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.

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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

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.