Still from ‘Anything You Want To Be’, Dir: Liane Brandon, 1971.
Still from ‘Anything You Want To Be’, Dir: Liane Brandon, 1971.
Figures 3 and 4. Anne Charlotte Robertson, cover and first page of school report titled, “Is This my Life?” From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University, box CC 13R24, “Papers – Diary 1961-1968.” Photos: Brett Kashmere.
In 2012, following Robertson’s passing, the artist’s films, audiotapes, photographs, and some papers, including the rights, were bequeathed to Harvard Film Archive (HFA). The gift was arranged through the help of Robertson’s friend and small gauge film preservationist Toni Treadway, of Brodsky & Treadway.[i] This donation has numerous relevancies to media historians. For one, Robertson’s films are not available through any other source. Nor are they very well known. Given the brittleness and camera-original singularity of Super 8 reversal, and the multi-reel, multi-system nature of Robertson’s projects, which combined sound-on-film, sound-on-tape, and live improvised narration, these films present an unusual set of complications for programmers, which has contributed to their disappearance from public view. Fortunately, the HFA is currently undertaking a project to preserve the entirety of Robertson’s work to both 16mm film and digital formats. Approximately half of her most renowned (if only read about or partially seen) film, Five Year Diary has now been digitized but work remains to be done with the accompanying audio for some reels. According to Harvard’s Film Conservator Liz Coffey, these films should be ready by May 2018. The date of completion for the remainder of the Diary’s restoration is not yet known. Most of Robertson’s standalone shorter works, numbering more than 30, have been digitized at this point. Many of these films and parts of the Diary have begun screening again, including at the 2015 Viennale, 2015 Rotterdam, and 2017 Toronto International Film Festivals, and Documenta 14.
A unique part of HFA’s Robertson collection is the extensive written materials contained within, including hand- and typewritten diaries that trace back to Robertson’s childhood.[ii] The diaries, organized chronologically into binders by the artist, provide countless new avenues and potential insights into Robertson’s development and process as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker; and map her transition from (private) diary writing to (public) personal documentary filmmaking. What new understandings might arise about Robertson’s transition from writing into filmmaking and the development of her unique diary film style, as well as the social and cultural forces and discourses that helped shape it, through a careful reading of these and other papers? Although the question exceeds the scope of this article my hope is that it animates future research.
Figure 5. Handmade MassArt screening flier. From Harvard Film Archive, Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection.
Considering the Diary’s cultural formation, its modes of authorship and performance, and its expanded multi-media configuration in relation to its exhibition and reception, my analysis repositions Robertson’s work as an essential contribution to the histories of feminist media and experimental film. It is one that interrogates and can still trouble traditional gender conventions and mainstream representations of femininity and is thus inextricable from the greater movement of challenge enacted by second wave feminism. Her story is missing from this history. Similarly, her daily filmmaking practice provided a bold revision of the diary form. Her work is missing from this history as well.
To better recognize and appreciate Robertson’s unique contributions, I propose a more permeable, interdisciplinary framework. Five Year Diary’s forms and content, for instance, suggest relationships to the psychological, sexually charged animation of Mary Beams, Lisa Crafts, and Suzan Pitt,[iii] all of whom worked at Harvard in the 1970s, rather than with male personal documentarists like Ed Pincus and Ross McElwee. The fact that Robertson hasn’t been addressed alongside any of them in histories of experimental media and first-person cinema reveals a lack of imagination in thinking across categories. Bracketing animation from live action film, video, and performance, or separating avant-garde from documentary, siloes and thereby diminishes the thematic and conceptual cross-genre resonances between these different modes of coterminous creative practice. This was especially harmful for those working outside the major centers at the time, where critical attention was more limited.
Finally, with respect to exhibition: Robertson preferred that Diary be presented in a continuous marathon fashion, accompanied by improvised narration, performance, sound on tape, and furniture and other items from her home, such as photo albums and favorite books. As the project grew in length this created obvious logistical challenges; limiting the venues it could be screened at. “Complete” versions have rarely been shown and early video transfers of select reels were of lackluster quality. Balancing access and screening opportunities against care for her fragile camera original material, and without the financial means to create prints or pristine transfers made distribution challenging and was a barrier to art world acceptance. Throughout her lifetime, Robertson self-distributed her films out of necessity, which partially explains why her work hasn’t been collected by museums. The nature of her chosen medium in combination with environmental considerations and requirements limited how and how often Robertson’s work would be seen. When you consider the content – “super-confrontational Super 8 psychodramas… borderline funny…” – the material hurdles made it easier for cultural influencers like curators and critics to bypass the work entirely.
Robertson’s exclusion from a book focused on and around personal documentary and ethnographic filmmaking in Boston and Cambridge, near to where she grew up, studied, and worked for most of her life, is symbolic of how small-gauge, women, and feminist filmmakers are regularly neglected or footnoted. The paucity of writing on Robertson’s work provokes many questions, not least a failure to find a context due to its multi-faceted quality: feminist, avant-garde and personal. Did it fail to satisfy ‘purist’ perspectives of each category? And what are the consequences of her omission from conventional film histories? Robertson’s own description of her Super 8 opus elucidates some of the factors that have dictated its absence while at the same time identifying the lack it potentially fulfills:
I am a 50-year-old woman, single, with a vow to poverty. The title Five Year Diary refers to the little blank books with locks and keys, that allow only a few lines to each day’s notation; the audience is invited to be my brother and sister, and see what a life can yield. My present and future hope is to leave a full record of a woman in the 20th century.[iv]
This is Part Two of Brett Kashmere’s contribution on Anne Charlotte Robertson: Part One can be found here.
Brett Kashmere is a media artist, historian, and curator living in Oakland, California. His writing on experimental cinema, moving image art, and alternative film exhibition has appeared in Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Senses of Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, The Films of Jack Chambers, and Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable. Kashmere is currently a doctoral student in Film + Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also the founding editor of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.
Special thanks to Jeremy Rossen for his assistance in researching this article, and to Yulia Gilichinskaya, Rona Murray, Elana Santana, Dorothy R. Santos, and Shelley Stamp for their helpful comments and suggestions.
[i] A few of the films, by stipulation of Robertson’s will, are not available for viewing until 2023.
[ii] Although the papers have not been processed yet, they’re currently available to Harvard faculty, students, and outside researchers for on-site consultation. The papers and photographs constitute 19 boxes of material.
[iii] Thanks to Herb Shellenberger for bringing this point to my attention.
[iv] Anne Charlotte Robertson, “Five Year Diary,” artistic statement, in The Five Year Diary: Anne Charlotte Robertson, edited by Benjamin Cook and Barbara Rodriguez-Munoz (London: LUX, 2014), 18.
Breaking the Sound Barrier: Women Sounding Out in British and Irish Film & Television
(Organised by the Women’s Film & Television History Network UK/Ireland, held at the BFI Southbank and supported by MeCCSA Women’s Media Studies Network)
Breaking the Sound Barrier, a WFTHN event held at the BFI in June 2016, followed the tradition of unearthing women’s contribution to cinema by bringing together film scholars, researchers, and practitioners whose passionate engagement with film culture brought to life this key aspect of women’s film history. It continued to question how parts of film historiography do not necessarily become part of the film canon. The event was organised in celebration of the network’s 10-year anniversary and was dedicated to highlighting film research into women’s work in sound media and the work they have produced. The whole day emphasised how sound constitutes a rich, if sometimes overlooked, area of study. The event could be described as a constellation of personal and professional perspectives: including illustrated presentations, a lively round table discussion with the audience, and concluding with special film screenings from the silent and sound periods of British film and television.
The presentations opened with a historical overview of the transition from silent to sound film by Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, Laraine Porter, who offered a very concise perspective on the transition to sound in the industry, a moment in which control passed to male technicians.[i]
Film historian Melanie Bell[ii] continued this historical perspective, sharing her work in progress on women filmmakers and women sound operatives. Notable amongst these careers was that of industry-acclaimed Foley artist Beryl Mortimer – ‘Beryl the Boots.’[iii]
Emma Sandon offered an enlightening presentation on the work of idiosyncratic and independent woman music composer, Elisabeth Lutyens, demonstrating the diversity of her work including for The Boy Kumasenu (1952), set in Ghana[iv] and The Skull (1965) whose popular soundscape earned her the name of ‘Horror Queen’.
David Butler of Manchester University, where the Delia Derbyshire Archive is based[v], offered insightful notes into this radical sound designer and composer of the 1960s, who pioneered developments at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and was the creator of the iconic Doctor Who theme. A special touch was the screening of For Delia (2016), a visual response to her work by artist Mary Stark, accompanied by a collage of Derbyshire’s own music and sound effects produced between 1966-1968.[vi]
The afternoon saw a shift to more personal accounts of women engaging practically with sound from the 1970s to more recent contexts. Terry Wragg described ‘how we learnt to do sound for ourselves’ as a founder member of Leeds Animation Workshop. Both early and late works resonated with the audience, from Pretend You’ll Survive (1981) and the most recent work They Call Us Maids (2015) which narrates the real-life stories of migrant women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who become maids in the host countries.
Sound editor Adèle Fletcher elaborated on her own more contemporary experience in the film industry, noting a gender divide whereby sound effects work tends to attract male technicians whereas dialogue attracts female sound editors. Judi Lee-Headman, who has been working as a production sound mixer for three decades, explained how it was the technology itself which attracted her and gave a fascinating insight into current challenges involved in working live and on-set.
There followed a round table discussion with experts, chaired by Bryony Dixon of the National Film and Television Archives (NFTVA), in which the audience engaged in a lively Q&A session focusing particularly on questions relating to the prioritization of the visual over sound in study and considered whether the interplay between sound and image could be a means of exploring gendered subjectivity further. The event concluded with the screening of four films by women directors – Beatrice Gilman, Jill Craigie, Joanna Davis, and Sally Potter – introduced by Angela Martin.
The network was especially pleased to host the premiere of Catherine Grant’s film essay: The Secret Thoughts of Laura Jesson (As Voiced by Celia Johnson) a haunting critical imagining of Brief Encounter’s innermost voice.
The event was staged with the support of the MeCCSA Women’s Media Studies Network, AMPS, and the University of Sunderland. We owe our special thanks to the BFI and to the organisers: Lee-Jane Benion-Nixon, Elaine Burrows, Christine Gledhill, Deborah Jermyn, Janet McCabe, Angela Martin, and Emma Sandon.
Fjoralba Miraka is a PhD candidate at Roehampton University of London in the Department of Media, Culture and Language. Her Research focuses on the Hollywood Renaissance period of the late 1960s-mid 1970s. She holds and MA degree in American Literature and Culture and a BA in English Language and Philology, both from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Since 2014 she has been presenting at international conferences, in 2016 she offered two guest lectures at the University of Connecticut in London (UCONN), and she is interested in supporting feminist projects such as the FiLia exhibition in December 2016.
[i] Laraine Porter is currently working on the AHRC -funded project: ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound.’
[ii] See: Melanie Bell and Vicky Ball’s AHRC-funded research project on women in British Film and TV from 1933 to 1989.
[iv] See Emma Sandon’s journal article: ‘Cinema and Highlife in the Gold Coast: The Boy Kumasenu (1952)’ in Journal of African Studies, 2013, 39 (3)
[v] See the celebration Delia Derbyshire Day, held at HOME in Manchester.
XXVI Conference of the International Association for Media and History
“Media and History Revisited”
Indiana University (Bloomington, IN, USA), 17-20 June 2015
Closing date for proposals (extended): before March 1, 2015
Confirmed Keynote-Speaker: Robert Rosenstone
Papers are invited for the biennial IAMHIST (International Association of Media and History) Congress, to be held at Indiana University (Bloomington, IN, USA) on the theme of “Media and History Revisited.” We welcome paper proposals on film, radio, television, and new media of all eras and nationalities shedding new light on longstanding or recent media historical topics. Themes to explore might include (but are not limited to):
Proposals for papers should be sent to prof Brett Bowles (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Please include an abstract of no more than 300 words and a cover sheet with a brief biographical note, your institutional affiliation (where relevant) and your contact details (including your email address).
We welcome proposals either for individual papers or full panels of 3-4 papers. We anticipate sessions of 90 minutes (20 minutes per paper plus 30 minutes of questions / discussion).
Closing date for proposals: 1 March 2015
You will be notified of the acceptance of your paper by 20 March 2015.
It is expected that the conference fee will be approximately $150. Day rates and reduced rates for postgraduate students will be available. All participants are expected to be IAMHIST members. Membership includes several benefits, including a subscription to the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television. Details about IAMHIST membership can be found on the website.