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This past Tuesday, November 7th CalArts’ Bijou Theater featured Nazli Dinçel’s stunning erotic experimental films: Note to Self: Psychosexual Films of Nazil Dinçel. Bouncing from the deep orange hues of a blanket, to the erect penis of a man whose face is out of the frame, a few of the younger audience members in the theater giggled perhaps out of surprise or maybe discomfort. Overall however, Dinçel showed a collection of work that intentionally subverted the male gaze and complicated notions of sexuality, and specifically Muslim women’s sexuality, all in the short span of a few hours.
The evening was split into sections. Dinçel’s first two films, silent, were played in a sequence, and then Dinçel and CalArts’ Steve Anker hosted a quick dialogue/Q and A to debrief the short, yet heavily conceptual films. Starting with Reframe (2009), a 4 minute, 16mm color strobing silent image collection converted to film, the audience was perhaps wondering where the “Psychosexual” title came from as all of the subjects were fully clothed. The images were found by Dinçel herself at a thrift store and were taken by a soldier before Castro came to power in Cuba. Dinçel then intentionally set the last image in this collection, to begin the process of the psychosexual exploration, as this final image is of a woman who is walking towards the camera. She is looking directly into the lens, and a man, a seeming stranger, stands a few yards behind her, watching her walk. The woman does not see this man as she continues walking, and he continues staring. Dinçel deftly shifts the gaze of the camera by moving the center of the image to the man, which was formerly solely focused on the woman, and the camera now centers on the man in the background, who stands with an unashamed aroused look in his eyes. And herein starts her social critique – We begin, where she began analyzing and deconstructing the male gaze.
With a short blank screen breaking about thirty seconds between programs, Leafless (2011), 8 min, and one of my favorites in the collection, portrays what an audience might expect to see in choosing to attend a series that references Freud in the title. Once again, in this silent 16mm film Dinçel plays with subtle tropes that appear in pornography and thereby deconstructs them. Instead of focusing on the woman’s genitalia, the audience only sees parts of a naked man. Herein lies the difference between the porn and the erotic; porn being degrading and forced on male sexual desire, and the erotic being sensual pleasure not based on power dynamics. By objectifying the male body, and juxtaposing his nudity with images of wooden trees and chairs, the audience of BFA students giggled a few times, though I am sure many were thinking that they might actually appreciate the occasional dick pic had it been displayed in this same light. Clearly, the audience has now switched to the female heterosexual gaze, as the most cinematic, and might I even say beautiful (I really never thought I would say this), portrayal of a penis I have ever seen. The gentle yet tactile filming is sensual and carefully distinguishes the difference between the pornographic and the erotic. Dinçel illustrates the importance of women centered films as she, at least in this specific case, approached sexuality in a nuanced way that does not degrade, rather it sensualizes.
Continuing her path of sexual exploration, Dinçels’ Her Silent Seaming (2014), 16mm, 10 min, transcribes direct dialogue that male partners have told Dinçel during sex. From lines like, “You’re so wet” juxtaposed against an obviously failed orgasmless sexual encounter; Dinçel brings us to the problem of, as many feminist theorists like to call; the orgasm gap. Here, from the nine films in the collection, the audience is introduced to the first found film used in her collection, Sharing Orgasms: Communicating Your Sexual Responses (1977). This is the only film that is not created by Dinçel nor made in 16mm. This short instructional video teaching women how to achieve orgasms with their sexual partners is both comical, because it was clearly made in the 70s, and also tragic because it involves convincing the male partner to try to figure out how his female partner likes to be touched.
And, since the reader learned how to have an orgasm with the instructional video, the next film, Solitary Acts #4, illustrates just that, the elusive female orgasm (though not so elusive because the film is only 5 minutes long). Audiences see a close-up vagina, again another critique on conventional images in porn that typically never portray just a vagina on its own, and Dinçel, with her sparkly golden nail polish masturbating until she comes.
As the program continues, the audience plunges into five, equally complex films, with content ranging from abortions, Oedipal complexes, and the sexualities of young people. This program thereby delves into topics that are often labeled taboo and left unexplored, which is by and far its biggest strength. As a woman raised in Turkey, Arabic prayers are muttered throughout the program, as well as quotes from Dinçels’ grandmother stating, “You are not a good Muslim,” while the audience is visually watching the narrator masturbate. Dinçel’s desires are the forefront of the program, and this fact alone makes it into an essential living tactile text on the subversion of the male gaze. Dinçel ended the show by stating, “I don’t know what I would make if I wasn’t oppressed” and even while the work evidently speaks for itself, she thus articulated the most powerful part of her work, that she is talking about a timely, sensual issue that is extremely autobiographical and based on deconstructing power complexes surrounding her.