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Beyond Exposure

A conversation with Morgane Frund about ‘Bear’ and ways to tame the ‘male gaze’

interview by Bo Alfaro Decreton

“I don’t know why the camera is not working,” says Morgane Frund at the beginning of our online talk, upon which she briefly leaves the virtual meeting room, hoping to solve this technical problem. Her graduation film ‘Bear’, which premiered internationally at the Berlinale this year, was initially supposed to be about the named animal but ended up focussing on Urs, an amateur filmmaker who captured hours of images of women (or rather, their bodies) without their consent. Each time, there is only their image; we never get to hear their voice. “Urs filmed everything around him, and I discovered the world through his eyes,” states the Swiss filmmaker at the beginning of her film. This discovery led her to the thorny question of how to react, both as a private person and a filmmaker, when you don’t like what you see and what you see was never what you expected to begin with.

Frund reappears digitally, her voice and image reunited. In the film, however, there is no chance of such a reprise. The women in the images cannot respond, which makes the stolen nature of the recordings all the more poignant. This lack of agency turned them into objects, which is precisely what characterises the male gaze [1] as described by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey back in the 1970s [2]. In response to that startling finding, Frund embarks on the tricky journey of deconstructing that male gaze to create a (symbolic) space for dialogue after all. But is this even possible when it is precisely this gaze that (in)forms and shapes the very existence of the images? Frund recurs to re-editing the images to distil an answer from the portrayed women: “You can never ask images enough questions.”

Violent Ways of Looking
During her film studies, Frund heard about an amateur filmmaker called Urs, who was looking for a student to digitise the extensive collection of nature footage, mainly of bears, he had shot over his lifetime. In earlier works such as Mémoires de méduses (2021), Frund had already shown an interest in the cinematic power of animal footage, which led her to embark on a long journey with Urs toward what later became ‘Bear’. Although shooting documentaries tends to involve a good dose of unpredictability, while digitising the tapes, Frund discovered that bears were not Urs’ sole focus: the filmmaker stumbled upon a whole series of images of women subjected to (the violence of) the male gaze in their daily lives, while being on a date in the park, or during lunch break in a shopping centre.

“If I wanted to continue making this film with Urs, we had to do it together.” The film scrutinises that collaboration to talk about the systemic nature of Urs’ violent way of looking: “If I had only exposed him, I would have used the medium against him in a way. That was not my goal. I wanted to portray the discrepancy between us to make the subject broader rather than just showing Urs as an individual who did something wrong.” The tension created by making such a U-turn on the subject level could have meant the end of the project: “It is quite unique that this film could be made. Everything was always up for discussion for Urs. That really surprised me as he disagrees with almost everything I say in the film. As I allowed him space to express his opinion, he felt the debate was conducted fairly.” The conflict between them, however, remains unresolved to this day.

The Tricky Road Towards Deconstruction
A key aspect for Frund to deconstruct the male gaze in ‘Bear’ was by capturing the process of making the documentary, thus deconstructing the film itself. We see her reviewing the tapes, confronting Urs with her findings, and watching the film’s rough cut together. Along the seams of her film, Frund leads us not to answers but to more questions. It comes as no surprise that asking questions, both to Urs and embedded in the voice-over, is the only way for the filmmaker to get a grip on the elusiveness of the situation: “I don’t have all the answers, nor do I have a perfect definition of the male gaze. I’m not trying to make a film that offers an absolute truth. The more transparent I am about the process, the more the possibility of thinking broadly about the film’s subject opens up.”

Frund’s way of working (at least hypothetically) creates space for vulnerability, mainly for all those involved in making the film. This made her appear on screen herself, which was not an obvious choice. She felt the repercussions of this decision most intensely in the editing room: “It’s confronting to see yourself struggling to find words, hearing yourself say things you meant otherwise or giggling out of discomfort. But I think this is something many people can relate to because it is genuinely difficult to talk to someone with a completely different opinion.”

— ‘Bear’ (Morgane Frund, 2022)

Documentary filmmaking often involves a deep examination of the filmmaker’s intentions. In ‘Bear’, Frund flirts with the idea of destroying the videotapes but makes the bold but questionable choice to include the images of the women, whose faces are recognisable, in her film, thus further diffusing and exposing them beyond Urs’ private recordings. She justifies this choice by foregrounding and questioning the viewing experience: “I didn’t want to reproduce his images indiscriminately, but had I merely described them, the viewers would have created their own images based on them. That is not the best way to analyse these shots. I wanted to confront the viewer more actively to start a process of looking at them differently.”

Frund wants to make this confrontation possible by pivoting toward the female gaze. In this theory, formulated as a response to the male gaze, the agency of the character portrayed is key. In ‘Le regard féminin (2020), Iris Brey illustrates the different gazes on the viewing experience level: either you are dancing along with the characters or simply witness their dancing bodies. To direct the female gaze onto images imbued with the male gaze is challenging, to say the least. In ‘Bear’, Frund pushes to capture the interaction between these two ways of looking (and representing) within a framework that should allow the spectator to find the depicted women providing some answers: “The way the women look back at the camera, their facial expressions, are essential. That’s the only answer they have in this situation. I didn’t want to take that away, so I tried to create a context so they are not merely exposed but given a voice.”

The Art of the Attempt
Asked if she would change anything about her film in retrospect, Frund replied with refreshing honesty: “‘Bear’ is my graduation film. I didn’t expect it to be screened that much. Had I been able to anticipate that, I would have been a bit clearer about why I show these images by adding my own questions about whether or not to show them. Of course, I could also have dropped the project or stuck to making a film about bears, but ignoring the images would not have changed anything about the situation.”

Within Frund’s poetics, conversation as a tool for change is very much present, as cinema, for her, is all about connection. However, it is naive to think that art that seeks connection, how commendable it may be, is automatically innocent. It brings us back to the familiar question of to what extent the result justifies the means. “In general, I do not believe in sacrificing anything for art or any other great quest,” Frund argues. In her view, these great quests should give way to the importance of the attempt. Here, the art of the attempt is not only contained in the craft of filmmaking itself but also in reaching out to the other and dealing with complex issues (together): “It is important to continue making an effort to think about these issues, to react and to engage with what is going on because, to me, that is more important than being one hundred percent right, or ‘perfect’.”

[1] The male gaze is a concept stemming from feminist film theory. It points to the objectifying way female characters are portrayed to satisfy the aesthetic lust of the (heterosexual) male gaze. This power dynamic shows a strong contrast between the passivity of the depicted character (who is being watched) by being subjected to that gaze and the activity of the gaze (who is watching).
[2] Mulvey, Laura (1975), ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16(3), 6–18. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/16.3.6
[3] Brey, Iris (2020), Le regard féminin - Une révolution à l'écran, Média Diffusion

This text was originally published in Dutch on Kortfilm.be.