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One of the handiest things about speculative fiction is its ability to provide shorthand for an exploration of the human condition. Cinematic shorthand often cuts that distance even more. And as the distance approaches zero, you get films like Sally Potter's Orlando, and Ole Bornedal's I am Dina, both of which use their protagonists' supernatural traits as a locus for their feminist identities, a lens through which their experiences can be better understood (by audiences and, more importantly, their fellow characters) as a force both otherworldly and threatening.

In Orlando, it's an oath from a loyal subject to his regent: in exchange for a gift of property, Orlando promises Queen Elizabeth never to die ("Do not age, do not wither"). Though the immortality provides a unique opportunity for an autobiography that spans 500 years, there are loopholes; one morning, Orlando wakes up as a woman, and loses both her property and—to her chagrin—her personal integrity to societal assumptions. It's both an overt statement of supernatural elements, and of its subject's feminism.

Until her shift in gender, Orlando's immortality is treated like a gentleman's eccentric quirk. It's only when she becomes female that her supernatural ability is openly acknowledged, with the intent to disenfranchise her; her new gender role robs her of her home and makes her the object of unwanted attentions from men who, when she was male, called her a respected friend. (There is a satirical bent to the shift in attitudes, with a certain metatextual self-awareness about the large shifts in time and cultural attitudes that happen between Orlandos.)

I am Dina treats the supernatural as a more subtle, though equally inextricable, part of the feminist identity. As a child growing up in mid-19th-century Norway, Dina is involved in the accidental death of her mother. Handed to a tutor to raise, then shipped off to the first offering suitor, Dina's sharp mind wars against these demonstrations of her lack of worth. However, as she begins to control the business of the farmstead, she also discovers she has a powerful connection to people on the verge of death, and can absorb their fear and suffering. It's a more nebulous ability than Orlando's, though it's similarly positioned in that the supernatural ability exerts itself in direct counterpoint to the systemic lack of autonomy. Here, the portrait painted is visceral, not Orlando's measured character study; Dina's bleak and unforgiving surroundings are echoed in her drive for power, and her grim supernatural gift.

These protagonists' journeys through feminist self-actualization are not only defined by the difference in their own attitudes to their power. While Orlando's magic occurs without any real participation on her part, Dina's power is a consequence, not a catalyst, of her feminist self-discovery; her supernatural ability to connect to the doomed is reliant on her own actions, seeking out those who are about to die—or, in some cases, sending them past the brink herself, such as in the case of the terminally ill husband who she takes on one last ride along the cliffs. ("Look at me," she demands; he, and all others who do, are put under her thrall.)

These supernatural moments are, even within the contexts of their own films, challenging. Besides the threat it poses to her inheritance, Orlando's shift from male to female comes only after the experience of war—an experience, the movie implies, that makes Orlando rethink the merits of traditional masculinity, and perhaps provides a motivation extreme enough for her permanent shift into the female form. Dina, meanwhile, is close to the dying largely due to her childhood trauma, and is sometimes disturbed by the power the dead hold over her. As an extension of the metaphor, it falls to reason that the forging of a new identity (particularly if it pushes the status quo in the way their feminism challenges their patriarchies) often comes from the challenging and haunting moments in their experiences that result in powerful self-actualization.

As a framework, both Orlando and I am Dina employ voiceover. These, too, bear the individualized stamps of their protagonists; the voiceover in Orlando is a sometimes-wry, distant third person that notes the theme of each era of life and often makes light of Orlando's situation, even as Orlando delivers asides of her own, while Dina takes hold of her own narration in first-person address, her deliveries direct and grim.

On the surface, it would seem an indicator of the films' intentions towards their respective heroines. But they both serve to offer insight into the characters' own feelings about their supernatural talents—an interesting glimpse, since an integral part of the threat these characters are seen to pose is their outwardly unshaken reactions to their own power. Indeed, both films' textual treatments of their protagonists are, despite the difference in tone, remarkably of a piece.

Both Orlando and I am Dina are firmly focused on their subjects; they are concerned with their protagonists above all other narrative obligations, and attempt to embody their protagonist's experiences rather than a more detached (and, not coincidentally, traditionally male-associated) film gaze. Given the wide historical scope of each film, there is a striking paucity of scenes that happen without the protagonist present—there are no subplots, no character appearances, not even establishing shots, without immediate effect on or illustration of the mindset of the protagonist, around whom each film is firmly centered. (These films are portraits, not murals.)

Tellingly, the movies' respective closing shots are, in service of their subjects, strikingly alike. Each woman breaks the fourth wall in the film's final moments, staring directly into the camera (Orlando calm, Dina challenging—portraits, not murals). Orlando has previously addressed the audience to punctuate character beats, though this is the most unguarded and honest of her reflection; the closing moments of I am Dina are the first time Dina has turned her unflinching gaze to the viewer.

The contexts are different, but in each case, this moment is the film's most pivotal and definitive statement: this gaze returned is confirmation of the character's supernatural abilities (breaking the fourth wall is a task beyond the other characters), and a statement of identity; as the hero at the end of a journey, she faces even the viewer head-on, self-aware, and unafraid.

Genevieve Valentine's fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and other magazines, and the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead 2, Teeth, and more. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is out now from Prime. You can learn more about it at the Circus Tresualti site. For more about the author, see her website. Her previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives.
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