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Feminism & Film: No Single View
Reviewing Feminist Cinema

By Sheryl Mousley

From ‘60s Czech “girls gone bad” to a meticulous depiction of a Belgian mother’s domestic routine, the series And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema highlights the complex contours of the so-called “second wave” of the women’s movement. Walker film curator Sheryl Mousley and University of Minnesota English professor Paula Rabinowitz organized these 15 films in light of a broader resurgence of interest in women filmmakers of the ’70s. This is the Walker’s fourth annual series produced in collaboration with the university.

Paula Rabinowitz

With all the scholarship on women and film from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, maybe it’s not that surprising that our initial list for this series included about 40 films.

Sheryl Mousley

And it was hard to settle on the essential films for telling the story of this time frame. I saw an interesting parallel with Lynn Hershman Leeson and all the material she gathered for her film !Women Art Revolution. Ultimately, she concluded that she couldn’t tell the story of art and feminism; she was only telling her version of the story. So this series presents one view of feminist cinema.


We were aiming to show something about this earlier feminist moment that has been forgotten, or at least minimized or trivialized: the fact that feminism was much more diverse and international than people tend to think, and that it was concerned with racism and class. We wanted this series to give a sense of that complexity, to show that it was about so much more than middle-class women trying to get jobs.


Besides being international, the filmmakers we selected were working outside the economic structures of mainstream filmmaking of their time.


Almost all of them were self-financed. Even Sara Gómez and Vera Chytilová, who were part of the socialist state filmmaking systems in Cuba and Czechoslovakia, were basically the only women there, which essentially put them outside those structures. Another characteristic these films share is that they come with political baggage in some form or another weighing them down. They have an awkwardness that is endearing. You know there’s a real person behind them—someone deeply invested in undoing Hollywood conventions about narrative and women. They’re also intimate, and spectacularly beautiful.

Sex, Storytelling, and Interrogation: Two Landmark Films


These films all made waves in some way, but two in particular were known for sparking enormous conversations. First, there’s Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction.


I was at the University of Michigan in 1979 when Chick brought that film to a class I taught on feminism and film—the first of its kind there. Soft Fiction is another putative documentary — it’s simply women telling stories dealing with provocative sexual encounters and erotic fantasies. It’s not clear why they’re telling them, or if they’re truthful, but in doing so, they’re complicating our understanding of women’s sexual exploitation and trauma. This film was and still is quite shocking—at the time it contradicted the prevailing anti-pornography strand of feminism.


Then there’s Riddles of the Sphinx by Laura Mulvey from 1977, which really shook up the way people looked at film from a theoretical standpoint.


Right now there are about five or six new anthologies of feminist theory and criticism, and the history section of each begins with Laura Mulvey. As a film theorist, she had dealt with the idea of cinema making women a desired object; to some degree, she made this film to instantiate that.


She was really focusing on the gaze of the viewer—shifting the thinking to how you see a film on the screen, and giving a new kind of power to the viewer to be a part of the dynamic.


That reminds me of watching Marilyn Monroe on TV with my brother in the 1980s. I had never seen Let’s Make Love before — it’s silly and boring, so all you want is Marilyn Monroe. And I could tell my brother exactly when they were going to show her — reading Laura Mulvey’s work and watching Marilyn Monroe trained me. Laura Mulvey helped make sense of what was going on in things you didn’t know you knew.

Truth, Fiction, and Points In-Between


It’s important to note that, beyond their relationship to feminism, these filmmakers were breaking the rules, or setting new rules, for what film can be.


They were all experimenting in various ways. There’s a whole strand of films in the series that could be understood as documentaries, but they incorporate fictional aspects as well. In Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another, there’s a romance that plays out in post-revolutionary Cuba, but you get pissed off at having to watch and you eventually recognize that the filmmaker wants you to think about why you want the romance and not the documentary. Chantal Akerman plays with the idea of reality versus fiction in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, using very long documentary takes to show the medium of repetitive housework that serves capitalism. I mean, how else could you have a 20-minute sequence in which you learn to make meatloaf? Then with Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, Trinh T. Minh-Ha blows apart the idea of ethnographic film in a visually stunning way. It’s all about messing up that’s true and what’s not.

A New Generation’s Take on the ‘70 s


Since we started organizing this film series more than a year ago, it seems like something is in the air internationally regarding feminist film. There have been several other new publications in addition to those anthologies, new writing—and reprints of my own writing—and screenings of many of these films in the past couple of years.


In general, I think a lot of young women artists are realizing that feminism has a long and really complex story. The secondwave feminists of the ’60s and ’70s are seen as standing on the shoulders of the first wave, but now students are quite removed from that—which allows them to discover its history for themselves and make their mark in a new way.


Perhaps many of them are following the idea that history is the life your parents lived but don’t tell you about—a generation looking back at what their parents where living through in the ’70s. And I hope they’ll see how important film became to feminism. In the ’60s and ’70s, Hollywood and European films were important to everybody, and to feminists in particular as a central place where images of women were being placed, produced, promoted. Feminist film criticism began with investigations of these films, and then women filmmakers became a second stage of processing after looking at existing films and saying, “What’s wrong with this picture?”


And then they put themselves in the picture.

Surname Viet, Given Name Nam

Directed by Trinh T. Minh-ha

(c) Women Make Movies


Directed by Vera Chydtilova

One Way Or Another

Directed by Sara Gomez

(c) New Yorker Films

Poster for Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution