THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY: WOMEN ON SOLO EXPEDITIONS THROUGH FILM
by Lâle Teoman
When Robin Davidson, author of the book Tracks that became a film of the same name, was asked why she decided to trek solo across 1700 miles of Australian outback her answer was simply ‘why not?’ In the film, her character played by Mia Wasikowska proclaims ‘I just want to be by myself.’ The value placed on being comfortable and empowered by ones own company is highly regarded in ancient and indigenous cultures around the world, though little emphasis is placed on the benefit of solitude in modern day western cultures.
Additionally, there is a strong emphasis in popular culture on the extroverted personality–one who gets their energy from other people as being favourable over the introverted personality- one who gets their energy from within themselves. The extrovert is regarded as the smarter, more interesting alpha personality while introversion carries with it a sort of stigma. Being sensitive or quiet has been considered a weakness. Introverts can be thought of as the black sheep - a non team player. Though as Susan Cain discusses in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, without the introvert we wouldn’t have the theory of relativity, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Chopin’s nocturnes or the MacBook. It is often during regular alone time or extended periods of isolation that we can achieve ground breaking advancements through science, the arts, philosophy, and technology. It is also the more introverted personality that is likely to embark on such a solo expedition, though not always. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Eat Pray Love she is never going to be that quiet girl in the corner that is so silent and mysterious. So, why is it recognised as so unusual for a woman to embark on an extraordinary solo adventure? I put it down to three main reasons:
1. Social conditioning- we are conditioned to go from school to university to work
and then settle down and have a baby or two.
2. Fear - we only ever hear about the awful things that can happen to a woman
unaccompanied by a man. Positive experiences in life are not considered news, as
they will not sell. Tracks goes against the trend of horror films such as Wolf Creek
that are designed to create fear around the wilderness experience and paves the
way for more films of the same nature to be made. Not only is Davidson surviving
on her own as a woman in the outback without waiting for her droving husband to
return, she is thriving.
3. Financial availability- most of us don’t have the privilege of being able to take
extended periods of time off work. However, there can be ways around this.
Sometimes the desire for freedom, introspection and growth through such an
incredible experience can out way the financial restriction many people feel. Via
some miracle in the form of a grant, sponsorship, or more often-hard work and
savings, the journey can happen.
Against the odds, there are a significant amount of women throughout history who do
make these incredible journeys all the time, it’s just we don’t hear about them that often
because the idea of an independent capable woman hungry for adventure is still
somewhat confronting and unappetising for mainstream media. Typically, the solo
character journey is a distinctly male experience, and notably the few female perspective
single character travel films that exist namely Tracks, Wild, and Eat-Pray- Love are all
directed by men. As author and adventurer Lois Pryce states, ‘A wild, free woman is a
Nick Hornby who adapted the book Wild into the film of the same name – a true story about Cheryl Strayed played by Reece Witherspoon, a woman who walks 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone admits that he chose to focus on Strayed’s interaction with other people along the track rather than the experience of solitude as he didn’t know how to sustain an audience that way. To me this seems to be entirely missing the point of the solo expedition. There is perhaps an inbuilt sexism to suggest that audiences would not be interested in the heroine’s journey without all the men she meets along the way to bail her out.
As Maria Perez Escalá and Anne Von Petersdorff demonstrate in the documentary film Wanderlust, foreign bodies in transit, traveling with a women’s body is different to traveling with a mans body. Escalá and Petersdorff journey by land and sea from Egypt to Germany. Although these women are journeying together not in isolation, they state that the motivation for their expedition was born out of frustration for the lack of representation of female travel films and to reduce some of the fears that may be holding some women back from traveling in unfamiliar places.
Maidentrip, the remarkable story of 13 year old Dutch girl Laura Dekker proved her desire for the solo adventure outweighed the trouble it caused her to get there when she set off literally with the wind in her sails on a two year, 27,000 mile trip around the globe by boat. Dekker, 14 by the time she set out went through a yearlong court battle with the Dutch government who disapproved of her journey due to her age and her sex. Hearing about the court case, first time filmmaker Jillian Schlesinger contacted Dekker and provided her with a camera to record the journey, which became the powerful documentary Maidentrip that arrived in cinemas in 2017. Perhaps even more powerful than a film of the same nature, the documentary format allows unaltered access and insight into the mind of the type of personality who craves this kind of experience. Of course, there is more than one kind of journey apart from the physical journey. Aside from the solo wilderness experience there are many remarkable films being made about women by women (and men). According to the guardian, in the year 2016 we saw a record high of female film protagonists. The latest study by Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film recorded that from the 100 top grossing films of 2016, 29 percent of these had female leads, a gigantic leap up from 7 percent in 2015. Some of my favourite most exceptional films about women directed by women include:
1. Electrik Children – Rebecca Thomas
2. Mustang – Deniz Gamze Ergüven
3. Ginger and Rosa – Sally Potter
4. My Life Without Me – Isabel Coixet
5. The Piano – Jane Campion
6. Frida – Julie Taymore
7. Winters Bone – Debra Granik
8. Morvern Callar – Lynne Ramsay
9. Summer of Sangailè – Alante Kavaite
10. Whale Rider – Niki Caro
11. Amelia – Mira Nair
12. The White Masai – Hermine Huntgeburth
Personally, I’d love to see a film made about the incredible Bessie Stringfield who at the age of 19 became the first black woman to ride a motorcycle across all 48 states of the US during the 1930s and later rode through Europe, Brazil and Haiti. Or Alexandra David- Neèl who travelled through Tibet in 1924 when it was forbidden for foreigners to trespass and wrote over 30 books on her experiences and learning’s of eastern philosophy, which is said to have influenced American beat writers such as Jack Keroac and Allen Ginsberg. Jeanne Baret, the first woman (disguised as a man) to circumnavigate the world in the 1760s. Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron, both accomplished racers who were the first people to travel the length of Africa by motorcycle in 1935, and in more recent years, Laura Bingham who cycled 7000 kilometres across South America without spending any money in 2016.
Although the world of film remains a male dominated industry with 15 male directors to every 1 female director we are seeing some significant changes. In 2017 Screen Australia launched the Gender Matters five-point plan designed to accelerate closing the gap between gender inequalities in the Australian film sector. The five point plan incudes $3 million dollars of immediate funding and a further $2 million over a three year period to assist 58 female recipients. We are also likely to see women treated with more respect in the film industry following the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal that influenced the sweeping ‘me too’ hash tag which saw over half a million women worldwide tweeting #metoo whilst sharing their experiences of sexual assault.
So while we all go and plan our own extraordinary solo expedition across land and sea we can rest assured that it is possibly the best time in history to be a female film maker and surely its only up from here. For those of you just dying to make a film about the heroine’s journey here is a list of 34 memoirs of solo female travellers that are screaming to be made into cinema.
Lâle grew up in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, and has been making films of some form since the age of 8. She would record herself and friends on an old video camera, come up with the stories and go through her mother's dress up box for costumes for their roles. Being very creatively driven from a young age has laid the foundations of a career as an actress, writer, and costume designer. In March 2016 Lâle founded River Run Productions. A creative service involving the production of video content for multiple platforms including film, TV, commercial, music video, documentary.