Editor-in-chief Pihla Pekkarinen reviews a Finnish anthology film about experiences of street harassment as part of our Raindance 2020 coverage.
A woman’s arse gets grabbed in a bar. A pair of guys harass a young girl on the bus. A rape victim shows up in court to testify for the third time. Force of Habit is a film borne out of a wider project started by Finnish female filmmakers to document male exertions of power over women. The original project, titled Yksittäistapaus, is a collection of eleven short films, created by fifteen artists on various topics surrounding gender-based oppression, specifically as it manifests in Finland. The short films are accompanied by free discussion material to facilitate dialogue. Force of Habit is a compilation of six of these short films, focusing specifically on experiences and consequences of sexual harassment and assault.
Despite being a compilation of originally disparate short films, Force of Habit works remarkably well as a single, cohesive work. The films are not shown back-to-back, but weaved together, bringing out overarching themes and echoing the universality of these experiences. The editing also cleverly inserts anxiety into seemingly harmless situations, mimicking the apprehension of the central characters. The seven writers and directors are equally matched in their talent for intimate, conversational dialogue and conflict, and the quality remains consistent across all six stories. The overall feeling throughout is one of anxiety and discomfort, as women are shoved to the sidelines, taken advantage of, and stripped of their power.
Perhaps the most upsetting moments of the film are the displays of female complicity. As a girl is being loudly harassed on the bus, she looks to an older woman for help. The stranger determinedly looks away, leaving the girl to fend for herself. At a work party, a woman accidentally relays her experience of being assaulted by her boss and, instead of offering support, her female colleagues doubt her claims, blame her for bringing the mood of the party down, and rage at her for smearing the company’s reputation. As the whole party gossips about her and her malicious intentions, she is left sitting alone in a corner, granted no agency over her own story by the women around her. You come to expect the male violence, but the female complicity strikes like a punch every time as you grieve the depth and breadth of societal misogyny.
Force of Habit is not particularly original or creative in its execution. It is a low-budget series of shorts, none of which say anything new about feminism. But it perfectly communicates the mundane, everyday anxieties of womanhood, and the wary way in which we are taught to approach the world. Though, in saying that, I’m perhaps a little biased. There’s something about seeing a girl who looks an awful lot like you, riding a bus like the ones you’ve ridden before, getting harassed in exactly the same way you have before arriving at the exact school you once went to that makes you think the film is holding up a mirror to your personal experience. I’m willing to concede that. And it is worth noting that the film makes no effort to be intersectional in its analysis of sexual harassment, focusing exclusively on thin white women. The films about fat women and women of colour, present in the original Yksittäistapaus collection, are notably missing. This seems to be because the six films that gelled well together around the theme of harassment happened to all feature white women – but regardless, the absence of representation is felt.
I’m not sure if it is fair to expect a film to do more than it was trying to do. For a young white woman like myself, Force of Habit holds up a perfect mirror to my lived reality, down to the minutiae. But even for me, it doesn’t acknowledge the separate dimensions of sexism I’ve experienced as a queer woman, nor does it pay attention to the specific misogynies directed at marginalised bodies. But, after all, six short films can hardly begin to cover every aspect of everyday sexism. And, criticisms of what the film lacks aside, what is there is evidence of exceptionally talented writing and directing, scenes of the mundane acting as a painful reminder of the vulnerabilities of existing as a woman.