The Twitterverse: #dwfth4 from a distance.

Dear @wfthn and @callingtheshots

What does #dwfth4 look like, viewed from a distance, via its tweets? Collated out of the Twitter feed from the inspirational conference at Southampton University, organized by the @callingtheshots team, here is the image – our #dwfth4 group photo/temporary planet (via wordcloud).

A little background about the process to create this picture:

  • all the tweets and e-mails were cut and pasted into a document;
  • all names of delegates were removed (with apologies for any editor error), to honour the general rule that we are not a star system but a collective;
  • a dispensation to ‘repealthe8th’ in tweets was given, to acknowledge the conference’s support of that important, contemporaneous event;
  • less willingly, all directors’ names, were removed, to allow the shared vocabulary to prevail. Some painful surgery was, therefore, necessary on Lotte (5) and Reiniger (4), as well as Craigie (4) and Winona (2);
  • that said, Weinstein stays in, since this writer trusts it will become a historical marker, as in pre- and post-;
  • ‘canapés’ was underused (1) but should be recognised as the official kitemark of a good conference.

Please feel free to print and pin for a happy reminder.  If you’ve no such time, let us point out  a few highlights and enjoyable associations:

  • ‘tomorrow’ is visible;
  • The words ‘working’ (LHS) and ‘looking’ (RHS) are prominent, and balanced;
  • ‘pretty ignored’ has formed itself into a useful phrase (towards the base);
  • ‘pioneering’ and ‘old’ are nestling together between the ‘e’ and ‘n’ of women.

Of course, you might see others – please feel free to share via a tweet or two @wfthn.  Overall, in amongst our discursive tentpoles: women, history, feminist, film, tv and research: we have an expanding collective vocabulary – virtually and in person –  to take us forward.

@wfthn looks forward to supporting #dwfth5 – coming soon…….

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Feature: New Publication: ‘Women do Genre in Film and Television’

Katarzyna Paszkiewicz gives an exclusive insight into the evolution of her new publication, co-edited with Mary Harrod, which develops key theoretical questions in relation to women and genre.  Dealing with work across film and television, including new digital media forms, it asks what women can do with genre from a very contemporary perspective.  As we go forward to our next conference, Katarzyna’s is a stimulating and ideally-timed account, exploring the book’s roots in Doing Women’s Film and Television History II in 2014.

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women do genre

The collection Women Do Genre in Film and Television (2017), which I co-edited with Mary Harrod, bears the traces of many encounters. Perhaps the most significant was the opportunity to participate in a growing network of feminist film scholars and activists – Women’s Film and Television History Network–UK/Ireland and Women & Film History International – as well as the inspiring Doing Women’s Film and Television History conferences. These important initiatives have opened up space for fresh and challenging perspectives on the influential contributions of women filmmakers, whose labour and creative input have often been overlooked, discarded, or simply erased from empirical histories and critical perspectives.

The idea for this book arose directly from the DWFTH panel on authorship and genre, held at the University of East Anglia in April 2014, at which we, its editors, spoke alongside Deborah Jermyn. All of the three papers in the panel emphasized the ongoing erosion of women’s contributions from screen, and in particular, genre histories: Jermyn scrutinized the massive body of criticism against Nancy Meyers, acutely gendered in nature, pointing not only to the usual scorn for the ‘women’s genre’ of the romcom and for the female audiences that enjoy it, but also for Meyers as a woman director. My paper further complicated the figure of ‘the wrong kind of woman filmmaker’, as Jermyn astutely put it. Through references to a genre codified as male (a horror film), I focused on methodological problems that beset thinking about women filmmakers as ‘subverters’ of genre paradigms, while acknowledging the productive potential of repetition in women’s skilful interpretations of Hollywood’s genres. Mary Harrod then addressed a broader spectrum of women filmmakers working in genre. In particular, she focussed on their mobilization of pastiche and what she calls ‘heightened genericity’ – a tactical pairing of narratives designed to elicit affect with extreme referentiality, which she argued is particularly prevalent in female-authored films; this pairing further dislocates the assumptions about the male/female generic divisions.

Noting the tendency in Feminist Film Studies to privilege and/or recover only particular female directors, the methodological complexities of which we explore in the book, it was the ambition of our anthology to examine and to rethink women’s film practice as an encounter between different cultural and aesthetic practices. Building on the understanding of genre not as a limitation, but a condition of creative imagining and cultural engagement, the volume set out to address women’s significant contribution to popular cinema, from the romcom and horror cinema, to the Western, superhero film, comedy and the biopic. As we explained in the introduction, it was intended partly as a provocative act of recuperation, reinscribing women within genre histories from which they have been typically excluded, thus responding to Jane Gaines’ observation in Christine Gledhill’s seminal volume Gender Meets Genre in Postwar Cinemas on the historically revisionist value of championing women as generic innovators (2012: 17). We sought to encourage contributors to give genre priority and to depart from generic analyses that have typically privileged the paradigm of subversion as a way to valorise texts.

As we argued then and still believe now, the discussion of the intersection of gendered authorship and genre has become an increasingly pressing conversation in academia, not least because of the notorious obstacles that exist for women to accede to positions of power as creative artists in the commercial media-sphere. These obstacles are evidenced again by the recent scandal surrounding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, an example of how power imbalances lead to abuse, generating vigorous opposition through campaigns such as ‘Time’s Up’, ‘Me Too’ or the recent Golden Globes protest. However, alongside these newsworthy events, women’s greater discursive visibility in audiovisual industries, specifically on mainstream turf traditionally seen as masculine, may be equally important in the long-term story of change. In the last decade we have witnessed an increasingly visible embrace by female practitioners of genre production in both film and television, as emblematised by Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award for The Hurt Locker in 2010 or Sofia Coppola’s more recent Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for what she considers to be her first properly genre-based film, Southern Gothic thriller The Beguiled. Soon after work on this collection was completed, Wonder Woman (2017) – the first superhero DC Comic film directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins – has officially become the highest grossing live-action film directed by a female filmmaker and the second-highest grossing film of 2017 behind Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017).

However, it is also important to point to the limits and challenges of such newly gained visibility. While The New York Times reports that Patty Jenkins ‘broke Hollywood’s superhero glass ceiling’ (Barnes 2017), the ceiling remains firmly in place for most female directors, as demonstrated by Martha Lauzen, who since 1998 has been tracking the number of women employed on top-grossing films annually. In 2017, in terms of American cinema,[i] women accounted for 11% of directors working on the top 250 films, up 4 percentage points from 7% in 2016 and even with the percentage achieved in 2000 (while the number of writers and editors have declined, and the percentage of women cinematographers has remained the same). Significantly, these low figures also translate into a lack of industrial recognition; to date, Bigelow remains the only woman to have been awarded an Oscar for directing. At the time of writing, screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig becomes only the fifth woman nominated for the best director in the Oscars’ 90-year history. The Academy’s exclusion of women from its most prestigious category continues to be overwhelming and attests, in a wider sense, to numerous difficulties that exist for women directors working within the mainstream realm notoriously dominated by men.

Thus, individual visibility seems slow to bring change. As Sophie Mayer aptly observed: ‘Authorship, like box-office success, is at once crucial to coverage and circulation for feminist cinema, and deeply problematic, invoking Default Man models of solitary genius’ (2016: 16). We recognised that it was equally urgent for our collection to reconfigure the equation of authorship away from the director towards acknowledging the myriad invisible roles involved in genre making: production, costume design, writing, performance and the role of audience and fan rewriting of shared generic materials. These practices are partly addressed in our collection, from women screenwriters’ and performers’ ‘hidden’ role in genres – screenwriters Wendy MacLeod and Tara Ison, among others, and Melissa McCarthy or Lena Dunham’s work as performers – to female-dominated forms of media fandom, such as fanfiction, including fan art and the practice of ‘vidding’: women ‘rewriting’ Hollywood genre stories with themes that are important to or enjoyed by them, such as the artist known as lim.

From ‘Marvel/MCU Dance Off’ by lim. © lim/published on youtube.com.

We are equally convinced that the study of women practitioners in a wide variety of contexts and across different media is vital for feminist film criticism. With this objective in mind, we have broadened our project to the use of genres in non-US contexts, in particular in France, Spain and India. Addressing the transmigration of genres between national cultures, and intersections between gender and other categories such as race, nationality and class both in and beyond dominant industries, can provide a means to denounce ‘the limitation of genre theory to Hollywood and of gender as a totalising identity’ (Gledhill 2012: 1). And our project has consolidated our conviction that refocusing critical attention on genre as a cross-media and cross-cultural phenomena has a key place in the scrutiny of women’s creative practice in screen media and can contribute to our collective work on a more complex understanding of the nature of women’s involvement across the spectrum of popular cultural production.

[i] For information on the current UK-based project, Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture, see here.

 

Katarzyna Paszkiewicz lectures in the Modern Languages and English Studies Department at the University of Barcelona. She is a member of the Research Centre ADHUC – Theory, Gender, Sexuality (UB) and her research focuses on film genres and women’s cinema in the USA and Spain. She has published book chapters and journal articles on Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Nancy Meyers, Kimberly Peirce, Icíar Bollaín and Isabel Coixet. She co-edited, with Mary Harrod, Women Do Genre in Film and Television (Routledge, 2017). Her monograph Genre, Authorship and Contemporary Women Filmmakers is to be published by Edinburgh University Press (2018).

 

 

 

 

[i] For information on the current UK-based project, Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture, see here.

Closing the Gaps: Researching the Women’s Event at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 1972

Katharine Kamleitner reflects on the process of investigating a key film festival event from feminist history and brings to life its blend of challenge, complexity, opportunity and success.  Her piece ends with an appeal to our members regarding their potential contribution and news of a upcoming event to celebrate this history.

In my PhD project, On Women’s Film Festivals – Histories, Feminisms, Futures, I am researching women’s film festivals and the historical, economical and theoretical contexts that contextualise them. While my focus is mainly on three contemporary festivals in London and Germany, I am also tracing the history and development of the earliest women’s film festivals in the 1970s.  This is where the trouble really started. Film festivals are ephemeral events, by definition designed to be experienced by their attendees in the present. When these festivals first appeared in the 1970s, preserving these events for the future was necessarily of secondary consideration.

In my research on historical women’s film festivals, I have come across many loose ends: “skeletons” of festivals, so to speak, or even just individual “bones” without a trace of more information. Many early women’s film festivals have not been preserved for the future. Often that is the case, because these events were community-driven, organised on shoe-string budgets by volunteers, barely acknowledged by the mainstream press and rarely subject of academic research. Therefore, exploring women’s film festivals from that era, even those that made substantial impact at the time and subsequently, has posed significant methodological challenges during this project.

One of the earliest women’s film festivals was The Women’s Event [i] which took place at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) in 1972. It was the first festival in the UK and in Europe that focused entirely on the work of female filmmakers and was co-organised by Laura Mulvey, Lynda Myles and Claire Johnston. It stood out from other women’s film festivals at the time because it was part of a much larger and well-established festival. Since 1968, EIFF had established and fostered radical programming structures which challenged its attendees and local audiences to engage intellectually with cinema.[ii] For the organisers of the Women’s Event this posed an ideal opportunity to create a successful event within the supportive framework of the progressive traditions of EIFF.

womens-festival

 The Women’s Film Event at the Edinburgh Film Festival 1972.  © EIFF. Retrieved from The Scottish Sun

The Women’s Event was indeed successful and attracted local to watch and discuss the works of female directors. However, despite this, it seems to have been very poorly documented even at the time. Contemporaneous publications about the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Edinburgh Festivals, organisations dominated by male critics, barely mention The Women’s Event despite its ground-breaking novelty. Even when they do, the authors hardly go into further detail than naming the organisers and a few of the films screened in the programme.

So instead of finding out more about the event via library research, I turned to other methods. First, I scheduled interviews with Laura Mulvey and Lynda Myles, who told me more about their intentions with the festival, their relationship to EIFF and the kind of atmosphere the event had created. They also supplied me with a full list of films that were screened as part of the festival, which included historical works like Leni Riefenstahl’s Das blaue Licht (1932) and Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931) as well as newer works such as Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate (1969) and Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath (1972).

However, given that the event lies over 40 years in the past, there were naturally details about the festival that neither Mulvey nor Myles could remember. And so, I went into the archives to try to fill in the gaps. Tracking down the festival catalogue was easy, and gave me access to an introductory text penned by the organisers and film synopses for all screenings. I even managed to find some of the films from the list, access DVDs and screeners, and read contemporary reviews in feminist film magazines such as Frauen und Film (Germany) or Women & Film (US). This helped me to understand that the 1970s British feminist film movement seemed to be predominantly interested in fictional cinema forms,  experimenting with narratives as well as aesthetics.

In the course of my investigations, one artefact has proved to be very intriguing but, up to now, very elusive. A film about The Women’s Event was commissioned by BBC2 for a late night cultural television programme, and produced by some of the women attending the festival. Since it was funded with public money, I was convinced I would be able to find this film and followed leads to the BBC Written Archives in London, the BFI Archive, the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive and of course the archive of the film festival itself – and found nothing. The film, potentially capturing images from the event’s lively discussions and networking events, seems to be lost forever. I would be delighted if anyone, though, could suggest new places to look.

This applies to information about the event more generally. I know which films were screened and that they were accompanied by discussions; however, there are many areas where information is missing. In reconstituting this event, as part of our wider women’s film history, I am still searching for details of  who attended and what topics the debates evolved around. If this has stirred up a personal memory, however insignificant it might appear, I would be very pleased to hear from you.

To celebrate this event and to recover and reassert its importance now– not least as part of our more conscious future preservation of similar – I am co-organising a screening of films from The Women’s Event.

Together with Lauren Clarke I run Femspectives, a feminist film festival in Glasgow. Our launch event Femspectives presents: 46 Years in the Future – Women’s Film Festivals, then and now will take place on 5 May 2018 at Glasgow Women’s Library from 12.30 to 5pm as part of the Radical Film Network Festival 18-68-18. We will re-visit two feature films from the original programme and contextualise them anew in our discussion sessions after each screening. The event will be open to the public and free to attend (booking required).

If you have attended the Women’s Event at EIFF in 1972 and have a memory you would like to share with me, please contact me at k.kamleitner.1@research.gla.ac.uk.

Katharina Kamleitner is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow and co-organises Femspectives, a new feminist film series in Glasgow. Her research project examines women’s film festivals from historical, economical and feminist/political points of view and addresses the purpose of these events and their historical significance for film history.

[i] The event was also referred to as The Women’s Film Festival within the EIFF 1972 brochure; however, The Women’s Event is the more consistently employed and, therefore, the term adopted here.

[ii] For example, Peter Stanfield has discussed this trend at EIFF in: Stanfield, Peter: ‘Notes Toward a History of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1969-77.’ Film International 34 (2008), pp. 63-71.

 “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.

group pic3-4
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.

robertson5         
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.

Acknowledgments

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.

‘Is This my Life?’: Part One: Public Intimacy in the Work of Anne Charlotte Robertson

In this blog, Brett Kashmere shares his research regarding a neglected figure of 1970s and 1980s filmmaking, Anne Charlotte Robertson.  Drawing directly on the archive of her work and personal papers now housed at Harvard University, this piece gives an insight into the unique quality of her work and examines the issues that arise in undertaking retrospective study.  This is Part One of a two-part piece, with Part Two due for publication in mid-March.

 

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Figure 1. Frame enlargements from Five Year Diary. From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University.

Anne Charlotte Robertson (b. March 27, 1949; d. September 15, 2012) was a small-gauge American filmmaker whose intensely intimate, serialized Super 8 diaries have been neglected in conventional histories of both feminist filmmaking and experimental filmmaking – including feminist histories and critiques of experimental film and video. Robertson’s 38-hour Five Year Diary (‘Diary’) (1981-1997)[i], self-shot on a near-daily basis across two decades, gave image and voice to what had largely gone unseen and unheard in dominant culture: a methodical, unromanticized chronicle of domestic life, in sympathy if not in direct contact with 1970s feminist art or film projects.  Driven by an impulse to create a record of her own life for public display, Robertson developed her filmmaking out of her intensely personal diary writing. ‘When I began the diary, I bought five rolls of film. I thought I’d film myself, one scene every day, moving around my apartment. […] Five rolls of film – it wasn’t enough.’[ii]  Shot mainly in the home, this monumental oeuvre detailed private thoughts and desires. Like many feminist artists of this period, Robertson rigorously turned her lens (and audio recorder) on herself and transformed the individualized routines and practices of daily life (gardening, cooking, eating, exercising, watching TV, talking on the phone, and so on) into an epic, open-ended personal, psychical drama. However, Robertson’s testimony contains aspects unique to her and her experience.

‘All of life is sufficing.’

robertson2
Figure 2. Anne Charlotte Robertson, diary note, circa 1967. From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University, box CC 13R24, “Papers – Diary 1961-1968.” Photo: Brett Kashmere.

As her written diaries make clear, Robertson’s artistic voice first found expression through a committed, inwardly-focused writing practice that she later adapted and transposed to a prolific, long-form, performative Super 8 mode. Reviewing these papers, held at Harvard University, one immediately discovers an avid and precocious diarist-poet. The earliest entry, from December 1960, is an autobiographical narrative titled ‘Is This my Life?,’ composed when Robertson was 11 years old. The inventive, self-analytical, ambidextrous writing, encompassing T.V. scripts, poetry, lists, plays, reports, and annotated ephemera, in addition to daily personal diary keeping, represents a major, complex creative endeavor in parallel to her more publicly-facing film production.

In between, she studied still photography and self-portraiture while achieving a BA in Art and Psychology from University of Massachusetts, Boston. At the encouragement of the Boston filmmaker, activist, and professor Saul Levine, Robertson turned to Super 8 film in 1976. Under Levine’s tutelage, she completed an MFA in Filmmaking from the Massachusetts College of Art in 1979. Over the course of her life, Robertson produced an enormous body of work in the Super 8 and Super 8 sound formats, constituting one of the major achievements of both small gauge cinema and personal documentary. The irony is that her choice of medium – Super 8 reversal, which was cheaper and less burdensome than 16mm and more immediate, was also more precarious because of the prohibitive duplication costs, which has made the work difficult to access and show in the era of digital projection. This fact of format has not, however, prevented other 8mm filmmakers from receiving acclaim, attention, and ample screening opportunities, including Robertson’s former professor, Levine, their Boston contemporaries Joe Gibbons and Luther Price, Stan Brakhage (for his Songs (1964-9)) and many others. Even this so-called “home movie” format, which was heavily marketed to female consumers, remained a masculine prerogative within the domain of artistic production.

As a female Super 8 diarist toiling away in small-town Framington, Massachusetts in the mid-1970s and ‘80s, Robertson belonged to no contemporary flashpoint or avant-garde zeitgeist. Her Diary was distinct from the more critical and polemic feminist video art that was being made at the time by Martha Rosler, Eleanor Antin, Joan Jonas, and others; as well as the more formally poetic and tightly crafted 16mm work of Carolee Schneemann,[iii]  Shirley Clarke, Marjorie Keller, and Marie Menken, and the conceptually distilled films of Joyce Wieland. Nor did Robertson’s work have a punk edge or transgressive flair common amongst small-gauge underground filmmakers like Vivienne Dick and Beth B. In contrast, Robertson’s films were direct, observational, self-absorbed, and minimally worked upon past the point of shooting. She performed all of the roles: cinematography, lighting, editing, sound recording, and was the primary on-screen subject. As Robertson explained about her process: ‘I just do assembly editing. Everything I take [shoot] is in the film.’ A summary of Reel 3, for instance, involved the cooking of tempeh and meal prep, the cleaning of dishes, a long phone call, an in-camera edited montage of grocery store produce, and a stop-motion sequence of Robertson weaving on a loom. “I thought that with the diary it would be great if everything was included, if I left overexposed or underexposed film in.”[iv]

Diary’s domestic nature, its extensive performance of “women’s work” and Robertson’s quest for a husband perhaps made the project easy to dismiss at a time when transforming social attitudes towards gender roles and breaking the glass ceiling were major points of focus. My work to date suggests a reading of Robertson’s Diary as not quite feminist enough (in the context of 70s gender politics), or formally adventurous enough (in the realm of avant-garde film). Overall, her work existed at the interstice of feminist politics and feminist art but went unclaimed by either. Another aspect of Robertson’s work that has played a role in its being overlooked or deliberately ignored is the way in which it simultaneously foregrounds the sexist attitudes, gender policing, and dominant heterosexual norms of its time. Many of these attitudes and conventions are deeply internalized in her pre-film writing. Body image, in particular being thin, is an ongoing concern throughout her diaries, which is later externalized and reproduced in Five Year Diary and other projects. Blurring the lines between art and life, private and public, fiction and documentary, Robertson’s films evince a multi-layered autobiographical portrait that is deeply interlaced with the concerns of second wave feminism while also bowing at times to certain gender expectations and social norms. Much of her diary practice (both film and writing) dealt directly and painfully with issues related to diet, mental health (including clinical depression and bipolar disorder), sexual desire and frustration, and self-worth. In the late-1990s she described her films diaries as

[…] a materialization of the present, which is a storehouse. I used to think of them in terms of showing them to a man who would say to me, ‘What have you been doing all your life’ and then I’d show them to him. It would be like a trousseau you know, like a home movie made up ahead of time. So, in other words, I represent myself with them. They’re my ‘true-so.’[v]

At its very earliest stages, Diary appears shaped by Robertson’s desire to please her father by working on film in a narrative form. As she explains: “Sometime in late November, 1981, my father told me to tell a story. I didn’t really have a story to tell, except to expand on my day-to-day life inside my apartment.”[vi] What emerges is the way that her project appears continuously governed by a desire to please a male viewer, whether it be her father, or a future (imagined) husband. Several chapters of the project are devoted to her celebrity crush with the British film and TV actor Tom Baker, who played the title character of the BBC series Doctor Who for seven years.[vii] Robertson’s obsession seems largely motivated by the idea of an imagined male viewer.

Robertson: Missing from Scholarship

Remarkably, Robertson’s work has also been omitted from scholarship on autobiographical documentary and auto-ethnographic filmmaking. A 2013 publication on ethnographic cinema and personal documentary in the Cambridge and Boston areas determined that Robertson, despite being a dedicated observer of lived experience from the specific area covered by the book, fell outside its parameters because her work was avant-garde. As the author Scott MacDonald writes: ‘with one important exception [Alfred Guzzetti], I say almost nothing about avant-garde cinema… even when filmmakers have had some connection with Cambridge, including, for example Radcliffe graduate Abigail Child” and “prolific diarist, Anne Charlotte Robertson.’[viii]  Yet her work is seldom referenced in those studies and periodicals devoted to experimental film history and criticism either.

Why has Robertson been excepted from these intersecting histories? Her films screened routinely (if infrequently in their original format) during her lifetime, in venues ranging from universities and festivals dedicated to Super 8 all the way to New York’s Museum of the Moving Image (in 1988’s Independent America: New Film, 1978-1988) and the Museum of Modern Art (in 1998’s Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films). She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Filmmaking in 2001. Her name remains familiar, echoing through many traditions of practice, including Super 8, feminist, diary, and first-person cinemas. Yet she is almost nowhere to be found in the film literature. It is tempting to speculate on a root cause related to gender bias; the work being deemed too quotidian, too ordinary; its format too domestic and lacking a theoretical perspective. However, Diary’s critical reception also provides a window onto wider, contextual concerns. For example, how feminist art and film were being defined and appraised during the latter stages of the second wave feminist era in America; the marginalized status of Super 8 as a creative medium; and the representability of mental illness in the media cultures of that time. Robertson’s psychological breakdowns are detailed throughout the work, including her numerous hospitalizations, and she often described her filmmaking as a form of self-therapy. “When I got to the five-year mark in 1986,” she noted, ‘I kept going because, basically, I didn’t have a happy ending for my movie.’[ix]

This is Part One of Brett Kashmere’s contribution on Anne Charlotte Robertson: Part Two will follow as our next publication. 

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.

[i] Robertson began filming Five Year Diary on November 3, 1981. The final version consists of 84 reels, each approximately 27 minutes in length.
[ii] Quoted in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 208.
[iii] Schneemann’s autobiographical, mutable double-projection Super 8 film Kitch’s Last Meal (1973-76, with sound on cassette) is a notable exception, and was cited by Robertson as an inspiration for the Five Year Diary.
[iv] Quoted in Scott McDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 213.
[v] Quoted in Donna Cameron, “Pieces of Eight: Interviews with 8mm Filmmakers,” in Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films (New York and San Francisco: Museum of Modern Art and San Francisco Cinematheque, 1998), 67.
[vi] Quoted in Scott McDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 208.
[vii] Including reels 33 (“A Crush on Doctor Who,” 1982), 34 (“Doctor Who Convention,” 1983), 61 (“More Doctor Who,” 1988), 67 (“So Much Doctor Who” (1989), 68 (“Plenty of Doctor Who,” 1989), and 69 (“Guess Who and Breakdowns,” 1989).
[viii] Scott MacDonald, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 15. Every chapter in MacDonald’s book is centered around a white male filmmaker (with one about a mother-son team and another about “other approaches,” which is also nearly all white male filmmakers). MacDonald has written about Robertson’s work elsewhere, but his decision to exclude Robertson from a consideration of personal documentary because of its avant-gardism is still confounding.

[ix] Quoted in Glen Collins, “Slices of Life in a ‘Five Year Diary,’” The New York Times, October 20, 1988.