Toby Miller of Cambridge 105FM’s long-running Bums On Seats cinema show sat down with Selina Robertson of Club Des Femmes to discuss the group’s current tour – Revolt, She Said: Women and Film after ’68 – in addition of the development of feminist cinema, Club Des Femmes as a collective, and Agnes Varda. This is the second part of an extended transcript of the interview which ran on the July 28th edition of the show. The first part can be read here.
Toby Miller: That unbalance leads me to Agnès Varda. You have one Agnes Varda film in your current tour: ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T. What struck me when I was watching that film on Monday is that her role in French cinema seems to have been significantly downplayed. Is that the case?
Selina Robertson: I think she has always been seen as somewhat adjunct to the French New Wave. In her sixth decade of artistic practice, she’s not only a filmmaker: she’s a photographer, she’s a writer, she draws, and she’s now also a visual artist. Again, it took the work of feminist historians. There was a woman called Sandy Flitterman-Lewis in the ’90s and also more recently Jeannette Van Fondue. They both have worked on reinstating her at the heart of the new wave. Agnes Varda made a film in 1954 called LA POINTE COURTE, and it is now being considered as pre-empting the new wave, and people like Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette because of her intellectual and aesthetic ambitions in the film.
She actually wasn’t in Paris in ’68. She was in California making a film about the Black Panthers. I think it’s quite telling that she comes back after ’68, and that’s when she becomes very much invested and involved in the the women’s movement. She then makes this wonderful film, ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T about her involvement with the Mouvement de libération des femmes and their activism around reproductive rights.
So yes, I think she has been sidelined. But she’s always someone who’s actually been quite open and happy to be on the margins. She’s always said that. But now I guess in her 90th year she wants to be reassessed. I want to stress this: feminists have always placed her in the center, but it’s always seemed to be male mainstream canon who’ve put her to one side. But that’s now changing, which is amazing.
TM: To keep within the French New Wave and Agnès Varda – is there a knock on effect of having a male-dominated canon that perpetuates a female stereotype within what seems like a progressive framework? I know that when I was a young film buff there was a sense of a wider world when encountering the French New Wave, but when I saw Agnes Varda’s films I realised that Godard, Truffaut and others were still presenting an idealised form of female character.
SR: That’s why we need a more diverse film culture because then we’re having more diverse stories and a greater level of representation. Agnes Varda often really touches on things like breastfeeding, or knitting, or letter writing, postcard writing: the power and the intimacy of a female friendship. The actresses that she cast in ONE SINGS have incredibly distinctive faces that play against that sort of stereotype.
Agnes Varda is much more interested in the real, everyday woman. At the beginning of ONE SINGS you have these fantastic photographs that Agnes Varda has taken of different women, at different stages of their life, just being themselves. She’s always had a commitment to that, and she’s always had a commitment to representing women authrentically: not an image that’s manufactured or produced.
TM: Indeed. The male photographer at the beginning of ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T who takes those photographs thinks he’s presenting a three-dimensional view of womanhood, but he isn’t. He’s putting them on a pedestal.
SR: Absolutely. That’s a great double reading, isn’t it? In the film where she’s making a very strong comment about that. She’s very careful writing that character – the tortured male photographer – with some sympathy because he’s obviously someone who’s very restless and burdened, but then has a kind of a critique of that too in a very fundamental way.
TM: With this new BFI tour, is it important to remind people of Agnes Varda’s political activism? As a cultural figure, you see pictures of her with her cat, and suddenly the activism side seems ‘defanged’ slightly.
SR: Agnes Varda has always been very outspoken about the fact that she’s a feminist. he came to the BFI earlier this month and I met her – it was incredible. She gave this masterclass for 90 minutes. Even in the second sentence, she’s declaring that she’s a feminist and she realised that’s quite a radical act because there’s still a lot of filmmakers today who won’t acknowledge their political activism. You can’t ignore the fact that she’s 90, she’s always allied with her cats, she’s lived in the same house for many years.
But her activism is in the films that she’s made. ONE SINGS is the most predominantly feminist film that she made, but then you’ve got something like VAGABOND, which is an extraordinary film about a young woman’s desire to live free, and it’s probably her most radical film. In terms of taking those ideas of feminism to the very end, I think VAGABOND really manifests that.
Agnes Varda has now become a touchstone for many debates in film culture in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era. She’s being reappraised by the mainstream within the context of a film industry that’s incredibly gender-biased, sexist, racist, and homophobic on multiple levels.
She has always said that she wants to work outside of the mainstream. She’s very happy working within the margin. For her first film LA POINTE COURTE, she funded herself. She’d never had any experience of making a film. She was a photographer. The production company that she started – Cine-Tamaris – is still her production company. She still has complete control over her cultural output,is really incredible.
The first part of Toby’s interview with Selina covered Club Des Femmes, feminist cinema, and the “Revolt, She Said” tour. Read it here.