In 2007, the Washington Post published a (now-famous) article called Pearls Before Breakfast. On January 12th of that year, a busker stood playing the violin at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, earning just over 32 dollars for a performance that was passed by nearly 1100 people. While a few people did stop to listen for at least a minute (7 in all, out of over 1000), most ignored the musician entirely—with one very noteworthy, categorical exception. According to Stinson’s wonderful book, The Man With the Violin, there was one demographic that did not behave like the rest; each time that a child passed the violinist, they tried to stop—tugging on a parent’s arm and so forth—and in every case, the adult hurried them along. What those commuters did not know was that the man playing the violin was Joshua Bell, one of the most masterful violinists in the world. They didn’t know that he had recently played a local concert—sold out—where even mediocre seats sold for over a hundred dollars a ticket. They probably wouldn’t have guessed that the music he was playing that day was one of the most difficult pieces ever written, or that the violin he was playing on was handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713—purchased for nearly 4 million dollars and never refinished.
“He made this to perfect thickness at all parts,” Bell says, pivoting it. “If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound.” No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.
Chances are, the children did not know any of this either, but they did know something that the adults did not: that this humble-looking artist was eminently worthy of their time and attention, and that the music he was making was beautiful. I love this story, and I love that Kathy Stinson created the book, The Man with the Violin, inspired by this real-life social experiment. While officially targeted at younger children, it would be an excellent book to read to a group of teens or pre-teens to spark a discussion about recognizing beauty and how we ascribe value (wearing an expensive suit on a stage = worth a $100 ticket / wearing a ball cap and standing on the pavement = not worth the time). All of this is to say that after The Man With the Violin, I didn’t believe I would ever again stumble upon a picture book that so eloquently portrayed the power of music and the elevated ability of children to recognize beauty and to be inspired by it. I was wrong.
Greta Gerwig, ©Merie Wallace and A24
Some people might question the value of putting female directors in a spotlight, and to them I say: the fact that it’s a question at all is reason enough. Just look at the general reaction from the public whenever someone singles out female achievement. The knee-jerk response tends to be “who cares?” and “doesn’t equality mean treating everybody equally?” Well, yes and no. In a perfect world, yes. In our systemically biased world, no. Let’s break it down into numbers. 2019 has seen a record high of female directors in high-profile films, and do you know what that record high is? 12 (potentially 14!) of the 100 top-grossing films. That’s 12%. TWELVE. The fact that this number is being celebrated is both exciting and deeply, deeply sad. So while I would love to take women’s achievements in directing for granted, we’re still in a place where a woman succeeding behind the camera is a minor novelty. So yes, let’s continue to spotlight them, until it’s no longer interesting to do so!
But why should we care about women behind the camera? Well, for the same reason that it’s important for anyone to be behind the camera: to exert some level of control over representation, to give audiences as organic experience as possible. This is true of POC directors, LGBTQ+ directors, even white male directors. We all want our stories told, and we all want our stories to be appreciated. True representation brings us closer to something resembling understanding. Allowing people to tell their own stories opens up new worlds to audiences, which they may never have been able to experience otherwise. To quote Pocahontas (a problematic movie, I know—indulge me), “you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.” We all have our own unique experiences and perspectives, which allow us to interpret the world differently and in turn provide insight for others that may not come naturally to them. None of us are born omniscient; we learn through exposure. Film is a helpful, no-brainer medium for that.
You know sometimes you pick up a book with a beautiful cover just because it’s beautiful and you start reading without having read anything regarding the novel, neither synopsis nor review, then you become completely and utterly absorbed in the text? This was one of those. It’s almost as though in reading Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (also available on Overdrive) the reader too gets sucked into the story, in its thrall as to the fruit of the drunken tree. Looking now, I see that it got a lot of rave reviews last year when it came out – it either all passed me by or I’ve forgotten about it – and now I understand why.
To sum up the story, it’s a coming-of-age story featuring two female voices through which perspectives we piece together as much of the story as is possible to do, an incomplete and fragmented picture as it can only be. This incompleteness is aided in part by one of the narrators being a child of 7, Chula, when she first starts the story in Bogotá, making what sense she can of the political situation in Colombia during the last years of Pablo Escobar through news reports. She becomes absorbed by the new household worker Petrona, 13 when she first begins working for Chula’s Mamá, wanting to learn everything she can about Petrona and conjuring different myths with her older sister Cassandra to explain Petrona’s silence (e.g. “We started to think that maybe Petrona was a poet or maybe someone under a spell. I didn’t tell Cassandra that in a certain light Petrona looked to me like a statue, that when she was still and quiet the folds of her apron seemed to me to harden into the stone draperies of church saints… I came up with saint names for Petrona” (Rojas Contreras, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, c.3)). And it’s through a similar layer of myth-making and larger-than-life projections that we encounter those outside of this women’s household consisting of Chula, Cassandra, Mamá, and Petrona: Papá; the guerillas, military, paramilitary, etc.; Pablo Escobar.