Walking alone in a city shouldn’t be an adrenaline-inducing experience. Taking public transport by oneself shouldn’t be a fraught choice. For women it can be though, and Shelly Lauman’s Birdie taps into that universal fear and confronts its viewers with a scenario many will find too relatable for comfort. An intense exploration of the unseen horrors that in fact happen in plain sight, Birdie follows a woman in an underground train station as she enters a gut-clenching game of cat and mouse with a stranger. The film’s striking approach to psychological horror turns the gendered violence of the male gaze into a jump scaring monster, dramatizing an experience that no-one should have to feel, but everyone should learn to understand.
In the past few years alone, we’ve seen an influx of films about the female experience and what it means to live amongst wolves. Akin to films like Henry Norvallss Sweet Things and Charlotte Wells’ Laps, Lauman’s subtle, experiential approach makes for deeply visceral viewing. With little to no dialogue, rhythm, blocking, and editing tell the story of escalating panic, carried throughout by Maeve Dermody‘s stellar performance. Birdie is the kind of film that will undoubtedly resound to not just women who often feel preyed upon, but to anyone who has felt threatened by unwanted sexual advances or blatant intimidation.
Lauman’s work raises questions not just about how one should have reacted to the situation, but how toxic the male gaze can be without lifting a finger or saying a word. In many ways, the two men on skateboards became villains by sheer imagination and it challenges the audience to decide if she was really threatened or not. That’s the deeper, insidious point Lauman makes—how victims question their circumstances, not wanting to draw attention to a situation that may just be in their heads, that self-doubt of questioning their reality, but also the mental tax of always being hyper-aware of the possibility of threat. In Birdie, it becomes clear that the woman’s gut was right and as she ends up alone with her antagonists, your chest will tighten with fear, but it is interesting to think of whether the film would be as effective thematically even without the final confrontation. Like many women who must face such silent bullying in public, it’s no wonder that it left a lasting impression on the female programmers at Short of the Week.
Shot on location in Sydney, Lauman chose a 4:3 aspect ratio to enhance the claustrophobia and isolation of the experience for the lone woman. Devoid of music, the sound design strategically enhances her trapped feeling and how outnumbered and outmatched she is, further placing us in the character’s headspace and heightening the suspense.
Birdie enjoyed a stellar festival run, being chosen as an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, AFI Fest, and Flickerfest, before being one of the first films picked up for digital distribution by Fox Searchlights’ new Spotlight Shorts initiative alongside films like recent S/W feature Lavender, and this year’s Oscar winner, Skin. As for next steps, Lauman is currently in development for her first feature.