Feminist film in Newark: Janie’s Janie (1972)

The 1967 riots loom so large over the public memory of Newark that even otherwise seemingly opposed ideological camps share an implicit metanarrative; Philip Roth in American Pastoral and Third World Newsreel in Teach Our Children, for instance, surely disagree on many points, but they both mark 1967 as the defining moment in the city’s history.

So it’s refreshing find an early-1970s film from Newark that resists such a framework. Better yet, a film that engages with a working-class feminism that was too rarely entered into the cinematic record of the era, at all. Janie’s Janie is not a “lost” film, not quite—it receives some attention in E. Ann Kaplan’s Women and Film, Annette Kuhn’s Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, and Alexandra Juhasz’s AIDS TV, for instance, and a more substantive discussion in Shilyh J. Warren’s thus-far-unpublished 2010 dissertation “Real Politics and Feminist Documentaries: Re-Visioning Seventies Film Feminisms” (well worth checking out, BTW)—but neither is it a particularly well-remembered one, and I’ve never seen it discussed in a Newark-specific context. In a rather egregious oversight, IMDB fails to even recognize its existence, and I only came across it while randomly browsing Rutgers University Library for Newark-related material.

Set in the Ironbound (thus making it an unlikely companion piece to The Ironbound Vampire in the neighborhood’s filmic canon), Janie’s Janie details the rising feminist consciousness of Jane Giese, a white housewife and mother who recently left her abusive husband, and is navigating the welfare system with six children to care for.

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Giese narrates her story into the camera, direct and unvarnished: regularly beaten as a teen by her emotionally-absent father, she turned to her first steady boyfriend at fifteen for comfort.  “So, I got pregnant and I got married,” and then the pattern resumed, this time with the now-husband replicating the father.

Filmmaker Geri Ashur keeps the early part of the short (25 minute) documentary largely confined to the house, presumably to emphasize the domestic isolation that has dominated Giese’s life until the recent past.

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Because we’re cutting into the story post-feminist breakthrough, Giese’s narration takes an analytical remove from many of her experiences—of the abusive men in her life, she says the fault lies not solely with them, but rather the dehumanizing economic systems that wear away their capacity for tenderness. There’s an excitement in finding a voice, though: “I never trusted myself to have a good thought,” Giese says, because her husband constantly belittled her. “I deserved being hit because I got too fresh with my mouth [he said]. You should hear my mouth now.”

Eventually, we follow Giese out into the city. She tried working at a convenience store, but her $30 weekly income “wasn’t even enough for food.” Relying on welfare isn’t much better: “they give you the extreme necessities” and say “you should be glad for getting that.” At the welfare office, you’re “made to feel like you’re a herd of cows.” I’m reminded of the opening scene of Billie Woodberry’s lost 1984 masterpiece Bless Their Little Hearts, set in a South Central Los Angeles welfare office—both that and Janie’s Janie capture the deflating powerlessness recipients of government assistance are often made to feel.

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But Giese refuses to be disempowered; “You’re always made to feel humble if you’re poor,” she observes, but “I’m not gonna sit here and take this shit.” When the gas company threatens to cut her off, she threatens back to get a lawyer. Bluntly but with utter clarity, she notes, “Society teaches us that poor people are shit.”

The most fascinating scenes in Janie’s Janie involve Giese joining an interracial consciousness-raising group, and beginning to work through questions of race. Most narratives of Newark are dominated by hard lines of racial separation, and not without reason—Black nationalism by the 70s largely (and understandably) written off the white society that had yet to show the slightest concern for African Americans beyond the formal equality of voting rights, while what Kevin Mumford rightly labels “white nationalism” dominated the ugly racist rhetoric of backlash-entrepreneurs like local vigilante-turned-politico Anthony Imperiale and his supporters.

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I would never argue against the centrality of those categories, but it’s also important to recognize the persistence of interracial collaboration and dialogue. We hear Giese ruminate:

“I always felt like I was a white woman … I would always have a meal on my table and my kids would always be provided for…I don’t know why we’re taught to look down on black people…I was made to believe that a black person’s feelings, they didn’t have any. All they wanted to do was go out and have a good time, and drink…you’d be reading things and absorbing them, and not realizing it was turning you against people. But I know it’s prejudice inside of myself. …I never got out and got involved with the community.”

There’s an honesty here, and a tangible sense of working through knotty and deep-seated issues, that’s powerful to watch. As the film ends, we see her participating in the establishment of a free daycare center in the Ironbound.

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I’m not sure what happened next—the only real followup to the film I can locate (courtesy a footnote in the aforementioned Warren diss.) is a 1972 piece by Dora Kaplan in the short-lived (but wonderful) journal Women & Film. It includes an enlightening interview with Ashur, who explains that the project began as an outgrowth of the New Left Newsreel collective, trying to make a film about workers in Newark; when she arrived, “all the workers could talk about were their property values and ‘all those black people.’” Ashur and the crew met Giese through her brother, who was struggling with drug addiction, and they apparently helped spur her feminist consciousness, “because we used to bring her piles of RAT and women’s magazines.”

The film’s budget was $3000, and apparently Newsreel decided not to distribute it—Ashur says distribution was through a new feminist organization, New Day Films (though today Third World Newsreel lists it).

One of the flaws of Janie’s Janie is that we see but don’t really hear from the Black women with whom Giese collaborates—a real loss, since I’m not sure anybody else was documenting this activism. According to Ashur in the interview, the New Jersey Board of Education helped with funding, and “they use it to show black organizers that the white working class in Newark is suffering too.”

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Well, that’s a complicated and problematic idea. But for documenting working-class feminist activism in action, for countering wholly-bifurcated stories of race in Newark, and for offering spare but vivid shots of the Ironbound in 1970-71, Janie’s Janie is a real treasure.

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It would be fascinating to learn of Giese’s subsequent story, but cursory googling is useless here. Ashur went on to work as a dubbing editor on some important films by Bergman, Truffaut, and Bertolucci, before passing away tragically young at 37 from lung cancer in 1984. And Newark, of course, weathered many a storm, but keeps on keepin’ on.

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addition, 1/18/14: I was just reading some of Scott MacDonald’s interviews with independent filmmakers, and came across this brief discussion from Christine Choy, who helped spearhead the transition of Newsreel into Third World Newsreel (as well as directing Teach Our Children, among numerous other accomplishments). It reinforces my critique of some of Janie‘s shortcomings:

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