The Vagina: one of the last screen taboos, and still the source of much embarrassment and shame for many women. But a one-off documentary for Channel 4 challenges us to take a new look – quite literally.
Based on Laura Dodsworth’s book, Womanhood – The Bare Reality, in which the artist photographs a hundred women’s vulvas, 100 Vaginas is a provocative, no holds barred and startlingly beautiful paean to this mostly misunderstood part of a woman, and the many emotions and experiences bound up with it.
The film was produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker and WFTV member Jenny Ash (pictured, right), with the support of an all-female crew, and was edited by fellow-WFTV member, Sunshine Jackson (pictured, left). WFTV caught up with the pair ahead of the programme’s TX on Tuesday 19 February to find out how they went about shaping such an intimate and emotive film, and what they hope its impact will be…
‘It feels like maybe the start of an exciting era at C4 where female filmmakers are being championed in a way they haven’t been before.’
Jenny, can you start by telling us how this film came about – and specifically your involvement in the project?
Executive Producer, Susanne Curran from Burning Bright Productions developed the project and approached me to direct it. I think Laura’s work is awesome and immediately said yes. There’s so much shame around women’s bodies and in particular the vagina. We need to talk about it and normalise it. It’s an urgent conversation and long overdue. So many women’s lives are diminished by that shame.
The film is beautifully shot and unashamedly frank in its imagery. How did you decide upon the stylistic approach, and was it hard to square with the commissioning editor?
Jenny: In the book Laura’s photos are purposefully very neutral and almost scientific – I wanted to do something different in the film and create emotional, beautiful yet explicit imagery inspired by the words of the women. I was excited to come across cinematographer Ann Evelin Lawford’s work which has an unusual and arresting female gaze. This is actually her first foray into broadcast television – and she added a great intensity and beauty to the film. Sunshine, Ann Evelin and I talked a lot about the areas we should explore, and the boundaries we should push – did we want to see a clitoris in big close up? Did we want to see a tampon being pulled out? Did we want to see people masturbating? If it was uncomfortable, then we felt we needed to expose it to the light and work out why.
We were blessed by our commissioning editor Shaminder Nahal at C4 – it would have been a very different film without her. Her starting point was ‘do what you want with this Jenny, just make it as creative as you can’ (you hardly ever hear those words in telly!). She let us make the film we wanted to make – always giving incisive input and pushing us to be bold. It feels like maybe the start of an exciting era at C4 where female filmmakers are being championed in a way they haven’t been before.
Sunshine, when did you get involved and what was it that appealed to you about the project?
Jenny initially called me last summer, and I instantly LOVED the project, but couldn’t make the dates work. I mostly now work editorially across whole series, and had decided to stop editing altogether, when Jenny called again to say the dates had changed. It felt like fate – the perfect project to round off 20 years in the cutting room. The thing that made it irresistible was the core aim – to reclaim the vagina no less! And the chance to work with Jenny – one of only a handful of women directors working at her level in my part of the industry.
‘We quickly bonded over lots of shared experience, both as working mums and ambitious filmmakers.’
How would you describe your working relationship in the edit?
Jenny: I’ve long been a fan of Sunshine’s work both as an editor and producer so I was thrilled when finally we had a chance to work together. This film could have so easily become a run of the mill conventional documentary in other hands. I needed an editor who was up for experimenting and not afraid of failing – which we did a few times! She has an arty, quirky creativity that sparked with mine. I’m looking forward to seeing what our creative partnership will generate next.
Sunshine: Jenny is brilliantly collaborative – which is good because I’m very forthcoming creatively! I think her ‘special sauce’ is her ability to get the very best out of her team and allow their creative vision to join her own. We quickly bonded over lots of shared experience, both as working mums and ambitious filmmakers. In fact, we enjoyed working together so much we’ve ended up joining forces longer term through Amplify Pictures. It’s a new production company with a radically inclusive approach to the creative process. We have a particular focus on lifting up the voices of women in authorship roles in the industry, which is something we both feel incredibly passionate about.
The film really takes the viewer on an emotional journey, and there’s a definite sense of narrative even though it’s also very visually free and poetic. Can you tell us about how you approached structuring in the edit to achieve that?
Sunshine: We started with the lifespan of a woman – from the attitudes we soak up from our culture as girls, through periods, virginity, sex, trauma, childbirth, illness, menopause – but really that was a launching off point. Ultimately, we played around with the structure a fair bit, looking to balance the journey the viewer takes through the humour, pain and insight of the women’s testimonies.
Jenny: What I think gives the film emotional power and a lightness of touch are the sequences in which we cut a river of voices talking about the central universal themes – bleeding, masturbating, sex, giving birth etc. By layering different experiences together it allowed those sections to embrace the full diversity of the female experience.
‘I always wanted to make sure this film had moments of humour in it – it was really important for it not to feel stodgy and worthy in any way.’
There are some very effective (and humorous) uses of archive montages to bring to life some of the feelings and experiences that the women in the film are describing, like what it’s like to have an orgasm. Where did that idea come from?
Sunshine: We started off thinking we might use more archive as humour and pacing, but when we cut lots of it in, it just didn’t work the way we’d hoped. In the end we only kept what worked, and combined wonderful vulva art with shooting a lot more nudes than we’d originally planned. Having said that, the orgasm sequence was a lot of fun to cut! The idea was to represent the fantasies that race through your head as you get close to an orgasm, and then use the pacing of the archive to represent the orgasmic crescendo itself.
Jenny: I always wanted to make sure this film had moments of humour in it – it was really important for it not to feel stodgy and worthy in any way. I originally wanted to use archive to recreate a stream of consciousness in people’s heads…Sunshine was great in the way she cut the words and images faster and faster to climax in that orgasm sequence. Ty Unwin, our brilliant composer – and the only man in our creative team – spent five days listening to and sampling women having orgasms and made an awesome track out of them!
Watching 100 Vaginas, I couldn’t help but feel that it could not have been made at any other time before now. (Well, it could have been made, but it would not have been commissioned by a national broadcaster!). Do you feel that way too? And, if so, what do you think it says about where we are – as a society but also in terms of the representation of women on screen?
Sunshine: There has obviously been a substantial sea change over the last few years. Women’s narratives are underrepresented on screens big and small, and to tell women’s stories we need more women storytellers. A man simply could not have made this film. We’re a long way from addressing this gendered storytelling gap, but brave commissioning of films like this – by people like Shaminder Nahal – are a giant leap in the right direction.
Jenny: Yes, a few people who’d wandered into the cutting room had been very shocked by what they’d seen on the screen. We went through a real process in the edit and changed the film, so we’d kept Shaminder out until we felt we had a film that was working. So her first viewing was very late and we were very nervous – she was bringing the C4 lawyer with her. We were worried they were going to turn round and say ‘what were you thinking?’. We both had to go to the hotel round the corner for a quick drink! Shaminder’s first reaction? You’re being far too coy – I want to see a much bigger close up of that clitoris!
I do think there’s an impatience with the shame and ignorance, and a growing self confidence in women to talk about this stuff. The female gaze is also strengthened by a growing openness online and in social media but to some extent this openness is among women. A film on C4 is a much more mainstream public space and getting these conversations started beyond a feminist echo chamber is vital for any real change.
I feel like this film should be required viewing! It should be put on the school curriculum, so that we can avoid another generation of women having such a confused relationship with their own bodies, and so that young men can better understand them too. What do you hope the impact of this film will be?
Jenny – I would love every teenage girl in Britain to watch this! I was so shocked by how many of the young women I talked to said that they and their boyfriends had got their sex education from porn and how they felt ashamed of their bodies growing up. But I loved the way they are part of a generation that is now experiencing a huge shift in the way that women’s sexual experiences are being talked about and shared. As well as porn, the internet also has a great deal more information and support for young women than we had growing up. My 12 year old daughter was quite involved in the edit of this film. She’s very arty, and mocked up some of the pictures we needed, to give me something to cut with. I think one of her pictures even remains in the film. At the time, there were all sorts of conversations around our kitchen table about the film, and watching her realise that vulvas and vaginas were something it was totally OK to talk about was really wonderful. If that were to happen in a few more households around the country, I’d be pretty damn pleased with that.
100 Vaginas will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 10:00pm on Tuesday 19th February and then made available on All4. Watch a trailer here.
WFTV would like to thank Jenny and Sunshine for their time.
Read more WFTV In The Spotlight interviews here.