Sundance 2022 Review: “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power”

Year: 2022
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Nina Menkes
Stars: Rosanna Arquette, Laura Mulvey, Julie Dash, Amy Ziering, Eliza Hittman, Maria Giese, Catherine Hardwicke, Joey Soloway
By Valerie Kalfrin

The documentary “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power”(2022) is sad, infuriating, and revelatory. Objectifying women in film and media is nothing new; yet in analyzing how filmmakers shoot men and women differently, director Nina Menkes shows just how entrenched—and insidious—this way of seeing is.

“Brainwashed,” which debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, takes its framework from Menkes’s presentation, “Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Cinema,” as a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts. She has lectured on this topic elsewhere, including in London in 2019 and at Sundance in 2018.

Audiences and filmmakers are more aware of bias in scripts and plot mechanics, but shot design is sneakier, Menkes says. “Brainwashed” intersperses clips from classic, popular, and indie films with Menkes’s observations and insights from academics and a diverse group of industry professionals. These include film theorist Laura Mulvey (“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”), producer Amy Ziering (“Allen v. Farrow,” “The Hunting Ground”), director Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust,” “Queen Sugar”), director Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), and director Maria Giese (“Hunger”), who instigated the 2015 federal investigation of sexual discrimination in Hollywood.

An independent filmmaker (“Dissolution,” “Phantom Love”), Menkes posits that this gendered “visual language” causes us not to see each other as fully human. This results in discriminatory hiring practices, particularly in Hollywood, and predatory attitudes around sexual assault and sexual abuse, she says.

A woman sits in a small row of movie seats before a large film screen with the black and white closeup of actress Rita Hayworth
Director Nina Menkes (foreground) discusses this image of Rita Hayworth in “The Lady from Shanghai” as an example of gendered lighting in the new documentary “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” / Courtesy of Nina Menkes

This is a broad and ambitious scope for an hour and 45 minutes. “Brainwashed” moves at an engrossing pace, and although it doesn’t dive as deeply into the employment discrimination or sexual abuse angles as other documentaries, it provides enough food for thought that the truth of its premise is tough to deny.

“The majority of people don’t ever really question that form of looking,” notes Rhiannon Aarons, an artist, producer, and faculty member at California State University. “It’s so normal, it’s like the idea of a fish asking if it’s wet.”

From Alice Guy Blaché’s first film in 1896 to more modern films such as “Raging Bull,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood,” the film touches on different aspects of shot design. Repeatedly, the camera’s point of view casts men (often white and heterosexual) as subjects and women as objects for their support and pleasure, Menkes says.

Shots frame women with fragmented body parts (often breasts, lips, eyes, and buttocks), or put a woman’s body on display, such as Jane Fonda’s romp through the opening credits of 1968’s “Barbarella.” The camera moves in slow motion or pans along a woman’s body to emphasize sexualization; in men, these movements signify character action. Lighting on men is 3D to capture realism and add character, while 2D lighting shows women without aging or depth.

“When we’re talking about these scenes, they’re not really about sex. They’re about power. The person who is shot like this is not empowered,” Menkes says.

An older white woman sits on a sofa, her arms folded on a table. She has chin-length graying hair and wears a dark v-necked top.
Noted film theorist Laura Mulvey in a scene from the documentary “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” / Courtesy of Nina Menkes

Menkes has outlined how these visuals connect to Hollywood’s attitudes and rape culture before, notably in a 2017 essay in Filmmaker magazine about how predatory producer Harvey Weinstein rose through this environment.

Yet “Brainwashed” pulls together more footage than her public presentations, featuring roughly 175 clips, plus references to the work of cultural critic bell hooks and Audre Lorde. Besides causing self-hatred and insecurity, these methods can otherize anyone, including people of color and the LGBTQIA community, the academics and industry pros here note.

Filmmaking is “a sacred act,” says filmmaker Iyabo Kwayana, a faculty member at Dartmouth College. “You are really entering people’s imaginations and their psyches in such a way that it should be treated with care. It’s almost like speaking on a microphone. Whatever you say is amplified.”

“Brainwashed” opens with the air of a Hitchcockian mystery, the camera gliding along an empty hallway and peeking into rooms to the score from Sharon Farber. (Scenes from Hitchcock films such as “Vertigo” and “Notorious” appear here, too.)

Much like the 2019 documentary “This Changes Everything,” “Brainwashed” recounts how women filmmakers thrived through the era of silent films, but the advent of sound and the influx of male financing forced them to the sidelines. The prevalence of men in the film industry gave rise to these visual techniques that often have no connection to the plot and insinuates whoever’s in their sights is not a fully realized person.

Women directors absorb these techniques, too, the film says, presenting clips from “Wonder Woman,” “Hustlers,” “Cuties,” and “Titane,” among others. While some of these storytelling choices may be conscious or unconscious, “they’re deliberate decisions,” Menkes says.

An older white woman with shoulder-length blonde hair stands lectures in front of a black and white image on a movie screen. She wears a blue blouse and slacks.
Director Nina Menkes discusses how filmmakers shoot men and women differently in the documentary “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” / Photo by Hugo Wong / Courtesy of Nina Menkes

“Brainwashed” doesn’t delve into the context of these shots, which could be a whole lecture in itself, and it also doesn’t include any comments from directors whose films Menkes highlights. (In a discussion after the film, Menkes said that she avoided the context to focus on the techniques and reached out to representatives of “all the big directors, including Scorsese and Spike Lee and Sophia Coppola and Patty Jenkins … it was quite a long list.” None wanted to respond on camera.)

Yet even if viewers question the inclusion of certain clips (such as Menkes’s own films as contrasting examples) or feel defensive over a favorite film, the sheer volume of material here is powerful and persuasive. Two of Menkes’s students—one female, one male—comment how they’d just accepted these types of shots, not realizing their impact on their own thinking.

It’s “propaganda for patriarchy,” says producer and writer Joey Soloway (“Transparent,” “I Love Dick”). “As a nonbinary filmmaker, I’m asking myself, Where does the camera go?”

Overall, “Brainwashed” is a thought-provoking awakening, an education, and a rallying cry for other viewpoints and other voices onscreen.

People are reticent to question how films were made and the stories they tell, especially when they’re part of the larger canon, says May Hong HaDuong, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Yet without doing so, she says, “we’re doing a disservice to our own humanity.”

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