Women take the reigns in 'Portraits of Power' film series


North Adams — While looking back at her favorite films to come out in recent years, Rachel Chanoff felt inspired by a handful of diverse films with one clear through line: women trailblazers.

"It's funny because looking at these films, they're all very different," said Chanoff, the curator for performing arts and film at Mass MoCA. "These women are taking the reins, they're in control, stepping out of the boundaries of a man's world."

While February can be dark and snowy, Chanoff said there's no better time to head out to the movies. Each of these separate films will be shown on Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m. in the caf at Mass MoCA, which will have snacks and beverages available. This cabaret-style seating can seat groups of five. Patrons who purchase tickets for three films can get the fourth film for free.

Here's what to expect from the film series, 'Portraits of Power, Women Making an Impact':

'A Revolution in Four Seasons'

When: Thursday, Feb. 2

What you can expect: After years of protesting and marching, what comes after a revolution? For the citizens of Tunisia, one of the only countries to successfully emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings, the answer is build a democracy. The challenge is figuring out how to build this government while making sure everyone, regardless of gender or religion, is taken care of in this new society.

Because of the uprisings, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who held the position from 1987 to 2011, fled, leaving the people to establish a government for themselves. After many years of being suppressed by the dictatorship, the country was desperate to have their voices heard by their government. The trouble was, how does one manage the many differences and create this new government in less than a year?

"A Revolution in Four Seasons," directed by Jessie Deeter, tells the stories of two women invested in shaping Tunisia into a democracy, shown from their personal viewpoints of politics.

"Emna Ben Jemaa is a staunchly secular journalist, blogger and heroine of the Revolution," Deeter said in a previous interview about the film, found on the documentary's webpage. "The other woman, Jawhara Ettis, is an Islamist shepherdess and English professor who was elected to the first Parliament after the Revolution, and in charge of writing Tunisia's new constitution."

Why it was chosen for the series: Chanoff found this movie fascinating for several reasons, including the many similarities between Tunisia and the United States in terms of creating a democracy for all.

"They come from different ideologies, but come together in a dignified and intellectual way that felt important and relatable for what we are going through as a county," Chanoff said. "They're proving what democracy can be in the best of times."

'Ovarian Psycos'

When: Thursday, Feb. 9

What you can expect: Some women bike to stay in shape. Some women bike to work or for their leisure on the weekends. For one group of women living in Los Angeles, Calif., bicycling is the foundation of their sisterhood.

The Ovarian Psyco-Cycle Brigade, according to the group's webpage, make their way through the "concrete, barren urban jungle" that is Los Angeles, often being cat-called or ridiculed. They are a group of mothers, students, environmentalists, feminists, farmers, poets, militants, artists and more.

"We recognize how vulnerable we are on bicycles and work to empower women to take back the streets with an understanding that sisters have our back," the webpage reads. "LA is dominated by car culture and bike culture is dominated by middle and upper class white men. We believe that it is dangerous to live in a society that doesn't cultivate a community." The group is also dedicated to reversing the cultural shift back toward respecting the land and Mother Nature.

The film, "Ovarian Psycos," directed by Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, shows the life of OPC members as they work with the local youth and the community through group bicycling, classes and workshops in self-defense, positive body image and more. Many of these women come from broken homes and are survivors of abuse.

Why it was chosen for the series: "These radical women bikers are redefining their identity," Chanoff said. "They are community builders who are reclaiming their neighborhoods."

The film is not just appealing to those interested in bike culture, but also those interested in "young people and their efforts around politics and community building in an urban development where women take the lead," she said.

'Seven Songs for a Long Life'

When: Thursday, Feb. 16

What you can expect: Imagine a place where live music and laughter fills each room and everyone joins in singing along to Frank Sinatra and R.E.M. No, not quite a musical in a theater or a flash mob in the mall food court. At Strathcarron, a hospice in Scotland, the patients and caregivers find happiness by expressing their feelings through music.

"Seven Songs for a Long Life," a documentary by Amy Hardie, tells the story of patients coming to terms with their illnesses while still planning for their futures, despite the uncertain amount of time they have left. With advancements in modern medicine, a terminal illness may mean a few more months, or possibly years. The documentary takes an intimate look at patients over the course of three years as they prepare for what is to come. Some patients continue to battle their illness while balancing their family life back home, while others are confined to a chair or bed. With so much anxiety and uncertainty, it can be difficult for patients and their caregivers to find joy.

Why it was chosen for the series: "Music gives solace and consolation," Chanoff said. "There's joyous singing in a setting where you would least expect joy. It's so entirely moving how you can find comfort and joy, even in death."

'Everyone Knows Elizabeth Murray'

When: Thursday, Feb. 23

What you can expect: Being a single mother is a full-time job on its own, but imagine trying to have a career as a high art painter, only to have your work be considered "zany" and "goofy."

Elizabeth Murray, a feminist and artist with her own unique style is a well-known for being able to express herself through art without compromise.

"Whatever it is I'm making, God knows if it's art or not, it's the one instance where I don't give a s*** what anyone thinks," Murray said in the documentary.

The documentary's webpage describes her work throughout her career as "funk-inflected pop" in the 1960s, and minimalistic in the 70s. From 1990 to 2000, her canvases resembled "dynamic fractures" of bright jewel-toned colors.

"Murray worked without hesitation through — and often in spite of — market trends, historical movements and her failing health," the page reads. "Murray's paintings defy efforts at categorization. She broke convention, and made an indelible imprint on contemporary art. This film chronicles her remarkable journey from an impoverished childhood to artistic maverick, before she lost her life to cancer in 2007. [The documentary] cements Murray's legacy as one of the great painters of our time."

Why it was chosen for the series: "Everybody Knows Elizabeth Murray," directed by Kristi Zea, and narrated by Meryl Streep, is the last film to be shown in Mass MoCA's month-long film series Portraits of Power, Women Making an Impact. Chanoff said she wanted to end the series with a film about a revolutionary artist.

"Elizabeth Murray was a visionary American artist," she said. "She broke into and out of the boys club of art. She was tough minded and had a vision that didn't fit with any one style. She truly broke boundaries."


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