Men By Women is an instalment in this year’s Underwire Festival, the UK’s only film festival dedicated to showcasing and celebrating women filmmakers. Men By Women is a series of shorts made by women, all examining men and masculinity. These films challenge existing norms around masculinity, emotionality, and relationships, offering nuanced and intimate portrayals of men from all walks of life.
The screening starts with Men Talk About Mother, an animated film featuring the voices of three real men reminiscing about their mothers. We hear snippets from these men’s childhoods, building up a picture of their boyhood and their mothers. They remember the moments that matter most to them. We learn that one mum liked painting eggs. Another had a close relationship with her own mother, whose death she cried over every day.
There are domestic memories: being fed, being cared for, acknowledgement of the emotional labour each mother took on. There is respect in the men’s voices, and the film is a moving portrayal of mother-son relationships. Each man remembers their mother’s flaws too: one mum left her husband and son after a struggle with mental health. There are contemplations on senility and death, and we learn about the speakers through their responses to the difficult moments in their relationships with their mothers.
As adults, the men can recognise their mothers as full people with lives, pasts, fears, and interests of their own. It’s a circular exploration of womanhood: female filmmakers exploring how these men see one of the most important female figures in their lives. It’s a celebration of motherhood and of women, re-centring their voices and experiences, and acknowledging their importance long after death, old age, and the adulthood of their sons.
Masterpiece is also a film about relationships, celebrating friendship between young black men. Simbai is an artist, about to reveal his installation to his friends. Simbai’s friends don’t know anything about art but they’re here to support their mate. Masterpiece is a rare and much-needed depiction of black brotherhood that goes beyond the usual stereotypes and performative masculinity we see on-screen. Through jokes and sociopolitical commentary, we learn about these men’s personalities and the bonds between them. They laugh, they care, they are nuanced–just like black men in the real world.
Masterpiece is funny, heartwarming, and offers positive representation without diminishing the marginalisation that the black community faces in modern Britain. Whilst trying to decipher Simbai’s art, his friends discuss poverty, discrimination, and welfare. The audience is reminded of the issues these characters face daily whilst also allowing them to have fun, support each other, and be themselves in spite of the structures that seek to oppress them.
In Leroy, we also see a young black man striving to be himself in a hilarious narrative that sees Leroy coming to terms with his queerness and the death of his grandfather. Set in the ‘90s (complete with shell suits and boomboxes) Leroy is the son of first-generation Jamaicans, and a lovable weirdo. He likes to dance, creating choreography to the last tape he will ever receive from his grandfather. In the lead-up to the funeral, where he is being pressured to write a speech, he embarks on a coming-of-age tale where he learns to accept himself and explores his sexuality with another young man.
Leroy is a hopeful and celebratory film, and a reminder to young people of colour that it’s OK to be yourself. Leroy is loved and accepted by his family and friends; he doesn’t need to perform masculinity or bottle up his emotions. It’s more positive representation for black men, too. Leroy speaks from the heart in his own way, and it’s moving to see him supported by those around him.
In contrast, Cleared uses a series of vignettes to explore the effects of toxic masculinity on men and their relationships. The film opens with close-ups of a man rolling and smoking a joint. We hear a phone call between him and a friend in a conversation that quickly becomes aggressive as they talk about dealing. Their relationship is strained, performativity within a toxic macho culture taking a toll.
Then we hear the protagonist calling his mum as we watch her cooking and doing laundry for him. He doesn’t see her enough or let her know that he appreciates her. There is love in her actions, and sadness. She knows what he’s got himself into and she wants better for him. So does his girlfriend. This time, the camera focuses on her hair, her smile, her skin, all awash in golden light. It’s intimate and romantic but he performs masculinity on the phone with her and she is distant, wary of his lifestyle and the pain that comes with it.
These three scenes show us what’s most important in his life and how he’s seen by the people around him. It’s a wider commentary on the pressures facing men to conform to traditional gender roles and expectations, and it’s a reminder that women are affected by the same structures. Relationships take the focus in Kin, too, a film about family and the care system in Britain today.
Kin opens with a home video: a pregnant mother and her son, the boy affectionately hugging her baby bump, and then we see him with the newborn. There are images of the two brothers playing, a wholesome picture of childhood. Then we meet Jamie as a young adult, home from work and smoking weed as his lover tries to connect with him. His family is a distant memory as he visits his younger brother, Harry, in care. We learn that their mother died while they were both young, inadvertently breaking up their family. Now, the only women in Jamie’s life are Harry’s care worker, who is taking Harry away from him by placing him in a foster family, and his lover, who he keeps at a safe emotional distance.
For anyone who has had any experience with the British care system, it’s an all-too-familiar setup. Harry is miserable and acting out in care, missing his brother and afraid for his future. Jamie is willing to do anything to protect Harry, including crossing acceptable boundaries by breaking into the new family’s home. In Kin, masculinity manifests in physical aggression, dominance, and emotional repression. Brotherly love is expressed through anger, a dramatic departure from the smiling faces of Jamie and Harry as children. Kin suggests that broken structures—such as the British care system and restrictive gender norms—foster toxic masculinity.
Jamie realises that he cannot offer the material comfort and stability of the new foster home and he has to make a difficult decision. It’s a film about family and what it means to love someone when your worlds are falling apart. Emotion is conveyed through close-ups and intimate camerawork; instead of sharing in the brothers’ anger, we feel sorrow, indignance, and desperate hope—everything the boys are trying to suppress.
Exploration of male emotionality is a common theme in Men By Women, acknowledging the patriarchal pressure on men to be stoic. In 13, this theme is examined in the context of living in London, a city that too often prioritises individualism, resulting in loneliness and a lack of healthy support networks. In 13, our protagonist is a man struggling with depression and isolation. He works night shifts and we only ever see him alone. He contemplates suicide and we repeatedly see him on the verge of tears, refusing to express his true emotions.
He becomes obsessed with his neighbour, who may not even exist. Vague noises come from next door and he starts to lose his grip on reality. It’s a tense film; we follow this man through daily mundanities, waiting for something to happen. We know that whatever does happen won’t be good.
It’s a stark reminder that the suicide rate is highest for men in their 30s and 40s, and that men often rely on women to do emotional labour for them, in accordance with traditional gender norms. When alone, men often find themselves without support and struggling to be open about their feelings and mental health. Risk is greater for those living in urban areas and for the working class.
13 ends on a tone of uncertainty and suspense. There is no hopeful outcome here, just a stark reminder of the difficulties of modern British life. In contrast, Men By Women ends with Beddgelert, a film based on a Welsh myth but also about a man challenging rigid notions of masculinity and learning to feel. Set in beautiful and desolate Welsh countryside, Llywelyn is a medieval prince travelling with his dog, Gelert. He carries his baby with him too and attempts to abandon the child in a ramshackle tower, but his dog won’t leave the baby behind.
In a series of flashbacks, we learn of the baby’s mother and her death. Llywelyn is stiff, the picture of traditional masculinity, but when he remembers his wife, he breaks down in tears. It’s her voice and memory that guides him into nurturing the child and embracing his emotions, even when they are difficult. He turns to femininity and emotional labour to care for the baby. In this world, filled with roaming enemies and wild wolves, he must learn to be tough without bottling up his emotions. In order to survive, he needs to allow himself the freedom to feel as well as to protect and defend.
In Beddgelert, Llywelyn challenges gender norms, allowing him and his child to thrive. Throughout Men By Women, we see examples of this: in portrayals of black and queer masculinity, in allowing men to be emotional without judgement, and in examining the relationships between men and the people in their lives. The female filmmakers of these shorts understand the need for more nuance and complexity in the way we view men and masculinity. They challenge the audience to consider alternative ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling, by challenging performativity and showing us raw emotion and inner turmoil. In these films, men find comfort and hope by rejecting conformity and being themselves. Men By Women is a celebration of modern masculinity and finding acceptance in our difficult world.