In Elena Avdija’s documentary “Stuntwomen,” which is world premiering at Zurich Film Festival, you don’t just become a stuntwoman: you have to work for it. Virginie Arnaud, Petra Sprecher and Estelle Piget certainly do, but they don’t always get to showcase their skills.
“Cinema has a fascination with sexist violence. We like to see women suffer, getting kidnapped or raped,” Avdija tells Variety. These are the scenes her protagonists are usually asked to portray.
“What we see on the screen influences our society and our way of thinking. Seeing sexist violence normalizes it in our minds. We need to find new ways of talking about it and Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ is a great inspiration.”
Petra Sprecher, who is also an actor, was recently spotted in “Westworld” and “Lovecraft Country.” Arnaud worked as a stunt coordinator on Séries Mania-selected series “Syndrome E” and “Hors Saison,” while Piget appeared in Quentin Dupieux’s Cannes curio “Smoking Causes Coughing,” and soon will be seen in “The Three Musketeers: Milady.”
But the professional stunt industry is still a man’s world, observes the helmer, with few women able to access it. Those who do, especially in Europe, are stuck playing victims.
“The European market isn’t as crazy about action spectacles. The best stunts are in comedies, but in comedies women still wear high heels and play dumb. Then we have more realistic films, but sometimes it means [scenes of] domestic violence, basically.”
“Virginie used to laugh, saying: ‘There is no work in love stories, unless they turn sour.’”
For some, replaying such violent interactions can be triggering.
“I think one in three women has been assaulted in her life. Virginie implies that if you go through something like that, it’s easier to play it. But others find it much harder,” she notes.
Avdija shows stuntwomen trying to make light of the situation, but sometimes, the lines get a bit blurry.
“When they have to play the victim and their colleague plays the oppressor, it’s a game. But I saw one man – he is not in the film – who seemed to enjoy it a bit too much. You never know when the game stops and reality begins.”
Those who want more from their careers tend to struggle to progress.
“Virginie is trying to focus on being a stunt coordinator, but it’s hard – this industry is a cartel. You have to belong to ‘the family’ to get certain opportunities. These guys, they didn’t really understand why I was focusing on women. They made it hard for me to film and hard for her to work.”
And yet they keep on going, eager to test how far they can go. Admitting that sometimes “it’s cool to jump into a void and not die,” even though their families may beg to differ.
“There is freedom in being in control of your body, in knowing exactly what it can do. I am not athletic, so I envy that. Also, we all know how it feels when our families don’t understand what we do. My family had no clue, all these years I was making this film,” jokes Avdija. But she remains pragmatic about what’s in store.
“There will always be work for stuntwomen, because there will always be stories about women getting hurt,” she says.
“I just hope that those who come next will get to have much better jobs. Maybe we just need cool female directors to write new kinds of roles? Stuntwomen are more than the characters they get to play. It applies to all of us, really. We are more than the chances we get sometimes.”
“Stuntwomen” was produced by Agnieszka Ramu, Marie-Lou Pahud and Ursula Meier for Bande à Part Films (Switzerland), and Cécile Lestrade and Elise Hug for Alter Ego Production (France).
“It was important for this film to be overseen by female producers,” adds Avdija.
“They really helped me find a language for the story based on these women’s experiences and traumas. One that wouldn’t just focus on their impressive physical capacity.”
Bande à Part Distribution handles distribution in Switzerland, and Andana Films is looking after international sales.