“It was probably the strangest piece I ever read…The idea of a woman with no arms and no legs was very bizarre to me” q. Kim Basinger, on leaving the production of Boxing Helena (1993)
Today, a film like Boxing Helena appears only as a line in the history book of cinema but at the time of its release it proved to be a major news story with the media transfixed on the troubled production – actress walkouts, script rewrites, studio cuts, disagreements on classification – and controversial plot. Ironically, despite the polarization within mainstream cinematic consciousness, Boxing Helena proved to be a positive standout when it premiered at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival – even being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. The overall reception towards writer/director Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s debut, while mixed, was praised for being a bold statement of stepping outside the box of expected narratives that shape films and more so that a woman had explored it – the kind of radicalism film festivals embrace.
Festivals often rely on an Open System – a group of parts and interconnecting relationships that come together to create a broader entity. As an event each component is responsible for a pillar that make up the festival framework. This system also depends on external engagement or the environment outside the main festival for it to evolve and sustain. Sundance is an important festival for many filmmakers as it provides the platform for an independent film to break into the mainstream. However, from a business perspective, certain ideas that an artist chooses to present can have serious impacts. If Boxing Helena were to be released today, it would endure a similar controversial reaction as it did 25 years ago. To explain this, let’s consider Fischer (2012) to demonstrate how if the festival would accept the idea, the outcome would be the same. If the festival accepts the idea the stakeholders would immediately worry about negative publicity. The film’s concept of a woman being amputated and held prisoner by an obsessed lover will immediately ruffle feathers amid the #timesup and #metoo phenomenon. If the film contrasts with the vision of other films, particularly those helmed by female filmmakers who portray the heroine in a perceived less “demeaning” manner then they will protest, and this can often begin and ripple across social media. The overwhelming negative publicity can cause sponsors to pull out if they fear their association will damage their own interests. The potential result of the acceptance of the film questions the integrity of the festival itself, future sponsors would hesitate to contribute, and the program loses audience numbers. The filmmaker themselves then feel marginalized from the industry.
As an institution, the film festival is a major avenue to give certain films, often denoted to the “controversial” exposure as well as relevance. It’s a space that should be open to risk. Are we to stand behind fences of safe expectations while anxiously dare to peek at the very box that is the cinema screen?
Benatar, G 1993, ‘Boxing Helena Controversies’, Entertainment Weekly, 9th April 1993. Accessed 2nd September 2018.
Fischer, A 2012, Sustainable Projections: Concepts in Film Festival Management, St. Andrews Film Studies. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2