"The Status of Contemporary Women Filmmakers."

by Dr. Katrien Jacobs


Women’s Films beyond the year 2000

As we are slowly starting to unfold the contributions of women filmmakers throughout the 20th century, it is perhaps time to ask ourselves how much their ‘status’ will improve beyond the year 2000? After talking to filmmakers, distributors and researchers internationally, I noticed that there is a pervasive feeling around that women's film cultures in the next century will be totally transformed, that they will be most likely sustained by economic rationalist ideologies rather than state-funded attempts to promote feminism. When I interrogated the established German filmmaker Monika Treut about the transformation of women's film cultures in the next century, her answer was blunt: "The 70s until the mid 80s was a time in Germany when women's films had a (small) audience and received funding, Those times are over. Now 'women's films' is a 'dirty' word in Germany." Treut further explained that she regrets the current "trend towards the destruction of cinema culture," in particular the fact that movie theaters all over the world have stopped showing the format of 16 mm film and that most small art houses are caught up in an intricate struggle for survival. Treut's major feature films portraying women's sexual encounters, Seduction: The Cruel Lady (1985), and, The Virgin Machine (1988), were still funded by regional German grants and television corporations, but she has recently become more alerted to the fact that the 'post-cinema’ era is pushing her work underground. Obviously, like many filmmakers today, Treut feels that she will survive the new era and she professes that a new vital movement of underground cinema will rise out of the ashes of the nationally funded independent cinema of the 60s and 70s.

Following the film industry's global trend toward privatization, corporate ideologies and populist aesthetics, women filmmakers today have to strive towards the production of "big budget films" suitable for international audiences and the demands of the free market. However, in order to estimate the ‘status’ they receive once engaged in this endeavor, we should not only consider their (often painful and frustrating) advances in the film industry, but also their participation in a larger phenomenon called film 'culture.' Film culture includes the industry's production, distribution and exhibition mechanisms as well as he more diffuse and contradictory critical, educational, promotional, and activist discourses and commentaries which surround their works. Film culture includes practitioners and thinkers who criticize the increasing corporatization of the arts, and women filmmakers have been at the forefront of this enterprise. Whereas national film boards in countries such as Canada, Australia, and the USA have become more market driven and have severely cut down on the funding of independent filmmakers and feminist film organizations; women's activism, academic research and alternative practices are still a solid foundation for a vibrant film culture in the next century.

Sasha Waters, a young American filmmaker who is about to finish a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Temple University, believes that periods of consolidation in the mainstream media often provoke the most interesting and exciting work from the margins. For instance, the growth of the cable market in the 80s and the more recent wave of multi-media producers on the World Wide Web, revived a flagging interest in the possibilities of documentary production and distribution. Waters sees an obvious distinction between women filmmakers who work at the intersection of feminism and other political issues such as race (Tracey Moffatt, Coco Fusco), sexuality and gender (Julie Gustafson, Su Friedrich), and class-consciousness (Martha Rosler); and women who have established themselves within the dominant film industry such as Barbara Kopple. Waters wishes that those women who now have an unprecedented degree of editorial control in the commercial industry, would "push the envelope a bit further. "

Whereas those working in the commercial industry take a variety of ideological and pragmatic positions, independent filmmakers have to create new alliances with private corporations. Treut's short films,The Taboo Parlor, an erotica film documenting the adventures of a luscious pair of lipstick lesbians, was co-produced by a small Hollywood studio, Group I Films. The Taboo Parlor is part of a 90 minute production, Erotique (1993), which includes two other works by acknowledged women \ filmmakers, Lizzie Borden and Clara Law. Erotique targets an existing erotica sales market, yet also appeals to feminist audiences, blending aspects of Hollywood-style entertainment, arthouse cinema, documentary, and avant-garde,m into one. Erotique was released in major film festivals in Germany, Hong Kong, Brazil, USA; it played in Los Angeles movie theaters for six months and is now out on video. Treut testifies that it is unclear whether Erotique became an outright commercial success. What was obvious to her throughout the production process was the tension between the producers and directors. In her own words: "It was quite a nasty experience for the directors and the talent since the producers wanted to control everything " As a feminist production, Erotique highlights traits of female sexuality and material conditions of sexworkers, which the commercial erotica industry tends to veil.

In the article "Female Misbehaviour: the Cinema of Monika Treut," Julia Knight describes how Treut's feature films were often negatively received by mainstream audiences. After the opening of the Virgin Machine in Berlin, Helmut Schoedel, critic for Die Zeit, pronounced that films like Monika Treut's were destroying the cinema. The Virgin Machine does indeed disrespect the generic conventions of the feature film. It interrupts a stylized arthouse cinematography which is meant to reveal the protagonist's sexual awakening,with humorous documentary sequences, which feature the mundane advice of sexworkers such as Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle. According to Knight, Treut's negative reception is due the fact that most critical writing on the New German Cinema has focused on the contributions of male auteurs such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog. Although these directors use a radical film aesthetics and content, Treut's films border on taboo because they portray female protagonists who enjoy their sexual identities without fear of punishment or the need for containment within marriage.

Although topics of sexuality abound in the mass media, little progress has been made in the film and television industry's acceptance of women's and feminist perspectives on sexuality. Sasha Waters complains that HBO refuses to consider her documentary, Whipped (1996), a portrait of female s/m sexworkers, because it has to compete with the more sensationalized documentary Fetishes. Waters explains that Whipped was in many ways a response to a media environment that promotes images of women as Other : "My impression is that women who choose to work in the sex industry --especially educated, middle-class women who could have certainly have made more traditional career choices --is extremely threatening to people because it challenges the misconception of such women as marginalized 'freaks' with whom 'normal' people have nothing in common." In Whipped, Waters casts a new light on dominatrixes and shows the psychological and material complexities involved in their domestic and professional lives. For example, Whipped shows in detail how mistress Carrie combines marriage and pregnancy with daily sessions and club-life in her dungeon. Broomfield’s documentary Fetishes ignores the motivated choices of independent women and sexworkers and zooms in on the sensational aspects of their s/m rituals.

Another case of neglect and censorship of women's sexuality portraits is narrated by Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies, New York City. Zimmerman explains that in 1997 members of Congress and The American Family Association started a campaign against WMM for its promotion of 'offensive' and 'pornographic' films. The campaign was part of a larger attempt to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, which was one of WMM's sponsors. The result of the 1997 re-authorization hearings was that the NEA did get funded again by Congress, but WMM lost their NEA grant. This development was not entirely new to Zimmerman, who entered the company fifteen years ago when WMM was "falling apart," having just been defunded by Congress in the Ronald Reagan era. Zimmerman decided that WMM should survive independently of government funding, as a non-commercial, non-profit organization. While WMM now operates with a million dollar budget, primarily established through the successful rental and selling of tapes, only $40.000 of the budget comes from state funding. Zimmerman explains that the company is economically sound, yet she does regret that there is a right-wing backlash as WMM becomes more visible through their bulky and illustrated catalogue.

One of the images under severe attack during the NEA hearings, was a promotion picture for the shortfilm Unbound (1994) showing a woman touching her breasts. This film is a docudramamade by Claudio Escanilla, in which sixteen women of different nationalities, races and ideologies free themselves from societal definitions , stereotypes -and the prison of the bra. In the act of unbinding, they speak directly to the camera with humor and insight about the significance of their breasts in their lives and diverse cultures. According to Zimmerman, the picture caused a stir because it shows a woman in control of her own body, and it would have gone unnoticed if the hands on the breasts were male hands. Zimmerman concludes that women's films on the body and sexuality have not been properly received by the American government, yet Women Make Movies continues successfully renting and selling alternative short films made by women to individuals and institutions. Zimmerman comments that documentary has been a very important place of intersection for feminism and filmmaking: "In the 60s, the feminist movement met with women who wanted to create images that were different to images created by the mass media." Zimmerman explains that feminist documentaries started to deconstruct the filmmaking apparatus in order to personalize and politicize the film text, but that they have not always received due credit for this contribution.

Canadian film scholar Kay Armatage explains the transformation a national women's cinema in Canada. During the first decades after World War II, films made by Canadian women such as Laura Boulton, Jane Marsh, and Margaret Perry became part of the Canadian collective unconscious. Their film were distributed for free by the National Film Board and there were outlets in every town in the country as well as through the schoolboards. Although Canada had the largest number of women working in film compared with any other country, they were largely concentrated in "gynocentric" areas such as independent documentary, avant-garde (what Armatage calls "the short-film ghetto"), and children's TV programming. Asked in an interview if women's film cultures still pervade the national unconscious today, Armatage explains that the formation of the Canadian unconscious is now mainly constituted through American pop culture, rather than any type of national feminism.

In her article "Skirting the Issues: Popular Culture and Canadian Women's Cinema," Armatage outlines how the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the USA destroyed a vibrant national film culture of the 70s, which included the National Film Board's Studio D or "the women's studio": "The affirmation of Canadian national culture of the 1970s had by the late 1980s reached the zenith." Armatage sees a parallel development in feminist film theory and criticism, which is now turning to commercial cinema and broadcast television as its principal objects of study. Even though Armatage bemoans the overall Americanization of Canadian film cultures, her article also emphasizes the fact that the reconstitution of national borders through the global economy has made Canadians more sensitive to the fact that Canada consists of different ethnic cultures with competing sets of values.

In this regard, it is important to recognize a new movement of indigenous filmmakers and cross-cultural women filmmakers whose work often contains a critique of the nation-state as a coherent ideological unit. Professor Gina Marchetti, visiting senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, mentions the significance of Asian-American women filmmakers such as Christina Choy ... all of whom are not yet represented in this anthology. The cross-cultural or migrant wave of filmmakers provide us with a new feminist perspectives which linger between non-western and western values. Clara Law for instance, is an acclaimed filmmaker from Hong Kong who now lives and works in Melbourne, Australia. Her first Australian feature film Floating Life (1996) presents a portrait of suburban life in Australia from the Asian minority's point of view. Upon arrival in a sterile Sydney suburb, the family is as much bothered by the discomfort of flimsy walls and poor public transportation, as the more mythic Australian dangers of sunburn, spiders, and wasps. Critics have noted in Floating Life a striking contrast in lighting and cinematography between the Hong Kong and Sydney scenes. Chris Berry writes: "In Australia, everything is bleached out in a brilliant rendering of the mix of light bleu, light green, and white in a flat, endless landscape that is so striking to the new migrant." Berry admires the contemplative and melancholic tone of the movie, knowing that most Australian directors are currently being pushed towards more mainstream arthouse formulas such as melodrama and quirky comedy. Finally, Berry views Law's treatment of migration a timely contribution to Australia's overly white screens which are "still populated by blond, blue-eyed surfers and beer-swilling ockers. So far, no one has been able to break that mould and find audience acceptance."

A good promotion and distribution venue for upcoming cross-cultural filmmakers would be non-profit organizations such as Women Make Movies. Debra Zimmernan believes that the disappearance and/or commercialization of state-funded mechanisms such as Studio D in Canada or Channel Four in Great-Britain, has caused a crisis in the American feminist film community, yet more and more work is being produced includes works by ethnic minorities. On the one hand, fewer films are produced by established American avant-garde filmmakers such as Sue Friedrich and Yvonne Rainer, who were previously funded by such state institutions as National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council for the Arts and private foundations. On the other hand, Women Make Movies receives increasingly more submissions from diverse young filmmakers who work at the edges of existing film industries.

Zimmerman describes the plight of contemporary women filmmakers as a huge mountain to be climbed, where plenty of energy and diversity constitutes the early stages, yet the journey is harder to sustain in the higher regions. A good indication of how difficult this journey would be, is the fact that few women directors are programming women's films in major filmfestivals around the world. And yet, as Zimmerman explains in a post-scriptum to our interview, as women are underrepresented in major festivals in the west, there is an exciting new development towards women's film festivals in non-western regions such as Djakarta, Seoul, andTaipei.

This note of optimism is shared by Dr. Gina Marchetti, whom I asked to comment on the status of Asian women filmmakers as compared to the situation in the west. Her reply is simple and forthcoming: "They have done much better all around." Marchetti describes a vibrant tradition of women filmmakers in Hong Kong and Mainland China, and adds that the average western spectator might not be aware of this culture because western distributors have undervalued those films, or focused mostly on work by men. Marchetti mentions a number of impressive Chinese films which deal with women's memories of the cultural revolution such as Sacrified Youth (1985) by Zhang Nuanxin. Sacrified Youth documents differences between the sexual lives of Thai and Chinese cultures in a small Chinese bordertown. The female protagonist Li Chun reexamines her rigid Han upbringing and adopts spontaneous Dai ways of living while working among minority peasants. In the article "Is China the End of Hermeneutics," Esther Yau explains that mainland Chinese films sought the magical power of minority cultures in the process of recovering from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. Li Chun's entrance into the realm of the "minority other" makes possible an internal renewal. Marchetti does not omit to say that China's rich heritage of women filmmakers and 'women's films' within the genre of melodrama has undergone a crisis after the Tiananmen events of 1989. There are more government restrictions on the film content, and the government has a colder attitude towards the arts as it equally hopes to privatize the film industry.

Despite such chnages in the global economy and funding the film industry, new "open" venues are being established which enable the renting and bying of women's tapes. New efforts have been made by distributors to promote and sell women's works through the Internet and home video distribution. Some of the major distributors of women's works such as Cinemien (Amsterdam), Video Out (Vancouver), Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (Toronto) , PopcornQ (San Francisco), and Frameline (San Francisco), have made catalogues available on the Internet and enable institutions and private individuals to rent and/or purchase videos. This new virtual channel of distribution and exchange might eventually contribute to the disappearance of small art house and collective feminist filmcultures, yet it allows individual consumers and institutions to become immersed in a variety of commercial and alternative productions, as well as discussion groups and new virtual communities. Internet distribution and communication does offer a valid alternative to an older established notion of film culture. The critical reception of women's films has been enriched by a refreshing new wave of communication in academic and non-academic Internet circles.


The Feminine Text

In writing a history of women's film cultures in the late 20th century and highlighting the works of great filmmakers such as Marleen Gorris, Lizzie Borden, Sasha Waters, Mira Kuratowa, Clara Law, Zhang Nuanxin, Monika Treut, and many others, how we look beyond their circulation in diverse national or international cultural environments? Despite the enormous differences between the different filmmakers, women's films have been able to live a full epoch of aesthetic and ideological symbiosis with academic theory and feminist movements, and thus we can see some instances of fruitful interaction between feminist film theory and practice. Filmmakers today are apt to experiment with an 'aestethics of femininity,' formulated by early French theorists such as Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, and later successfully applied to film analysis by theorists such as Annette Kuhn, Laura Mulvey, and Constance Penley.

In her study Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema Kuhn defines the 'feminine film text' as one highly conscious and disrespective of illusionistic viewing strategies and gendered pleasures embedded in the dominant cinema. Even if the feminine text as a theoretical model never materialized into a massive culture, it did become in some instances a powerful counterculture. It became a powerful tool in deconstructing the national subconscious as a masculine construct in countries undergoing radical political change.

Filmmakers such as Sasha Waters and Monika Treut are indebted to feminist filmmakers of the 60s and 70s who used a wide variety of visual and performance strategies to attack systems of representation in film and theater establishment. In this respect it is of utmost importance to mention te significance of the film and video work of Carolee Schneemann, whose carnal erotic rituals were guided by bodily types of 'interior knowledge' and theoretical formulations of feminine textuality. Although Schneemann is mostly know for performance pieces such as Meat Joy, Eye Body, Interior Scroll, and Up to and Including her Limits, she also produced the famous feminist experimental film Fuses (1964-1968). This film documents her sex life with a camera installed in the bedroom, yet Schneeman used the actual fim print to modify and manipulate the imagery by means of scratching, coloring, double exposure, and repetitive montage sequencing. On the one hand, the raw bodily energy and performance art are transfered into the film. On the other hand, the tactility of the film strip is used to veil and comment on commercial porn images and the 'masculine' viewing strategies which they impose on the audience.

Another example of feminine text as counter-cinema, would be the work of the Soviet filmmaker Kira Muratowa. Muratova's work was banned until 1986 and came to represent the former Soviet Union's attempt at unshelving censored materials, or what Horton and Brashinsky call "shelf-knowledge." Muratova's use of profanity and male frontal nudity in the 'Glasnost' film The Weakness Syndrome (1990) were the official reasons for state censorship, yet one can also easily detect in this film a critique of state institutions which are associated with male weakness.

In The Zero Hour: Glasnost and Soviet Cinema in Transition Horton and Brashinsky emphasize Muratowa's steady camera which casts complex women characters in such way that it "allows us the opportunity to study a woman in conflict in much more details than traditional (male-directed) narrative films." Approaching the film from the perspective of gender, Horton and Brashinskly see its as a strong emotional tale which shows a female doctor Natasha on the verge of a nervous breakdown caused initially by the death of her husband. They note the contrast between the strong emotional world of Natasha, which comes to represent the spritual turmoil of a disintegrating Soviet Union, and the sleeping universe of the male protagonist Nikolai. The blurring of fiction and non-fiction, the choking of cause-effect relationships in the narrative development, the refusal to subscribe to a sense of closure, these devices can be seen as instances of a feminist aesthetics, as defined by Kuhn et.al.

Muratova's cinematography supports the pain and confusion of the female character, as well as the open tide of glasnost: " Such a state of "unfinalizedness" is hopeful for future Soviet films by and about women. Whether they admit it or not, Soviet filmmakers are beginning to share a feminist viewpoint." Natasha's sufferings after her husband's death and her fits of anger towards public strangers, the entire feminine interior experience is carefully staged in slow and repetitive movements and dysfunctional monologue/dialogue sequences. A typical scene which illustrates feminist cinematography would be Natasha's return to the hospital, where she walks around and taps the floor loudly and nervously. Natasha's walk imitates and critiques, the female professional on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and her alienation from this particular role is also emphasized by the non-diegetic sound-track, which alternates her tapping heels with silences and a bombastic symphony reminiscent of marching bands and national parades. A proliferation of Russian dialects in the dialogue sequences adds to the polyphonous character of the film. After the stylized black-and white sequence surrounding the protagonist’s break-down, the film shows a color documentary sequences of a public presentation of the film and the actress in front of a disgruntled audience. The film then moves to shows disturbing shots of crowded metro stations and people trampling on each other in an attempt to buy food. The Sleeping Syndrome takes the audience into such a variety of scenes and genres that illicits a numbrer of different responses about the changing sate of the protagonists and their country in shambles.

A more peaceful epic film which uses feminist aesthetics is Marleen Gorris's widely acclaimed film Antonia's Line which received the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1996. Antonia's Line is a heart-warming epic tale of female heroism, featuring mother Antonia, the lesbian daughter/artist Danielle, the genius philosophy/musician granddaughter Therese, and the tomboy great-granddaughter Sarah. The film thrives on a romantic-nostalgic cinematography and a grand narrative of women's liberation which casts small town reproduction in terms of female, rather than male, sexual practices and attitudes. Although Antonia's Line has a definite Dutch-Flemish flavor to it, as is apparent in the beautifully delivered voice-over rural and scenery, its is a film suitable for international audiences which will have an affect on mainstream perceptions of the 'feminist film.

Antonia's genetic make-up or reproductive "line" plays a crucial role in the narrative development of the film, yet the film also demonstrates inventive models of non-reproductive sexuality and eroticism in same sex and post-menopausal relationships. This is probably the reason why the film was still denounced by a considerable number of male critics as being too blatantly "feminist," containing "ditch-the-dudes hostility" or "too many direct attacks on men's crotches." Such hostile reactions to a mainstrean and feel-good feminist film show that Antonia's Line is still a tour de force for the Hollywood imagination. The film can now be praised as a subtle artistic product which retains its feminist values and innovative cinematography, yet manages to penetrate the distribution lines of the global market and film industry.

To end this essay, it is worth mentioning that scholarship on women filmmakers is increasingly carried out in audiovisual formats such as video, CD-Rom and websites. Women Make Movies distributes a special collection of recent documentaries about women filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blanche, Julie Dash (USA), Maya Deren (USA), Matilda Landeta (Mexico), and Joyce Wieland (Canada). Audio-visual types of scholarship allow the integration of film sequences into the film texts. As avant-garde filmmakers such as Wieland tend to work in a variety of artistic mediums, film can be used to document and enhance the process of assemblage and integration. Audio-visual resarch also allows the coexistence of several film directors (the documentary maker and the subject) in one work of art. Documentaries about women filmmakers redirects our focus on the history and theory of women filmmakers to larger media literate audiences and help us understand of the unique sensibility and of their film texts.

Special thanks to those who participated in the email and phone interviewing sessions: Kay Armatage, Monika Treut, Holly Dale and Janis Cole, Gina Marchetti, Debra Zimmerman, Sasha Waters, John Fuegi. This essay covers a wide range of contemporary women filmmakers, all of whom are not necessarily represented in the anthology. For their support and contributions, I would also like to thank Laura McGough, Ned Rossiter, Jo Law, Kate Kirtz, Nina and Grisha,Laura Hudson, Jeff Crawford, and Maija Martin


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