This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 41, Summer 2000.
Taking Marleen Gorris’s A Question of Silence as an important example of feminist film-making, Carol Morley looks at the impact of the film 20 years on. She discussed the issues raised by the film — sexuality, the family, violence, the criminal justice system — with a group of 19 year old women, and asked them what feminism meant to them.
The narrative of A Question of Silence revolves around the murder of a male boutique owner, by three women, who are strangers to each other. The ‘downtrodden’ housewife, seen shoplifting by the owner, is supported by two other women who ostentatiously begin shoplifting too. Drawn together, the three women, with makeshift weapons of glass ashtrays and coathangers, murder the boutique owner. The murder trial and the involvement of a female psychiatrist shows an unspoken allegiance between the films female characters across class, occupation, and age. The assumption of the male characters is that the women killers should be diagnosed as mad, that there is nothing rational about the act they committed, how can there be? The film depicts a society in which women are silenced and undermined and ultimately works towards a possible form of resistance — separatism — in which the women connect in implicit and mutual understanding.
A Question of Silence must be one of the most successful feminist films of all time. It is frequently cited as a powerful example of feminist film-making and has reached a large audience since it was released in 1982. In the UK, thanks to the female distribution company Cinema of Women (which later merged with Circles to become Cine Nova), the film had a healthy life in the repertory cinemas throughout the country. While the film won prizes at film festivals, and has subsequently become a crucial text in feminist film theory, A Question of Silence was slated by the (male) film critics. One reviewer wrote:
Genocide is a comparatively modest moral device compared to the ultimate logic of this film’s message. (Milton Shulman, The Standard, 17 Feb, 1983)
The film has endured and continues to court controversy, and to retain various distribution outlets. It was televised relatively recently on UK terrestrial TV (admittedly at about 2 am in the ‘graveyard slot’), and in the USA it is now available on video.
Twenty years on
I first saw A Question of Silence in 1990, and from what I have heard of the original impact of the film, found it undiminished; it was one of the most powerful films I’d ever seen. I was curious to know what the group of young women whom I was teaching would make of it now. This group consisted of 15 women, all nineteen years old, but from a range of cultural backgrounds and nationalities. From the discussions the group had previously had, I expected that they would respond to the overall spirit of the film, and enjoy the sense of female solidarity and humour. Instead they read the film very critically and were, on the whole, disconcertingly disparaging about almost every aspect, from the cinematic devices to the narrative itself.
It seems partly that A Question of Silence failed to make a direct impact on the group at least partly because the stylistic elements appeared to them old-fashioned. So the film has dated; women who were born around the same time as it was made are seeing it as historic and distant from their lives. It seemed they found it difficult to move beyond the formal elements, and again, considering previous discussions, the ‘educational’ context alone would not sufficiently explain this reluctance to empathise with the mood of the film. Take the murder scene: they found the music ‘awful’ and
The murder scene, I don’t know if it’s because they’re bad actors, but they just looked so blank and they just go at it with their ashtrays.
Taking it literally
In A Question of Silence you never actually see the body of the man being attacked. We only see the women attacking; the focus is on their almost ritualised involvement in the murder, rather than on the suffering of the victim. In other words it is not about the individual man; instead he is intended to represent generic ‘man’, and it is men as a class that women are here shown to be confronting, and taking revenge upon. For this reason, the women ganging up against the man, with other female shoppers looking on and seemingly condoning the murder — supported also, implicitly, by women in the audience — creates a powerful sense of female solidarity. Or rather, it did in the ’80s. Instead, the large majority of this group of young women saw the film as a straightforward endorsement of random violence.
They didn’t show remorse, maybe if they were upset, you would sympathise with them.
They’re fighting for their rights and killing an innocent person to prove it. It just undermines everything.
The whole thing about the murder, it just doesn’t carry the message it should.
A lone supporter of the film, defending the murder scene, said:
I agree the murder was over exaggerated (but)… I don’t take the murder as a murder, the whole thing is a metaphor.
The group pointed out the oppressive conditions which united the main characters in the film: the secretary whose ideas are appropriated by her boss, the cafe worker who works for little financial reward, the beleaguered housewife who is given no support by her husband and stops speaking, the psychiatrist who is belittled and ignored by her husband. One member of the group, at least, was in complete sympathy with the film’s intention:
the attitude within the court, the judge, the lawyer, the barristers, they were all men, showing their patriarchal dominance within the highest ranking roles within society, so they produce, have a say in what’s right and wrong and their attitudes towards the female psychiatrist, trying to dumb down her verdict, her report, reflected in general how women felt, how they were being suppressed, not heard. I think that guy was symbolic of that because he was a capitalist, patriarchal shop owner.
Female solidarity vs individualism
In all the documentation of the film the overall impression is that female audiences came together collectively and celebrated the film, both for its unprecedented daring in depicting women’s resistance within the framework of a recognisable genre — a thriller, unlike any other. Yet, the group, sympathetic as they seemed to be to the idea of female solidarity, did not recognise it in this form, and felt no affinity with the women’s actions.
I found it scary. Is that the only way women can meet? You see these isolated women getting on with their lives… and when they have something happening between them and finding power, that’s a good thing. But to kill!
While considering the film ‘unsubtle’ the group acknowledged that it defined an experience that they were not familiar with. They generally felt that the notion of collectively and solidarity didn’t really exist for them. They all agreed with one of the group who said that they felt they lived in an epoch of individualism.
If you compare the film to nowadays, I think our time isn’t at all politicised…. Many people I know are not really aware of things. I think it’s like you go and do your own individual thing. It’s not seeing the system anymore.
Silence and Resistance
The ‘silence’ of the title deals with the double meaning of women being silenced and choosing silence as an act of resistance. It seems the housewife has chosen silence as an act of defiance and as an acknowledgement that there’s no point talking because no one is listening anyway. Most of the group did not see her silence as resistant, but as troubling and causing her to her repress her emotions which directly led to her part in the murder. They felt very strongly that she was the controller of her own destiny and that it was down to her, individually, to change her circumstances.
In the scenes before the murder, you didn’t see the housewife do things that could change her situation, she didn’t do anything or say anything to change anything. All the women are keeping it inside and it’s growing and growing and then they go and kill an innocent person.
As the film progresses the psychiatrist begins to doubt the women’s insanity, comes to understand the women’s motive as sane and begins to identify their situation as similar to her own. The overall feeling of the group at this point was understanding, they saw that the psychiatrist had more in common with the women standing trial than the male lawyers in the courtroom.
The psychiatrist was a symbol of new woman for the times, she was independent…
…but she’s starting to see things in her life. She was unaware at the beginning , she had a good job, and time for herself. But these other women didn’t have the opportunity and she started noticing things in her life, like when her husband was at the dinner table, he was really forceful about his opinions, he was the only one talking and he was talking to the man across the table.
The group recognised that the film was highlighting the struggle of women to be heard, to be acknowledged.
I thought the film made clear the patriarchal world. Especially at the end in the court where they’re all silent and all these men are talking about the case and don’t let the women talk. If they want to find out why the murder happened, why don’t they ask the women?
I take the court room scene as a picture, a symbol for men thinking that it’s insane that women are fighting for their rights. Men can’t understand it, they just think they’re in the right, in power.
Having a laugh
The film earned its director some controversial international exposure in festivals and also earned her the dreaded label of ‘feminist filmmaker’, with all the dour humourlessness that that brand came to imply, disparagingly in the ’80′s. (www.film.com/film-interview/1998/10274/829/index.html)
A Question of Silence must have one of the best courtroom scenes in the history of courtroom scenes. A male lawyer claims that three men killing a woman would be exactly the same as three women killing a man. The silent/silenced housewife begins the laughter, until eventually every woman in the court is laughing, including the female psychiatrist. It is not the laughter of despair or desperation, but of hilarity and solidarity. It is a celebration of mutual understanding and of connection. It seems ironic that feminism has come to be equated with ‘humourlessness’ (part of the attached ‘stigma’ that we’ll come to later), when a A Question of Silence so clearly celebrates female collectivity through laughter.
At the start of our group discussion, the ending was the first thing to be mentioned:
I didn’t understand the film. What happened at the end?
It’s supposed to show some kind of complicity and understanding between women that men don’t have access to.
But while the group could identify that this was what was being represented, most of them could not identify with it. They did not laugh, or feel like laughing, they felt detached from it
If you show this film in the cinema now and in the end women laugh, I’m not sure why they’d laugh and if it would be the same reason as then. Because we don’t know why they laughed.
I understood why they were laughing. Because the men didn’t understand why it would be different if they had killed a woman.
I’m not sure men would take this film seriously now
I could understand if I was a man sat in an audience and all these women were laughing at men, at me, I would feel threatened.
It depends what kind of man you are.
There are few films that enter the mainstream and openly and categorically speak out to women as the primary audience, A Question of Silence was at the time shamelessly targeted at women’s audiences. Interestingly enough, the cover of the new US video release of the film, boasts the quote ‘a thinking woman’s thriller- that thinking men won’t want to miss’, clearly a distribution strategy that doesn’t want to miss out on capitalising on a male audience, even with a film that deliberately mocks male power and authority.
Feminism as stigma
A Question of Silence can clearly be categorised as a feminist film. But what meanings does it generate now, for an audience who were born around the same time as the film was made, whose reading of the film is obviously informed by their age? When asked if they considered themselves feminists all these young women side-tracked the question, rarely giving a direct answer unless pushed.
I think there’s a problem with the word, how we represent the word feminism, because everyone say’s they’re not, but they might still think about their rights, but it’s such a word.
There was a real reluctance amongst the students to identify themselves as feminists, even though all of them, in different ways, had what could be viewed as feminist ideals/ ideas/ principles.
I don’t think I’m a feminist. Actually I wouldn’t like to call myself a feminist. ‘Cos they’re waiting with the gun, or the coathanger (reference to one of the murder weapon in AQOS) … I believe we should be equal with men and we’re getting there but at the same time there are different situations where women are more powerful than men and the other way around.
We wouldn’t be here, we can all criticise the feminists but if it wasn’t for them our lives would be completely different and people seem to forget that.
That’s the trouble with the word, it’s got so many associations and the associations we’re fed, now we’re living in this society and relatively free, we can’t understand what it must have been like. We need a new word.
An interesting part of the discussion, was when one of the group claimed that ‘patriarchy has never existed for me’ and a colleague challenged her with ‘who’s the powerful one in your family?’ to which she replied, ‘My dad’, who she said was paid more than her mother and had more authority. But generally it seemed the group were in denial of their own oppression as women. While acknowledging that other women were oppressed; women in history, women elsewhere, they found it difficult, even problematic, to see their own lives as in any way marginalised.
I’m not sure I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been treated badly because I’m a woman.
The more you think about it, the more you realise how much it’s changed, even an issue like wearing a skirt. Now it’s your choice, you can wear trousers and now even some men are wearing skirts.
And even when the group acknowledged that there was discrimination and inequality, they saw it as something that is down to the individual, something to be overcome through ‘ability’ and not solidarity.
I wouldn’t say I’d call myself a feminist because things should be looked at in terms of ability and not gender. I know it’s not fair between men and women.
Feminism has allowed women to identify and articulate their experience of oppression. The majority of the group rejected feminism as something which was useful to their lives as women now. They saw it as something historical, that had enabled them to ‘be themselves’, that had contributed to them being ‘more free’. They felt that they were different than their female predecessors, that they had arrived somewhere:
I know I’m benefiting from lots of things, like studying. My Grandmother thinks I should have a family now. But things have changed and I’m benefiting. I don’t know if I’m a feminist.
On the whole, while accepting that feminism ‘had’ been important, a general distaste for feminism was aired, as though it was something redundant or too extreme in its present form.
I think that feminism has been developed by knowledgeable people, but carried away by ignorant people, and then it’s all about being paranoid and obsessive.
Naively I thought that the group (who had, after all, chosen to take a course called Gender Studies) would all be feminists and that A Question of Silence would have a currency which the group would have an affinity with. I also thought that the message of the film was unquestionably clear. It never crossed my mind that a group of women would find the film and feminism so problematic.
What was fascinating though, was the struggle the group went through to try and define their own position, there was no word for them that could illustrate where they were coming from. There was a refusal, in a way, to be defined. They didn’t want to use the word feminism, which for them generally seems to be stigmatised. There was a fluid and ongoing grappling with who they were as women, and how they placed themselves. There was also (from the lone student who defended the film) a sense of regret at how she saw society around her becoming more and more about individualism. While A Question of Silence didn’t win them over in an uncritical way, it enabled a viable discussion to open up that allowed the group to begin to define their own positions in relation to a film that did, and always will in one way or another, speak out to women about the struggle of women. Even though the majority of the group were resistant to the film they did acknowledge that the film had made them think, had opened up a debate.
This film is different to any film I’ve seen before in its subject matter and despite its faults I’m sure it did politicise and inform. It’s made us talk.