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A Celebration of Overlooked Women Filmmakers

At the Courtisane Film Festival, Ghent, Mónica Savirón and María Palacios Cruz's programme of works by neglected women artists

At this year’s Courtisane Film Festival in Ghent, Belgium, one of the festival's curators, María Palacios Cruz, and New York-based filmmaker Mónica Savirón curated a programme of nine 16mm films, produced between 1970 and 2018, by women artists who are in dialogue with Savirón's own practice. In their introduction, Savirón quoted the feminist British filmmaker Lis Rhodes on the need to lay bare the links and fractures in the voices of women connected by similar constraints. Rhodes’s urgent call for a communal space of reflection ends on a lyrical note: ‘I find knitting to be a continuous occupation and I am full of gratitude because I realize how much I am indebted to the hands that wield the needles.’

Links, needles and hands. Guided by affinity and association, Palacios Cruz and Savirón programmed films that have suffered a degree of neglect, alongside two of Savirón's own works. Rhodes and Joanne Davis’s Hang on a Minute (1983) – a series of 13, one-minute shorts – was intended for the UK broadcaster Channel 4 as interventions slotted between regular programmes, but only six episodes were originally shown; the rest were deemed too daring. The words ‘Hang on a Minute’ flashes on-screen before each film; its hectoring tone echoing the language of TV commercials. One sequence quickly segues from a woman at her breakfast table to a newspaper report on the nuclear bomb. Throughout the series, home meets global economics; domestic space is restaged as Brechtian political theatre.  

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Julia Heyward, Shake Daddy Shake, 1976, film still. Courtesy: the artist and the Courtisane Film Festival, Ghent

Fractures reflect the physical imperfections and quirks of 16mm; Savirón’s short film Answer Print (2016), for example, which served as the focal point of the programme, was made from deteriorating stock. There are also audible cracks: in Savirón’s rhythmic short Broken Tongue (2014), the artist collaborates with performer Tracie Morris, setting the images of archival and contemporary pages from The New York Times to the syncopated lines that always end on the word ‘Africa’. Brilliantly orchestrated by Morris as throaty, dissonant music, the sounds mirror historical voices that have been silenced.

Silence also rules over Tanya Syed’s Chameleon (1990) a mostly silent black and white film. Within its terse five minutes, a woman’s body is revealed in parts, as hands and feet, in a rhythmic alliteration, interlaced with images of falling fabric and black, softly swaying, hair. The scene’s intimacy and delicate choreography recall Maya Deren’s equally time-warped, dreamlike staging. As the woman steps into the street, her body emerges whole. But when the noise and pedestrians invade her space, an ambivalent exchange takes place – on one hand, liberation from the house’s confines and from the repetitiveness, however fluid, of domestic chores, on the other, the fact that we only catch a glimpse of her face, before she blends into the drifting crowd, anonymous.

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Tanya Syed, Chameleon, 1990, film still. Courtesy: the artist and the Courtisane Film Festival, Ghent

Needles appear briefly in Hang on a Minute, but also serve as the programme’s overriding metaphor, as symbols not only of intricate and patient manual work, but also of the conceptual weaving – of metaphors, methods, and themes – that guides Savirón. One example is the transition from Savirón’s Broken Tongue – Morris’s spoken word poem – to Alia Syed’s Fatima’s Letter (1991), a black and white, 20-minute film in which an Urdu-speaking woman confesses her geographic and cultural dislocation against a back-drop of grainy images of the London Underground. In both films, a sense of temporal and spatial dislocation is met with the need to speak. Language never quite makes the subjects whole, yet it bears witness to their fragmentation. 

Finally, hands. In the intimate Chameleon, they can signal both labour and a caress. Hands are even more central in Song for Four Hands (1970), a Super 8 film transferred to 16mm, by Dutch artist Barbara Meter, an important figure in Amsterdam’s experimental scene in the 1970s, whose work Savirón has brought back into circulation. In Meter’s four-minute short, hands and faces – the latter often reduced to lips and eyes in extreme close-ups – appear in quick, alternating takes. Meter’s films – which question traditional notions of portraiture and of gender – are often composite portraits screened on multiple channel. Her sensual editing also evokes the artisanal touch of all of the programme’s 16mm films. 

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 Mónica Savirón, Broken Tongue, 2013, fillm still. Courtesy: the artist and the Courtisane Film Festival

In Julia Heyward’s riveting performance film, Shake Daddy Shake (1976), the hand is a sign of protest. In this chilling, poetic act of exorcism, Heyward shot her own performance on stage at the Judson Memorial Church, in New York, where she evoked her preacher father, a forbidding paternalistic figure, his hands warped with palsy. A much quieter protest takes place in Susan Stein’s (1979), in which woman’s hands and their deliberate movement on a typewriter echo Rhodes and Davis’s demand for a woman’s intellectual space. Lastly, Savirón and Palacios Cruz’s own gestural power lies in bringing these gorgeous films together and in doing so, calls our attention to the cumulative effect of silencing women. Writing via email, Savirón echoes Rhodes by calling the programme ‘an act of gratitude, a search for democratization of voices’.

Main image: Lis Rhodes and Joanne Davis’s, Hang on a Minute, 1983, film still. Courtesy: the artist and the Courtisane Film Festival, Ghent

Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and curator in the United States and Latin America. She writes for publications such as Art in America, Film Comment, frieze and the Village Voice and runs a film site, Lyssaria.

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