“Is This my Life?” Part Two: Discovering Anne Charlotte Robertson through the Harvard Film Archive

Brett Kashmere continues his riveting account of the life and work of Anne Charlotte Robertson.  Part One summarised the results of his retrospective study, the character of the person and the work.  Now, in Part Two, he considers further the steps involved in retrospective archival work and the challenges facing exhibition of fragile material. Finally, he reflects on the way in which historical study can demand revised perspectives on established theoretical or methodological frameworks.

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Figures 3 and 4. Anne Charlotte Robertson, cover and first page of school report titled, “Is This my Life?” From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University, box CC 13R24, “Papers – Diary 1961-1968.” Photos: Brett Kashmere.

In 2012, following Robertson’s passing, the artist’s films, audiotapes, photographs, and some papers, including the rights, were bequeathed to Harvard Film Archive (HFA). The gift was arranged through the help of Robertson’s friend and small gauge film preservationist Toni Treadway, of Brodsky & Treadway.[i] This donation has numerous relevancies to media historians. For one, Robertson’s films are not available through any other source. Nor are they very well known. Given the brittleness and camera-original singularity of Super 8 reversal, and the multi-reel, multi-system nature of Robertson’s projects, which combined sound-on-film, sound-on-tape, and live improvised narration, these films present an unusual set of complications for programmers, which has contributed to their disappearance from public view. Fortunately, the HFA is currently undertaking a project to preserve the entirety of Robertson’s work to both 16mm film and digital formats. Approximately half of her most renowned (if only read about or partially seen) film, Five Year Diary has now been digitized but work remains to be done with the accompanying audio for some reels. According to Harvard’s Film Conservator Liz Coffey, these films should be ready by May 2018. The date of completion for the remainder of the Diary’s restoration is not yet known. Most of Robertson’s standalone shorter works, numbering more than 30, have been digitized at this point. Many of these films and parts of the Diary have begun screening again, including at the 2015 Viennale, 2015 Rotterdam, and 2017 Toronto International Film Festivals, and Documenta 14.

A unique part of HFA’s Robertson collection is the extensive written materials contained within, including hand- and typewritten diaries that trace back to Robertson’s childhood.[ii] The diaries, organized chronologically into binders by the artist, provide countless new avenues and potential insights into Robertson’s development and process as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker; and map her transition from (private) diary writing to (public) personal documentary filmmaking. What new understandings might arise about Robertson’s transition from writing into filmmaking and the development of her unique diary film style, as well as the social and cultural forces and discourses that helped shape it, through a careful reading of these and other papers? Although the question exceeds the scope of this article my hope is that it animates future research.

Figure 5. Handmade MassArt screening flier. From Harvard Film Archive, Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection.

Drawing Conclusions

Considering the Diary’s cultural formation, its modes of authorship and performance, and its expanded multi-media configuration in relation to its exhibition and reception, my analysis repositions Robertson’s work as an essential contribution to the histories of feminist media and experimental film. It is one that interrogates and can still trouble traditional gender conventions and mainstream representations of femininity and is thus inextricable from the greater movement of challenge enacted by second wave feminism. Her story is missing from this history. Similarly, her daily filmmaking practice provided a bold revision of the diary form. Her work is missing from this history as well.

To better recognize and appreciate Robertson’s unique contributions, I propose a more permeable, interdisciplinary framework. Five Year Diary’s forms and content, for instance, suggest relationships to the psychological, sexually charged animation of Mary Beams, Lisa Crafts, and Suzan Pitt,[iii] all of whom worked at Harvard in the 1970s, rather than with male personal documentarists like Ed Pincus and Ross McElwee. The fact that Robertson hasn’t been addressed alongside any of them in histories of experimental media and first-person cinema reveals a lack of imagination in thinking across categories. Bracketing animation from live action film, video, and performance, or separating avant-garde from documentary, siloes and thereby diminishes the thematic and conceptual cross-genre resonances between these different modes of coterminous creative practice. This was especially harmful for those working outside the major centers at the time, where critical attention was more limited.

Finally, with respect to exhibition: Robertson preferred that Diary be presented in a continuous marathon fashion, accompanied by improvised narration, performance, sound on tape, and furniture and other items from her home, such as photo albums and favorite books. As the project grew in length this created obvious logistical challenges; limiting the venues it could be screened at. “Complete” versions have rarely been shown and early video transfers of select reels were of lackluster quality. Balancing access and screening opportunities against care for her fragile camera original material, and without the financial means to create prints or pristine transfers made distribution challenging and was a barrier to art world acceptance. Throughout her lifetime, Robertson self-distributed her films out of necessity, which partially explains why her work hasn’t been collected by museums. The nature of her chosen medium in combination with environmental considerations and requirements limited how and how often Robertson’s work would be seen. When you consider the content – “super-confrontational Super 8 psychodramas… borderline funny…” – the material hurdles made it easier for cultural influencers like curators and critics to bypass the work entirely.

Robertson’s exclusion from a book focused on and around personal documentary and ethnographic filmmaking in Boston and Cambridge, near to where she grew up, studied, and worked for most of her life, is symbolic of how small-gauge, women, and feminist filmmakers are regularly neglected or footnoted. The paucity of writing on Robertson’s work provokes many questions, not least a failure to find a context due to its multi-faceted quality: feminist, avant-garde and personal. Did it fail to satisfy ‘purist’ perspectives of each category? And what are the consequences of her omission from conventional film histories? Robertson’s own description of her Super 8 opus elucidates some of the factors that have dictated its absence while at the same time identifying the lack it potentially fulfills:

I am a 50-year-old woman, single, with a vow to poverty. The title Five Year Diary refers to the little blank books with locks and keys, that allow only a few lines to each day’s notation; the audience is invited to be my brother and sister, and see what a life can yield. My present and future hope is to leave a full record of a woman in the 20th century.[iv]

This is Part Two of Brett Kashmere’s contribution on Anne Charlotte Robertson: Part One can be found here. 

Brett Kashmere is a media artist, historian, and curator living in Oakland, California. His writing on experimental cinema, moving image art, and alternative film exhibition has appeared in Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Senses of Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, The Films of Jack Chambers, and Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable. Kashmere is currently a doctoral student in Film + Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also the founding editor of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.


Special thanks to Jeremy Rossen for his assistance in researching this article, and to Yulia Gilichinskaya, Rona Murray, Elana Santana, Dorothy R. Santos, and Shelley Stamp for their helpful comments and suggestions.

[i]  A few of the films, by stipulation of Robertson’s will, are not available for viewing until 2023.

[ii] Although the papers have not been processed yet, they’re currently available to Harvard faculty, students, and outside researchers for on-site consultation. The papers and photographs constitute 19 boxes of material.

[iii] Thanks to Herb Shellenberger for bringing this point to my attention.

[iv] Anne Charlotte Robertson, “Five Year Diary,” artistic statement, in The Five Year Diary: Anne Charlotte Robertson, edited by Benjamin Cook and Barbara Rodriguez-Munoz (London: LUX, 2014), 18.