Not too many people in the art scene, at least in India, remember a 1969 film titled ‘Rape’ by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, two legends of conceptual art and music respectively. During 1960s Yoko Ono had written a few scripts to produce movies. Out of those scripts, Ono finally chose to produce ‘Rape’. Funded by her husband, John Lennon, she hired four film technicians and asked to follow a girl and record her day’s activities, importantly without her permission. The seventy five minute long film when released had generated heated discussions amongst the art loving public and critics who accused the artists-duo of violating the privacy of a hapless individual and subjecting her to the same tribulations against which the film was intended to produce effects. The girl who was followed by the filming team was Eva Majlata, an Austrian girl whose work permit in London had been over by the time the filming was taking place. The girl was set up for the shooting in agreement with her sister who had even given access to the filming team to Majlata’s rented room in London.
(Eva Majlata first becoming aware of the camera men following her)
The film ‘Rape’ opens with Majlata getting caught by the film crew at cemetery where she goes to spend her idle time. Initially she is very flattered. Though she knows that she is not a film star or a celebrity, the sudden appearance of the filming crew before her makes her a bit elated. She plays up to the situation acting quite casually while trying to tell them that she is not a star. She does not speak English. Her working English fails after a few minutes of them following her with the camera. Slowly the tension mounts. Her elation gives way to anxiety and then to fear. She walks fast, hides and whenever the crew reappears before her she tries to reason with the men in French, German and a little bit of Italian. But the crew is determined to follow. The scene grows eerie as the viewers see not many people around in the locality. The cemetery is completely abandoned. Majlata searches for some names on the plaques and collects some flowers to hide her embarrassment and fear. But she is not able to do that. The stalking becomes relentless and the presence of camera though we are not privy to see the people behind the camera, becomes quite apparent. At one stage to make a deal with the filming crew she asks for light for her cigarette. They give light to her. Some people appear in the scene looks at her and the team with a fair amount of coldness and walk off. She walks out of the cemetery and hits the road. The gaze of camera follows her. She jumps into a taxi and reaches her apartment and even there she sees the filming crew behind her. She is now visibly tired and horrified. She makes a phone call to her sister and finally coils herself up and moves into the corner of her living room. The film ends there.
(a still from Rape)
Laura Mulvey in her pivotal essay titled ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ which became a bench mark for film criticism of the 20th century, says that cinema is basically a medium of male gaze. In the darkness of a movie hall, each person becomes a peeping Tom and possesses the male gaze. Even when there are other people around, the darkness and the visual engagement with the projected visuals and narrative makes the person identify with the male subject who holds the ‘perspective’ of that narrative. The female subjection and turning them into the objects of desire exclude the women audience from the dominant male gaze and render them uncomfortable. Going by Mulvey’s theorizing on male gaze and cinema, one could clearly see how Yoko Ono intends to collapse by highlighting the omnipresence of the male gaze in her film ‘Rape’. The initial pleasure of becoming an object of desire and attention by a male or female gaze turns into horror and violence as the object under scrutiny becomes absolutely helpless in that visual exchange and engagement. Though Yoko Ono if a female subject, her tools of filming (including the crew members) are male subjects. The power is absolutely in their hands as they decide how to ‘track’ this young woman down, capture her in her unguarded moments and subject her under the might of the camera, the male gaze.
(a harassed Majlata making a call to her sister from her room- still from Rape)
Feminists have disputed the artistic intention of Yoko Ono’s ‘Rape’. March Richardson in his essay, ‘You Say You Want a Revolution: How Yoko Ono’s Rape Could Have Changed the World’, says that Majlata has been rendered absolutely helpless like a rape victim as she is not only confronted by four men but also with cameras and recording equipment. Women were still not liberated in 1960s England. Majlata knows for sure that her current status is that of an illegal migrant and with camera being a very powerful medium of the state the very engagement brings her in direct confrontation with the state. The filming them becomes an interrogation from which she flees with all her might. She uses her femininity in the beginning as she charms the camera crew with smiles and darting of eyes. But she knows that her position is that of a migrant with invalid papers who is supposed to evade the eyes of the state. Her status as an illegal migrant is immediately collapsed into her gender status. Hence she becomes doubly ill equipped to handle the situation. What she could do at this moment is to flee. But the more she flees the aggression of the pursuers becomes intense. They leave no space for her to stand and breathe or take a proper decision.
(Yoko Ono and John Lennon)
One could ask a question: had she been a migrant with valid papers and work permit to live in London, would she have reacted like a victim? The possible answer could be that still her gender would have made her to flee from the camera men. If she was intelligent enough she would have sought the help of the policemen or the people around. Or if she was arrogant and bold she would have smashed the camera and beaten up the men who were following her. She does not do either. Instead she flees from the spot as if her gender and social status were two crimes committed by her. Even in her illegal migrant status she could use her gender position to counter these camera men. But she fears that her gender itself is detrimental for her as it could bring her stringent punishment from the authorities. Yoko Ono calls the film, quite succinctly and metaphorically, Rape. In her film the protagonist is ensnared by the camera, the male gaze and is raped by it till she resigns to her fate of utter surrender.
(The peace people- Ono and Lennon)
The film is thrilling like any stalker film. Notwithstanding the critique of feminists, the film underlines how the male gaze (even if it is scripted by a woman) visually rapes a woman who is not in a position to react. It happens even today in party circuits. Someone who is familiar with a woman in the party or becomes friends with a woman by chance, utters something that is offensive to that woman who in a guarded moment would have reacted to such utterance violently. But she is rendered helpless and shocked, bruised and scarred by the male utterances. This kind of flashing by males is quite rampant in public and private spaces to which most of the women fail to react aggressively not because they are afraid of the consequences but because of the momentary stunning of reflexive faculties. It is like a shock treatment given to violent protestors and hysteric people. They are subjected by the shock given in a flash. Here in Rape, Majlata too is subjected to continuous flashing of gaze which makes her a victim devoid of reactive faculties and reflexes. Initially she believes that she could respond positively as she is curious about their intentions like any other young woman would do in a public space. Admiration could be through a soft gaze (of the camera) but here the filming happens without her permission and her level of accepting such intrusion is raised by her illegal migrant status. She tolerates it for a while though she feels it a bit odd. But then the real aggression happens in the stalking.
(Fiona Rukschcio filming Retaped Rape)
The backlashes that Rape had amassed while screening and later on were shrill and strong mainly because the critics thought that Yoko Ono was subjecting herself to the male ideology pertaining to gaze. She was letting the males to follow Majlata. Had it been Ono herself would things have been different is a worth pondering question. But during the debates that ensued the screening of this movie Ono took an aggressive stance and cancelled most of the criticism as ideological rubbish. To save the artistic merit of the movie or for not getting into the feminist debates, she said the film should have been seen as an artistic output and its ideological merit should have been seen in the context of artistic intention. Almost four decades later another artist from Austria, Fiona Rukschcio, decided to revisit the film, Rape and do what Yoko Ono did not want to do: to become the gaze itself.
Fiona Rukschcio makes the revisit of Rape in her project called ‘Retaped Rape’. Once she came to know that the woman, Majlata was an Austrian citizen, Fiona decided to go to the same places the Rape filming had happened. She contacted the camera man who filmed Ono’s Rape and asked whether he could do it for her again. But he refused. Fiona also contacted the Majlata’s sister who had set up Majlata as the protagonist of Ono’s Cinema Verite experiment. Majlata’s sister helped Fiona to find the locations. In Retaped Rape what Fiona does is simulating the camera movements of the original Rape. But here the difference is Fiona does not position a woman in front of her camera. She follows an invisible person who could have been the erstwhile Majlata. Fiona follows an erasure and absence, which in fact had been registered by four male member camera crew decades back under the insistence of a powerful artist like Yoko Ono. Besides, Fiona herself handles the camera. So the gaze in Retaped Rape is that of a woman and this woman’s gaze is re-enacting the gaze of four men/one camera without subjecting anyone into the status of a victim.
(Fiona reaches Majlata's flat)
The whole film, Retaped Rape is a re-reading of the original. It is a narrative re-written with locations in place but without its protagonists and characters. The very absence of Majlata in Fiona’s movie evokes the kind of violence that the male gaze had generated in Rape. The absence then becomes more than a presence as Fiona intercuts her narrative back to the original film clippings and comes back to the actual locations again and again. The project Retaped Rape as an exhibition consists of the stills of Fiona making Retaped Rape and the locations from where Fiona’s presence has been erased. Fiona underlines two absences, one the decimation of Majlata’s subjectivity in the actual Rape through powerful male gaze and two, the absence of Fiona herself from the frames. There is a rupture between these two absences and it is in this rupture the meaning of Retape Rape exists. This rupture is created by the replacing of male gaze by female gaze. The simulation of male gaze works in the plane of residual memories; the memories of a film that had subjected a woman to male gaze. And each time the viewer is tend to ask about Majlata in Retaped Rape and she occupies the maximum space as she keeps looking back at the viewers through memories and remembrance and pushes the dominant gaze out of the narrative. Hence, Fiona’s film becomes a counter gaze at the movie Rape.
(From Retaped Rape project exhibition at Secession 2012)
As a conclusion of this essay I would like to quote Doris Krumpl, a cultural critic from Vienna. In the catalogue for the project Retaped Rape Krumps writes: “The beauty and innocence of the woman stalked in Rape exert a spell over the viewer, who, captivated and turning increasingly into an accomplice, follows the camera that follows the woman right up until her breakdown. The public ‘ravishing’ of celebrities culminated in the antics of a Britney Spears, the tantrums thrown by Amy Winehouse and the death in a car accident of Lady Diana, another goddess of hunt. To what extent are the consumers of such stories themselves the victims of their accompliceship? This is precisely where Fiona Ruckschcio’s intervention gets its purchase from; by eliminating the attractive object of the hunt she brings about a reversal of roles, sacrificing on her media altar the viewers participating in this increasingly frustrating hunt for clues. A belated act or reparation.”