#FemalePleasure (Barbara Miller, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
From director Barbara Miller (Forbidden Voices) comes a documentary profile of five women in five different countries who each, in her own way, confronts the patriarchal demands, of her respective culture, on the female body. From the American Deborah Feldman, to the Indian Vithika Yadav, to the Japanese Rokudenashiko, to the Somali-British Leila Hussein, to the German Doris Wagner, Miller presents a broad spectrum of experiences all united by one thing: suffering at the hands of men, who seek to control women at all costs. Her subjects confront religious, as well as national, strictures on behavior, pushing back with vim, vigor, wit and resilience, showing how male pleasure need not be all that we sanctify. Together, they form the perfect phalanx to defeat the heretofore dominant phallus. The future is, indeed, female.
The great strength of the movie is the detailed specificity of each narrative, which all combine to form an intricate cinematic tapestry of powerful emotional intimacy. Feldman recounts her escape from a Brooklyn Hasidic community and the vibrant, exciting and globe-trotting life she has created since. Unlike many other such women (witness the 2017 One of Us), Feldman has maintained sole custody of her son, mostly because she knows how to fight legal threats with very effective negative publicity (via a bestselling memoir). Rokudenashiko (real name Megumi Igarashi) could use some legal help of her own, as she finds herself in trouble in Japan after making a 3D mold of her own vagina and publishing it online. Worse, she makes a kayak in its shape, offending the same sensibilities that think nothing of public displays of penises at outdoor festivals. Yadav, despite living in the land of Kama Sutra, battles similar restrictions in India, where “boys will be boys” but girls can’t even mention sex.
First among equals, in terms of dramatic impact, are the stories of Hussein and Wagner. The former walks us through, in grueling minutiae, her ordeal, as a child, of female genital mutilation (FGM, for short), something she has sworn to eradicate or, at the very least, limit in scope. Her work as an activist leads her both among her own fellow Somalis in England, where the horrific custom is still in practice, to Kenya, among the Maasai, where … same deal. She is fearless, confronting her own trauma with enormous bravery and, surprisingly, good humor (when she can). Wagner, a former nun who was raped by a priest, explains both her own story and the many ways she has been stymied by the Catholic hierarchy. Like Feldman, she has written a book about what happened to her and is now using it to shed light on that which the church would like to hide.
Wagner and Hussein may have moved me the most, but all five woman are extraordinary. They deserve more than just #femalepleasure, but whatever kind of pleasure (hashtag or not) they desire. Indeed, that “#” is almost unfortunate in the potential minimalization of the seriousness of these tales via current-day trendiness, given that these are age-old problems. That minor flaw aside, the movie is a searing rebuke to male supremacy, and should be watched, avidly, by all.
Opens in select U.S. theaters starting on October 18