This article discusses the concept of worlding in the cinema of Małgorzata Szumowska. Informed by philosophical theory of worlding and worldliness, by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and Gayatri Spivak, and the film theory of cinematic worlds, proposed by Daniel Yacavone, the project examines the function of cinematic world building and its potential connection to World Cinema and feminist filmmaking. Close analysis of Szumowska’s film The Other Lamb (2019) traces the role of monstration and mise en scène in creating emancipatory cinema.
“In return, a World eats back at Reality, arms us with perspective, furnishes us with meaning, and gives us some measure of agency to expressively deal with new surprises from Reality.”(ian cheng, emissary’s guide to worlding, 2018: 26–27)
In one of her early films, Stranger (Ono, 2004), the Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska presents the plight of a nineteen-year-old girl, Ewa (Małgorzata Bela), who faces the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy as her access to abortion is sabotaged. Thus, she finds herself forced to accept a ‘stranger’ into her life – the Polish title Ono refers to the unwanted child as ‘it’ – at the least propitious time and under less-than-ideal circumstances. The film’s minimalist plot unfolds over the course of nine months and documents the ethical transformation, from Ewa’s resolve to terminate her pregnancy to her eventual decision to accept it. When her own father informs her that a fetus begins to hear in the second trimester, Ewa decides to tell her child-to-be “the whole world.” Using dialogue, sounds, and stories, she scrupulously describes the world to ‘it’, one day at a time, as she encounters her reality and interprets it anew. Szumowska materializes this re-worlding on screen and turns it into the central dramatic impetus for the film. In the process, Ewa reinvents her own connection to reality as she attempts, through the generally understood ‘poetic’ conversion, to make the harsh circumstances less so for herself and her child. In what follows, I argue that this story of taking hold of reality and actively reinventing it into one’s world is a recurring preoccupation for Szumowska, a prolific female director whose award-winning oeuvre has garnered much critical acclaim, yet not sufficient scholarly attention.1 As displayed in her recent English-language debut The Other Lamb (2019), I argue that Szumowska’s cinema gains much of its political potential through her methodical emphasis on the process of alternative worlding, including her own directorial worlding, which is uniquely determined and shaped by the film medium itself. Arguably, Szumowska’s work offers a form of feminist World Cinema through its persistent and ongoing examination of oppositional worlding, understood here as the work of setting in place, or rendering, of a divergent view of reality that challenges the patriarchal status quo and its supportive ideologies. As such, the following study offers a conceptual intervention in the ongoing task of defining World Cinema by placing an emphasis on the critical tradition of ‘worlding’ as a reifying material practice, rather than the more common trans/national framing of its existing definition.
To stake out my inquiry broadly, I posit the following set of questions: How does the concept of worlding inform the idea of World Cinema? To what degree is the active operation of worlding already present in the existing definitions of World Cinema? What do we gain, theoretically and politically, if we refashion World Cinema into Worlding Cinema? Can the worlding of World Cinema provide the much-needed positive extension to the idea of a cinema formulated, historically, in negation to Hollywood cinema (Nagib, 2006)? I use Szumowska’s worlding practice and her films’ self-reflexive preoccupation with female worlding in my attempt to begin to address these questions. I anticipate that paying critical attention to the formative power of aesthetic worlding could lead to new theoretical paths in exploring World Cinema as a political praxis that invests in the enunciative and proclamatory energy of the image. The lasting visual materialization of hoped-for-worlds can lead to a cinema of reform and social re-design. Thus, cinematic monstration can entail a political demonstration.
Cinematic Worlding and Ontology
In applying the concept of worlding here, I acknowledge its early philosophical formulation by Martin Heidegger who distinguished the World from the Earth, and defined the worlding of the World as a poetic endeavor where poetry is the “projective saying” (1993: 199), thus tying worlding to aesthetic work. I also embrace Gayatri Spivak’s postcolonial critique of Heidegger, where she insists on the need to recognize the operations of worlding as knowledge systems deeply implicated in the imperial expansion and as ultimately responsible for the negative representational space that the colonized find themselves in. Spivak’s proclamation that “there is no innocent gaze” informs my understanding of Szumowska’s worlding as a form of strategic audiovisual materialization, where she worlds not in innocence but in awareness of such a lack of innocence (1993: 235). Hannah Arendt’s ideas about world-building as the key component of active life (vita activa), defined as the work of creating the “artificial world of things” that would bestow “a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life”, provide a philosophical framework that allows to consider cinematic artifact as a worldly thing, a product of what Arendt calls “reification” (1958: 7–8).2 Arendt’s thought on worlding adds an important materialist dimension that is missing from Heidegger’s conceptualization. Finally, the theory of cinematic worlds articulated by Daniel Yacavone facilitates my reflection on the power of cinema to re-create the world, or to posit an alternative world, which is very much in line with the theory of World Cinema as a “transformative force” (Nagib, 2020: 23, 35).
In Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema, Yacavone, whose approach draws from both phenomenology and ontology, argues for cinema’s unique ability to “construct and possess” experiential worlds that exceed the usual fictional worlds, or story worlds, of other aesthetic forms and other media (2014: 39). Yacavone theorizes the world that cinema creates as deeply immersive, sensory, and capable of a radical affective transformation, which he calls the “total cineaesthetic world-feeling” (2014: XXIV). Referencing Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Yacavone also observes that film worlds unfold as simultaneously private and public experiences that demand active participation and understanding from the viewer, who is always placed in a specific cultural context (2014: XXV). As such, film worlds are “historical, and intersubjectively accessible events” (Yacavone, 2014: XXV). This is to say, they are more than private visions of a creative agent, more than a personal vision of an auteur. Indeed, as the dominant technology of modern vision, cinema, even now, or especially now, in the digital era, is one of the key channels through which the visual commons enfolds us in symbolic, political, affective, and spiritual meanings. If one agrees with Heidegger’s famous thesis, proposed in his concise essay “The Age of the World Picture”, that modernity operates through the all-encompassing and persistent work of representation, which worlds the world always “as a picture”, then one needs to consider that much of that modern work of representation has been rendered through the specifically cinematic picture – a moving picture (2009: 218). One also may consider that cinema, as a still evolving medium, is one of the most vital representational developments of modernity, modernity whose ocularcentrism intensifies with every new technology of vision and visual reproduction. Arguably, then, the worlding has become cinematic, and cinema deeply implicated in the worlding of modernity, perhaps particularly intensely during the present digital turn, via the experiments in augmented reality, virtual reality, simulation, and holography, which recycle cinema’s elemental language and techniques, steeped in racial and gender bias.
When thinking through Heidegger’s theory, Spivak observes that modern worlding is always a colonial and imperial project, an act of self-interested mapping of the unknown to be known in one way only – the way of the colonizing agent (1990). She also adds that worlding is never gender neutral (1993). The female subaltern, according to Spivak’s famous pronouncement, is excluded from the representational space (1988). The colonial framing is always asymmetrical and exclusionary, especially with regard to the gendered colonized other, whose status is that of the object of knowledge, never a subject. Indeed, from reading the medium’s history, we know that cinema, at different stages of its development, was employed as a resource by the imperial enterprises and has also benefited from colonial extraction as a growing technology, infrastructure, and industry.3 As such, especially in its classical narrative stage, it mimicked the limitations of the imperialistic and phallogocentric forms of worlding. From its inception, cinema, especially in its classic commercial iteration (e.g. Hollywood), had a tendency, as a sophisticated representational system, to replicate the specific economic and political agendas of capitalism and global expansion (Shohat and Stam, 1994). In his 1973 survey of the history of World Cinema, David Robinson comments on Hollywood’s “policy of conquest and annexation, which was to maintain the domination of the American film whilst effectively destroying the industries of smaller countries” (1973: 99).
This tendency, however, was, from very early on, being confronted by the vital oppositional strands of filmmaking that strived to create a different world picture, often in avowed resistance to the imperialist models of representation and the worlding they generated. Here, one may list the Soviet Montage cinema, with its communist revolutionary optics, the Third Cinema, whose impetus was emphatically decolonizing and relied on guerrilla production tactics, or the various anti-commercial, anti-illusionist realist trends of the 20th century, including Italian neorealism, cinéma verité (inspired by Dziga Vertov’s idea of kino pravda), direct cinema, Dogme 95, slow cinema, as well as the many New Wave movements, of which the New Iranian Cinema, Brazilian Cinema Novo, New Nigerian Cinema, and the Czechoslovak and Romanian New Waves are only a few examples. As a larger formation, the category of World Cinema, broadly defined here as all cinemas that consciously perform alternative worldness, brings these oppositional approaches together. The ‘world’ in World Cinema, with every critical use of the term, announces a need for, and an attempted act of, restructuring what is understood as the ‘world’. The ‘man’, or the human subject, who etymologically resides in the noun ‘world’ (derived from the Germanic words wer, for ‘man’, and old, for ‘age’ or ‘era’), has to also be stated anew – a community defined and named against all previous discursive dominations of the ‘world’. Whose world is it? Who gets to stake it and claim it? Cinema, with every gestalt of a film, effectively and spectacularly worlds the world as it creates perfectly contained and contoured microcosms. World Cinema worlds these microcosms in awareness of the fact that the ‘world’ is never given, that it has to be made, and that it may be taken away or appropriated by a different ‘we’, by ‘the man’.
Engaging in what has been termed the new materialist turn, the scholars of World Cinema comment on how these alternative approaches to storytelling, cinematographic style, and production methods result in film worlds that emanate “the realist ethics” (Nagib, 2011) and “corporeal realism” (Nagib, 2012), that are diverse and inclusive (White, 2015; Stam, 2019, Nagib, 2020), committed to “materiality” (de Luca, 2012) and “the material world” (Nagib, 2020), generating a complex environment and rich “cultural ecology” (Paalman, 2021) that offers “a new way of being in the world” (Elsaesser, 2009). In his last book on cinema and philosophy, published a year before his untimely death in 2019, Thomas Elsaesser reads Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and Jean-Luc Nancy to rethink the ontology of cinema after the digital turn. He ends up with a theory that frames recent cinema as a medium that can restore our “trust and belief in the world” by shifting the attention away from “the sovereign subject” and human “interiority” towards the world, whose rich fabric includes space along with all the non-human things in it, through the operations of “depersonalization and exteriorization” (2018: 53).
This exteriorization, the setting of the world in film, enacted one scene at a time, is arguably where the worlding comes in via the careful work of the director qua the metteur en scène, or metteuse en scène in my analysis here, the creative agent who envisions and choreographs the selecting, gathering, arranging, and ‘building’ of the profilmic elements, which are then recorded by the camera, in accordance with the story, into a cinematic world that permeates the present and extends into the future, as it can be replayed infinitely. In World Cinema, the metteur en scène role of the director is essential, and arguably often exceeds the auteur function, as the film must project a comprehensive, lasting, and immersive place that resonates an autonomy.
A World that fails on its promise to “survive its creator” will rot and die soon after its creator exits. Think of a franchise whose canon is authoritatively governed by its author. Think of a company whose vision, spirit, ideas, relationships, and values were solely embodied in its founder. Likewise, a World that fails on its promise to “continue generating drama” becomes a boring utopia populated by the undead.
In light of this theory, the mise en scène and metteur en scène gain singular importance as the aspects of filmmaking responsible for converting writing (fiction) into a simulated world (fact), summoned in live action film via a specific construction of a profilmic reality, organized according to a stylistic principle, and released, or set free through projection (is this Heidegger’s poetic projection?), for the embodied viewer to engage with. Mise en scène allows for the story to emerge as a world; it sets up its ontological dimensions and texture. Lúcia Nagib, in her most recent study on World Cinema, describes this process as a manipulation of the setting during the production stage, carried out with “a strong desire for realism”, often invested in specific landscapes and ethnographies (and on-location shooting) that “change fiction into fact” (2020: 35). In what follows, I will analyze Szumowska’s first English-language film, The Other Lamb (2019), as an example of a cinema that showcases the act of worlding and, in the process, comments on the role of the female as worlder, of she who worlds. I draw theoretical connections between the female director, the metteuse en scène, and the feminist as the de-monstrator.
The Other Lamb (2019): Szumowska’s Ultimate Worlding Film
Like the earlier Stranger, The Other Lamb tells a story of an adolescent girl who dares to question the man’s world and end it in the process. An alternative world is then proposed. Scripted by the Australian writer Catherine Smyth-McMullen and directed by Szumowska, the film is minimalist in plot and character development. It tells a simple story of a sheltered community of women, who squat in an abandoned forest cabin, raise sheep for subsistence, sleep, eat, and worship. The women are led by a single dogmatic man who calls himself the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) and who promises Eden to the women in exchange for their complete obedience, spiritual as well as corporeal. The women refer to themselves as ‘the flock’ and compete for the Shepherd’s attention and affection. When one day their illegal commune is discovered by the local police, the Shepherd must move his polygamous family to a new location. During the arduous trek, the Shepherd’s physical violence and psychological abuse come on public display during a series of altercations between him and the exhausted women. Until now the viewer had only suspected the violence, from a few fleeting images of bruised skin and strangulation marks on the women’s bodies. A girl named Selah (Raffey Cassidy) recognizes the Shepherd for who he is. It is through her perspective (via pov shots) that the early signs of abuse are communicated to the viewer. Just as the Shepherd announces to the women their arrival at the new home, Selah confronts the man publicly and ends his world. In terms of the narrative not much happens in The Other Lamb. Indeed, early critics of the film complained about the paucity of the back story, the lack of time and space coordinates, and the shorthand manner, in which Szumowska draws her characters (Robson-Scott; Kamyab; Harley). Coming from an accomplished filmmaker, however, one guesses that the pared-down feel of this film is a rhetorical choice. While Smyth-McMullen’s story may be about an abusive cult leader brought down by a defiant member of his community, Szumowska, with the help of her cinematographer, Michał Englert, sets out to tell us a somewhat larger and more universal story.
It is a story about the power involved in building worlds and taking them down. One striking image after another, Szumowska’s film dramatizes the very process of rendering a world. From the beginning, this rendering is framed critically by the camera which builds distance towards the leader’s overbearing world, thus signaling another, alternative world emerging around, or alongside, the compromised world of the patriarch. Because this emergent world is being authored by a young girl, on the level of the diegesis, and a mature woman (Szumowska), on the level of the profilmic reality, gender becomes the axis that organizes this story of worlding.
Much here is very familiar – the man in the position of power, whose authority arises from a pseudo-religious mandate of his own creation; the submissive women, who are absorbed by domesticity and dutifully fulfilling their reproductive function; a regimented culture shaped by categorical binarisms of good and evil, pure and polluted, saved and damned, ours and theirs, nature and culture, human and animal. The parameters and the basic elements of this man-centered world have become clichéd to contemporary audiences who know them from a plethora of screen productions: from television series like The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-present), Game of Thrones (2011–2019), The Red Tent (2014), Vikings (2013–2020), to folk horror films, including Midsommar (Dir. Ari Aster, 2019), The Village (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2004), The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers, 2015), or Neil LaBute’s remake of the genre’s classic The Wicker Man (2006; original Dir. Robin Hardy, 1973); to horror films about cults, like The Martyrs (Dir. Pascal Laugier, 2008), Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin, 2011), Starry Eyes (Dirs. Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, 2014), or Apostle (Dir. Gareth Evans, 2018). Szumowska, in her rendition of the oppressive world of patriarchy does what her predecessors did and goes further still. Preoccupied with the rhetorical power of this world, and the rhetorical work that goes into its creation, she discloses it as a far-fetched construct, an absurd system that those on the outside would be inclined to laugh off as grotesque, yet one that those on the inside are completely consumed by. By devoting much screen time to the ‘how’ of the world’s creation, and to the ‘how’ of its hold, Szumowska is making a political statement about worlding as a method of ideological influence, where precisely the simpler the world, the more immutable its dominance over the inhabitants.
In The Other Lamb, the oppressed women have not been kidnapped and trapped by force in the commune. They elected to follow the Shepherd into his world of male supremacy. Szumowska draws our attention to the fact that it is the populism of Shepherd’s materialized vision, its ostensible expediency, that helps him gain a purchase on the women. This critical comment from Szumowska, issued in 2019, is not surprising to those who follow the political scene in the director’s country of residence. Since 2015, in the course of only six years, Poland, a member of the European Union since 2004, has been recrafted by the leading Christian-right Law & Justice party into a world of absolute heteropatriarchy where women have been effectively removed from the job market through a series of incentive policies that reward women’s reproductive services, where the abortion law has been rewritten into one of the strictest in the world, where municipal and county governments have been allowed to proclaim and enforce lgbtq-free zones, and where the natural environment of the country has been aggressively exploited as a result of the new resource extraction legislation. This phallogocentric dystopia seemed utterly ridiculous, even benign, when first presented to the public by Jaroslaw Kaczyński (the chairman and chief policy architect of the Law & Justice party) as his vision for Poland’s future, during his election victory speech in 2015. Today, after six very busy years in the Polish parliament, where the fundamentalist, ultra nationalist, pro-family, pro-church world has been summoned into existence via quick acts of legislation, often passed at night, and in violation of Poland’s constitution, Kaczyński’s vision is far from laughable. Now, nearly fully rendered, apparently with the enthusiastic support of a large enough portion of Polish society (the conservative Catholic electorate responsible for the Law & Justice party’s continuous run), this world has quickly become a space of lived horror for many – the lgbtq people, the women in need of abortion, the immigrants, refugees, and members of ethnic minorities, and the women and children whose bodies bear the brunt of pervasive domestic violence, which according to the criminal law scholar Magdalena Grzyb is “practically not a crime under Polish law, in the practice of the Polish justice system” (2020: 180). In worlding Kaczyński’s world, the public media, now mostly monopolized by Law & Justice, play a crucial role in converting fiction into fact. The existence of other worlds, broadcast by private news organs and independent television channels, is now under threat of extinction as the government rewrites the law about media outlet ownership. It is in this context that Szumowska’s worlding film becomes a political statement and an important feminist contribution to World Cinema as the issue of aggressive expropriation of gender rights and reproductive rights has a global scope.
Feminist Worlding, the Place, and Cinematic Place Setting
In his guide to artistic worlding, Ian Cheng defines world as follows: “A World evokes a place. A World has borders. A World has laws. A World has values. A World has a language. A World can grow. A World can collapse. A World has mythic figures. A World has visitors. A World has members who live in it. A World looks arbitrary to a person outside of it” (2018: 20). In this definition, a sense of place is the very first criterion of worldness and something that Szumowska takes great care to establish in all her films. Some of the most memorable places created by Szumowska as a metteuse en scène are places of female domesticity, on par with Chantal Akerman’s feminine world in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In films such as Happy Man (2000), Stranger (2004), Elles (2011), Body (2015), or Never Gonna Snow Again (2020), this often quiet and private interior sphere emerges as a place of care rituals, sex, rest, monotony, intimacy, creativity, housework, family and animal interactions. In The Other Lamb, once again, this world is summoned to screen. Yet this time it is shown as a sole property of a man, a male auteur who is colonizing the work of a female metteuse en scène – the woman who performs the time-consuming, detail-oriented, often tedious work of place setting and place keeping.
The Shepherd is shown to have colonized every corner of the women’s construct. We see the adult women, whom the Shepherd calls the Wives, and the children, whom he calls the Daughters, work together from dusk till dawn, building, fueling, and maintaining a world – setting the scene for the man’s narrative dogma. The women perform both the stereotypically male and female tasks: sawing timber, butchering animals, repairing a roof, collecting fuelwood, doing the laundry, caring for infants and sheep, and cooking. But, unlike the domestic sphere from Szumowska’s other films, this world never becomes the women’s place. Or, to be more specific, it is textually expropriated by the Shepherd at the moment of conception, thus illustrating Spivak’s criticism of worlding as a self-affirming operation of the parasitical imperialist subject who comes in to map out the colony, to bestow a meaning onto it, to textualize it as an object of his knowledge, and, in the process, to suppress the agency of those who labored to world before him (Spivak, 1990).
Szumowska’s filmic world is built to expose the man’s forceful epistemological expropriation of the world that the women wrest from nature through daily backbreaking work. In designing her mise en scène, Szumowska uses a contrived, yet very effective visual metaphor to provide a material form for the Shepherd’s colonization of the women’s world. In the interior of the family’s living quarters, and increasingly also on the outside, the viewer notices webs of yarn that fill the ceiling space with straight lines of different lengths and trajectories, much like the cartographer’s line grid that organizes the world on a map into manageable and measurable sections. Innocuous at first, and faintly visible (perhaps entirely extradiegetic), these grids proliferate and take on a more insidious meaning as the viewer finds out that the women are not allowed to create knowledge or author any narratives. When one night, at bedtime, a young child asks Selah to tell her a story, another woman reprimands both girls and reminds them that only stories about the Shepherd and the Flock are permitted and only if they are told by the Shepherd himself. The connection between the arbitrary yarn lines that cut up the women’s overhead space throughout the settlement and the Shepherd’s totalizing system of knowledge that ensures the women’s bondage is especially felt in the scenes where the commune meets in the outdoor temple for worship. The temple is a small clearing in the forest, its ‘walls’ spun with the white yarn, as per Szumowska’s visual conceit. Woven in between trees to create an enclosure, this is a rhetorical and political space, where the women are herded to be indoctrinated with the man’s story of their salvation. Szumowska thus makes visible the process of discursive robbery of the women’s world, which historically has been carefully concealed through the dominant knowledge that disallows women their generative power and does not acknowledge their symbolic propagative labor, which exacts an inordinate bodily and emotional toll.
Szumowska’s illustration directs a spotlight on an aspect of worlding that has been important to Spivak – the aggressive narrativizing of the world by the patriarchal knowing subject. Spivak imagines him as a cartographer, whose overarching visual narrative of the map, coded as a transparent tool of exploration, reterritorializes what had been territorialized in the first place, thus usurping the world through his colonizing inscription (Spivak, 1990). As a metteuse en scène, Szumowska takes a great risk by placing a concrete visual model of the heteropatriarchal discursive manipulation in her filmic world. This hyper-visible material manipulation of the mise en scène, with no diegetic function, inserted into a realist narrative film, which is governed by the continuity principle and the efficiency of storytelling, is a political gesture of protest as much as it is a creative decision of Szumowska the worlder. Importantly, this gesture is carried out on the level of what the historian of early cinema André Gaudreault calls the cinematic ‘monstration’ – the film’s logic of exhibition and spectacle, which is not concerned with the sequential narrative integration (Gaudreault, 2011: 52–61). Szumowska’s monstrative invention communicates an arbitrary design of the filmic and profilmic world, calling attention to her own rendering agency and innovation. Her showing through the act of (de)monstration interrupts his telling, much in the spirit of Gaudreault’s theory that posits monstration as a disruptive impulse against the integrative mode of narration. Szumowska augments the filmic world not to necessarily contradict the Shepherd’s story, but to displace it and strip it of its absolute status as a sacred script. This gesture also becomes Szumowska’s statement about the medium: cinema’s unique mode of worlding is enabled by monstration – the exhibition that unmoors the synthesizing drive of the narrative and opens up a portal onto a new world. This act of monstration is designed by the female monstrator (metteuse en scène) in resistance to the male narrator (auteur).
In the tradition of détournement, the filmmaker is staging a subversive political prank that questions what the medium of cinema can conceal or reveal. I see this political statement, delivered within the #MeToo era in the film industry, as a performance unique to Szumowska’s role as metteuse en scène – the agent of monstration, and as such, in direct confrontation with the role of the auteur. Imagined by the canonical film theory as the agent of absolute authorial power and masculinist control, the auteur, much like Spivak’s cartographer, and the Shepherd, is the colonizing agent who inscribes his arbitrary signature over the world produced by the many members of the film crew. This grand author proudly bears the phallic attribute, famously dubbed by Alexandre Astruc the caméra-stylo, or the camera-pen. Writing in 1948, Astruc was one of the first theorists to champion the filmmaker’s writerly agency and the freedom and flexibility of his self-expression. This tradition of the concept of the auteur, especially its French school, has defined the auteur against and apart from the belittled and underestimated function of the metteur en scène as a mere technician and craftsman, whose role was seen as limited to the derivative enacting of the original vision of the script writer (Truffaut, 1954/2008). The critics of the classic auteur theory, which largely ignores the collective nature of cinematic worlding and the feminized labor of set designers and technicians, have since pointed out its elitist, sexist, and paternalist conception of cinema.4 This is to say that The Other Lamb, along with its critique of the Shepherd’s cult, should also be seen as Szumowska’s rejection of the grand narrator, including the auteur, and the related concept of the cult director – the roles that too many male filmmakers used as mandates of unrestrained power, on and off the film set.5
Selah, the Disciplinary Gaze, the Oppositional Gaze, and the Magisterial Gaze
To further understand Szumowska’s worlding project, I would like to briefly focus on The Other Lamb’s female protagonist, Selah, who arguably serves as the director’s avatar within the diegetic world. The directionality and the scope of her gaze in combination with the camera’s gaze inform the world view that emerges in Szumowska’s film.
From the very first shots of the film, Selah is presented to the viewer as a keen and curious observer. Whenever she gets a chance, she steals away from the claustrophobic forest encampment to wander the nearby hills, while her sisters are carrying out their duties with their heads down, obeying the strict code of conduct that the Shepherd instilled in the colony. This code the Shepherd reinforces by his visual organization of women’ bodies: blue dresses for the girls and red for the women; hair neatly braided; white robes for worship; face paint during ritual ceremonies. Selah is obviously bound by the same rules, but in her coming of age she is compelled to test them. The scenes of Selah exploring are shot in wide angle and are filled with natural light and expansive vistas of the mountainous terrain that surrounds the forest. They emphatically communicate the outside world, an open space untouched by the Shepherd’s stories, and, on the level of mise en scène, unregimented by the yarn grid.
During one of those escapades, the viewer sees Selah lying down on the ground and looking at the sun. She uses the palm of her extended hand to form frames and filters around the natural light source. Her active gaze and the framing that she casually experiments with, by fragmenting the sun with her fingers, invite a meta-cinematic association. Selah is playing at what Szumowska does for a living – setting up views of the world, creating and using her own language of monstration. This language includes, for example, the non-human vantage points which the viewer experiences in scenes where Selah is minding the sheep in the pastures. Here the camera alternates between shots that suture us into Selah’s gaze and shots that imitate the animals’ point of view. This hybrid economy of looking may feel disorienting at first, but it makes an obvious critical statement against the vertical hierarchy of the Shepherd’s colony where sheep are slaughtered for food and ritual sacrifice. Within this hierarchy, there is a strict visual regime – the sheep have no right to look, and women’s right to look is heavily restricted by the physical labor they perform, or, in the case of menstruating women, monthly expulsions to an unlit, windowless cellar.
In contrast to the sprawling landscape shots that provide the setting for Selah’s walks, the Shepherd’s world is shot in dark interiors and in the thick of the forest, often in night-for-night scenes. The women at the camp are very much ‘fixed’ by the omnipresent disciplinary gaze of the Shepherd, whose startling appearances surprise Selah and the viewer. He turns up unexpected in the background, watching. At other times, the prying gaze is disembodied as the camera peeps into the women’s spaces through window panes, looking from the outside in. Szumowska uses windows and doorframes to construct the sense of something akin to the Foucauldian system of panoptic surveillance, where the mere possibility of his presence controls the women’s actions. As Selah’s suspicion of the Shepherd grows, however, she begins to return his disciplinary gaze. She looks back, and the viewer looks back with her, to confront. From this point on, the viewer is increasingly sutured into her position, and the camera abandons the Shepherd’s gaze.
In the context of race relations, bell hooks has famously theorized this defiant look as an act of rebellion – the oppositional gaze. Placing her discussion within the context of slavery, hooks argues: “[e]ven in the worst circumstances of domination, the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency” (1992: 116). Selah’s looking becomes an act of witnessing. She is the one who enters and shows the viewer the women trapped in the menstruation confinement. Through her inquisitive looking, we also spot the physical marks of sexual violence that the women, who receive what the Shepherd calls his ‘grace’, bear on their bodies. Selah’s insight is further advanced by Szumowska’s dream sequences. Unattached to any of the characters’ point of view, these are perfect examples of cinematic monstration, where trauma becomes the main ‘attraction’ of the spectacle, thus pulling the repressed events to the observable plane. The dream sequences materialize, and put on public display, the hidden violence that the Shepherd exacts upon the bodies of his wives and daughters in private. These vignettes move the film into the register of body horror. As a result, the domestic violence is exposed as a public spectacle and a matter of politics. The fact that these sequences are not assigned to a particular character, and function as an extradiegetic palimpsest, increases their rhetorical power and leads to a direct iconoclash with the Shepherd’s dogmatic world within the diegesis.6 They de-monstrate the Shepherd’s violence and simultaneously underscore the political potential of disclosure.
Szumowska is not afraid to use parody in her project of critiquing heteropatriarchy. Although this strategy may have led to a certain confusion among the audiences as to the generic identity of The Other Lamb, which was promoted by its producers as a horror film, parody is used effectively in the film to issue a sophisticated statement on the role of female worlding in shaping gender politics. The problem of being homeless and landless is what moves the film’s narrative along. The colony has to move. The Shepherd needs to find another corner of the world for his family to settle. This role, of the explorer, pioneer, frontiersman, he eagerly and proudly steps in to fulfill. It is a role that has a well-established iconography in cinema, and in earlier forms of visual culture, and it is this iconography that Szumowska cleverly engages with, as she offers a new practice of cinematic worlding that questions acquisitive looking.
The colonial landscape is expansive, enabling the hero to roam and giving us the entertainment of action; it is unexplored, giving him the task of discovery and us the pleasures of mystery; it is uncivilized, needing taming, providing the spectacle of power; it is difficult and dangerous, testing his machismo, providing us with suspense. In other words, the colonial landscape provides the occasion for the realization of white male virtues, which are not qualities of being but of doing – acting, discovering, taming, conquering.
In The Other Lamb, Szumowska reimagines the magisterial gaze and the subject whose privilege it is to implement it. She lets the adolescent girl, Selah, assume this controlling perspective during one of her solitary excursions around the countryside, long before the Shepherd assumes it. Selah’s gaze is magisterial in structure and directionality, but is it magisterial functionally? Can a girl behold the world? What would such an action entail? Szumowska is drawing our attention to the fact that seeing a girl casting a land surveying gaze is still radical in the 21st century. Not the least because women constitute a mere 18%, globally, of all the landholders (The UN Food & Agriculture Organization).
In building the scene where Selah is looking over the landscape, Szumowska uses the well-established compositional trope of the Rückenfigur – a figure seen from behind, popularized by the painters of German Romanticism (most famously Caspar David Friedrich), and subsequently used in other media, including photography and film. According to this convention, the camera is positioned behind Selah and shows her back as she looks onto the landscape. This device has a complex suturing effect as the film viewer is asked to align their gaze with the figure’s gaze, but not as completely as the classic over-the-shoulder suture would allow. The viewer doubles the gaze of the figure surveying the landscape, without inhabiting the exact position of her looking, always remaining the ‘secondary’ onlooker, aware of the distance in perspective and unable to witness the exact reaction of her taking in the view at the very moment of its occurrence. The Rückenfigur anchors the viewer in a passive position of witness to Selah’s act of observation. Thus, Selah’s agency as a visionary and her independence as a worlder is protected from the viewer’s desires or ideological projections, even if the structure of the shot promotes some degree of allyship for the viewer.
The second use of the Rückenfigur comes towards the end of the film, when the Shepherd finally decides to stop the long journey and announces the arrival at the new location. The scene takes place at the edge of a cliff overlooking a lake nestled in a mountain range. The Shepherd is the first one to reach the escarpment. Along with the women, who stay back a short distance from the cliff, the viewer is looking at the Shepherd’s back as he surveys the horizon with an ostensibly magisterial gaze. After a while, the Shepherd turns around, sweeping his arm over the vista, and issues his grandiose proclamation, “My dear faithful flock! As a reward for your faith in me, I give you paradise on earth – Eden!” While the women are visibly relieved to hear that their trip has come to an end and they can finally rest, Selah does not accept the Shepherd’s magnanimous gift. The scene has a clear parodic purpose in how it mocks the Shepherd’s gesture of discovery.
Selah knows, and the viewer shares this knowledge, that the Shepherd’s claim to the land is false because he is not the first one to behold it. This slice of earth had been worlded by others who came before. This is the basis for Spivak’s critique of the cartographer and Szumowska plays it out. A few days prior to the arrival at the lake, when the group happens upon an abandoned house, which the Shepherd rejects as a “broken place”, Selah spots a landscape photograph on the wall. It is exactly the vista that the Shepherd later ‘discovers’. Selah stops briefly to admire the photograph. Once again, Szumowska voids the Shepherd’s narrative – a story of messianic conquest – on the level of mise en scène. This time by inserting a seemingly insignificant prop, which in turn helps Selah discredit the colonizing disciplinary gaze and question the chronology of conquest. Soon, we see her breaking the prohibition on storytelling, by telling the children a story about a mythical woman. In short order, Selah refuses the Shepherd’s grace and publicly denies his status as the leader of the family. This is the beginning of Selah’s world. While the viewer never finds out what that world will look like, the possible motivation of Selah-the-worlder may well echo Cheng’s irreverence, “Most of all, I wanted to know how making a world might make existing Worlds less sacred” (2018: 17).7
Viewed, however, in their worldliness, action, speech, and thought have much more in common than any one of them has with work or labor. They themselves do not “produce,” bring forth anything, they are as futile as life itself. In order to become worldly things, that is, deeds and facts and events and patterns of thoughts or ideas, they must first be seen, heard, and remembered and then transformed, reified as it were, into things – into sayings of poetry, the written page or the printed book, into paintings or sculpture, into all sorts of records, documents, and monuments.
Although Arendt does not list film as one of the many conduits of reification, I think of it as a perfect material object that enters action, speech, and thought into the human world through monstrative processing. Cinema has an added advantage of bringing those otherwise intangible expressions of human activity into a public forum. Cinema is the visual commons where transformational ideas materialize publicly and consequently enrich the human artifact, and, more importantly, the Arendtian active life. It is the space of actualization.
Szumowska’s Selah, in her public scene of renouncing the Shepherd, is ensuring a recognition for her symbolic gesture in what Arendt defined as the “space of appearance” (Arendt, 1958: 199). She addresses him in front of all her sisters. The near impossibility of her symbolic gesture, made so by the fact that she was born into servitude and has never known disobedience, is visualized by the expressions of shock on the sisters’ faces. The scene documents the importance of public witnessing, of coming together to see and acknowledge the girl’s transformative thought, astoundingly simple in its utterance – “You are not our Shepherd”, yet colossally difficult to perform. Indeed, Arendt explains that power is essential at the commons – “Power is what keeps the public realm, the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men, in existence” (1958: 200). But ultimately it is Szumowska’s film that ensures a material appearance that worlds this pronouncement, and as such moves it to the status of political action received by film audiences in the global visual commons, including Poland and other communities where misogyny has been, or will soon be, institutionalized.8 As argued in this essay, this is achieved through a specific work of monstration – a carefully crafted appearance of a death of the oppressive world, which clears the stage for a world to be – designed and reified by Szumowska as the metteuse en scène.
I would like to thank my friend and colleague The Cyborg Jillian Weise for her invaluable lessons on feminist worlding. Also, I am indebted to the anonymous Reviewer 2, whose comprehensive critique made this article infinitely better.
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Szumowska’s films are widely exhibited on the festival circuit. Her film In the Name Of (2013) received the Teddy Award for Best Feature, awarded for best films with lgbtq topics at the Berlin International Film Festival. Her Body (2015), centered on femininity and body image issues, received the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 65th edition of the same festival. In 2018, Szumowska’s disability-themed film Mug (2018) garnered the Jury Grand Prix, at the 68th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival. Her feature on student sex workers, Elles (2011), premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Never Gonna Snow Again (2020), concerned with topics of immigration, environment, and labor, premiered at the 77th Venice International Film Festival. Her art-house approach to filmmaking combined with vernacular realism, political content, and self-reflexive form have aligned her work with the category of World Cinema which I define later in this essay.
It seems that the relationship of this primary human condition, described by Arendt as the necessary processes of reification that build up the human artifact (the world), to the increasing virtualization of the artifact is central to the task of theorizing World Cinema as a unique medium in the current ecosystem of other media and acknowledging its political value.
For scholarship on imperial expansion and cinema, see for example Glenn Reynolds’ Colonial Cinema in Africa: Origins, Images, Audiences (McFarland, 2015) or P. Limbrick’s Making Settler Cinemas: Film and Colonial Encounters in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
There exists a rich body of critical scholarship that explores the auteur function and updates its usefulness within the post-colonial and transnational contexts. For excellent examples of this scholarship, see Thomas Elsaesser’s chapter on the global auteur in his European Cinema and Continental Philosophy and the collection of scholarship edited by Seung-hoon Jeong and Jeremi Szaniawski in a volume titled The Global Auteur: The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema.
On a meta level, Szumowska’s film delivers a subtle labor critique of the auteur’s colonization and exploitation of the female form, where female actors’ bodies have been exploited to establish entire careers of the male cult directors – Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Lars von Trier, Bernardo Bertolucci, to name just a few.
On the related concepts of iconoclash and iconoclasm, see the collection edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Iconoclash (mit, 2002).
This anti-canonical, even heretical, impetus of worlding is often found in alternate history films, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012), or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). The US period drama series Bridgerton (2020) or Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical are also good examples of screen worlds that toy with historiographic dogma.
At the moment of writing this article, the lives of women in Afghanistan are being reinscribed according to some of the strictest codes of heteropatriarchy by the newly installed Taliban government.