On Film: meeting the male gaze head-on | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Film: meeting the male gaze head-on 

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"Sir, are you ashamed of yourself?" Maggie Hadleigh-West asks, tracking a white-collar worker down a crowded street in the Loop. Her handheld camcorder dips, tilts, and lurches as she pursues her subject, a man who gave her an unwelcome look. "This guy has just harassed me," explains the 40-year-old filmmaker, recalling the scene. "That's completely culturally sanctioned, but he somehow recognizes that this is not a good opportunity for him, so he goes into a building and I follow him. He starts running, and I'm laughing because it was so hilarious to me that he thought he had done something wrong enough to be running. And everyone on the escalator was saying, 'Who's that?' and 'What's going on?' as if it were a horrific criminal act. You know, if this was a boy film, people would be flying off the escalator, blood and guts everywhere. Instead it's me going, 'Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me.'"

Hadleigh-West shot over a thousand incidents of "street abuse" in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco; her remarkable 1998 documentary War Zone collects 53 interviews she conducted with mostly anonymous men whose looks and words struck her as sexually aggressive. In 1992 she picked up a Super-8 movie camera at a Delaware yard sale for $10 and shot a 13-minute short that served as a draft for War Zone. As the project took shape she found celebrity backers like Susan Sarandon, Marlo Thomas, Janeane Garofalo, and Susan Faludi. The film, which opens in Chicago this week, has polarized critics: the Boston Phoenix called it an "electrifying guerrilla odyssey," but New York Times critic Janet Maslin likened its "ambushes" and "shrill disputes" to trashy talk shows. "None of this does feminism any favors," she wrote, suggesting that Hadleigh-West, wearing a sleeveless tank top, short skirt, and leggings, was "dressed to stop traffic (or at least slow it down marginally)."

"I just noticed when you were walking by you were looking at my breasts," says Hadleigh-West in another scene, which cuts between shots taken by her other two camera operators (usually she enlisted one man and one woman). Her target protests, "I can look at anything, can't I? Freedom of sight." Another man even apologizes, "I have no control over my eyes." Still another fires back, "I know your film is not going to make any difference." Some men grab at the microphone or camera; at times even her male camera operators seem intimidated. "The women I've shot with have always been fearless," says Hadleigh-West, "because we're so accustomed to this."

The filmmaker was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, where her father was an anthropologist. She describes her upbringing as "extremely sexist," and from girlhood she was taught to be cautious of men. "I can remember my mother warning me about strangers, because in Alaska we walked to school five miles through trails, across a lake, up hills, and through woods. And there were always men out there lurking and waiting for children, waiting for girls, exposing themselves. It was always understood that men were dangerous."

Her mother carried a rifle when dad was away and once fired a warning shot at a man outside their cabin. War Zone is a similar act of counteraggression: at one point in the narration Hadleigh-West describes her camera as "a weapon I could turn on men the same way they turn their aggression on me." In a Penthouse column about the film Hadleigh-West writes, "As soon as a man was sexually aggressive toward me I would 'shoot' him. For the first time in my life I felt empowered on the streets." In the film's less combative episodes she conveys a good-humored curiosity about the quips, come-ons, gestures, wolf whistles, and lip-smacking that emanate from men on the street. "It's just like my father--I'm out there gathering evidence."

Future films include a Bravo Channel segment on a nine-year-old actor and documentaries on strippers and the hip-hop scene. "I always wanted to be a portrait artist," she says, "because I couldn't imagine anything that was more interesting than the psychology of people. So I used to actually stare at people all the time, and whenever they did something, you know, behaviorally, I would ask myself why."

War Zone screens Friday through Thursday at Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton. For more info, see the Critic's Choice in Section Two, or call 773-281-4114. --Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Aaron Fineman.

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