A programme of classic feminist/punk/experimental films from the 1970s and 1980s curated by Rachel Garfield to accompany her new book Experimental Filmmaking and Punk: Feminist Audio Visual Culture in the 1970s and 1980s, Bloomsbury, 2021
Experimental Filmmaking and Punk aims to analyze and situate the aesthetic and intellectual ambition of a range of women filmmakers operating during the 1970s and 1980s with punk as a contextualizing scaffold. The aspiration that musicians such as Poly Styrene and The Slits portrayed has a legacy and influence in the attitude of these filmmakers that it is timely to address and that moments, such as the Top of The Pops debut of Poly Styrene, marked the emergence of a new female subjectivity that was picked up and followed through by these filmmakers. The ground had been prepared by second wave feminism but punk delivered a strident visual example of what could be possible and an alternative way forward outside the serious earnestness of the political realm. These women did not necessarily identify as feminist, certainly the punks often did not at the time. Nonetheless, the punk of women such as Poly Styrene with her retro clothes of clashing colours, her shouty voice and artlessly enthusiastic dance was an affirmative negation of the normative modes of femininity. Where femininity demanded grace and beauty punk was a celebration of its failure. Such erstwhile versions of femininity were ditched in favour of an awkward female youth as a lived relationship with the world using an aggressive camp as cipher against middlebrow expectations of what it was to be a woman.
This is about a tendency within filmmaking that eschews the model of certain kinds of virtuosity of form as the key indication of a good film. Within the technology-based forms of art, technical expertise/skill is a contested site of production that goes to the heart of what the role of an artist is. The materiality of the technology has also been an important focus in avant garde film. Instead the work is grounded in experience and questions of provisionality: of subjectivity, of placehood and status. The commonalities of the works documented in this book are constituted through the connections between a fragmented visuality and the absence of certainty or entitlement: this work offers its own virtuosity but one that confounds the normative signs of it. In the historical moment the idea of a female subjectivity emerged as a vital and valid form of practice. Out of the formalist and minimalist paradigms of their emergence – these filmmakers were focusing on a range of approaches and entry points for the viewer that encompasses the impact of second wave feminism or its detractions; the importance of Dada and the Weimar Republic; the development of multiculturalism; collage and the fragment within feminist art.
Staten Island, Vivienne Dick (1978, 5 min)
A low budget sci-fi short, where an androgynous alien, played by Pat Place, emerges from the sea to sift through rubbish on a beach. This film was originally intended to be part of a longer collaborative work to be made by a group of women called Les Guérilléres – after the radical feminist book of the same name by Monique Wittig.
Baby Doll, Tessa Hughes Freeland (1982, 5 min)
Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s “Baby Doll” is a tiny slice of cinéma vérité from 1982 about the girls working the now defunct Baby Doll Lounge on Church and White St. in downtown Manhattan. It captures a moment before NYC got sanitized.
Marasmus, Betzy Bromberg (1978, 24 min)
Made in collaboration with Laura Ewig .
A womans response to technology/the jet-lag of birth. – B.B .
‘Although the title refers to a condition of acute malnutrition in which a child is unable to assimilate food, the film is a robust and sumptuous offering. This is no rough edged, craft resistant effort. Rather it is infused with a seductive glamour’ , – Janis Crystal Lipzin , Artweek .
Rootless Cosmopolitans, Ruth Novaczek (1990, 13min)
Estelle and Lily are two Jewish women for whom keeping a kosher home and marrying a nice Jewish boy are not on the agenda. Alienated from themselves and wondering why ‘it isn’t exactly trendy to be Jewish’, Estelle and Lily meet each other and explore their Jewishness. They explore the stories of a mother and daughter in fifties Britain, a refugee from Vienna, and Israeli Iranian storyteller, a neurotic father, a Trinidadian woman, and finally the two women end up on a roof looking at Israel. Rootless Cosmopolitans mixes music, family and food to take a wry look at the myth of the Jewish princess and asks ‘What is a Jew?’
Corridors, Anne Robinson (1985, 21 min)
Meditations on love, work, money and fear, moving in and out of consciousness in saturated colour. This is a 2015 digital version of an installation made with Super-8 Film, U-Matic Video and Silkscreen Prints.
She Said, Susan Stein (1983, 27 min)
She Said explores the theme of women and work, using the formal properties of film to reflect on the overlap between work and free time. The film begins with a series of old and contemporary photographs, cut to a rhythm, which echoes that of monotony. A fragmented dialogue creates a feeling of alienation and lack of control (often identified with the labour process), interrupting further sequences of live action and images. “Feeling strongly that women’s work is continuous, I realised that the film work could only be seen after work or in moments of non-work which I hesitate to call leisure. With this in mind I tried to bring this contradiction to the surface within the film itself”’ (Susan Stein)
Mercy, Abigail Child (1989, 10 min)
Child masterfully composes a rhythmic collage of symmetries and asymmetries in a fluid essay that forefronts the treatment of the body as a mechanized instrument — placing the body in relation to the man-made landscape of factories, amusement parks and urban office complexes. Vocals performed by Shelley Hirsch.
Eerie, Sandra Lahire (1991, 1 min)
Eerie is a vertiginous short film with the rhythmic quality of a loop or a magic ride on a Ferris wheel. The protagonists are two lovers in a cable car, high above the slopes of Mount Pilates. Exuding 1920s Berlin lesbian decadence, the film features in-camera dissolves inspired by German expressionist filmmaking. Sandra Lahire (1950-2001) was a central figure in the experimental feminist filmmaking that emerged in the UK in the 1980s.