Losing Ground?

Restorations, Re-Releases and Erasure

by Sophie Mayer

In a comprehensive survey of the current situation for women’s film exhibition and distribution, Sophie Mayer, the author of Political Animals (2014), questions whether the lessons of history are truly being learned.

We live in exciting times. In February 2016, Anthology Film Archives premiered a 35 mm preservation print of Lizzie Borden’s legendary feminist science fiction film Born in Flames (1983), a pristine restoration from a damaged original 16 mm internegative. Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1997) celebrated its 20th anniversary with a restoration by the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, which premiered at the Berlinale. In April 2016, the BFI will screen Agnieszka Holland’s previously-banned feature A Woman Alone (1981), as part of a retrospective of Holland’s five-decade career in film and television. The BFI’s 2015 Vera Chytilová retrospective was followed by the release of her early films ‘A Bag of Fleas’ (1962) and Something Different (1963) on DVD by Second Run. Something different indeed seems to be in the air.

2015 also saw retrospective and restored screenings of films by Dorothy Arzner at UCLA,Chytilova DVD funded by Jodie Foster; of Jessie Maple’s Will (1981) at the Lincoln Center and MOMA, one of the most recent projects funded by NYWIFT’s Women’s Film Preservation Fund; and the one-week theatrical premiere of Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground (1982). Collins’ film will be released on DVD by Milestone Films, and will screen at the BFI as part of the brand-new Woman With a Movie Camera monthly strand.

So why does it still feel as if we, as feminist film viewers, filmmakers and film scholars are losing ground? For one thing: look at the date on many of the films being restored and re-released. Apart from Arzner’s films, they are all post-WWII, and many are from the 1980s and 1990s, and in several cases there’s no news on DVD releases. Consider also the ethnicity of several filmmakers: Maple’s and Collins’ films, like Dunye’s, are part of a history of African-American independent cinema that has been ignored and erased. With Women Make Movies’ release of Julie Dash’s Illusions (1983) on DVD in 2014, and a restoration of Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) rumoured for Cannes 2016, this necessary cinema is re-entering film spectatorship.

Previously, it was the preserve of film scholarship and its readers: Annette Kuhn writes movingly about Claudia Weill’s feature Girlfriends (1978) in Women’s Pictures (first published in 1982), but it was lost from view in the UK until screened at the Birds Eye View p54537_d_v7_aaFilm Festival 2014. It was followed by the Vimeo release of Year of the Woman (Sandra Hochman, 1973), the documentary on which Weill got her first filmmaking credit. Rebecca Traister’s Huffington Post review brought the film to a wide audience, more than forty years after it was made and first screened. With a growing number of feminist film curators at work in the UK – Club des Femmes screened Hochman’s film shortly before its Vimeo release, the Independent Cinema Office toured Josephine Decker’s films, Bechdel Test Fest gave Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014) the big-screen release it deserved, and the Overnight Film Festival has just screened Wildwood, N.J. (Ruth Leitman, Carol Weaks Cassidy, 1994) – there are increasing opportunities to view the films that we could only previously read about.

But these events are one-offs, and dependent on geographical and economic access. It matters that Second Run extended the Chytilová retrospective to those who couldn’t get to London, and it matters, conversely, that the Criterion Collection currently boasts an execrable release record. Only 21 of its 798 single-disc titles are directed or co-directed by a woman: that’s 2.6%. Second Run boast 12%, and Strand Releasing 21%, the best archive lists in the UK and US respectively. Criterion do better with their Eclipse box set series: Chantal Akerman’s New York films, Agnès Varda’s California films (including her banned Black Panthers documentary), and Larisa Shepitko’s films. 3 box sets out of 44:Shepitko DVD 7%, in line with the standard figure for female filmmakers’ participation in the US industry. If Eclipse is meant to represent lost, forgotten or overshadowed classics, it’s not doing a terribly good job given how much of women’s cinema has been, exactly, lost, forgotten, or overshadowed.

Despite the fervid restoration activity, Milestone had to crowdfund to release Shirley Clarke’s films on DVD. The BFI has yet to follow up its excellent restorations of Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath (1972) and Anti-Clock (1979), Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s The Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)/Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons (1974) and Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983)/Thriller (1979), as well as their Molly Dineen box set, with more investment in the archive of British women’s cinema. Pratibha Parmar’s films, for example, are an essential part of feminist and LGBTQ film literature – but can’t be viewed, except via two surviving feminist film distributors: Women Make Movies in the US, and Cinenova, whose excellent, pay what you can, digital cinematheque at the Showroom Gallery is a huge boon, but only for those in London.

As I was writing Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, I became horribly conscious of how few films from my own feminist formation were available on DVD – and grateful, for example, to Peccadillo Pictures for releasing the Sichel Sisters’ All Over Me (1997) in 2009. This bodes poorly for the sustainable survival of the current global wave of feminist film that I discuss in the book; already Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014) and The Falling (Carol Morley, 2014) have been released on Region 2 DVDs whose packaging doesn’t feature the filmmaker’s names. The cycle of erasure persists – we need to intervene before rediscovery and restoration are needed, however exciting they may be.

Sophie Mayer is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (2009). She is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound and The F-Word, and a member of queer feminist curators Club des Femmes and industry campaigners Raising Films.

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