“A Girl Like Her,” Ann Fessler’s quietly devastating documentary addresses mothers of a certain generation who gave up babies for adoption….chances are you know someone who did this too, screens Sunday at the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival
Can you ever really recover from the loss of a child, one that you were coerced into giving up? After watching Ann Fessler’s documentary A Girl Like Her (2011), which reveals the hidden history of over a million young women who became pregnant in the 1950s and 60s and were banished to maternity homes to give birth, surrender their children, and then return home alone, your answer will be no. Yet, these young women were told to keep their secret, move on and forget. But, really, how can a woman EVER forget that and what are the consequences?
Producer, director, editor, archival film researcher, Ann Fessler tackles rich territory in her expertly-rendered 48 minute documentary which is the result of extensive groundbreaking interviews she conducted between 2002-5 with over 100 women who surrendered children to adoption during the 28 years that followed WWII, the years before Row v. Wade. Fessler, a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), is the well-known author of The Girls Who Went Away (Penguin Press, 2006), chosen as one of the top 5 non-fiction books of 2006 by the National Book Critics Circle and by readers of Ms. magazine in 2011 as one of the top 100 feminist books of all time. She is also adopted and her award-winning autobiographical films on adoption, Cliff & Hazel (1999) and Along the Pale Blue River (2001) have been influential in the adoption community.
Clip from Ann Fessler’s A Girl Like Her
A Girl Like Her remains true to the spirit of Fessler’s book. Protecting the privacy of her interview subjects, she has mixed audio clips of at least a dozen women telling select fragments of their stories in gripping detail against a backdrop of fascinating period footage from home movies, educational films and newsreels about dating, sex, “illegitimate” pregnancy, and adoption. The restrained titles of some of these films alone—such as “How Much Affection, from 1957, produced by the McGraw Hill Book Company as part of its Marriage and Family Series—are enlightening indications of where sex education stood.
Fessler offers a sociologically rich and important deconstruction of a devastating double social standard that was in effect in those days. As the sexual revolution amped up in the postwar years, and more and more young people were having sex, birth control was restricted and abortion was either prohibitively expensive or life threatening. At the same time, the post WWII economic boom ushered millions of American families into the middle class, exerting its own pressures to rigidly conform to a model of family perfection and decency. The message enforced by the interviews is clear: it was the girl who set the level of conduct of a date and her fault if she let things get out of control.
Most single young women who became pregnant (and 1.3 million did), came from upwardly mobile white middle class families. They were not only labeled “sluts” but they were trapped with no attractive options. One birthmother points out, “We weren’t even allowed to say “pregnant,” we had to say “expecting.” They were shunned by their family and friends, expelled immediately from their high schools, sent away to maternity homes to give birth, and were often treated with contempt by those doctors, nurses, and clergy who were supposed to be of comfort and assistance. After giving birth, they were not informed of their rights and were hounded by social workers to sign their babies over. The legal papers they signed frequently stated or implied that they had abandoned their babies.
One interviewee explained the awful conundrum that single black women were in. In the heyday of Martin Luther King, when education was hailed as the great leveler, if a young black woman became pregnant, she was expelled from school and not welcome to return after giving birth. She was therefore effectively trapped permanently in a low wage, unable to escape poverty.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the voices of these women as they speak about the devastating long-term impact of surrender on their lives. Many of the women Fessler interviewed had never spoken of their experiences before but candidly share that they have been plagued by grief and shame and regret and anger since relinquishing.
If the film suffers from anything, it is length…the film begs for even more rich stories. And today, when the future of the Roe decision and women’s reproductive rights stand are again jeopardized, Fessler brings the important and long-overlooked history of single women in the 1950’s through early 1970’s into the arena. In the adoption community, a commonly used but unverified statistic is that 1 in 7 people are directly touched by adoption. Chances are you know a birthmother who relinquished a baby or an adopted person from this era. In revealing the painful legacy that permanently impacted so many birthmothers, Fessler has finally and respectfully given them a voice and created a powerful collective portrait that will benefit everyone touched by adoption. The film is a primer in empathy for adoptees from this generation struggling to understand why their birthmothers gave them up. Understanding the social circumstances which surrounded relinquishment and that what is written on adoption papers may not reflect the truth, rather what a young mother was forced to sign off on, is critical. The film may also serve as a healing bridge for birthfathers, who many assume escaped scott free, but who also have also reported feeling guilt.
(Screens: Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 1:30 PM at 142 Throckmorton Theatre and Wednesday, October 10, at 7 PM at Rafael 3)
The festival’s homepage is here and there are three ways to purchase tickets:
Online: To purchase tickets for MVFF screenings, browse the film listings—the full schedule is online here. When you find a film you would like to see, click “buy tickets” to put the tickets in your cart. You can continue browsing, or click “check out” to complete your order. Tickets purchased online incur a $1.50 processing fee per order.
Tickets you have purchased online are available for pick-up at the Mill Valley Film Festival Box Office(s). Seating is guaranteed until 15 minutes prior to screening. No late seating.
In-Person at pre-festival Box Offices:
SAN RAFAEL TICKET OUTLET
1104 Fourth Street, San Rafael 94901
Sept. 11– 15, 4:00pm–8:00pm (CFI Members)
Sept. 16: 10am – 7pm
Sept. 17 – Oct. 3: Weekdays 4:00pm – 8:00pm, Weekends 2pm – 8:00pm
Opening Night, Oct. 4: 2:00pm – 11:00pm
Festival Hours, Oct. 5 – 14: Weekdays 3:00 – 10:00pm, Weekends 10:30am – 10:00pm
Note: Monday (10/8) & Friday (10/12) are weekend hours
MILL VALLEY TICKET OUTLET
ROOM Art Gallery
86 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley 94941
Sept. 16: 10am – 2pm
Sept. 17 – Oct. 2: 11:00am – 4:00pm
MILL VALLEY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
85 Throckmorton, Mill Valley 94941
Oct. 3: 11:00am – 4:00pm
Oct.4: 2:00pm – 11:00pm
Oct. 5 – 14: Weekdays 3:00pm – 10:00pm, Weekends 10:30am – 10:00pm
Note: Monday (10/8) & Friday (10/12) are weekend hours
BY PHONE: toll free at 877.874.6833
NOTE: If you have trouble purchasing online and cannot purchase tickets in person, leave a message on box office voicemail: 877.874.6833.
All orders placed over the phone are subject to a charge of $10.00 per transaction. Tickets delivered via mail (USPS) incur a $3.50 convenience fee.
RUSH Tickets: If seats are available, tickets will be sold at the door beginning at 15 minutes prior to screening. Those tickets are cash only. No discounts.
Closing Monday: “Cindy Sherman” at SFMOMA, the most comprehensive U.S. exhibition of her groundbreaking work in 15 years and the only stop on the West Coast
Entering SFMOMA’S 3rd floor Cindy Sherman exhibition, viewers are first greeted by a colossal photo mural featuring several different 18-foot figures from daily life chameleon Cindy Sherman has taken on. Ranging from what might be woman in a dance class, to a society woman in a red brocade housedress, to a blonde babushka gardener sporting a country-fair medal and cradling a bunch on freshly-picked baby leeks, to a showgirl in a feathered leotard, the women don’t fit into any pat category but hint at the multiple and varied roles contemporary women play.
Sherman created the floor-to-ceiling mural specifically for her travelling retrospective, which first opened in New York at MOMA in February (2012) and will close its run at SFMOMA on Monday, October 8, 2012. Sherman helped install the SFMOMA show herself and tweaked the mural especially for the Bay Area, using different characters than those included in New York. The mural shows how her work has changed with evolving digital technology and the magic of image editing. Instead of the elaborate stage make-up and prostheses that made her famous—seminal examples are on display in the interior galleries—she has now embraced Photoshop. The mural itself is printed on several gigantic sheets of a special type of contact paper.
The 155 images on display through Monday constitute the largest collection of Sherman’s work ever exhibited on the West Coast, and this is the only West Coast showing of the retrospective, which moves to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (November 10-February 17, 2013), and then to the Dallas Museum of Art (March 17-June 9, 2013).
Untitled Film Stills: The exhibition includes a complete set of her seminal Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), perhaps her most well-known and recognizable works. Organized and hung per Sherman’s instructions after she visited SFMOMA, these 70 black-and-white photographs, roughly 8 x 10 inches each, are presented in tightly stacked rows that completely fill a small interior gallery’s walls. The subject: movie roles for women influenced by 1950s and ’60s film noir, big-budget Hollywood and European art house films. In each of these photographs, resembling back lot movie stills, Sherman plays an archetype—not an actual person, nor a replication of a scene from an actual movie—but a self-fabricated fictional character in a setting that clicks into our collective subconscious as “the housewife,” “the prostitute,” “the woman in distress,” “the woman in tears,” etc. Sherman doesn’t title any of her works, a decision which invites the viewer to freely associate. These recycled tropes, which reverberate off of each other, evoke any number of reactions but most certainly…how does she do it, and by “it,” I mean the dropping of one persona and complete embodiment of another?
Centerfolds: All 12 of her controversial Art Forum magazine centerfolds (1981) are included. The series takes the horizontal centerfold as its conceptual and physical framework and is comprised of 12 life-size 2 x 4 foot images, shot close-up and then cropped to appear squeezed into the frame. It depicts young women in various elaborate outfits—plaid kilts, gingham dress, wet t-shirts—provocatively posed and uncomfortably baring their disturbed souls. While Sherman was commissioned by the influential magazine to do the series, it was rejected by editor Ingrid Sischy who thought the images might be misunderstood, and the series consequently never ran. These images have since become some of her most widely discussed and influential work.
Society Women: Some of her strongest work appears at the end of the exhibition—a 2008 series of untitled portraits of aging society women, done in such grand scale that they are nearly life sized, intensifying the tension, vulnerability and uncertainty associated with women and issues of stature, aspiration, wealth, age, beauty, and desire. Each portrait appears sympathetically done at first glance but, upon closer inspection, becomes a subtle critique of the subject. In “Untitled #466,” Sherman portrays an elegant woman wearing a shimmering turquoise caftan, with lovely jewelry, regally posed in what appears to be the courtyard of her Tuscan-style villa. Not one hair is out of place but her exposed foot speaks volumes—it’s clad in thick support hose and pink plastic slippers of the Dollar Store type.
“The women in this body of work are in many ways tragic,” said says Eva Respini, Associate Curator of Photography, MOMA, who organized the show. “Because they are presented in larger than life size, you can really see every detail and that speaks to this contemporary way of being and the fact that photography is very complicit in the way in which identity is manufactured today.”
While many may mistake Sherman’s photographs for self-portraits, these photographs only play with elements of self-portraiture and are really something quite different. Sherman is just the model. “Everything is carefully constructed,” says Respini. “These are really all about identity—an exploration of multiple identities. She was her own model because it was convenient.”
The exhibition also includes selections from her major series: “Fairy Tale/Mythology” (1985), “History Portraits” (1988-90), “Sex Pictures” (1992), “Head Shots” (2000), “Clowns” (2002-04), “Fashion” (1983-84, 1993-94, 2007-08).
A fully illustrated catalogue, Cindy Sherman, accompanies the exhibition, with essays by exhibition curator Eva Respini and art historian Johann Burton, as well as a new interview with Sherman conducted by filmmaker and artist John Waters. The local curator is Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA.
Details: Cindy Sherman runs through Monday, October 8, 2012. SFMOMA is located at 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard), San Francisco. Hours: Monday-Tuesday,11 a.m.-5:45 p.m.; closed Wednesday; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8:45 p.m.; Friday-Sunday,11 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Admission: SFMOMA members are free. Tickets: Adults $18, seniors (62 and older) $13, students (with current ID) $11, active U.S. military personnel and their families are free, children 12 and under accompanied by an adult are free; half-price admission Thursday evenings 6-8:45 p.m.; the first Tuesday of each month is free.