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Marie Bottois

Marie Bottois
1973 saw the creation of the MLAC (Movement for Abortion and Contraception Freedom) in France. Some abortive medical procedures that were still illegal and secrete were sometimes filmed for information and training purposes. In The Cervix Pass, actress and director Marie Bottois documents the insertion of an intrauterine device inside her own body. With both humour and aesthetic precision, she follows the lead of militant and feminist films like Y’a qu’à pas baiser (Carole Roussoupolos, 1971). Her film becomes both a piece of evidence and a piece of History, at a time when women’s sexual and reproductive rights are under attack all around the world. (Claire Lasolle)

Interview with Marie Bottois

Your film looks back on the feminism of the 1970s, and particularly the MLAC (The Free Abortion and Contraception Movement). How did the project come about?

The project is very much tied to La Poudrière, a feminist collective made up of women from Etna, an analogue film laboratory in Montreuil. I trained in analogue filmmaking with this collective, and along with the other members, explored making images of our bodies and imaginaries that challenged dominant representations. We appear in our productions, taking turns in front of and behind the camera. The discomfort I felt in exposing my body to a lens became part of a collective investigation and began to take on a political dimension. Without these experiences, I would never have dared to imagine The Cervix Pass.
One of the members of the collective, Anna Salzberg, was making a film about the feminist movement of the 1970s, called Le Jour où j’ai découvert que Jane Fonda était brune (The day I discovered that Jane Fonda was a brunette). She brought us photographs she had found in the archives of the MLAC in Gennevilliers of gynaecological examinations. The faces around the open genitals were smiling. The women held out mirrors for each other. These images were educational in an anatomical sense and also offered the possibility to have control over one’s body in a care setting. They spoke to me of independence, simplicity, and the importance of knowing one’s body and genitals. I wish I had seen these images earlier. Like many others, I have had painful gynaecological experiences where I felt dispossessed and powerless in the face of medical authority. I began to imagine a film that would tell the story of this violence and evoke ways of asserting oneself and standing up to it. Around that time, I went to get a repeat prescription of my contraception and met Léna Alembik. For the first time, I was in the company of a respectful healthcare professional, who explained all her gestures and asked me before each one if I was ready, if she could touch me, how I felt. It was an ideal medical appointment, where the word “consent” had a practical meaning. It seemed to me that the crux of the film was there, in the relationship of care that was established between the two of us in the setting of the medical practice.

Given the intimacy of the gynaecological examination conveyed in The Cervix Pass, one might assume that certain scenes were shot in one take. Did your choice of 16mm stem from this context?

The IUD insertion could indeed not be performed multiple times and most of the shots were done in one take. Each shot had been thought out and rehearsed beforehand and almost all of them were included in the film. As the film was self-produced, I could envisage shooting with film without it becoming too expensive. Having access to the shared film laboratories of Etna and l’Abominable also reduced the costs of shooting and development. In any case, I never imagined the film being shot digitally.
The choice to shoot with film was vital because it was during research with the members of La Poudrière that I found my place in front of the camera. For me, our work with analogue film was an emancipation from normalized representations. This film is a continuation of that process. There is also a certain idea of modesty in the fact of not being able to immediately access the images. I discovered them only two months after the shooting and when they came out of the developer, still wet, I was the first one to see them. This was very moving and coherent with the idea of regaining control over my body and its representation.

The film is constructed through a series of shot/reverse shot which portray you with your gynaecologist. How did you write the film and the shots?

The film was first written in two parts, similar to the form of a medical consultation. There’s an interview, then an examination. The end of the consultation and the street scene were filmed at a later stage, breaking with the sense of huis-clos to mark a return to the outside world, and to integrate the consultation into daily life.
I thought of the film in shot/reverse shot terms to create the sensation that we move from one edge or place to the other. The care relationship is woven little by little through kindness, listening, and an exchange of glances. Right from the beginning, the shots are close-up because the initial tension that turns into trust is written in the women’s faces. We shot with two cameras because I didn’t want to (re)perform the listening shots and the close-ups of my face during the insertion of the IUD. The storyboard was very precise so that the camerawomen, Carole Grand, Frédérique Menant and Agnès Perrais, could be completely independent during the shooting.
I wasn’t only interested in the care relationship between the caregiver and the patient, but also in the portrayal of the way one looks at one’s own body. The film comes together when the patient and the director become one. That’s why I kept certain instances of “cut!” and “lights, camera, action!” in the editing. I couldn’t imagine filming the gynaecological examination of another person because, above all, I wanted to reverse the gaze: through the eye of the camera, the patient-director switches to the other side of the examination table to see things from the point of view of the one examining her.

You surrounded yourself with numerous collaborators for this project. How did you prepare for the shoot?

I was able to make this film because of the filmmakers I had met at La Poudrière, with whom I felt at ease and whose work I appreciated. With them, I felt comfortable bearing my soul and getting going on the project. I’m very grateful to them for agreeing to work with me on this film, because gynaecological procedures can be difficult to watch and the shoot was like a performance whose outcome one couldn’t predict. We agreed that the shoot should continue even if I was in pain but that I could stop it at any moment, and that they could also say if they felt uncomfortable and wanted to stop. Some of them didn’t want to see my genitals during the procedure and so we placed ourselves in the space in such a way as to respect this choice. We rehearsed the scenes beforehand, as if we were shooting a fictional film.
At one point, I had considered the idea of the film crew appearing in the film, but I had the impression that it would have taken it in another direction. I wanted the viewer to feel the presence of a collective body whilst retaining the idea that the consultation was taking place within a medical institution and not in an activist context. So I asked the sound engineer, Perrine Michel, not to cut recording between the shots in
order to have more sound material to work with during the editing process. This was already common practice at La Poudrière and is probably related to working with film. Preparing shots takes a lot of time when you don’t have video playback. You have to measure the light carefully, anticipate all the movements and you know that you won’t be doing many takes. In the sound interstices, we perceive the concentration, the attention accorded to each other and also the somewhat comical aspect of the situation. The position of the director, directing the production half-naked with a speculum in her vagina, was humorous. It seems to me that the presence of laughter or phrases such as “Is everyone ready?” also helps to gently accompany the audience towards the frontal image of a woman’s genitals.

Interview by Claire Lasolle

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Technical sheet

France / 2022 / Colour / 16 mm / 15’

Original version : french
Subtitles : english
Script : Marie Bottois
Photography : Frédérique Menant, Agnès Perrais, Carole Grand
Editing : Marie Bottois, Young Sun Noh
Music : Morgane Carnet, Blanche Lafuente
Sound : Perrine Michel, Agnès Perrais, Delphine Voiry Humbert
With : Léna Alembik
Production : Marie Bottois
Filmography : Slow-ahead, 2015
Histoires de France partie 2, 2013.