4 Generations Women: December 2021

I planned our filming in my grandmother’s apartment as is the Christmas tradition. Last year we have not been able to be together because of Covid restrictions and could only speak on Facetime. This year was different.

My grandmother’s apartment, right next to my parents’, in the centre of Prague, brings out many childhood memories of spending time playing there: with buttons, ribbons and scarves, with my brother, or our dog, of reading and listening to stories, of imagining and growing my inner world. For me this space was always associated with something slightly exotic: echoes of distant worlds, of travel (real and imaginary), of the past (a form of travel too). My grandmother has always been a highly imaginative storyteller and her apartment absorbed and also oozed her stories.

On this occasion though, I wanted to focus on the idea of a beauty routine. The celebration of beauty and the care and attention required to achieve the best results, is a thread that runs through my project, as much as it runs through the narrative of my female line. At times, the beauty standard has been a burden, often accompanied by a sense of failure. A somewhat false lens to view oneself.

For my grandmother, who attended a woman only school, where she learned fashion design, a beauty routine as well as looking her best, was an important part of her formal education. Additionally, in those days, 1940s, in order to be a lady, a young woman was expected to never leave the house looking scruffy. This habit has stayed with my grandmother into her 90s. She is always impeccably dressed and made up.

In our current moment in time, post John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey’s male gaze, having entered the age of surveillance capitalism, in the unashamed times of selfies and endless instagram filters, the story of female beautification is reframed and amplified in new ways.

My older daughter certainly knows all about this and her beauty routine in many way resembles my grandmother’s in its complexity.

The second inspiration for this session was a recreation of a scene from my short film Between Jirina and Anna, which I filmed in the same room on the threshold of 2014/15. That time we dressed my daughter in a traditional costume which my grandmother’s mother made in 1918.

This time, 6 years on, instead of a traditional dress, I brought with me my wedding dress. I wanted my daughter to wear it and she did put it on in the end, if rather reluctantly. The dress is not really a dress: it is a skirt and top, which I purchased in New York, in 2001. I was already pregnant with this very daughter, hence the idea of a two piece attire, to allow expansion.

20 years ago, at my wedding, my child was invisible to me, an unknown daughter to be. Now she is here, familiar, tall and blonde, wearing my dress. She is only 7 years younger than I was then.

And in 2014, when we filmed our first scene here, my younger daughter wasn’t even an idea. Now she is very much here too.

Once again we are stood in front of a mirror, looking at our reflection, seeing our present selves, but seeing also the the past, as we stood here on a number of occasions in the past 9 years.

The mirror too is an ongoing theme for us: a symbol of contemplation, as well as a real object with a reflective surface, which allows us to study our own image, in the same way the camera does.

The mirror allows me, the filmmaker, to become part of the 4 generational picture, and also reveals to us, the viewers, the process of making, the behind the scene.

But we, the women in the reflection, also mirror each other: our genetic make up which links us, manifests as similarities and also of differences in hair colour, our built, stature…

When you look at these photos, stills from the moving image that is to become a film, you may notice our images refracted in the various looking glasses around the room. There are tiny reflections of Clementine in the tiny mirror. (Did you spot them?) Even the television has become a Claude glass. And so is the phone, the black mirror that rarely leaves my older daughter’s hand.

This project of 4 generations of women, has always been about time: about the “here and now”, as I attempt to capture precious moments of being all together. Later I realised the filmmaking created these moments of focus, through the ritual of filming.

It has, of course, always been about the past: listening to my grandmother’s stories of drowning, of her miscarriage, of my mother as a child, perceiving patterns, looking for threads of meaning.

But crucially, this project has always also been about the future: for me it is a message from us right now towards our future selves.

The temporal distance offers new perspectives and I wonder what our future selves may perceive in the mirror of the lens, that we may have overlooked now, being too busy with the “here and now”.

More about the project: https://www.thelearnedpig.org/tereza-stehlikova-4-generations-of-women-topography/10001

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