Who does Judge Victor Valdivia think he is? He's not entirely sure himself.
A woman still has to choose. What if she didn't?
Who Does She Think She Is? is an uneasy amalgam of two documentaries, one of which is mildly intriguing, the other arresting. Unfortunately, the fact that director/producer Pamela Boll couldn't make up her mind about which of these stories she really wanted to tell means that both get short shrift. The film addresses some important and rarely seen issues with a reasonable amount of care, but it isn't as focused and thorough as it could have been.
The film follows the lives of five women who are artists: sculptor Janis Wunderlich, actress/singer Angela Williams, and painters Maye Torres, Camille Musser, and Mayumi Oda. These stories are actually the most compelling parts of the film. All of the women are mothers, some divorced, some still married, and all discuss how the pressures of being expected to take care of children and the urge to be creative don't always (or even often) get along. There are a host of complex issues here: how women are always expected to be the primary caregivers for children, how women are expected to sacrifice almost all of their desires when they become mothers, and how women are never to suggest that they sometimes resent making these sacrifices. These are manifested in different ways. Angela Williams is forced to keep inhuman hours to take care of her children and still find time to go to auditions and rehearsals. Janis Wunderlich manages barely an hour every few days to squeeze as much sculpting as she can when she has some free time. Maye Torres, who divorced acrimoniously from her husband after he refused to accept her artistic ambitions, speaks candidly about how hard it is to support herself and her children on her artist's salary.
It's in these sections that the film works best, mixing reality style narrative with moments far more unvarnished and affecting than you'll see in most scripted films. When one of the women suffers a devastating personal blow, you'll be partly surprised, because there were no prior indications in any of the scenes before. On the other hand, given the difficulties she faces and the stories of other women in her situation, it's actually sadly predictable. Janis Wunderlich's story is especially fascinating. She's a married suburban Mormon mother of five and in any other circumstances she would epitomize the type of person that the art elite would enjoy ridiculing. In fact, she's actually a successful artist who's enjoyed shows at major galleries. Even more remarkable is her art itself (see Accomplices section), which is astonishingly dark and unsettling; clearly, the catharsis that her art provides is far more important to her than she lets on. In telling these stories, Who Does She Think She Is? provides a necessary service.
The problem, unfortunately, is that it doesn't tell these stories fully. The reason for that is that the film is also interested in addressing the issue of sexism in the art world and the oppression of females in art. This aspect of the film isn't handled very well. There are too many cutesy moments, like a suspiciously edited segment where patrons exiting art museums are asked to name female artists and fail; what art lover worth his or her salt couldn't come up with Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe, or Mary Cassatt? There's a snippet in which a female drummer proclaims that women drummers were popular through prehistory, but gradually were excised as men became more powerful. What any of that has to do with the film is inexplicable, since she's never seen or heard from again. The statistics on how female artists are routinely paid, shown, and evaluated as if they're inherently inferior to males are genuinely damning, but there's no real effort made to tie these ideas into the stories of the women we've seen. This is a subject that should have been addressed in its own film, with specific examples that could point out how the art world is rife with inequality. Instead, by not really tying this section in so well with the stories of the female artists, Boll unintentionally suggests that they probably shouldn't even bother trying, since they won't be accepted by the art world anyway. That's certainly not true, of course, but by addressing these issues in such a superficial and haphazard way, she doesn't do them the justice they deserve.
The extras compiled on the disc are generally not illuminating, except for one. In addition to the film's trailer (2:19), there's an interview with Boll (10:03), in which she explains her thoughts on the film, but it's way too short to provide much insight. There are also a couple of extra interviews with Wunderlich (4:29) and Oda (3:00). The Oda interview isn't that memorable, but the Wunderlich one should definitely have been included in the film. She describes how she once attended a pottery seminar with one of her children and was greeted with a mixture of condescension and contempt by all the other artists. That's the story that Boll should have used as the centerpiece of the film, since it sums up many important issues concisely.
At least the DVD is packaged well. The non-anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and Dolby Stereo mix are both acceptable, although the transfer should have been anamorphic. The disc also comes with a poster, booklet, and invitations and discussion cards for viewers to invite friends to watch and talk about the film, all packaged in a lavish box.
Ultimately, Who Does She Think She Is? is something of a letdown. It's certainly not an angry piece of feminist dogma, nor is it as touchy feely as the cover art suggests. However, Boll really should have gone further into the lives and thoughts of the artists she profiles. Their stories are far more fascinating than the misguided attempts at "gotcha" filmmaking. It would have been better to leave the story of sexism in the art world for another film entirely, because in attempting to do so much in one film, Boll sadly winds up not doing enough.
Guilty of being too unfocused.
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