In the Film World, Who Speaks When She Speaks?

At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking

When writing about Chantal Akerman's still-new, formalist game-changer, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) for the second issue of Camera Obscura in 1977, critic Janet Bergstrom wrote: ‘The central problem in feminist film and literary works is this: is it possible for the woman to express her own desires? Who speaks when she speaks?’ Akerman responded in an accompanying interview: ‘It's not like I feel one way and my work expresses something else. But I can't define it any more theoretically. We speak of “women's rhythm,” but it isn't necessarily the same for all women.’ In ‘Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women's Stories’, curated by Nellie Killian, at New York’s Metrograph theatre (2 – 11 February), a number of exceptional films – all by women – address this ‘central problem’ that has been at the heart of feminist filmmaking of the past several decades. The questions raised now, in 2018, include not only whether it is possible for a woman to speak but also what happens when she is heard, and why it is that women's voices in cinema have so often been absent when women directors have been making films with women, for women and about women, in great and varied measure, for decades.

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Chantal Akerman, Aujourd’hui, dis-moi (Today, Tell Me), 1980, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

Chantal Akerman, Aujourd’hui, dis-moi (Today, Tell Me), 1980, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

The series takes its title from Akerman’s Aujourd’hui, dis-moi (Today, Tell Me) (1980). In that film, Akerman asks different women – all elderly survivors of the Holocaust – to speak for themselves. They recount their lives, families and the war with a radiant, intimate precision. Akerman eschews the normal documentary style and does not present them as talking heads; rather, she places her subjects beside herself, in front of the camera, subtly drawing our attention to her role as hesitant granddaughter of a familiar history: her mother was her family’s sole survivor of Auschwitz and refused to speak about her memories of the camps, prompting Akerman to have childhood nightmares based on what she imagined her family to have experienced. In ‘Tell Me’, however, the voice of Akerman's mother Nelly is heard, and it carries the filmmaker through her visits with the women she documents. ‘On grandmothers. I didn’t have one anymore; in voice-over, my mother talks of hers,’ wrote Akerman of the film. While recently watching it, I began to sense, or re-sense – as I had in watching Agnès Varda’s Réponse de femmes: Notre corps, notre sexe (1975), Liane Brandon’s Betty Tells Her Story (1972), Geri Ashur’s Janie’s Janie (1971), Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill’s Joyce at 34 (1972), Roberta Cantow’s Clotheslines (1982), Claire Simon’s Mimi (2003) and Camille Billops’s Suzanne, Suzanne (made with James V. Hatch in 1982), all very different films included in the series – that our understanding of women’s stories has been predicated on our silences.

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Chick Strand, Soft Fiction, 1979, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

Chick Strand, Soft Fiction, 1979, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

This is something that feminists, particularly black feminist writers like Ntozake Shange and bell hooks, have been calling our attention to for years, especially in relation to depictions of domestic life. Shange has written about a ‘conspiracy of silence’ that has ‘constructed as disloyal or antimale any attempt to name the vulnerability of black women to abuse,’ as Valerie Smith notes in an essay on Suzanne, Suzanne, a documentary which breaks down romantic claims for middle-class family harmony when Billops stylishly stages a ‘real’ – and transformative – conversation between a mother and grown daughter about their shared, previously unspoken suffering. In other films, we see and hear women express themselves in ways seldom heard: a woman voicing a desire that seems to long for itself. As an initial subject of Chick Strand’s euphoric, brutal Soft Fiction (1979) explains while vaguely remembering a curving banister at the Pasadena Museum of California Art: ‘I have a wave of desire going through my body to become this railing.’

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Barbara Hammer, Audience, 1981, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

Barbara Hammer, Audience, 1981, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

Practically speaking, another silence has marked these films – namely, the absence of their distribution, promotion, and preservation, particularly work from the 1970s and ’80s. In recent decades, Electronic Arts Intermix and the Academy Film Archive have sought to rectify earlier lapses in preserving and collecting these films, and we can thank the latter for the new print of Barbara Hammer’s excellent portrait of theatre-going crowds in San Francisco, London, and Montréal, Audience (1981), which screens at Metrograph on 10 February. ‘Tell Me’ repositions the history of women filmmakers as one of ‘startling intimacy,’ as Killian writes, between filmmaker and her subject – an implicit (but marked) divergence from the position such ‘personal films’ have occupied in the feminist-film theorist's canon, where cinema made in the male-dominated lineages of Structural, materialist and avant-garde film of the past 70 years received the bulk of critical attention. In ‘Tell Me’, Killian presents an array of practices and strategies that have defined the under-known aspects of women’s cinema, including the newsreel and the intimate portrait, cinema-vérité and realism, formal experimentation and autobiography.

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Agnès Varda, Réponse de Femmes: Notre Corps, Notre Sexe (Women Reply), 1975, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

Agnès Varda, Réponse de Femmes: Notre Corps, Notre Sexe (Women Reply), 1975, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

Many of the films are calls to action. Delphine Seyrig’s Sois belle et tais-toi (Be Pretty and Shut Up, 1981) shines a welcome light on Seyrig as an activist director (she worked often with Swiss director Carole Roussopoulos, who was the subject of a recent Anthology Film Archives retrospective). Seyrig interviews actresses like Maria Schneider, Shirley MacLaine, Ellen Burnstyn, Juliet Berto and Jane Fonda (who dispels industry myths in French), drawing our attention to her own feminist consciousness as a filmmaker. We see a variety of responses to other issues, both personal and political, that have shaped women’s lives, too. In Varda's Réponse, women's voices are heard as their bodies move around a staging area: ‘I don’t like my body being exploited to boost sales … even if it’s not me.’ Ashur's Janie recounts experiences of domestic abuse: ‘He should see my mouth now.’ And among these voices, we note that silences, ellipses, deflections, gestures and physicality can sustain entire scenes: many of these filmmakers cut to close shots of women's hands, folding over each other as their owner's voice talks above them.

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Camille Billops and James V. Hatch, Suzanne, Suzanne, 1982, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

At a recent talk at MoMA, directors Peggy Ahwesh and Barbara Hammer emphasized the necessity that women’s bodies also comprise, either in whole or in part, their film crews; hiring women for production was much less common in the 1970s and ’80s than it is today, both artists noted. In many of the films in ‘Tell Me’, the director herself steps into the visual field. In From Romance to Ritual (1985), Ahwesh is spotted listening to a woman, first shown by the camera at eye-level, as she talks about her sexual history while slipping out of frame (‘After him there was no such thing as a normal relationship’). Billops appears next to her brother in the mirror in Suzanne, Suzanne (1982). In Simon’s Mimi (2003), we hear the director’s voice as her friend hovers, yards away, near the looming entryway of a church in Nice, nervously talking about a woman she once loved. And in Yvonne Rainer’s meta-nonfiction film Privilege (1990), the director’s role in constructing a narrative is brought to the fore. Rainer casts an African-American woman to play Yvonne, a filmmaker interviewing Jenny, a white woman in her middle years, about the subject of menopause. In flashbacks, Jenny's life in New York City is elaborately reenacted so as to tell of disturbing realities. These filmic insertions of the director, or these stand-ins for director, aren’t meant to be read as technical tricks, meaning produced by reveal, though certainly Ahwesh, Strand, Rainer, and Liane Brandon have been in search of authenticity as it dissolves in and out of performance. ‘My body in a movie is very important, it says something by itself, it has the weight of the Real. I can’t have actresses playing my clumsiness,’ Akerman once said. Casting oneself in a film, we learn, can also be about dismantling potency of authority, of authorship. All the better if these particular bodies show – and tell – how a director makes movies. 

‘Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women's Stories’, curated by Nellie Killian, runs at New York’s Metrograph theatre from 2 – 11 February.

Main image: Agnès Varda, Réponse de Femmes: Notre Corps, Notre Sexe (Women Reply), 1975, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York

Corina Copp is a writer and poet based in New York.

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