Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power–Nina Menkes Significant Documentary(Objectification, Women in Film, Sundance Fest 2022)

Docu Examines the Ways Women are Objectified Onscreen

Featuring interviews with filmmakers Joey Soloway, Julie Dash, Catherine Hardwicke and others, director Nina Menkes argues that the “visual language” of filmmaking — even from women helmers — can have real consequences, especially in the entertainment industry: “We all have to look at what we’re doing and think about it a lot more.”

In her documentary, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, vet indie director Nina Menkes takes a closer look at a pivotal scene in the 2019 docudrama Bombshell, a film sometimes credited as being the first major Hollywood title to reckon with the #MeToo movement.

In one sequence, centered on the women at Fox News who accused former CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, Ailes (played by John Lithgow) calls employee Kayla (Margot Robbie) to his office and asks her to pull her skirt up for him. Over the course of the excerpt shown in the documentary, several shots are shown from Ailes’ perspective, with some traveling up or down the character’s body. “Needless to say, this shot is not from Kayla’s point of view,” Menkes comments in the film, as she pauses on a shot that shows the character’s crotch. “How would you shoot that scene where you really felt like we’re feeling what Margot’s feeling but not being exploitative about it or objectifying her?” asks director Catherine Hardwicke (Miss Bala).

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, which will premiere at Sundance on Saturday, argues that such filmmaking techniques are ubiquitous — even in films with feminist messaging and female directors — thanks to a long, entrenched history of visual objectification of women in the medium. Bombshell is just one of many high-profile, acclaimed titles whose scenes Menkes dissects over the course of the film to uncover the sometimes conspicuous, sometimes subtle ways that shot design can be gendered.

Co-produced by director Maria Giese, who instigated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation of discrimination against female directors, and co-executive produced by Abigail Disney, among others, Brainwashed also features interviews with directors Joey Soloway, Julie Dash and Amy Ziering, film theorist Laura Mulvey (who introduced the term “the male gaze” in a 1975 essay) and actors Rosanna Arquette and Charlyne Yi. Arguing that this “visual language” can have real-world consequences, especially in the entertainment industry, the film is poised to reinvigorate conversations about the way women are treated in Hollywood through the lens of filmmaking technique.

At least, that’s the goal. “I feel like the fact of the history of cinema being, you could say, built on the sexualized image of women has not been really brought to consciousness in the way that I feel this film does,” Menkes says.

It’s fitting Brainwashed will premiere at this year’s virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival, as Menkes says her experience at the festival four years earlier helped push her to make it. The boundary-pushing feminist independent filmmaker behind 1991’s Queen of Diamonds and 1996’s The Bloody Child (she was one of the first women to ever present a feature at the Park City festival) and CalArts instructor had, for years, delivered a talk about the visual objectification of women in film to her students. She had begun touring with it more widely a year earlier when, in early 2018, Menkes brought the talk to Park City. The lecture had previously “struck a nerve” with general audiences, she says, but at that Sundance in the wake of the start of the #MeToo movement, she was “mobbed by people afterwards,” several telling her she should turn the lecture into a feature film. Though Menkes had never made a documentary before, and though usually she develops film ideas via a more intuitive, internal process, she paid attention.

Initial conversations with potential collaborators didn’t go anywhere, but early in 2019 Menkes decided to pitch filmmaker (and grandson of Disney co-founder Roy O. Disney) Tim Disney — they had met previously at a film festival — on the project. Disney joined as an executive producer alongside his sisters, Abigail Disney and Susan Disney Lord. The majority of the film’s funding came from the Disneys and was offered as a tax-deductible donation to the International Documentary Association via the organization’s fiscal sponsorship program. The IDA then contributed the funding back to Menkes to make the film. (The filmmakers plan on donating a significant amount of eventual net profit to a charity, which has not yet been identified.)

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Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, CalArts Hosts Nina Menkes COURTESY OF RAFAEL HERNANDEZ/MENKESFILM

Menkes shot her lecture for Brainwashed, clips of which are threaded throughout the film, pre-pandemic. However, COVID-19 interrupted the bulk of its production, throwing extra challenges her way. Once the virus began to spread stateside, the core Brainwashed team communicated primarily over Zoom and phone calls. Early on in the pandemic, many potential interviewees for the film were reticent to participate, fearful of leaving their homes or taking off masks. When vaccines became available, more people were open to the idea (“Catherine Hardwicke was like ‘I’ll be vaccinated by March,’” Menkes recalls).

Giese, who boarded the project as a co-producer in 2019, marveled at how more women were open to talking about women’s issues in Hollywood at this time compared to her experience in the pre-#MeToo, early days of production on the 2018 documentary This Changes Everything, which examined gender disparity in Hollywood. “At the time Nina was shooting this, women wanted to be in the conversation. It became popular,” she says. A number of the film’s interviews were conducted by Menkes over Zoom, with a small, local, vaccinated crew shooting the footage.

How to turn a lecture into a film that “might be hard-hitting, but it’s basically fun to watch,” Menkes says, initially stumped her. Early on in the postproduction process, the lecture provided the film’s structure, but when editor and creative producer Cecily Rhett (NOS4A2, Bates Motel) joined the documentary in the fall of 2020, she suggested arranging the film thematically and helped brainstorm additional individuals to ask for interviews, including director of photography Nancy Schreiber (P-Valley, Station 19), to help bolster the film’s points.

They wanted to bring some “light” into the film, Rhett says, given the heavy nature of the film’s topics: The filmmakers decided at one point, “Let’s talk about how women were prevalent in the silent film industry,” Rhett recalls. One challenge was determining which film clips they wanted and also could use — Menkes’ lecture originally employed 10 to 15 clips, while the finished film utilized 175. Menkes worked closely with the independent film-focused law firm Donaldson Callif Perez on ensuring their clips were fair-use. “I spent every weekend basically scrounging the Internet looking for clips that would work for the movie,” Menkes says, noting that she had to “audition” clips in the film to see if they worked.

The picture was locked just a few weeks after the filmmakers sent the project for consideration to Sundance in late July 2021After it was accepted, Menkes says she heard from festival programmer Sudeep Sharma that Sundance team members had seen the film early in the festival’s selection process, and it had influenced the way they viewed other films that were submitted.

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Brainwashed, which will be seeking distribution at Sundance with UTA handling sales, isn’t shy about calling out how contemporary, highly esteemed directors — female helmers included — continue to use filmmaking techniques that Menkes argues are gendered.

Shot design that has traditionally objectified women, she argues, includes framing that fragments women’s body parts; using soft instead of 3-D lighting; particular camera movements, like panning over women’s bodies; and point-of-view that regularly renders women the object, rather than the subject, of a scene. In addition to classic examples (in titles including Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, Vincente Minnelli and Busby Berkeley’s Cabin in the Sky and Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai), Brainwashed also points to more recent instances in films from Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049), Nicolas Winding Refn (Neon Demon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina). Projects from directors including Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Julia Ducournau (Titane) and Maïmouna Doucouré (Cuties) don’t escape criticism for utilizing some of these time-worn approaches. 

One example of gendered framing that Brainwashed points to is the scene in The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson’s character hides under the desk of Molly Ringwald’s character and the camera shows his point of view as he looks up her skirt. (The Handmaiden, Superbad, Straight Time and Oldboy are also excerpted for the framing of particular scenes.) Slow motion is often utilized to highlight women’s bodies, Menkes says, such as in the scene of Halle Berry emerging from the ocean in Die Another Day, while for men it’s often employed for action scenes, such as in Sherlock Holmes or 300. The different ways that men and women can to be lighted in films is demonstrated by the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost in Translation: Her first appearance is via a fragmented shot of her rear in sheer underwear, with soft lighting; by contrast, Bill Murray’s character shows up with the camera focused on his face as he’s lit in a way that shows depth and shadows.

Menkes says her team reached out to living filmmakers’ representatives for comment when a substantial clip from one of their films was used, but most turned down an interview and those that did respond provided off-the-record comments. “We wanted to be disruptive, we wanted to be provocative and we didn’t care if somebody was upset about it,” adds Giese. “We all have to look at what we’re doing and think about it a lot more.”

Menkes, paraphrasing one of her lines in the film, clarifies, “I’m not the sex police and I’m not trying to tell people how to make movies.” She adds, “I want to raise consciousness.”

Rcent projects have shot women differently than the norm and creatively, Menkes notes in Brainwashed — titles like A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightNomadland and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. When asked about 2021 titles, Menkes says she’s been impressed by The Lost Daughter and Passing.

Giese believes Brainwashed is the “natural next iteration” in the most recent push to change conditions for women in entertainment that began with the EEOC investigation, announced by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2016. “Once that groundwork was laid, then we could begin to explain ‘Okay, how has this whole thing been working in terms of visual style?’” she says. “My hope is that there’s no going back after Brainwashed.”