Inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 documentary "Comizi d'amore" (translated as "Love Meetings"), which took a loose, cinéma vérité approach and questioned people on the street about sex, gender, sexuality, and feminism, Sharon Hayes' 38-minute film "Ricerche: three," screening at the Baltimore Museum of Art's Black Box through Oct. 11, gathers 35 Mount Holyoke students together to share their experiences at a women's college and questions them about those same issues.
The diverse group brings numerous perspectives into the discussion and their discourse moves fluidly through a number of issues: from general thoughts about having sex, to gender stereotyping, to the misleading dichotomy of conservatism versus liberalism, to college as a safe bubble, to prejudice against single-sex colleges, and even to a few specific issues such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and a child-abuse case in a nearby underprivileged neighborhood.
Hayes' strategy is subtler than Pasolini's aggressive "man on the street" approach, though it is arguably just as invasive. While the students are talking about "personal boundaries" of the female body and society's obsessive desire to penetrate and violate them, Hayes' huge, fluffy microphone continues to "penetrate" the space whenever she places it right below their chins and asks such questions as, "Is sex important to you?" or "Are you a Don Juan?" Her straightforward manner of inquiry often throws her subjects off guard and some of them, dumbfounded, search for answers with an awkward grin. She is not very patient either—when a student cannot spit out the answer at once, she quickly moves onto another one.
Looking at Hayes' back turned against us, the audience, as she navigates the group looking for the next answer, we may feel as left out as the poor student who failed to reply quickly. In part, it seems as though Hayes is implicating herself in these power struggles by using this construct, but it also seems to be a way of controlling the conversation and maintaining power. In "Comizi d'amore," Pasolini wandered around with his microphone and asked questions to a wide spectrum of Italians, men and women, young and old. But Hayes conducts her interviews in a laboratory-like environment with a particular set of participants from a particular college. It is much more "controlled" than the group Pasolini worked with.
And save for a few willing candidates who keep raising their hands and their voices, most students follow the conversation with their eyes in silence or chat with friends in the back. Those private chats are left unheard and they are presumably as valid and interesting as the ones we get to hear. And that's the biggest problem with Hayes' methods in "Ricerche: three." Those who feel most comfortable talking about sex, those who probably don't need a microphone and a facilitator to talk about sex, talk the most. If Hayes' purpose was to create a safe space, she isn't entirely successful. Though maybe that is the point: Even within a rather controlled and safe environment, power and aggression win out.