We’ve often discussed the difference between the male and the female gaze on Citizen Dame, but rarely have we addressed what it means to have the cameraperson be a woman. This is one of the questions raised in No Ordinary Life, an extraordinary documentary chronicling five influential news camerawomen working throughout the world, turning their lenses on war, famine, genocide, and occasionally bringing images of hope and perseverence to TV screens.
No Ordinary Life features five pioneering camerawomen as they reflect on their lives covering some of the most tumultuous occurrences in recent history, including the genocides in Sarajevo and Rwanda, the War in Iraq, Tiananmen Square, and the Arab Spring. Director Heather O’Neill features extensive interviews with the women as they look back on their careers, the dangers they faced, and why they did (or, for some, still do) such important but dangerous work. Interspersed with these discussions are the images taken by the women, as well as archival footage of them as they work and spend time together, united by a very particular, harrowing experience.
The film doesn’t attempt to gloss over the inherent sexism of the news industry, as these women are often refused jobs simply because of their gender, or asked whether they need help carrying their heavy camera equipment. As more than one of them points out, being women in a male-dominated field meant that they felt to pressure to be more extraordinary than the men—to put themselves in more danger, to get better, closer shots, to take dangerous assignments, in an effort to prove their right to be there at all. Most of the archival footage is also labeled with the name of the camerawoman who filmed it, providing a clearer window into the work these women actually did in the field and how their differing perspectives and personalities shape the way the world perceived (and perceives) war and violence.
The women discuss the difference between the male and female gaze—the choices that they make about what to focus on, and how to frame their raw footage, as they document not just scales of violence, but of the human toll. Among the most moving images are those taken from the Rwandan genocide, as they turn their cameras not on acts of violence but on the displaced people, many of them women and children, suffering under extreme famine. It’s these images that contain greater meaning as they show the human beings behind the numbers, the people actually affected by violence and upheaval.
Thankfully, the film never falls into a fetishization of suffering; this is about women bearing witness to suffering and to violence, and exposing it to the rest of the world. It deals with the central question of a group of white women who go into war zones and famine-torn nations, take film, and then leave again—all acknowledge that they are in a privileged position, that they have to leave behind suffering people, knowing that they can return to fairly safe, certainly simpler lives. That tension runs throughout the images and the discussion, and is primarily justified by the phrase “bear witness”—that the world needs to know and see what’s happening in order to understand it and take action.
But the degree to which these women put themselves in danger can’t be underestimated, and No Ordinary Life plunges the viewer into their perspectives and experiences. While we tend to talk about wartime PTSD in terms of frontline soldiers, this story exposes the degree to which those documenting the war, including many women, must deal with the aftermath of extreme trauma.
No Ordinary Life doesn’t try to stretch beyond its own bounds, but turns the camera on a group of important, largely unsung women who have shaped global perspectives on events, proving beyond any doubt that female gaze has always been there…we just didn’t realize it.
No Ordinary Life premiered at the Tribeca Festival.