[DCIFF] Desire

Nearly a decade in the making, Julie Gustafson’s Desire follows the experiences of five women over the course of five years from their late high school years to their early twenties. Although the film was completed well before Hurricane Katrina destroyed many of the communities depicted in the film, Desire is impossible to watch without thinking about what has been lost due to the hurricane. But while New Orleans, and the class and race distinctions that shape the city, is certainly present in the film, it’s the stories of the five women’s lives that remain central.

Gustafson opens the film by introducing us to each of the five women, most of whome were 16 years old when filming began. Cassandra, who lives in the Desire projects, which were actually demolished before Katrina hit, promises that she will avoid her mother’s mistake of becoming pregnant as a teenager and dreams of joining the military–this was well before the war in Iraq–to finance her college degree. Tracy is seen fighting with her mother about breaking curfew and expresses discomfort with her parents’ pressures to go to college for a professional career. Other young women have stories, too, and while Gustafson wants to explore the girls’ decisions about sex and dating, and how those decisions are shaped by race and class, Gustfson avoids exploiting the women’s choices and behaviors for prurient purposes.

The film then follows the choices the women make over the course of these five years. Cassandra does become pregnant and decides, seemingly with good reason, that the father is unfit to raise their child. Tracy feels enough college pressure from her parents that she actually decides not to go to college straight out of high school. Another woman acknowledges halfway through the film that she is bisexual and discusses the difficulties of coming to term with that realization. Finally, in a scene that now has significant political resonance, Gustafson accompanies Peggy, who is not actually pregnant, to an abortion clinic where she counsels with doctors and confronts anti-abortion protestors outside the clinic.

One of the strengths of the film is that Gustafson generously and wisely steps back, allowing her subjects to contribute to the making of the film. Each woman contributes a video journal every year over the course of five years of filming, and in at least one key instance, Cassandra, an African-American woman from New Orleans’ Desire community, turns the camera on Gustafson, confronting her to articulate her psychic and personal investments in the film. I won’t explain Gustafson’s story in detail, but she frankly discusses some of the decisions she made as a young adult, and those issues clearly shape her approach to the women’s stories.

Gustafson also includes several scenes in which she shows willingness to criticize the potential problems with a project like hers. She meets with a group of concerned women from Desire who want to ensure that Gustafson’s film will not send the wrong messages about teen pregnancy, and to the film’s and the group’s credit, there is some debate about what that message might be. There were also some scenes where all five of the film’s subjects meet together with Gustafson and discuss their perceptions of the project (more of this material also would have been welcome).

Gustafson’s film is surprisingly compact, given that it seeks to cover five years of the women’s lives, and I felt the film could have actually benefitted from being longer and humanizing the women even further. Many of the women involved with the project ended up puruing careers in media arts, and I would have enjoyed seeing the young women in their “work” lives, whether at school or at work, more often. i would have also enjoyed having answers to other questions. Why these women and not others? How were their lives and decisions affected by the presence of the documentary camera (a similar question might be asked of the subjects of Hoop Dreams)? While these questions might be difficult, if not impossible, to answer, I did find myself contemplating the making of the film throughout. That being said, Gustafson has crafted a compelling and thoughtful film about the lives of these young women and the difficult questions they face on a daily basis.

Update: Here’s some more information about Desire from the Women Make Movies website.

Update 2: Here’s a review of Desire by the cinetrix.

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