ICA Symposium Report

‘Onwards and Outwards’ Symposium

 Institute of Contemporary Arts

Ania Ostrowska

While we look forward to reviewing Doing Women’s Film History III – our third international conference just finished – Ania Ostrowska of Southampton University has written about the ‘Onwards and Outwards’ symposium held at Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Her in-depth reflection joins the growing body of commentary on our site which shows women’s history looking at its past to plan its future.

The ‘Onwards and Outwards’ season has been a unique programme of films made by British women filmmakers over the last fifty years that started in September 2015 at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and then spilt all over the country. On Saturday 12 December 2015, the ICA hosted a day-long symposium entitled:Women’s Filmmaking in Contemporary Britain.’


Xiaolu Guo ‘Far and Near’

Organised by Laura Mulvey (Birkbeck), Alison Butler and Lúcia Nagib (both at University of Reading), the event featured a good mixture of academics and practitioners, from filmmakers to programmers/curators. Framed by two panels looking at two contexts for women’s filmmaking in contemporary Britain (national filmmaking and authorship), the symposium also included a screening of Xiaolu Guo’s documentary short Far and Near (2003) and a session intriguingly titled ‘Provocations’. The audience was kept entertained and wriggling in their seats! Mandy Merck issued a great provocation that included a selection of sex scenes (from Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road), when we were asked to talk about sex rather analytically : brave volunteers shared their thoughts on what function, if any, they thought the scene fulfilled in the film’s plot and also how it made them feel, intimately or else.

With fifty years of filmmaking to reflect on, a historical perspective played a crucial role in establishing a dialogue between the past and the present, one embodied in practitioners and academics of different generations sharing their experiences and thinking together about the future..  Introducing first panel, Laura Mulvey remarked how the almost complete disappearance of collective culture rooted in the 1970s is a bigger than just ‘feminist’ issue, impoverishing film culture more generally. Holly Aylett reminisced on her 1980s experience of co-founding Broadside, the women’s collective which produced Channel 4’s first current affairs strand, and Angela Martin (on second panel) talked about Sheffield film co-op and Leeds Animation Workshop. Karen Alexander’s contribution to first panel focused on black film and video collectives from the 1980s, Black Audio Film Collective and perhaps less known Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Considering especially the women who worked in the latter -Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Alexander brought our attention to who gets remembered and who forgotten, and indeed the issue of canon formation (and challenging) recurred throughout the day.

How we remember our past significantly influences our choices about the present and the future. Alexander rejected a “diversity” approach as an ineffective one-size-fits-all strategy and suggested that retaining the collective spirit opens up possibilities of small change, worth pursuing despite inevitable “activism fatigue”. Other speakers confirmed that feminist practitioners, activists and academics keep going. Giving an account of her job as a curator and programmer, Jo Blair emphasised the importance of “all these little acts”, going an extra mile to reach out to new audiences. She spoke fondly of her current women-dominated programming team at Picturehouse cinemas, and hailed independent curatorial practices like I am Dora  (by Jemma Desai) and Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts’ A Nos Amours initiative.

British Chinese filmmaker and novelist Xiaolu Guo’s spoke of her difficulties as an immigrant woman filmmaker in Britain with the existing opportunities for both funding and networking, as most of her films were self-funded or financed abroad. Holly Aylett asserted that her international perspective as Head of Research for European Women’s Audiovisual Network (EWA) makes her a strong ‘believer’ in public funding, necessary if a diversified national cinema is to flourish.

The results of a pan-European study on the status of women directors which EWA was finalising in December 2015 were announced at Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016 and can be viewed on their website. As post-panel Q&As quoted numerous grim statistics about participation of women in the film industry both in the UK and internationally, they seemed to answer one of the questions setting the scene for the symposium: “Why, in 2015, is there still a need for funders and curators to develop and promote women’s filmmaking?”

This question was echoed in Alison Butler’s provocation ‘Why are symposia such as this still necessary today?’ The author of seminal Women’s Cinema: the Contested Screen (2002) considered the strategic value of the term and the need to reconsider it in the new audiovisual landscape, paying attention to emerging cultural forms. By contrast, Rachel Garfield spoke in defence of the kitchen sink aesthetics when considering how women’s films could challenge conventional cinema with an ‘alternative’ aesthetic.’

The last speaker of the day, Shelley Cobb, returned to the question of canons: those of the past, the question of who is able to act as the gatekeepers, and the ones we are constructing today. Talking about the rationale behind the current project she’s involved in, Calling the Shots’, she emphasised the urgency to record and write the outlines of the contemporary history of women filmmakers in the UK – before they are forgotten or lost altogether. Preserving those women’s work now will avoid a focus on excavating women’s history but building on it instead.

Ania Ostrowska is a PhD student, part of AHRC-funded project Calling the Shots at the University of Southampton, researching contemporary British women documentarians.


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