Force of Habit – Sydney Film Festival Review

Exposing The Male Gaze, Power Dynamics & Sexual Abuse

I have to admit that not going out to the cinema for this year’s Sydney Film Festival has in fact been a bit of a drag. I was looking forward to being able to snuggle up on my couch with a blanket to dive into this years selections but it truly just wasn’t the same. However the films were still powerful portrayals of life as we know it and none I think more impactful that my final viewing of this years festival, Force Of Habit.

An anthology series turned feature film Force of Habit combines the work of 6 female directors and 6 different stories of women going about their everyday lives openly revealing the often hidden world of female sexual abuse, the male gaze, and power dynamics within society. The directors Elli Toivoniemi, Reetta Aalto, Alli Haapasalo, Anna Paavilainen, Miia Tervo and Jenni Toivoniemi along with writer and producer Krisikka Saari have masterfully created a much needed perspective on the ways that abuse is still happening today.

I wasn’t expecting to react as viscerally as I did to this film. All of us aware of the MeToo movement and the stirring revelations it exposed about our society Force Of Habit extends upon this conversation in a way that every woman will find connects with them on some level. It made me mad, frustrated, uncomfortable, even bursting into tears at one point and physically having to shake the emotion out of my body. The importance of this film however comes not with how women will watch it, but how men will. It is an all too familiar scene for women watching that the take away will be relief that our side of the story is finally being told. For men however I think it will draw out a lot more questions and start important conversations, which at the end of the day is a triumph for the films intention.

The film is structured around 6 different stories of women having to deal with varying levels of abuse. A young teenage girl going to school on the bus who is hounded by some older boys, an actress who has to portray a rape scene on stage, a couple on holiday somewhere in Europe where she is groped on the bum, a young woman who’s party gets shut down and a male straggler continues to try and have sex with her, a work party where an employee reveals a sexual harassment case with one of the male colleagues and causes a stir, and a male lawyer who is defending his client who was raped in a bathroom.

Each film reveals something about how these kinds of incidents and behaviors are dealt with in society. For me the work party story acted as the through line for how any mention of sexual assault is received in our society. After the incident was revealed, almost by accident by the employee, her female colleagues continue to gossip about it through the night echoing victim blaming sentiments we’ve all heard before. “She must have a motive for bringing this up.” “How could she be so selfish?” “Well it never happened to me” etc. These statements providing the platform by which the rest of the stories are played upon. In our minds their comments keep repeating as the rest of the stories are shown expressing exactly how assault and abuse is never spoken about for the exact reasons the ladies are expressing.

In an interview with Krisikka Saari & Elli Toivoniemi after the screening it was mentioned that the film was mainly targeted at a younger female audience as they seem to be the quietest group when the MeToo movement broke out. The bus story in particular depicts the fear and anxiety of not being socially accepted after the event occurs something that we know as teenagers is a big deal. Similarly to an episode of Sex Education season 2 where a young female teen character Aimee experiences a sexual assault on the bus the impact of the event is often hidden away. What Force of Habit successfully manages to do is bring these stories to the forefront in a way that hopefully makes those of us who have experienced something feel less alone.

In contrast with it’s subject matter the film is beautifully shot and manages to create impact with the camera work alone. The final shot in particular, which I won’t go into detail with as I think you need to experience it for yourself, manages to sum up the themes and purpose of the films existence in one pan. There is so much to unpack within this film that I could honestly write on and on and on about it but I think it would be more important to watch it and have those conversations in person with others. I am annoyed at myself that I left this film til last so now I can’t tell more people to watch it, but if it ever comes to a streaming service or festival near you I would recommend you go and watch it as one of the most important films to come out of the modern age.

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