Whedon, Weinstein and Why Feminism Matters


In a very timely reflection, Lorna Jowett considers the position of the feminist scholar in the light of recent revelations of systemic abuse within Hollywood. Weinstein may present a depressingly familiar story; by comparison, the case of Joss Whedon has given rise to different questions for feminists concerning Buffy and authorship.  Is there a need for a reassessment of this influential television female character?

In August 2017, The Wrap published an article written by Kai Cole, architect,actor and producer who was married to producer, writer and director Joss Whedon for 16 years. Under the title ‘Joss Whedon Is a ‘Hypocrite Preaching Feminist Ideals’ , Cole claimed that Whedon had a series of affairs with young women he worked with in the film and TV industry while married to her. This sent shockwaves through various fan communities, and, the following day, long-running Whedon fan site Whedonesque effectively closed down with the following announcement:

whedonesque rcm

‘So farewell then. 15 years is a long time…But now it’s time to say goodbye…’ (Whedonesque: http://www.whedonesque.com)

Cole’s accusations towards Whedon have since been eclipsed by the revelations regarding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein In October 2017, he was accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape by growing numbers of women; a number of men felt able to share their harassment stories. Weinstein was fired from the Weinstein Company’s board of directors and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The allegations against Weinstein became headline news in various countries, sparking debates about sexism and misogyny within Hollywood and more broadly, the way it is often excused, ignored and therefore enabled by those working in the industry. Actor Tippi Hedren’s tweets in support of those coming forward to accuse Weinstein, comparing him with Alfred Hitchcock, indicated how endemic this behaviour has been in Hollywood, and how it is widespread, even integral, in its system both historically and into the present.

whedon2 (2)

@tippihedren (www.twitter.com)

The sheer number of those coming forward to accuse Weinstein, coupled with his inadequate response, and—of course—his reputation as a producer and co-founder of Miramax, means that the ‘news’ about Weinstein has eclipsed the revelations Cole made about Whedon. Clearly, whilst both are abuses of authority and power, having affairs with work colleagues is not the same as persistent harassment, assault and rape. Moreover, many commentators seem to have taken the allegations against Weinstein as simply the public disclosure of an open secret; by comparison, Whedon’s ‘betrayal’ or ‘hypocrisy’ elicited emotional, conflicted, and confused responses. The difference seems to lie in the way Whedon, or the Whedon brand, was rooted for by many viewers and fans, as ‘feminist’. This is encapsulated in The Wrap’s opening quotation from Cole : ‘He used his relationship with me as a shield … so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist.’

For many fans and followers of Whedon, this was the crux of his hypocrisy: he claimed to be a feminist and to use feminism in his creative work—starting with TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)—and feminism, or a particular take on gender representation, was certainly used to promote subsequent productions. No one ever imagined Weinstein to be a feminist; apparently many saw Whedon as one and were bitterly disappointed when they seemed to be proved badly wrong. The titles or headlines of articles alone set out the allegiances (and emotional responses) of their authors, from ‘Clementine Ford: Why Joss Whedon’s treatment of ex-wife Kai Cole matters’ to ‘Buffy’s Legacy Does Not Belong to Joss Whedon’.

I am Vice President of the Whedon Studies Association, an association devoted to the academic study of Whedon’s work, and an academic whose first monograph was about gender and Buffy (Sex and the Slayer, 2005). My work is perpetually informed by feminist theory and feminist thought and I find I have mixed feelings about  this issue myself. And here’s one of the things that seems to me to be tricky about working out what, if anything, to think about these revelations: academic analysis and publication is not supposed to ‘feel’ anything, it is traditionally supposed to present objective examination and evaluation. I say ‘supposed to’ because I have never believed in academic objectivity and I am acutely aware of how my various identities, personal and professional, inflect my ‘feminist’ perspective and my academic work. To me, critical examination and personal investment need not be mutually exclusive. Members of the Whedon Studies Association have always attempted to offer critique and rigorous analysis and the organisation and its members have often found themselves having to defend the notion that they are not simply fans of Whedon who adore everything he produces, and accept everything he says publicly at face value.

One of the issues most debated on the WSA Facebook page following Cole’s revelations about Whedon’s personal life was how to distinguish between personal and professional, or between creator and their work. Should we re-evaluate whether Buffy (and other Whedon productions) was ground breaking in terms of how it represented ‘strong women’? Or should the personal failings of its named creator be considered separately from the impact of the TV series and films that made his name?’ One thoughtful response was Matthew Pateman’s blog, Celebrity Culture, Brand Whedon and the post-Romantic fallacy,’ which notes how in many discussions or judgements ‘the semi-sainted Whedon of Equality Now and Planned Parenthood has been assumed to be identical with the legally named owner of rights to television shows.’ Pateman delineates the complexities involved in unpicking the various ‘Joss Whedons’, concluding that ‘Buffy hasn’t changed and to think it has is to oddly privilege Whedon as the sole arbiter and purveyor of its meaning. Even in the days of ‘St Joss’, that was always a fallacy.’

So what can I draw from these complex and often painful discussions? Here are some of my initial conclusions:

  • ‘Feminism’ does not have a clear definition and means different things to different people. Like any perspective or ideology it can be used for different purposes and co-opted by those whom others may not consider ‘feminist.’
  • Buffy has had an impact, on viewers, and on representations, as widely circulated memes (arising from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s own twitter post) demonstrated recently.
    smg meme

    @SarahMGellar (www.twitter.com)

    It wasn’t perfect, of course.

  • Whether we credit Whedon or others (such as Jane Espenson or Marti Noxon) for this impact does not change it.
  • In 2017, 20 years after it first aired, Buffy’s ‘feminism’ is dated because feminism, society, and television drama have moved on and developed, though arguably it is still relevant.
  • Studies continue to show that while productions featuring female protagonists are more commercially successful than those featuring males, such productions are far from common.
  • Sexual harassment, assault and rape are all too common for many women and other people in everyday life (as evidenced by online campaigns such as Everyday Sexism and the recent #MeToo hashtag).
  • Men exploiting positions of power via affairs, sexual harassment, assault and rape are not uncommon within major institutions. Such institutions may express surprise when these practices are revealed but do little to discourage them.
  • Studies also show that the film and TV industries in the UK, US and elsewhere, are far from diverse, rather they are deeply unequal and dominated by white men.


  • I wish to remain hopeful about the future of feminism and a future that values girls, women, and those with minority identities. Therefore, I need to believe that series like Buffy can continue to inspire those who watched it to think differently about gender and the inequities of power that structure gender roles, irrespective of whether some of those involved in creating it have taken advantage of these inequities while purporting to challenge them. I need to believe that feminism can bring people together to work for effective change even as it troubles, disturbs, and upsets how we see things. Whedon and Weinstein are individual examples of what unequal systems and societies can produce. I need to believe that, collectively, we can learn from the disturbing stories about such individuals and start upsetting the system that enables them.




Event Report: The Women Over 50 Film Festival Brighton: 14-17 September 2017

In September, the third Women Over Fifty Film Festival in Brighton took place. Deborah Jermyn presents us with some highlights from a vital, entertaining and thought-provoking event.

As Austen might well have observed had she been writing today, it has been a truth universally acknowledged for really far too long now that the film industry is no friend to older women – be that in front of the camera, or behind it for that matter. But in recent years, the voices speaking out against this dismal state of affairs have been gathering momentum, forming an increasingly insistent cacophony of resistance to the industry’s exclusionary practices. A signal and most welcome innovator in this call to greater diversity and inclusivity has come in the form of the Women Over Fifty Film Festival (WOFFF), founded in 2015 by Nuala O’Sullivan.

Last month saw the third iteration of WOFFF, run at the Sallis Benney theatre at the University of Brighton. Taking place largely over the weekend of September 16-17, and featuring an energetic programme of workshops, activities and screenings, it was a true treat to escape to the seaside for a weekend and join the proceedings. Featuring 55 international shorts, festival films all had to meet at least one of two crucial criteria: ‘there must be a woman over 50 at the heart of the story on screen, or a woman over 50 in one of the core creative roles (writer, director or producer)’.

The festival opened on the Thursday evening in splendid style at The Duke of York’s cinema, with a screening of Mamma Mia! (2008). The story of this older-woman centred film’s phenomenal and unanticipated commercial success, which was rapturously welcomed by many older-women audiences in contrast to its frequently snarky critical reception, is now the stuff of Hollywood legend (and one the industry will be hoping to repeat in the upcoming Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). Furthermore, as Nuala O’Sullivan reminded us in her introduction, it was also a film led by a triumvirate of older women creatives, including director Phyllida Lloyd. Given this, and the film’s unadulterated pleasure in scenes of women of a certain age stealing the show, it was an apt opener for a festival ‘celebrating the work of older women on both sides of the camera’.

Dr. Patricia McManus delivers her presentation on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ © Sharon Kilgannon @alonglines

A series of broadly themed short film programmes along with six workshops, on such varied topics as ‘How to Win at Pitching’ and ‘Making a Film on Your Smartphone’, followed over Saturday and Sunday, along with two free public events. In the first of these, Patricia McManus from the University of Brighton delivered a lecture examining ‘Women Over Fifty in Dystopian Fictions: The Handmaid’s Tale – Gender & Race’. Here she traced an engaging history of how older women in dystopian literature have been used by the genre to embody ‘the masses’; easily manipulated, timid and eager to please.  A thoughtful discussion of the recent TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale followed. Contributors grappled with issues raised by the programme-makers’ decision to cast black actors in the series, since Atwood had depicted Gilead as only white by dint of reference to the mass ‘resettlement’ of ‘the children of Ham’; had the series evaded examining how white supremacism and patriarchy intersect? (For more on these debates see here).

The second free event was a panel discussion featuring a variety of women actors and practitioners, though not all of them quite met the ‘over 50’ criteria, a point which usefully served to underscore the inescapable subjectivity of what ‘older woman’ is taken to mean. The discussion here took something of a troubling turn at times, as it trod the familiar territory of whether women bosses give their women workers a harder time (thereby taking the heat off men, again), and in the suggestion that all that filmmakers have to do to combat the marginalisation of certain groups is simply ‘reflect reality’ (as if there is consensus on what that is). Nevertheless, the panel finished on an animated and thought-provoking note, as Loy Philips argued that digital filmmaking has liberated women just as washing machines and birth control did before it. Being accessible, lightweight and cheap – though only for some, one must note (a point that seems all the more imperative to make given the latest manoeuvres by ’45’ and co. in the US to limit women’s access to birth control) – it was intriguing to reflect on how digital filmmaking might be placed in a kind of history of technological shifts that have released (some) women from certain social and biological constraints.


Actor Denise Welch and WOFFF Director Nuala O’Sullivan © Sharon Kilgannon @alonglines

The 55 short films screened in the festival were shared among eight programmes, and I was struck by how those that I got to see were gratifyingly international in scope, with projects drawn from South Africa, Afghanistan, Ireland, The Netherlands and France, as well as North America and the UK (while other screenings included work from Korea, Australia and Iran). In the ‘Conflict’ programme, Will Barnard’s Get Riel (2017) profiled choreographer and dancer Elsa Perez who is still teaching in her 80s; fortunate WOFFF participants had the opportunity to learn from her first-hand when she attended the festival to run a Latin American Dance workshop. As a South Londoner, The Ladies’ Bridge (Karen Livesey, 2015) was especially fascinating for me, documenting and revising the historical erasure of the women construction workers who provided the labour that built Waterloo Bridge. Documentary was well served throughout the festival, most particularly and valuably giving screen time to the experiences and voices of older women – subjects rarely considered worthy of attention – so that it felt quite radical to hear so many speak in succession.  Elsewhere there was also a range of fiction, animation and experimental work to be seen; A Lighthouse in Breaking Waves (Cheryl White, 2016) delivered a moving and innovative composite of live action and animation as a bereaved mother traces her son’s last trip overseas, while the darkly humorous Spores (Frances Poet and Richard Poet, 2015) ensured that the audience went home vowing to never again risk picking their own mushrooms. Each programme was followed by a welcome opportunity for the audience to ask questions of various filmmakers, actors and production personnel, all of whom were enthusiastically introduced by Festival Director Nuala O’Sullivan, whose spirited marshalling of the entire festival was unwavering.

As I finish writing this, I’m struck by the perfect symmetry of the fact that I am doing so to the sounds of my children (aged seven and eight) watching Mamma Mia! on the iPad. How perfectly this illustrates that given half a chance, more audiences drawn from many demographics would be content to see women over 50 populating their screens. On our Film Night at the weekend it was a tough call for my kids trying to decide between this or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m happy to report that for today at least in our house – and for the foreseeable future at WOFFF – Meryl and co rule.

Further details and reports on WOFFF 2017 can be found here.

Dr Deborah Jermyn is Reader in Film and Television at the University of Roehampton, where she is Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Film and Audiovisual Cultures. She is the editor of Female Celebrity and Ageing: Back in the Spotlight (2013) and (with Su Holmes) Women, Celebrity and Cultures of Ageing: Freeze Frame (2015). Her monograph (on over-50 woman filmmaker) Nancy Meyers has just been published by Bloomsbury.

Conference Report: ‘Love Across the Atlantic’

Love Across the Atlantic: An Interdisciplinary Conference on US-UK Romance
University of Roehampton, June 16 2017. In conjunction with New College, University of Alabama

Continuing our conference theme, we are delighted to feature two responses from June’s Love Across the Atlantic, an interdisciplinary intervention exploring cultural and political resonances of the ‘special relationship’ across literature, film and television. The event was supported by Women’s Film and Television History Network.

With Karen Randell, in a fascinating keynote, Professor Alexis Weedon explored novelist and screenwriter Elinor Glyn’s relationship to America. Below, she gives us a flavour of its intriguing complexities alongside some other highlights regarding film, television and literature from the conference.

And Fjoralba Miraka reflects on the timely nature of the papers, whether focussed on contemporary or historical subject matter.


roehamt-alabam conf 2

Love Across the Atlantic: June 2017 © Roehampton University

Alexis Weedon writes:
Creating a keynote between us for a conference linking institutions as far away from each other as Roehampton and Alabama brings into focus the benefits and pleasures of cross-disciplinary conferences.

Deborah Jermyn, author of a recently published book Nancy Meyers, was the convener in the UK and her colleagues Catherine Roach, Ted Trost and Barbara Brickman from USA provided a forum for studying transatlantic romance through the frame of the political, economic and military undertones of such a special relationship.

She kindly invited Karen Randell and myself to present a keynote on Elinor Glyn, an author, filmmaker, business woman and glamour icon of the 1920s who crossed the Atlantic many times in her life. Glyn’s love affair with America was publicised in the magazines, in the cinema and on radio. As the novelist Arnold Bennett wryly observed in Books and Persons  it was a historical watershed, referring to ‘the distant past … before America and Elinor Glyn had discovered each other’ (1917, p.289). She was not alone in this affair, traveling in 1908 on Mauritania after the success of her romantic novel Three Weeks, she was one of millions crossing the Atlantic recreating themselves in the New World. We used the link between Glyn’s book and popular silent film Six Days (1923) and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic (1997) to demonstrate the differences in wealth and fortune of those who travelled as well as the likelihood of realizing their dreams. In Hollywood Glyn made personal and romantic friendships, and became deeply invested in the movie adaptations of her books offering her own insights to the stars and directors on what constituted the accurate psychological portrayal of love on screen.

Glyn, I soon found, was not the only novelist featured in the conference who had a transatlantic passion.  A session on literary authorship across the ocean featured novelists as diverse as P.G Wodehouse, Lisa Kleypas, Maya Rodale.  Presenters Finn Pollard, Immaculada Pérez-Casel and Veera Mäkelä made the point that in their fictions America is only defined in contrast to England and therefore the countries’ identities are interdependent. Pérez-Casal saw in Kleypas’s romance a nostalgia for a mythical Englishness. The lure of this was so strong it alone could unite American couples. While in Wodehouse, argued Pollard, both nations have to be involved before a romance can be fulfilled.

Alice Guilluy’s study of the British reception of Sweet Home Alabama also revealed national differences in audience’s readings of film. William Brown’s amusingly entitled: ‘Bridget’s Jones’s Special Relationship: No Filth, Please, We’re Brexiteers’ looked at Bridget Jones’ Baby. He critiqued the marketing of love through the tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the fictional ‘Quantum Leap’ dating site Jones uses.

As Deborah Jermyn said in her round up, there were also many absences, and in each lacunae lies a story of underprivilege. For academics interdisciplinary work requires a breadth of ambition. Like the creators of the films, TV shows and novels, as academics we must journey beyond the shores of our comfortable home disciplines and transition.

Fjoralba Miraka writes:
In view of the turmoil created after two of the most significant political events in recent years – Brexit and the Trump Election – the conference came as a breath of fresh air, attracting interested scholars from both sides of the Atlantic, who wished to reflect on the much-discussed and multifarious special relationship between the US and the UK.

The range of themes presented and discussed was wide, covering disciplines as broad as literature, film, and politics, among other. Similarly, the idea of transatlantic love was examined by Manuela Ruiz, who argued that film representations of love across the Atlantic can be best examined and understood under the prism of cosmopolitanism, whereas Jay Bamber’s presentation focused on the Working Title comedies – closely related to the Heritage Film genre – and explored how the genre’s space is a setting in which Americanness and Englishness can become contested identities. In the same vein, Anna Martonfi utilised The Ghost Goes West (1935), starring Robert Donat and Jean Parker, to interrogate how this transatlantic romance designated Americanness as a kind of ‘Ignorant Other’, reflecting the social and political context and Anglo-American relations of the time.

In a panel to explore very contemporary political concerns, Shelley Cobb took a historical perspective to explore political special relationships between Thatcher and Reagan and proposed these two be seen as a powerful ‘celebrity political couple’, cementing a pattern for the two countries’ future relations. Hannah Hamad explored representations of Tony Blair and George W. Bush as a now infamous political ‘bromance’, resonating with this popular film genre and its representation of male intimacy. Neil Ewen focused on the current putative bromance between Trump and Nigel Farage, and highlighted its place within the general context of a populist turn on both sides of the Atlantic as well as the role of the media in elaborating this special relationship.

The final session included discussion of the cultural nuances and sensitivities revealed through forms of transatlantic adaptation and the functioning of time in narrative media. Overall, the thematic of love generated a breadth of historical and cultural material which led to illuminating exchanges on very contemporary theoretical concerns.

Alexis Weedon is Research Professor of Publishing at the University of Bedfordshire and co-author with Vincent L Barnett of Glyn as Novelist, Moviemaker, Glamour Icon and Businesswoman (Ashgate 2014). With Karen Randell, she co-authored ‘Reconfiguring Elinor Glyn: Ageing female experience and the origins of the ‘It Girl’ in Deborah Jermyn and Su Holmes (eds) Women, Celebrity and Cultures and Aging: Freeze Frame (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Fjoralba Miraka is a Ph.D student at Roehampton University and teaching associate, with a research focus on the postclassical melodramatic imagination in the Hollywood Renaissance period. She is currently working on a chapter for publication on male melodrama and Scorsese’s early films. She is also writing an entry on the history of Feminist Film Theory for the first Encyclopaedia of Gender, Media and Communication, scheduled for publication in 2019, as part of the ICA series of the Sub-disciplinary Encyclopaedias of Communication.


London Feminist Film Festival 2017: Rio Cinema Archive

In the second part blog of our blog from the 2017 London Feminist Film Festival (see first part here), Selina Robertson contributes an exclusive extract from her presentation on the Rio Cinema archive, one specialising in queer and feminist films. And Elaine Burrows adds her personal reflection on that history.  In conclusion, Ania Ostrowska and Selina reflect on the closing discussion, which featured crucial questions of archives and intersectionality.

History and the Rio Cinema

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Rio Cinema Publicity Materials featuring ‘Peroxide Double’ ©Rio cinema archive 2017

Selina Robertson writes:

Hauntings in the Archive! (see last week’s blog entry) resonated on several fronts with Selina’s doctoral research, especially in terms of those filmmakers’ queer feminist approach to the VBKÖ archive. They were seeking to answer the question of how to write the “disorderly narratives” (as J. Jack Halberstam calls them in In a Queer Time and Place, 2005) within the gaps, absences and silences of the archive. In her talk Selina shared with the audience how her engagement with the Rio Cinema’s archive revealed that throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was a vibrant, inclusive cultural space, supporting a diversity of intersectional queer and feminist cultural production, hosting and supporting a variety of collective, curatorial activity.

The Rio archive, stored on-site, holds not only vital information about how London’s queer and feminist programming and curatorial practices shaped the reception and circulation of alternative moving image practices, it also contains fascinating clues about the cultural memory of the diverse feminist communities, film collectives and activists who came to shape this marginalized history.

Two feminist collectives were particularly active at the Rio throughout that period. The Rio Women’s Cinema Group was established in February 1984 by a group of women associated with the Rio. Every third Thursday of the month, the group programmed double bills of early women’s cinema, classic Hollywood ‘women’s cinema’ and contemporary feminist cinema, followed by discussions. The group was well connected and regularly collaborated with local feminist activist groups and sister film collectives such as Four Corners and Circles[i]. A wide mailing list shows the extensive networks of activist feminist communities in London at the time, including The Feminist Library, Hackney Black Women’s Group and Sisterwrite.

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Information on Women’s Media Resource Project: ‘…increase job prospects… provide a more positive enjoyment in gaining control of the means of self-expression’ © Rio Cinema Archive 2017

The Women’s Media Resource Project (WMRP), also known as WEFT, was an intersectional feminist collective funded by Hackney Council, Greater London Arts and the BFI. The project started in 1977 with the purpose of bringing to the UK music by lesbian musicians signed with Olivia Records. In 1985 the collective started working with the Rio. WMRP had an intersectional feminist curatorial agenda to create a lesbian feminist social space through which to organize discursive mixed media events, film and video screenings, and training sessions for women to work in the music industry at the Sound Kitchen, located in the Rio’s basement. We saw pictures of selected ephemera on the screen and Selina, in collaboration with the Rio, also curated two exciting ephemera collages that were on display outside the screening room.

Elaine Burrows writes:

Selina Robertson, co-founder of Club des Femmes, “a queer feminist film curating collective”, described in her presentation “Desperately Seeking: Mapping the History of International Feminist Film Curatorial Collectives at the Rio”, material that she had found in the Rio Cinema’s attic – unsorted, uncatalogued, it contains flyers, posters, programmes, from years of Rio programming – which relate to her own PhD research into feminist film curation in the 1980s and 1990s.  I was there (as it were): it’s very strange to see one’s own history being uncovered in this way.  I lived (and still live) locally, and went to the screenings, and knew (and still know) several of the women who were part of that programming team. I suppose it’s the shock of hearing names of people you know, realising that, like them, you are in some way “part of history”, and recognising that history began a minute ago, not just fifty years back.

Questions Going Forward – The Politics of Preservation

Ania and Selina write:

The discussion afterwards started from the shared features of presented archives, as in the words of the chair Althea Greenan they all drew our attention to seeing archives as ‘rhetorical spaces’, spaces for people who consult them to be heard as they debate the past and its relevance to the present and future.  The complexities of archival politics were fully on view:  Selina mentioned the joy and excitement at opening of the Rio’s treasure trove of lesbian and feminist collectives of the past while Samia of Women of Colour Index reading group (see also last week’s blog) talked about the feeling that a ‘can of worms’ is opened in the process of making visible women of colour in a predominantly white archive.

‘Please people, keep archiving!’ Terry Wragg of Leeds Animation Workshop made this important plea from the audience, reporting the difficulties of small independent collectives and organisations to find funding for that purpose. Other questions included how to further feminist thinking about the archive and how to produce new feminist knowledge about and within the archive in terms of activism, art-making and resistance. Questions, of course, which we took away from a stimulating discussion back into our own research.

Elaine Burrows worked for many years at what is now the BFI National Archive.  She has been a member of WFTHN since it was founded, and is also a longstanding member of the boards of both Cinenova and the British Entertainment History Project.

Ania Ostrowska is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton (UK), researching authorial agency of contemporary British women documentarians as part of AHRC-funded project Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture. Since 2011 she has been a film editor of popular British feminist blog The F-Word.

Selina Robertson is a film MPhil/PhD candidate at Birkbeck. Her research is a curatorial investigation into the hidden histories and strategies of curating queer and feminist moving image as activism and advocacy in London 1979-1995.  In 2007 she co-founded, with Sarah Wood, Club des Femmes, a queer feminist film curating collective.

LFFF 2017 programme available here

Feminism and the Archive session’s page available here

[i] See, also, BFI article: ‘Women of the avant-garde: remembering a key debate’: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/women-avant-garde-vital-discussion

‘Hauntings in the Archive’: London Feminist Film Festival 2017


In this two-part blog, we have three viewpoints on the recent London Feminist Film Festival. For the WFTHN network, Selina Robertson and Ania Ostrowska and, separately, Elaine Burrows share their impressions of a session which raised key questions about politics in the feminist archive.

This week, Ania and Elaine respond to the European premiere of Hauntings in the Archive! (2017).  Next week, we will feature an exclusive, extended extract from Selina’s presentation on the Rio Cinema archive specialising in queer and feminist films. Finally, our writers will reflect on the concluding discussion, which featured crucial questions of archives and intersectionality.

Performing ‘Hauntings in the Archive!’ (Spukem im Archiv!’) (2017) © SKGAL

Ania Ostrowska writes:

This August, the London Feminist Film Festival returned for the sixth time with great success and sold out screenings, including that of Iranian director Marva Nabili’s 1977 feature The Sealed Soil, which took place at BFI Southbank’s largest screening room NFT 1. All other events happened at the East London’s beloved independent, the Rio Cinema. On Saturday 19 August 2017, in the early afternoon, we participated in the session ‘Feminism and the Archive’:  Selina presented her doctoral research on stage (details next week) whilst Ania engaged less stressfully from the audience. The event showcased the European premiere of a feature-length Austrian documentary Hauntings in the Archive! (2017) and a panel discussion with Julia Wieger (the film’s co-director), Althea Greenan (curator of Women’s Art Library held at Goldsmiths University, London) and Samia Malik (of Women of Colour Index reading group which explores Women’s Art Library catalogue to make visible the work of Women of Colour artists). Following from the detailed focus on three feminist archives from the UK and Austria, the closing discussion included audience members and asked broader questions around feminist archives and feminist approaches to an archive.[i]

Hauntings in the Archive!

Hauntings in the Archive!, co-directed by Julia Wieger and Nina Hoechtl, dives into the rich Vienna-based archive of VBKÖ, the Austrian Association of Women Artists. Wieger and Hoechtl, both the association’s members, established the internal Secretariat for Ghosts, Archive Politics and Gaps (SKGAL) to revisit the organisation’s history and conjure up the spectres of the past that some of their contemporaries would, even now, rather see left in peace.

VBKÖ was established in 1910 and it became obvious for us in the audience that, after its rather progressive early history of collaborating with Austrian women’s rights movement of the time, the 1930s saw it reflect the spectre of National Socialism. The filmmakers discussed in the Q&A a disturbing resistance to a wider acknowledgment of this history. Equally disturbing to them was a cultural appropriation of Native American culture in the 1960s and 1970s through VBKÖ-exhibited, romanticised portraits of Native Americans, painted by its members. It was an artistic style which the film’s directors situated in the broader context, relating Nazi cultural fascination with ‘tribal ancestors’ to the interest in both North America and India.

Recovering complicated his/her-story: ‘Hauntings in the Archive!’ (2017) © SKGAL

The project has strong theoretical underpinnings, made manifest in the film by voiceover recorded in three languages (we watched the English version). Foucault and Derrida are referenced, the latter via Specters of Marx (1993) rather than Archive Fever. Ann Cvetkovich is never mentioned by name but her work on trauma and affect in the archive from An Archive of Feelings (2003) resonates here as well. After conventional documentary opening shots, detailing the types of items held in the archive and acid-free folders, the documentary comes into its own as a powerful two-hander, with the two director-authors often present in the frame, self-reflexively performing their investigation/exorcism. The film brought to life key questions of time and history in its presentation of archival material on screen, with sequences showing old photos and documents being laid out on the table by a pair of hands with brightly painted nails sometimes disturbed by another, ‘aggressively’ black leather-gloved pair of hands.

Archival material is thus made contemporary and shown to be important now to the current young generation of Austrian feminist artists.

Elaine Burrows writes:

Coincidentally, the London Feminist Film Festival screening of Spuken in Archie! (Hauntings in the Archive!)  took place in the middle of the furore surrounding the pulling down of statues of figures of the American Civil War.  An interesting question: what do you do with a past that you or anyone else finds unsavoury?  It is your history, after all; it is also part of your country’s history.  At the very least, denying that that past exists is to falsify that history.

Hauntings in the Archive! is an attempt to pose the question, without necessarily expecting to formulate definitive answers.  As its programme note says, it:

“reflects on and exposes the his/herstory/ies of the Austrian Association of Women Artists ([Vereinigung bildender Künstlerinnen Österreichs] VBKÖ) through its century-old archive of letters, photos, catalogues and thousands of other documents. The Secretariat for Ghosts, Archive Politics and Gaps [Sekretariat für Geister, Archivpolitiken und Lucken, SKGAL] curates the material to conjure up the spectres of the multiple lives of the VBKÖ that meet and share the scene in the film: ghosts of national socialism encounter colonial fantasies and old and new feminist agencies.”

The VBKÖ website explains that, in 2013:

“The new Secretariat shall enable a critical analysis and examination of the association’s history. In particular, the role of the VBKOE during the course of Austrofaschism and Nationalsozialism will be discussed, alongside the association’s class-specific and colonial entanglements.

“The Secretariat establishes connections between projects, investigations and discussions by different authors and in various formats setting up a continual, multi-perspective and collective historical work. The structures and methods of the Secretariat will enable the continual analysis of historical narratives anew and create a space in which historical works can be learnt and unlearnt. Thereby, feminist and decolonizing perspectives will be integrated and debates will be made public.”

The VBKÖ was established in 1910 by a group of mainly middle-class women artists to support women and their art by lobbying for “improvements in artistic, economic and educational conditions, and to increase their representation, organising international collaborations”, and by providing exhibition spaces.   Several of its members became, to say the least, sympathetic to National Socialist policies.  Those who were Jewish were forced out.

The film shows documents and images from the VBKÖ archive, as well looking at a group of women on a tour of the premises, of rooms in the archive, and projections of a photograph of the (almost all as yet unidentified) members in the 1930s.  The documents – laid out individually, one on top of the other – consist of Minute books, letters, application forms, reproductions of paintings by members, and so on.  Commentary is occasionally direct to camera, but often consists of voice-over whispered questions about how to deal with the history represented.  Elsewhere, the soundtrack consists largely of quotations, many from women – Julie M Johnson’s book The Memory Factory (2012) looms large, but includes Derrida and Foucault’s musings on the nature of archives.  A question remained for me about when the decision to look archive critically was made, and when someone began to seriously examine what its contents represents, to explore those questions of the country’s past.

The trailer is available here and further information about the project can be found at http://www.ninahoechtl.org/works/hauntings-in-the-archive/

Ania Ostrowska is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton (UK), researching authorial agency of contemporary British women documentarians as part of AHRC-funded project Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture. Since 2011 she has been a film editor of popular British feminist blog: The F-Word.

Elaine Burrows worked for many years at what is now the BFI National Archive. She has been a member of WFTHN since it was founded, and is also a longstanding member of the boards of both Cinenova and the British Entertainment History Project.

[i] Please see our 2015 blog entry on Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures at Leeds University|: https://womensfilmandtelevisionhistory.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/feminist-archives-feminist-futures/

Image Credit: Nina Hoechtl and Julia Wieger / Secretariat for Ghosts, Archival Politics and Gaps, SPUKEN IM ARCHIV! (Hauntings in the Archive!), 2017, film still. Camera: Liesa Kovacs, Nick Prokesch