This article appeared in the August 4, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Blind Spot (Claudia von Alemann, 1980) Courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, Berlin
Last year, writing about the recent restoration of Claudia von Alemann’s Blind Spot (1980) for Cinema Scope, scholar, critic, and curator Erika Balsom concluded some thinking on feminist historiography and “archive fever” with an important projection: “The work ahead—and already underway—involves not just remembering ‘forgotten’ women but dismantling the mechanisms that led to their oblivion.” A bold reminder for the feminist writer preoccupied with her own rescue fantasies. Von Alemann’s film follows historian Elisabeth, who has left her family in order to retrace the footsteps through Lyon of 19th-century socialist-feminist activist Flora Tristan. Her research and encounters along the way inevitably lead her past any fantasized communion with Tristan and into new correspondences. Von Alemann writes history differently, Balsom intimates, by “urg[ing] experimentation with altered frameworks of intelligibility, recognizing something that must be remembered today: simply populating old structures with new heroines will only reinscribe the marginalization that must be overcome.”
Blind Spot is hardly alone in its experiment with the past, as the show No Master Territories: Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image, running throughout the summer at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin before moving to Warsaw in 2023, makes evident. Co-curated by Balsom and colleague Hila Peleg, co-editors of the literary anthology Documentary Across Disciplines, the show is dedicated to “moving image works by and about women, made in defiance of commercial norms [and fiction-based, auteuristic impulses], that seek to invent new languages for the representation of gendered experience.” This many-tentacled project (other arms include an online cinema, curator visits, special screenings with guest introductions and visiting directors, and a podcast series) stages underseen nonfiction films, videos, documents, and artworks by nearly 100 women practitioners and collectives from across the globe. The curators define their use of “woman” by quoting writer and organizer Lola Olufemi’s proposal that the term may be read as “a strategic coalition, an umbrella under which we gather in order to make political demands … [in] a liberated future, it might not exist at all.”
A strategic coalition named “woman” may sound too convenient to ears accustomed to a world bent on branding, but the coalition in this program does ask more from the visitor than easy universalizing. In its insistence that feminism is not a monolith, No Master Territories begs dialogue among dozens of works from disparate countries—Peru, Aboriginal Australia, Costa Rica, India, Lebanon, Taiwan, Cuba, Chile, Algeria, Mexico, Haiti, China, and others—whose feminist activity, portraits of female sexuality, and experiences battling the state in the 1970s–1990s (and beyond) have been crucially neglected, and scarcely thematized. The Senegalese mother Selbé’s complaint in Safi Faye’s Selbé: One Among Many (1982) is that the men in her village perennially leave for the city to find employment, while she and the other women stay to do the actual work of survival. Selbé’s refrain, “I only know work,” is spoken in voiceover while she and her friends, babies on their backs, weave, wash rice, and untangle deadwood. This swerve between women staying and men leaving becomes a collective condition that flickers across other films that tie work explicitly to womanhood: We Aren’t Asking for a Trip to the Moon (Maricarmen de Lara, 1986); Basque Women (Mirentxu Loyarte, 1981).
In a conversation included in the roughly 500-page book publication, Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image, that accompanies the show, scholar Shilyh Warren tells Julia Lesage, “I heard you urging critics to notice what was there, rather than what was missing.” Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Deren, Maria Lassnig, Chantal Akerman, Pratibha Parmar, Leslie Thornton, Sarah Maldoror, Ulrike Ottinger, Gunvor Nelson, Agnès Varda, Tracey Moffatt, Penelope Spheeris, Jocelyne Saab, Sara Gómez, Camille Billops, and Cecilia Mangini are all included here. But the pull from the archive is deep, often foregrounding the relationship between women filmmakers and their women subjects: the reflections of Angela Davis, June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Trinh T. Minh-ha as told to director Parmar in A Place of Rage (1991); the political activism of Black women in Canada in Sisters in the Struggle (Dionne Brand and Ginny Stikeman, also 1991), produced by the National Film Board of Canada’s Studio D, the world’s first state-funded feminist film workshop. A few of the most resonant names are represented by their work in another medium, as in the cases of Deren and Varda, whose photographic work in Haiti and China, respectively, is contextualized through their training as ethnographers.
I began to think of visitors to this show like the children at the edge of the field watching their mothers work in Haneda Sumiko’s Village Women’s Classroom (1957), learning the truth about how hierarchy is built and maintained. The exhibition’s title, “No Master Territories,” is described by the curators as a demand, an abolitionist declaration, that “dreams of radical reinvention” and “emphasizes cross-disciplinary pollinations.” The phrase is taken from a section heading in filmmaker-scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha’s 1991 essay collection, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. Trinh’s work, and the postcolonial perspective it represents, looms large over the show. Her new commission, What About China?, which revisits footage she shot in the country in 1993 and 1994, is the only film screened every day of the program, at 12:05 p.m. on the dot; and her guest-edited, 1986–87 special issue of the media studies journal Discourse, titled “She, the Inappropriate/d Other,” is prominently set on the exhibition hall’s central display table. The issue’s table of contents serves as a key to some curatorial choices. It features, among other contributions, a translation of Barthes’s “Alors la Chine?,” to which Trinh’s film is a response; writings by Assia Djebar and Mira Nair, whose The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (1977) and India Cabaret (1985), respectively, are being screened weekly in the cinema program; and the bell hooks article “Talking Back,” about the undue pressure that is put on the speech of Black women—the punishments and the sacrifice of sanity that serve as consequences for saying the wrong thing.
hooks’s piece and its closing statement, that it is the act of “talking back” that is “the expression of moving from object to subject, that is the liberated voice,” point to several films in the exhibition. In Cauleen Smith’s 1992 Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron), male and female narrators offer separate, repeated accounts of an experience in order to uncover “truth” in its objective and subjective valences. Chick Strand’s sonically experimental Soft Fiction (1979) explores the relationship between memory, desire, and women’s first-person storytelling by employing a kind of documentary “realism” that sparked much debate in 1980s feminist film theory for not more formally critiquing the notion of reality itself. The aforementioned Village Women’s Classroom concerns a group of Japanese mothers who want to learn more about their children—which may require them, it turns out, to work less, and to talk to each other. “Talking Back” also brings to mind other contemporary feminist programming, like Nellie Killian’s Criterion Channel series, “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories,” which Warren and Lesage engage with in their conversation; and Alex Martinis Roe’s contention in her recent book, To Become Two: Propositions for Feminist Collective Practice, that the archive of the Milan Women’s Bookstore cooperative consists mainly of formal publications and “not of more intimate accounts of their primary practice, the practice of relations.” Note: let’s document our talking, our intimate accounts, the imperfect processes that lead to future archival objects.
“Certainly for black women our struggle has not been to emerge from silence into speech but to change the nature and direction of our speech,” writes hooks. “To make a speech that compels listeners, one that is heard.” Sound is given a sensuous architecture in the main No Master Territories exhibition room. Once you’re handed a set of headphones in exchange for any kind of deposit (I noticed one woman receive her earrings back), you are drawn to dozens of cylindrical, squared-off, or oblong glossy posts, plastered as if for a punk show with copies of archival materials. Peggy Ahwesh’s research and inspirational ephemera for She Puppet (2001) constellates writings by Joanna Russ, Fernando Pessoa, and Sun Ra with notes, emails, and academic articles on the Marquis de Sade, Lara Croft, Y2K, and Dolly the ewe clone. Nearby, a short biography of Loredana Rotondo and the Collettivo femminista di cinema (1978) in its original Italian is set next to highlights translated into German and English, the primary languages of the exhibition.
The collective’s 63-minute video, A Trial for Rape (1979), is set into the post, as are most of the screens in the exhibition room, so that you will, eventually, turn toward the film or video you are reading about, always on loop. More screens of different sizes progress from their pillars out to the right and left and behind you, a mesh of simultaneous global feminisms casting the visitor strategically within a mise en abyme. From here, you may also watch other people watch, a network of gazes, particularly great in front of explicit experimental films like Alice Anne Parker’s vulva-heavy Near the Big Chakra (1971). You may click to the Bluetooth soundtrack of what’s playing before you, or, like me, keep the sound on one video while viewing another: the electro-radar effects emanating from bleeding walls stabbed austerely by editing scissors in Han Ok-hee’s Untitled 77-A (1977) amplified the violence inherent in a Polish mother’s double life spent working days in a wire factory and nights cleaning the house in Krystyna Gryczełowska’s The 24 Hours of Jadwiga L. (1967).
Entry and exit from HKW’s exhibition room is at will, but set apart, in the museum’s downstairs lecture hall, is No Master Territories’s cinema program, where 37 films of varying lengths are screened weekly in timed intervals. On my first few visits to HKW in early July, what was scheduled was also sparsely attended. Alone day after day for hours of spectating, I found that the international feminist agenda of the 1970s–1990s initially acted on me like a worn rotary gear racking between past and present, one notch of which was now the debilitating knockdown of 50 years of federal abortion-rights precedent, happening across the Atlantic. Was standing before these films, far from home, going to allow me inoculation? My feminist practice felt less peopled than it should. Chilean filmmaker Marilú Mallet, exiled in a small wintry town in early 1980s Quebec, turns in her bed to her fading-out husband in Unfinished Diary (1982): “I’m getting more selfish every day.” “It’s natural,” he says. “No … there was a collective life.”
In her Cinema Scope article, Balsom points out the continued urgency of the question, “Who makes history for whom?”, originally posed by experimental filmmaker Lis Rhodes in “Whose History?” (1979). Rhodes places the researcher on a continuum upon which women are in relation, whether as filmmaker, writer, curator, visitor, reader. Feminist film history is also, subsequently, always unfinished. The positioning of Mallet’s film before fellow Chilean exile Valeria Sarmiento’s A Man, When He Is a Man (1982) in the cinema program, for instance, seems partly a tribute to the directors’ longstanding aspiration to make epistolary films, to be exchanged over the course of their friendship. Film historian Elizabeth Ramírez-Soto writes in her contribution to Feminist Worldmaking that Mallet and Sarmiento had admitted that they’d only ever made one pair of epistles, and would prefer to keep them stashed away in their homes. “I had not paid attention to their incomplete projects … my concern was placed on those films that actually existed and had been overlooked,” Ramirez-Soto writes. “For now, I will have to be content with diving into the archive at hand.”
For now. It is much like talking to one’s coworkers about the necessity of a strike, while watering flowers: we can’t think only of our present, we must think about our future. Yet what is at hand requires embodied attention. The abundance of No Master Territories asks for nothing less.
Corina Copp is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles. At 2220 Arts + Archives, she programs Rotations, a screening series focused on nonfiction filmmaking by contemporary women practitioners.