“Women watch movies, right?”
Kristen Bonstein asks that question in feigned shock as she and Alex Kittle, the co-founders of Strictly Brohibited, and I discuss representation of women in film.
Such conversations are common in film circles, but have become more frequent and politicized, in part due to mainstream outlets piggybacking the work that Tarana Burke has done around #MeToo for more than 12 years. Last fall, the hashtag was used to interrogate popular culture after bombshells about Harvey Weinstein, published in the New York Times and the New Yorker, spurred investigations into other problematic prominent male actors, agents, filmmakers, and ultimately other men, from broadcast journalism to professional sports, who had committed acts involving sexual harassment, assault, or misconduct.
As an observer of #MeToo and later #TIMESUP, I reveled in the schadenfreude. It still feels like a rarity when men in power who are culprits get what’s coming to them. But by February, I was weary of how the think pieces and chatter had engulfed the campaigns. In Strictly Brohibited, I found a remedy for so much media consumption.
The viewing and discussion group is held at Video Underground in Jamaica Plain, and connects women fans of movies who watch films by women, often about women (in which case male protagonists are allowed), in a room of women (cis-, LGBTQ, non-binary) viewers only.
“Pre-Weinstein,” Kittle was already paying close attention to the sexual assault and harassment accusations against Devin Faraci, former editor-in-chief of Birth.Movies.Death, the spinoff website of the famed Austin-based theater chain Alamo Drafthouse. Though reports claimed he was fired, it turned out Faraci was secretly rehired to work with Alamo, this time doing behind-the-scenes writing for its Fantastic Fest. As Kittle joined the conversation on “film Twitter” about it, she recalled feeling baffled and wondering, “Is this how we deal with this?”
That controversy came around the same time that Los Angeles art house Cinefamily imploded after revelations of pervasive sexual harassment. Meanwhile, men were bemoaning being left out of women-only Wonder Woman showtimes (some of which were awkwardly held at Alamo locations). “God forbid they’re left out of the party for once,” Bonstein says, smirking.
Kittle became frustrated by the transgressions. Where were the women-friendly spaces in film, anyway?
“They are not that many theaters we know of that are run by women and fostering inclusivity in that way,” Kittle says. “[In Boston], a lot of theaters are run by dudes, aside from the Brattle, which is run by husband and wife. The Brattle does a lot of great, women-centric programming too.”
This past spring, the Brattle honored what would’ve been the 25th anniversary of hosting the Boston International Festival of Women’s Cinema. The BIFWC ended in 2003.
“I love going to a movie with my main lady friends and talking about it with them. It’s a real different experience than with men,” Kittle notes. “I’ve been in movie theaters where I was one of the only women in the audience and it’s such a weird feeling. You’re not 100 percent comfortable. There’s a little tension in the air.”
She confided in Kevin Koppes, who runs Video Underground, an old-school shop that hosts movie nights. He helped come up with the name Strictly Brohibited, leaving Kittle and the others to call him “the one male fingerprint.”
“Alex and I had bounced group names back and forth for a while, most of which involved ‘bro,’ ‘dude,’ or some similar pun,” he said. “The term ‘strictly prohibited’ is on a lot of comically threatening FBI warnings on tapes and discs. So ‘strictly brohibited’ combined the pun, movie reference, and winked at the conscious exclusion.” Kittle met Bonstein through Koppes and was appointed Brohibited’s co-doyenne.
Kittle and Bonstein share a massive love for movies, and long before SB were heedful of the way that women were portrayed and how far the movie industry’s green light reached in not just hiring women, but particularly nonwhite women of other cultures, races, socioeconomics, sexual and gender identifications, and ages to tell their stories.
“There’s so much baggage. So much history of exclusion. A lack of open-mindedness,” Kittle says. “I do consider myself an intersectional feminist and while knowing that, I still feel that I got a lot of work to do. It is a learning process. I believe in film as something that can open up new experiences and different voices. A chance to hear what everyone else has to say. I’ve learned so much from film. It’s my history book.”
For their first screening last November, the duo decided on the independent film Girlfight. “I really hope it made a statement about what this group is about,” Bonstein explains. “Good storytelling is universal, and it’s just about platforms. Girlfight is not on Blu-ray or a recent DVD, but it was our chance to reintroduce it.”
To confirm, Kittle and Bonstein do watch movies by men and have enjoyed plenty. But it doesn’t take a film degree to be cognizant of how some of the most celebrated male filmmakers who have created roles for women—many categorized as strong female leads—still include remnants of misogyny and misogynoir. This extends to television as well.
“You can’t get away from the male ego.” Bonstein addresses Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. “With a lot of male ‘auteurs,’ they can elevate somebody else, but always through their own lens. They can’t help but put their own thumbprint on whatever that is, be it liberal use of the N-word, through the exploitation of women. And then those characters overcome, but to this ‘hand-selected soundtrack.’ It’s just so much more about their take on it than it is about the woman or that person of color’s actual personhood.”
As serendipity would have it, it was in February that I noticed Strictly Brohibited on Instagram. The group’s profile pic, of Janeane Garofalo spitting up liquor as Heather Mooney in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, was all the incentive I needed. I eagerly DM’d my email, as suggested, to join.
So far, screenings have highlighted Oscar-winning and -nominated women such as Seven Beauties by Lina Wertmuller, the first woman nominated for best director. Movies by Black women filmmakers, such as Kasi Lemmons’ sumptuous Eve’s Bayou (and no, films by Black women will not be limited to February). The episodic, agitprop Daisies, and the already out-of-print 2014 film Appropriate Behavior. In April, a fundraiser was held for the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund during the abortion rom-com (you read that correctly) Obvious Child. May’s programming will commence with the lesbian characters-led thriller Bound.
At Strictly Brohibited, no female experience goes unturned.
“We don’t want folks to look at SB and think, ‘They’re just showing Wonder Woman and Nora Ephron, and maybe this isn’t for me,” Kittle reassures. “We are not engaging in tokenism or the performative.”
As April ended as a crucial month for the #MeToo movement—Molly Ringwald’s unexpectedly poignant “What About The Breakfast Club?” article, and Bill Cosby was convicted in retrial—Brohibited, from February ‘til now, has encouraged me to extend some of my energy in similarly acknowledging the valor and crafts(wo)manship of particular filmmakers, then and now alike.
“The focus on woman-made films right now, it’s such a big discussion—which is great!—but is very contemporary focused,” Kittle says. “We are personally also so interested in women filmmakers in history. Partly because they had even more boundaries that they were breaking and challenges they faced, like Lois Weber.”
After films end, SB’s discussion begins. Whether one’s first screening or an habitué, attendees self-reflect and connect by sharing related vignettes of their lives that and visceral reviews that can range from praise to surprise.
“I think it’s important for people to find ‘social spaces’ that aren’t social media spaces,” Koppes says. “Having in-person, shared experiences and actual conversations that require more than pulling out your phone—those aren’t always easy to find.” Coming to Brohibited’s defense, he adds, “Though its outward mission is upfront about exclusion, I think the broader mission of bringing more, varied voices into the film community is ultimately inclusive.”