Meghan Oretsky, curator of Ladies with Lenses, was correct when she described her collection of female filmmaker-focused shorts as inherently dramatic. Although the title is cheeky and mildly cheesy, the eight shorts that comprised Ladies with Lenses were entirely devoid of frivolity. For 76 minutes, the audience was faced with footage of domestic violence, denial of human rights, mass incarceration, groping, and more; there were very few social complexities left untouched throughout the series.
The films wasted no time in diving into the nuances of social behaviors. The first work, “Nevada,” was a claymation-style piece that grappled with the awkward results of a failed condom. Director Emily Ann Hoffman perfectly grasped the inescapable discomfort affiliated with the situation, using long moments of silence that made the audience cringe. This piece, like the others in the set, was centered around brutal honestly; it was shockingly realistic, despite the use of clay models, because of the director’s ability to directly tackle a subject that’s often danced around.
The success of Ladies with Lenses hinged on intense vulnerability. “For Nonna Anna” depicted the painstakingly slow and unglamorous process of aging, told through the lens of a young woman taking care of her grandmother. With scenes showing the elderly woman soaked in her own urine and both women naked as she helped Nonna Anna shower, the piece clung to the power of intergenerational love and sacrifice. More so, it was impossible to ignore the immense levels of trust that went into the creative process.
The silence and slow movements that characterized Nonna Anna’s tale were sharply contrasted in the next film, “Johnny’s Home.” In this piece, created for the ACLU, Johnny narrates his own journey through incarceration and release back into society. The film moves quickly in pace as Johnny recalls how few resources and little information he received before being plopped back into Times Square in New York City. The film explored the theme of vulnerability caused by social barriers. “Counterfeit Kunkoo” follows the same pattern, as it tells the story of a woman in India who left her husband after being raped, and she finds herself unable to rent an apartment alone. While these films take place in entirely separate parts of the world, they are linked in their portrayal of how to persevere when the odds are stacked against you.
Ranging from 15 minutes to just under two, each film differed in topic but not in emotional weight. Throughout the set, there was virtually no room to breathe, no moments of relief. Although the importance of each topic is undeniable, 76 minutes of tackling society's most complex and and sometimes atrocious moments was simply too much. The films rolled into each other continuously; the extremely trying stories of Johnny and Nonna Anna’s were followed by “The Things You Think I’m Thinking,” which depicts a 30-year-old who struggles to date after losing massive parts of his arms.
Toward the end of the set, however, there are two pieces that injected spurts of humor in their discussion of harrowing topics. The first is “Untitled Groping Revenge Fairytale,” where a woman uses a supernatural force to entice men back to her inflatable pink tent in the woods where she transforms them into animals. In the end, she starts a petting zoo on the side of the road; it’s almost like an animal-themed, feminist version of Get Out. The subsequent piece, “Liberty Hill,” follows an older woman who became a social activist. She spends two days a week hanging a sign over the highway that says “Repeal and Replace Sen. Ted Cruz,” and she also makes politically charged quilts. Despite their comical undertones, these two films also grapple with social issues. The first is a film made in response to being groped, and the latter discusses how a 70-year-old woman was inclined to take action because of the atrocities she saw occurring in the U.S.
The lack of relief continues until the very end of the set, which closes with “Turned Away,” another ACLU documentary piece. It tells an animated version of the same-sex couple whose request for a wedding cake was denied by a baker in Colorado. Although the piece might have been uplifting a few months ago when the case was in the Supreme Court, it has since been decided, and the plaintiffs lost. What might have been a joyous ending was now cast in a cloud of cynicism.
Ladies with Lenses drew attention to dire social, economic and political issues in an unbelievably authentic way. With stories that bridged cultural and geographic divides, it was a true display of unadulterated emotion that left the audience in need of a hug and a long night’s sleep.