15 year old Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg shows off her remarkable behind-the-camera talents in a short film shot, directed, and edited by her. The film is a horror adaptation of the classic Gothic feminist short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Amandla’s film uses canted camera angles, changing depths of focus, and a non-traditional editing style in order to properly represent the madness of the protagonist. Of course, to fully appreciate the film one must have prior knowledge of the narrative itself, as well as the history surrounding it.
The story was first published in 1892. It followed a woman’s mental health deterioration as she was being treated for “hysteria” or “nervousness”. The story was based on Gilman’s own experiences with the rest cure. Masked as medical science in the 19th and early 20th century, this form of subjugation was prescribed almost exclusively to women who were considered to be “nervous”, often exhibiting signs of depression soon after giving birth. They were made to remain bed-ridden (sometimes even chained) and kept from anything that might be considered mental stimulation. For writers and artists, this meant they were kept from their work, which was exceptionally troubling.
In 2007, Dr. Diana Martin revisited the theory in an article for The American Journal for Psychiatry in an attempt to better understand what patients of this treatment really endured. Martin’s article is not by any means a condemnation of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, creator of the rest cure, but rather a recognition of his efforts, however misguided. Still, Dr. Martin also greatly considers the words of Gilman, who publicly recounted her negative experiences with the treatment not only in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, but again in a subsequent explanatory article directed to Dr. Mitchell himself. Thus, with Gilman as a primary reference, Martin concludes:
” …the implicit prejudices inherent in the rest cure are clear. The patient was to be infantilized and confined for her own good, and the cost, as “The Yellow Wallpaper” shows, could be devastating. In the confrontation between S. Weir Mitchell and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one can see a 19th-century microcosm of the tension between beneficence and autonomy. This tension persists in psychiatry today.”
Clearly, Amandla’s decision to make this film is anchored in a recognition and sympathy towards women’s rights issues. The story has long been heralded as a remarkable display of feminist activism, as it challenges the patriarchal structure of Victorian society and the medical institution. For this young actress to revisit its content is therefore also a feminist action.
Aside form the beautiful visuals and the near perfect use of first-person narration to create a hauntingly grotesque atmosphere, this new take on the story contextualizes the issues for a younger female audience. Told as a ghost story amongst a group of teen girls, the horror aspects of this true story are highlighted magnificently. Moreover, the girls at the end are shown as not fully grasping the complex nature of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. When the storyteller tells the other girls they are not understanding the deeper meaning, this adds to the tension, but also might force young viewers to think more critically about what they have just seen.
Amandla undoubtedly has real filmmaking potential and this first crack is one full of promise. Hopefully, she continues making meaningful works in the future, while keeping that signature visual style.