By Ann Deborah Levy
A year ago, an email arrived in our Women’s Film Preservation Fund mailbox from Tamara Anderson, Cinema Curator at the Barbican Centre in London, who had discovered our 2015 Carte-blanche series at MoMA, Women Writing the Language of Cinema. Would we curate a smaller series, focusing just on Second Wave Feminist films, for their multi-arts celebration Art of Change? What has resulted, Artists and Activists: Second Wave Feminist Filmmakers, will screen as a series over Saturday and Sunday, June 2-3 at the Barbican.
The WFPF has preserved a wealth of films made in the 1970’s that illustrate the impact of the Women’s Liberation movement on women filmmakers at that time. As I delved into this project, it became all too clear that these women had introduced to the screen so many new subjects and in such innovative ways that what we were trying to squeeze into six screenings was a renaissance in filmmaking by women.
Yes, a rebirth! Women had been directing and producing films since the early days of cinema, but as the film studio conglomerates formed, their small studios were starved out of existence. In the 70’s, they were back—still outside of the studio system.
I had been a college student in the early 1970’s and the Women’s Movement provided an entirely new picture of my future, but I had never seen any of these films. Why was that? In those days the only places to see films were in movie theaters and on the few TV networks. Documentaries appeared in movie theaters as shorts, usually on famous men, important events, or exotic places. Like other campuses, mine had a film society, but the male-dominated group that ran it wasn’t interested in showing films by women.
I encountered these feminist films for the first time when I joined the WFPF. At first, they hardly seemed revolutionary. A woman talking about her “oppression” didn’t sound liberated until you remembered that the expression of that idea at that time was a political act and a necessary step in deciding to assert yourself. Women speaking for themselves in films without voice of God narration are run of the mill now, but were novel then. Films about women’s bodies, sex, and relationships don’t shock us today, but were pushing into new territory in the 1970’s. I now understood that an important part of preservation is presenting the context in which the films were made so that first-time viewers can appreciate their full impact.
Many women turned to filmmaking out of activism and learned by doing with almost no training. Not knowing the “correct” ways to make films, they reinvented filmmaking to fit their own needs. Some filmmakers did have training. Others came from the visual or performing arts and viewed their work as an extension of their art, not as an informational tool.
All of these women had similar constraints in common: they had no money, little access to screening venues for their work, and little hope of making them financially viable. Making films outside of the mainstream gave them freedom to create without censorship and lack of funds forced them to find inventive low-budget ways to make films.
The Barbican series includes several feminist film classics that have screened in our ongoing series From the Vault: Women’s Advocacy on Film, co-presented with UnionDocs, all of which we have explored in previous blog posts: Julia Reichert’s Growing Up Female, Liane Brandon’s Anything You Want to Be and Betty Tells Her Story, Judy Smith and Louise Alaimo’s The Woman’s Film, Stephanie Palewski and other Newsreel Collective members’ Janie’s Janie and other women-directed documentaries: Maxi Cohen’s Joe and Maxi, and Lourdes Portillo’s Las Madres de la Place de Mayo. For that reason, I will highlight films screening at the Barbican only.
Julie Dash’s Illusions, a narrative film set in Hollywood during World War II, usually considered a film about racial issues, shows an ambitious light-complected African-American woman who passes for white in order to succeed. In this world, men have power and women of all races are support staff. Even the rare woman executive is fair game for sexual harassment.
Make Out, made by members of the Newsreel collective including Geri Ashur, Andrea Eagan, Marcia Salo Rizzi and Deborah Shaffer, co-directed by Ashur and Peter Schlaifer, shows two actors portraying lovers in a car as in voiceover we hear the woman’s real thoughts. Her words are drawn from transcripts of a consciousness-raising group.
Films by experimental filmmakers and animators were often expressions of women’s thoughts, and experience. Barbara Hammer’s, Sisters!, a celebration of lesbians, is part documentary, part experimental film and includes voiceover of dreams and poetry as well as footage of a women’s march, an early lesbian conference/festival, and dancing.
I-94, Bette Gordon’s experimental film made jointly with James Benning, was probably not conceived as a “woman’s film.” It presents a nude couple, the woman’s body and voice, dissolving into those of the man. They each talk about how they feel about the way they are perceived by the outside world, marking sharp differences in male and female experience.
Lisa Crafts’ animated Desire Pie ecstatically and humorously depicts lovemaking as a woman would like it, not as the male, Hollywood fantasy.
Artists & Activists: Second Wave Feminist Filmmakers was curated by: Ann Deborah Levy and Kirsten Larvick, WFPF Co-Chairs, with programming assistance from Susan Lazarus and Amy Aquilino. The series also includes important films by Madeline Anderson, Joyce Chopra, Su Friedrich, Amalie R. Rothschild, not preserved by the WFPF.
Participating in the event are UK feminists Sheila Rowbotham and Szusie Orbach, as well as Charlotte Procter, Ros Cranston, Nazmia Jamal, and Selina Robertson, who are involved in film programming and distribution in the UK.
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Ann Deborah Levy is Co-Chair of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund Steering Committee and makes experimental films. For more information on her films and videos, please visit www.resonantimages.com.