New festival celebrates radical female film pioneers

There She Goes is a selection of pioneering films made by women in the latter half of the 20th century in which the material experiences of womanhood as formed by race, class, sexuality, and nationality were critically represented and deconstructed through the medium of film.

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Playing at Auckland’s Academy Cinemas in September and October, There She Goes endeavours to highlight a small selection of the radical work done by women within the (obstacle-ridden) field of cinema. Amanda Jane Robinson spoke to programmer Lila Bullen-Smith about accessibility, counter-cinema, and the struggles these filmmakers faced.

FLICKS: How did the idea come about to programme this festival?

LILA BULLEN-SMITH: It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted. ‘Women in cinema’ is such a broad theme and I didn’t want to do that, I was trying to figure out something a bit more specialised. So through that, I ended up choosing to focus on the post-50s and pre-2000s period, mostly because of availability and accessibility.

Was accessibility an issue with these films?

It was! Even with these seminal films, I mean I called them “pioneering” for a reason, a lot of these are my second or third choice. There are quite a few films where the distribution company closed down and I don’t know who has the rights. It’s just sad that some of these films just get lost in the process.

A lot of these films aren’t available online or on DVD, how do you see them?

Some on DVD through university library services. Woman, Demon, Human was a link that was shared with me via a classmate which was all in Chinese and I never would have had access to that by myself. Mostly online through really shoddy links. Mauri was through Māori TV. The access to these films is so limited and so unavailable to a lot of people. I’m so lucky that I’m at a university institution and able to watch these films, but so many people don’t have that.

Mauri (dir. Merata Mita)

How did you go about selecting these titles?

They’re my personal favourites! These are films I’ve watched over the years and have a special place in my heart. Some of them I was introduced to through a feminist film theory paper I did last year with Misha Kavka. Born In Flames was the title that came through that paper and I was absolutely floored when I watched it, and that hadn’t shown up in any of my previous research. It’s sad to think of how many incredible gems exist that I’m still yet to find.

Misha’s the best. I took three film papers last year and hers was the only one where we watched any films by women.

Yeah, the film paper I’m doing this semester so far hasn’t had a single female filmmaker on the syllabus.

It’s ridiculous. What does the term ‘counterculture cinema’ encapsulate for you?

In the 70s and 80s, this idea of counter-cinema emerged, chiefly through Laura Mulvey and all those feminist film theorists. It was women filmmakers reacting to the normative Hollywood cinema in which the representation of women, and the techniques of cinema itself, were serving hegemonic forces. So counter-cinema was establishing a cinematic vision beyond the prevailing culture at the time. Some of these filmmakers consciously identified themselves inside that role, I feel like Chantal Akerman did, but some didn’t. It’s such a big term; there are documentaries in here and narrative films. I guess it’s just a loose term to describe a general strategy.

Do you feel like there’s a similar counter-cinema movement happening now?

In terms of like, a concentrated movement, not that I’m that aware of. It’s much more dispersed. At that time there was a real movement within academia and women’s organising and activism scenes. It’s still happening but it’s so much harder, even though like, the iPhone is supposed to make filmmaking so much easier. It’s such an expensive feat to undertake and the kind of resources you need to have access to in terms of distribution, what was possible in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, even 90s, seems less so now. There were a lot more women’s festivals showcasing work. I don’t know that New Zealand has a festival dedicated to showing contemporary female filmmakers. Even the rating system here costs so much money, that’s an immediate barrier. Obviously, there are still a lot of women making incredible films, that’s never stopped, that’s existed since there were cameras. It’s just an access point.

Yeah, it feels like now a lot of what is getting made is either super low budget or massively expensive, and a lot of these films are in that middle ground which seems less and less feasible. I want to ask you about a couple of my favourites from the programme, Jeanne Dielman and Wanda. What is it that you appreciate about these films?

I always really liked Chantal Akerman but hadn’t seen Jeanne Dielman, mostly because the length did kind of terrify me. But once I started watching it that didn’t factor into it at all. I’d never seen that level of focus be put on those really minute actions of housewifery; that space given to a woman on screen where it’s not this narrative where she’s being pushed and spliced and cut. She’s leading, the camera continuously follows her. I love the abstinence from melodrama, it’s a very realist film. Like Agnes Varda as well, she saddles the avant-garde and more realist documentary practices, blurring that a bit.

And how she avoids sensationalism. The most disturbing part isn’t what happens at the end for me, but that build-up of anxiety and inability to engage with herself and create self-meaning as a woman independent of her role as a housewife or sex worker. And what I love about Chantal Akerman, too, is that it’s not this manipulative identification with the character and her plight. You’re quite detached in that viewing experience; it’s quite alienating. I like being given that in a film, being able to feel distant and disconnected, because that’s where the criticality comes in, without being overwhelmed by the narrative.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (dir. Chantal Akerman)

Wanda, for me, was shown to me by a co-worker. It’s probably the film on the programme I’m most unfamiliar with. But I feel like Barbara Loden is just a tragic story of the plight of women’s cinema. That only in 2018, so many years after the film was made and after her death that it’s found a place to be restored and re-released despite being such an incredible piece of work related to all these themes of womanhood and class and poverty. I just can’t believe it took this long and that she’s not here to see the significance of her impact. It’s so sad, her one film.

It’s the same with Agnes Varda. She’s this massive name but still struggles to finance a film. That’s the thing, even if Barbara Loden was still alive today making films, and what happened to Chantal Akerman. Even these seminal names are still struggling in an industry you’d think they’d be able to glide through. It was the same with Forough Farrokhzad, this was her only film before she died in a car crash. I just think of how painful that is, that we lose these artists. And these are the big titles. There are thousands of films that have been lost and will never be seen because of archiving and distribution issues.

And even these films that did get made, what a struggle that process was. Like, Wanda had a crew of four. Four people!

And Jeanne Dielman! Such a stripped back crew and all women. This programme is full of women auteurs in a way, but I’m kind of against that idea. Most of these films were made with crews majority composed of women. It’s not only the directors that face these massive barriers, it’s also the women involved in every part of the production.

It’s women on screen, off screen, and behind the screen using cinema to envision alternative futures. For me, representation isn’t enough. We have to deconstruct how women have been occupied in cinema.