.”


More Gender News: Jan Krawitz's latest film, Perfect Strangers, traces a woman's decision to donate one of her kidneys and her complex ethical and emotional journey in finding a recipient. 


Jan Krawitz is a filmmaker and the director of Stanford’s M.F.A. Program in Documentary Film & Video in the Department of Art & Art History. She screened two films – “Mirror Mirror” and “In Harm’s Way”– as part of the quarter-long symposium Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism. The screening event was organized by Stanford's American Studies Program and the Stanford Program in Feminist Studies and it was co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

This article was written by J. Christian Jensen, a reporter on the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team and an MFA candidate in the Documentary Film program within the Department of Art & Art History. Christian has several years of experience working in documentary film including work for PBS and National Geographic Film & Television.