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 to the development of feminist cinema, Club Des Femmes as a collective, and Agnes Varda. This is the first part of an extended transcript of the interview which ran on the July 28th edition of the show. The second part can be read here.
Toby Miller: To begin, would you be able to tell me a little bit about Club des Femmes, and when it started, and what it’s doing?
Selina Robertson: Club des Femmes started in 2007, 11 years ago now. And it was myself, and a friend of mine called Sarah Wood. She’s an artist, filmmaker, and curator. We both were working at the Independent Cinema Office, and we just became friends and realised we had lots in common. I had just finished working at the BFI. I was one of the programmers at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival – it’s called BFI Flare now – and she had been working for quite some time at the Cambridge Film Festival, so we’d both been working for quite big institutions.
We were frustrated at the time in London because apart from BFI Flare, there wasn’t any other opportunity around the year to watch experimental feminist cinema or, say, queer, avant-garde films. So we decided to form a film club, and we called ourselves Club des Femmes. And we had our first screening at Curzon Soho, and we opened with a film by Lizzie Borden called BORN IN FLAMES, and we screened work by filmmakers like Sadie Benning and Vivienne Dick and other filmmakers. Then we just sort of continued, really. It was basically putting on films that we wanted to bring back to the cinema, we invited our friends and then it just built and built, and we’re still here 11 years later!
This tour that we’re doing at the moment, Revolt, She Said: Women and Film after ’68, is basically our highest profile project, and we’re doing it in partnership with the ICO.
But the beginning was just putting on some films we’d like to see back in the cinema and just to invite our friends along. And we’ve been really, really lucky because, at the beginning, we were self-funded, but in time we started applying for funding from Film London, and for this project we’ve been funded by the BFI. So it’s been amazing actually.
And the collective now has grown to include Sophie Mayer who’s a feminist, activist, curator, writer, and Jenny Clarke who’s just joined us; she’s a young curator. Campbell X is an artist, filmmaker, and curator, and Alex Thiele who is an independent producer. So there’s a number of us now working on different projects at different levels – sometimes more mainstream films and sometimes, more alternative underground films.
TM: The Revolt, She Said Tour is nine films. Is the idea of the ‘Revolt, She Said’, partly at least, to introduce films of – and I understand this is not the best definition – second-wave feminism to fourth-wave feminism? I asked that because there’s a statement on your website, “Where is the feminist revolution now?” which suggests you may be concerned that something is missing.
SR: Well, I think that question that we’ve posed is these are the debates that we are having post-screening across the UK. It’s not to say that something is lacking. It’s just to create some conversation between our panelists and the audiences. There’s a lot of very vibrant feminist cinema at the moment. I think it’s in a very healthy state. But what we wanted to do with Revolt, She Said is reflect back on this very rich history of feminist and queer cinema that might not have been traced so clearly back to May ’68. I remember at university reading about the failure of ’68, that there was this amazing dynamic moment in Paris, and then, because of infighting, it failed and imploded.
But what we’re saying is from that time the women’s movement was founded, that was arguably the most radical kind of social revolution of the 20th century. So our project was really looking at a different history of ’68 and looking at the women’s movement that came out of that but also the gay liberation movement, and there’s also the black liberation movement and post-colonial cinema. And we’re not showing films from the fourth-wave feminists, more contemporary cinema, we’re sort of showing work up until 1992.
There’s a documentary called A PLACE OF RAGE by Pratibha Parmar about black activism in the States that allied with, sort, of civil rights and LGBT rights, civil rights of Angela Davis. And in 1992, sort of the third wave of such was named by Rebecca Walker and that the third wave is, kind of, ideas around, sort of, intersectionality. I’m a bit reticent to describe feminism in terms of waves because it points to succeeding and failing. What we like to think about is that feminism has long history right back to the suffragettes.
Our project is basically looking at different kind of movements within the 20th century. And I think also one of the ideas around the Revolt, She Said tour is because this year is the 100th anniversary of womens suffrage, we’re thinking about the suffragettes and their activism and fights that they did in order for us to be active and engaged today. So one of the other ideas is that we’re exploring some of the archive material that’s still available to be screened from the suffragettes’ time.
We’ve been working with Isabel Moir who works at the ICO. She’s been in touch with some regional archives to see if there’s a history of regional women’s activism that’s being shot on film that we can screen. So we’re trying to link up the first movement of protest from the suffragettes, to ’68, to the idea of feminist resistance that came out of Greenham Common and link that right up to the third-wave.
TM: In any discussion, with say experimental or avant-garde music, there’s an accepted canon that is entirely male – because the canon has been dictated by predominantly male critics. I wondered if that was the same case with experimental and radical filmmakers. Is film history in that an area selected along gender lines?
SR: Yes, I’m afraid there has been a history of that. It comes back to who are the gatekeepers of that history? Who’s invested in keeping those canons active? And obviously, a couple of years ago, that kind of terminology and unconscious bias came out, where people are wanting to fund, program, or review films that reflect their own image.
We want to say this like there’s been a very rich history of women in the avant-garde that feminist filmmakers have been writing about since the ’70s. I’m thinking of people like Maya Deren, Germaine Dulac, Yvonne Rainer, Margaret Tait, Julie Dash. Feminist historians and critics have been writing about and programming these filmmakers since the ’70s. It’s just that they have traditionally been written out of existence and also written out of being influential, because a lot of times certain male filmmakers, or critics, or historians, just reference other male filmmakers, or critics, or historians. It’s mirroring that image.
I was thinking about that question because even when Venice announced its program this year, the head of the festival defended his decision to include only one woman in the competition this year. They went on to say that a third of the films that they watched were made by women, but they could only find one woman that was good enough. I read on Twitter that someone commented that Venice makes a feminist message, which I also find funny. These things are just perpetually being reproduced. But as I said, there’s a very rich history of women working within the avant-garde that historians have been writing about, researching, and working on restoring since the ’70s.
The second part of Toby’s interview with Selina covers Agnes Varda, and her position within the French New Wave. Read it here.