Cinenova: Reproductive Labour

George Clark

Contexts / 08.06.2011
Print

'Reproductive Labour', installation view, 2011. Courtesy Daniel Brooke & The Showroom

There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man and there is no reason why she cannot master every technicality of the Art

– Alice Guy, 1913 [1]

This quotation from French film pioneer Alice Guy (1873–1968) adorns numerous texts related to the history of the distribution of feminist film in the UK. An accomplished yet neglected figure, history’s omission of Guy and other film-makers has fuelled the need to critically reconsider histories of cinema, which are currently dominated by male film-makers. The recent exhibition ‘Reproductive Labour’ at the Showroom, London provided an extraordinary opportunity to explore the collection of films, videos and ephemera of feminist distributor Cinenova and the challenge to film and video history that the collection represents.

The extensive collection covers 500 works made by women from 1913 to 2000: from other notable female pioneers such as Germaine Dulac and Lois Weber in the 1910s and 20s up to film and video works made in the 1980s and 90s, and ranging from short works to feature films, documentaries, experimental films and videos as well as an extensive paper archive of articles, posters and correspondence. Together these describe a history of discussion, cultural exchange and advocacy for ‘a record of women’s lives and passions’, as an early statement by the UK distributor Circles put it.[2] The first feminist film distributor in the UK, Circles was established in 1979 by the film-makers Lis Rhodes, Tina Keane and Annabel Nicolson and the writer and curator Felicity Sparrow, and it marked the beginning of feminist film distribution in Britain. It was followed a few years later by the formation of Cinema of Women, giving the work of many women film and video artists a visibility and support previously denied them. Both intended to redress the neglect of women film-making by collectively supporting them through distribution, education and advocacy. Due to financial constraints, these two organisations merged in 1991 to create Cinenova, which is still working today.

Documentary work in the Cinenova collection includes early films such as Kay Mander’s Homes for the People (1945) – commissioned by the Labour Party and the now defunct British newspaper the Daily Herald – and Jill Craigie’s To Be a Woman (1951), an independently produced film about women’s employment, as well as highly influential films such as Women of the Rhondda (1972), made collaboratively by Mary Capps, Mary Kelly, Margaret Dickinson, Esther Ronay, Humphrey Trevelyan and Susan Shapiro, some of whom were also involved in making Nightcleaners (1972–75). Feature films range from Jacqueline Audry’s erotic Olivia (made in France in 1951), adapted from Dorothy Bussy’s autobiographic novel, to Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women (1985) and Privilege (1990, both made in the US), as well as independent features made in Austria, Germany, Australia and the UK.[3]

With the help of members of the Cinenova Working Group, an advisory group who are responsible for the Showroom exhibition and continued operation of Cinenova, we’ve selected eight video clips to contextualise and discuss some aspects of the organisation.[4]

Click through the numbers above the installation shot to read more and view videos.

Special thanks to Emma Hedditch at the Cinenova Working Group for her invaluable assistance in gathering the film excerpts and permissions used in this piece. To learn more about their work, visit metamute.org for Mira Mattar's extended interview with Hedditch and Marina Vishmidt.

Often During the Day (Joanna Davis, UK, 1979, 16mm film, 16min)

and

Bred and Born (Joanna Davis and Mary Pat Leece, UK, 1983, 16mm film, 1hr 15min)

Structured around a series of photographs of neglected parts of a kitchen, quotations of Ann Oakley’s book The Sociology of Housework (1974) and a long sequence shot of a kitchen table during breakfast, Joanna Davis’s Often During the Day creates a complex orchestration of sound and image fragments to question the relationship between theory and practice. Akin to Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), the film seeks to create a new way of seeing the kitchen, and its problematically gendered association as the domain of female labour. In presenting the particularities of a household kitchen in which work is not defined by gender, the film responds to the notion that household labour is feminine, as well as to Oakley’s feminist text, by showing the difficulties of applying her theories to a specific rather than a general environment.

In Bred and Born (1983), Davis’s subsequent collaboration with Mary Pat Leece, the phrase ‘I’m using people to talk about things that interest me’ is repeated at key junctures in the film, signalling the problem of social division that accompanies sociological research. Developed through a long-term investigation of women’s relationships with their mothers, in particular in communities in London’s East End, Bred and Born seeks to critically re-frame its own investigation throughout the film.

In both these rigorous works the relation of theory to practice is explored through the filmic processes of scripting, performance, staging and editing, which both seek to expose to the spectator. Moreover, the two create complex reflections on the potential of film to develop nuanced sociological arguments. The film-maker and the apparatus of cinema are made present in both works in order to question the power relationships inherent in documentary-based practice.

Both films’ fidelity to the theoretical texts they are attempting to adapt is eventually unravelled by carefully framed direct observation and interactions with their ostensible ‘subjects’, as developed in the final kitchen table sequence in Often During the Day, or the re-framed discussion at the end of Bred and Born. These instances return the viewer’s attention to the staging of the observed situation and its particularities, which risk being obscured by sociology or political arguments.

*

Bred and Born was developed over four years with the help of Circles, which hosted women-only screenings and discussions throughout the production of the film. Built around community participation, these discussions and screenings, a fundamental part of feminist film distribution in general, not only informed the research and development of the project but by recording them they also became a crucial part the film itself. The film can now be seen as exploring one of Circles’s fundamental ambitions, as outlined in their statement that it ‘is important that barriers between film-maker and audience are broken down, and that there is interaction and feedback between the two. We also feel it is important to create a public space for discussion and for all women to participate in the making and showing of their work.’5

In operating as discursive critical projects, these films highlight the centrality and necessity of discussion to this period of film practice in the UK. The statement also signals the broader social ambitions of feminist distribution, and of the Showroom exhibition.

Leila and the Wolves

(Heiny Srour, UK/Lebanon, 1984, 16mm film, 1hr 30min)

This film is based on actual events which are part of the collective memory of the Lebanese and Palestinian people.

– opening title to Leila and the Wolves

Set in 1975 at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, this film follows a woman, Leila, who is organising a photography exhibition about Palestine in London. Departing from the exhibition the film shifts into impressionistic historical accounts of the role of women in conflicts and resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine throughout the twentieth century. The historical scenes are a riposte to the protagonists’ historically naïve partner, who dismisses women’s political engagement, and demonstrate the interconnected histories of Lebanon and Palestine. Led by the wandering figure of Leila and contextualised with archival footage, the film restages a number of conflicts during the post-War period: the British occupation, the 1936–1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine and various independence movements in the region, the outbreak of World War II and its repercussions, the 1948 massacre of Palestinians and the following displacement of the population to refugee camps in Lebanon.

In the context of the Civil War, amidst which the film was produced, the focus shifts to contemporary women’s involvement in the conflict and the social pressures, ignorant of their historical role in political resistance, that hinder their participation. The protagonist’s grandmother pleads with Leila to abandon her ambitions: ‘with your guns and endless politics, how can a man marry you?’ The film likewise critiques the lack of historical awareness that continues to deny women an active role in politics and society. A penultimate scene in which the recurrent image of a group of sitting women on the beach, dressed in black and with niqābs covering their faces, as a group of men play freely in the sea, is intercut with the same women being trained as resistance fighters. This juxtaposition acts as a reminder of the radical potential of female resistance, a force and power dismissed to the detriment of society and contemporary Lebanon.

Born in Flames

(Lizzie Borden, USA, 1983, 16mm film, 1hr 30min)

One of the most celebrated independent features in the collection, Born in Flames had a huge impact on generations of female film-makers for its vision of female activists as well as for its liberal use of a variety of filmic styles. The film’s reverberations are fondly remembered by Barbara Hammer, a pioneering lesbian film-maker:

‘When I saw Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, I was seeing a revolutionary movie with mostly female characters living in a self-constructed world surrounded by a hostile environment. Posing as a sci-fi narrative Born in Flames released the pent up frustrations from the 1970s that saw not enough change. Women were still second-class citizens and glass ceilings were not rising but lowering. […] We were all about ready to join the Women’s Army after seeing Born in Flames.’6

An ambitious collage of material, Borden’s film describes the conditions of radical politics in New York. Set in the near future, in a corrupt socialist democracy, the potential of female activism is explored through various groups, ranging from middle-class female journalists to two polarising pirate radio stations: Radio Regazza, led by a white lesbian punk Isabel (Adele Bertei) and Phoenix Radio run by the charismatic DJ Honey, each advocating a different model for radical action. The media cover-up of the murder of political activist Adelaide Norris while under arrest prompts the various groups to find alternative ways to communicate this injustice, leading the film to what Christina Lane has argued is its core subject, an investigation of ‘the potential function of visual images for the purpose of political movement.’7 The disparate groups are finally unified and act together in order to overthrow the city’s broadcasting tower and clear ‘the politically stagnant airwaves for new feminist communications’.8

In a new work by artist and designer Kaisa Lassinaro, which operates as part-annotated script, part-collection of frame grabs, the dense verbal and visual material of Born in Flames is deconstructed and turned into an action-packed, utopian graphic novel. As Borden states about her film in a recent interview with Lassinaro: ‘I was reacting against what was the long boring art film where nothing happens.’9

Borden’s critique also extends to the lack of action in woman’s groups and what she saw as the limited and self-referential discourse of feminism at the time. She, by contrast, endeavoured to give the film a palpable sense of energy, driven by visions of radical action, from the female bicycle gang who police the streets to the Women’s Army and their prophetic terrorist attack on New York’s phallic skyline. As Borden states, ‘A real revolution has to keep putting people forward, like in The Battle of Algiers – my model throughout this film – the cells of members that keep rotating. That’s what I imagined, when people ask what happens to these women: they get arrested, but others move forward to do their work and get one message across, at least.’10

A Place of Rage

(Pratibha Parmar, UK, 1991, video, 54min)

Things have changed absolutely during my lifetime, and they have changed because we made them change.

– June Jordan 11

Through in-depth interviews with three black female civil-rights campaigners, activist Angela Davis, poet June Jordan and novelist Alice Walker, Pratibha Parmar’s documentary reconsiders the key figures in the North American civil rights movement and the fundamental part that women played within it. A Place of Rage critiques, for example, the fact that the political intent in Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit at the back of the segregated bus had been subsequently downplayed, or equally the lack of acknowledgement of Mississippi-based voting rights campaigner and activist Fannie Lou Hamer as a key instigator and organiser of the movement. As Alice Walker states during her interview in the video ‘The movement is based on women’s involvement and work.’

The video explores the influential figure of Angela Davis, whose history is profiled through archival material from her imprisonment and her relationship with the Black Panther movement and the communist party. Davis reflects on her time in prison following her involvement in the Soledad Brothers case, which saw her name added to the FBI’s ‘most wanted list’. In showing Davis’s current activities, from public lectures to advocacy for prisoners’ rights, the documentary cuts through the myth that surrounds her iconic image to show her work as an ongoing struggle. Similarly, in outlining the current agenda for civil rights in America and the world, poet, essayist and activist June Jordan argues in the film for the continued need for protest and action. Arguing for unity amongst the protest movements and broader engagement with the international community, Jordan admonishes separation between different campaigns declaring that ‘freedom cannot be qualified’.

Sapphire and the Slave Girl

(Leah Gilliam, USA, 1996, video, 18min)

Reflecting on identity politics in Chicago, Leah Gilliam’s video interweaves literary quotations and revisions, examinations of racial and sexual identity, homages to cop shows and noir films, reflections on the racial configuration of urban space and city planners’ attempts at social engineering. The video circles around the character of Sapphire, who is performed by eight different actors; she is at once, for example, a reworking of the slave-owning aristocrat Sapphira from Willa Cather’s last novel and the central figure in Basil Dearden’s film Sapphire (1959), about racism in post-War Britain, where Sapphire is discovered, after her murder, to have been hiding her racial identity and passing for a white woman.

In presenting the film at the Showroom, film curator and critic Roya Rastegar reflected on Cather’s and Dearden’s ambivalence towards politics, which was explicitly critiqued by Gilliam’s video and its giving ‘image to the contradictions and inconsistencies of what we see and what is spoken, what we know and where we are, who we are with and why we are there’.12

Rastegar further argues that ‘Gilliam’s layered images of emptied out buildings (being constructed, being torn down) and voiceover of “city experts” invite reflection on how the US has systematically and historically reinforced racial segregation and oppression through urban planning’.13

Sweet Sugar Rage

(Sistren Theatre Collective, Jamaica, 1985, 16mm film transferred to video, 42min)

Established in 1977 in Jamaica, the Sistren Theatre Collective was founded ‘to transform the status of women in society’14 through theatre workshops and productions. The organisation, which is still active, works with a wide variety of women throughout Jamaica and the Caribbean. Their process of engagement is outlined in the self-produced documentary Sweet Sugar Rage, one of many works in the collection that relates to the anti-colonial Third Cinema movement.

The film follows the principal members as they travel to visit the workers on a rural sugar estate in order to demonstrate the collective’s working process and the use of theatre as a form of engagement and analysis. Through interviews with the predominately female workers about their lives and working conditions, the collective gathers oral testimonies to be used to develop a play which will form the basis for discussion with various women’s groups.

Following this research visit, the group discuss their findings and select one story which is then made into a performance – that of a former field worker called Ms Iris, who was offered a supervisor position on the estate after falling ill, but at only half of the male salary, in direct violation of equal pay laws. The group perform a series of hypothetical scenarios in which Ms Iris fights for her right to equal pay, prompting discussions of the performers’ own struggles and broader socio-political issues affecting women’s rights in Jamaica. The group later return to the estate to perform their play and present their proposed solutions to Ms Iris’s struggle. This scenario is further developed and added to their repertory of performances that they can share with other women across Jamaica.

In a discussion during the development of the performance, the requirements for collective action and solidarity among women are articulated by one participant, who claims that ‘unless middle-class women give up their privileges to help working class women, nothing will change’. In tracing the active relationship between research and performance, the film demonstrates the potential of role-play as a critical practice. At times reminiscent of Jean Rouch’s ethnographic films as well as the strategies employed in Bred and Born, Sweet Sugar Rage demonstrates a committed form of activism that uses the components of theatre, and in this instance, film, to foster critical thought and empower and inform collective action.

Guerrillas in Our Midst

(Amy Harrison, USA, 1992, video, 35min)

A different form of direct action is traced in Amy Harrison’s documentary on the Guerrilla Girls. Guerillas in Our Midst is an overview of the many actions and campaigns of the group and their interventions in the New York art scene. Archive footage and posters of the group are liberally juxtaposed with unguarded interviews with gallerists (many of whom run ‘The most bigoted galleries in New York’, according to one of the group’s 1991 posters)15 and other commentators, who provide ample fuel for the group’s actions. Comments by gallerist Mary Boone (‘It’s not art world discrimination, it’s the woman’s choice’) and artist Mark Kostabi (‘Most of these women are just bad artists’) are so direct they almost appear absurd in their willingness to play textbook sexist art villains. Guerillas in Our Midst plays out in a comic register, in keeping with the pranksterish nature of the group’s interventions.

Unlike many of the oppositional films of the late 1970s and 80s that articulated their politics more formally, this film straightforwardly presents the means through which the group challenged institutional discrimination. As a representative of the group states in their film, the use of mainstream media and established forums is fundamental to their actions: ‘you’ve got to get into a position of power before you can change it’. Their populist position, which is criticised within the film as being too focused on proportional representation rather than overthrow of the existent art context, illustrates the different forms of protest employed in the early 90s. Interestingly Borden’s work foreshadows the effective and playful polemical strategies of the Guerrilla Girls, both in its appropriation of popular forms and in the crucial role of communications media in the film. Indeed, seeing the Guerrilla Girls’ nocturnal flyposting on the streets of New York directly recalls Borden’s bicycle vigilantes. In introducing clear statistical analysis into public discussions of institutional practice, the Guerrilla Girls are, as critic Roberta Smith’s comments in the film, an essential ‘free floating editorial voice’ for the art world.

Veronica 4 Rose

(Melanie Chait, UK, 1982, 16mm film, 48min)

Produced for the then newly launched Channel 4, Veronica 4 Rose is one of the key early documentaries that the channel helped to produce. The film’s broadcast in January 1983 was a milestone in the discussion of homosexuality on British TV. The film consists of interviews, conversations and discussions with young lesbians from Newcastle, Liverpool and London who talk about their lives and in particular the challenges of coming out in Britain in the late 1970s and 80s. Communication is the key subject of the film, which involves its participant in discussions about how they are represented and what they feel is important or interesting about their own experiences. Rather than a series of ‘talking heads’ the film presents the women through various forms of address to the camera and in exchanges with each other, from talking in smaller groups or with their lovers, to reading selections of each other’s testimonies and conversations about how best to present themselves (which one participant discusses as she customises her leather jacket).

The testimonies often address the lack of models or context by which they could understand their own sexual identity. The only role models available, as several of the participants state, came from fiction, and the women touchingly describe the experience and apprehension they felt when purchasing books with lesbian content, and their anxiety about being found reading them in public. One of the interviewees presents a series of photos of lesbian artists and writers, adding that ‘women like this and reading books by lesbians has been really important for me and having my life validated’. As well as pinpointing the value of literature as the only sources of alternative representations of sexuality available, the importance of these books crucially illuminates the stark changes in communication culture technology since this period.

‘What is chiefly placed in focus’ in Chait’s film and her active involvement of the interviewees, as Kenneth MacKinnon has argued, is ‘the point that sexuality is a struggle of competing representations.’16 At various points throughout Veronica 4 Rose, all the participants are seen together in a screening room discussing the film itself. The women discuss how they come across and their ambitions for what the film might be and what it can achieve socially; as one participant explains: ‘I was a bit upset to see it and although I think it’s good and will have a big effect if shown on TV, the politics have been lost, the analysis of repression doesn’t come out. It won’t do enough to make people angry enough to do anything about it.’ Another participant responds that politics is too complicated and its subjective nature risks alienating people, to which the first replies, ‘You can show politics without getting on a soapbox – unless you try you can’t do it.’

Footnotes
  1. Alice Guy, ‘A Woman’s Place in Photography Productions’, Moving Picture World, 11 July 1914.

  2. Anonymous, Circles Women’s Film and Video, distribution catalogue, London: Circles, 1982.

  3. Other key film-makers in the collection include Melanie Chait, VALIE EXPORT, Su Friedrich, Jeanette Iljon, Sandra Lahire, Babette Mangolte, Tracey Moffatt, Vera Neubauer, Ruth Novaczeck, Jayne Parker and Martha Rosler.

  4. The Cinenova Working Group comprises Melissa Castagnetto, Megan Fraser, Emma Hedditch, Henriette Heise, Karolin Meunier, Emily Pethick, Irene Revell, Sandra Schaefer, Kate Stancliffe and Marina Vishmidt. For more information, please visit: http://www.cinenova.org.uk/

  5. From anonymous, Aims & Objectives, London: Circles, c.1984.

  6. Quoted from screening notes for the launch of HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2010 at the IFC Center, New York, 26 April 2010. See http://www.ifccenter.com/films/born-in-flames/

  7. Christina Lane, Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Blank, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000, p.132.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Kaisa Lassinaro, ‘Interview between Lizzie Borden and Kaisa Lassinaro’, Born in Flames, London: Occassional Papers and the Showroom, 2011. Funds are being raised to publish the book by Occasional Papers. You can pre-order a copy or contribute to the publication here: http://occasionalpapers.org/?page_id=1175

  10. Ibid.

  11. Quoted from A Place of Rage (Pratibha Parmar, UK, 1991, video, 54min).

  12. Quoted from screening notes from the Showroom, 25 March 2011.

  13. Ibid.

  14. From the Sistren Theatre Collective's vision statement, available on their website: http://www.sistrentheatrecollective.com/

  15. See http://www.guerrillagirls.com/posters/bigotedgalleries.shtml

  16. Kenneth MacKinnon, The Politics of Popular Representation: Reagan, Thatcher, AIDS and the Movies, London, Mississauga, Cranbury: Associated University Presses, pp.135–36.