In Lynn Hershman Leeson's !Women Art Revolution, stalwart feminist film critic B. Ruby Rich says, "A lot of us who survived those fights, bloodied but relatively unscarred, are kind of like the old CIA and KGB agents that get together for reunions. Who else knows what we've been fighting over? Who else is interested in these issues that have really been consigned to a sort of historic scrap pile that people really don't seem that interested in anymore?" The subject of that hit documentary is its subtitle, A Secret History. At the opening of the film in NYC, I had a chance to speak with Rich so that she could unearth that buried past even further and explain why understanding that moment is particularly relevant now.
Here's a snippet, giving a sense of the scene of the early-mid 1970s:
BRR: ...there was a spirit of what I would call the post-war movement in American culture, after Vietnam and before all of the Reagan wars that then followed. That was a moment when the United States was the most demilitarized that it has probably ever been, and there was a kind of flourishing of culture. So there was an intoxication. And I think the fact that there was a women's movement empowered women in all of these different zones. Some women crossed over, you could say through the journals, Chrysalis on the West Coast and Heresies on the East Coast. And people were writing about feminist film, people were writing about women's art, and it was assumed to be implicitly feminist because, in order to make it, they were coming up against these very masculinist codes and structures and traditions within those worlds of film and of art. For example, in the early 1970s, the first women's film festivals were mounted, and even there, there was a split between the women cinephiles, we were excited that there had ever been women directors in the world, and going into archives and making international connections and discoveries….
MB: So the early women's film festivals were less contemporary and more historic?
BRR: Yeah. For me, one of the ways that I came into that kind of feminist scene was being part of collective in Chicago in the early '70s that organized a women's film festival. And Laura Mulvey was part of that because her then husband Peter Woolen was teaching in Chicago. She was a faculty wife, she hadn't yet written anything. This was 1972/1973, and she had written one article on an artist called Alan Jones and she was beginning work on her famous "Visual Pleasure" piece, but she hadn't written it yet! And she was in Chicago, and she and I were working on this film festival together. And that's when she told me about this new young woman filmmaker we should try to find named Chantal Akerman. She also knew that Yvonne Rainer had just started making films. And this was very exciting—this was brand new information because there were so few women filmmakers. When you say, "it wasn't contemporary," it could not have been contemporary because there weren't enough women making films. And the women that were still around, who we invited, were mostly older women who had fought like hell to make their films and who are now mostly not remembered.
And this, particularly, interests me:
BRR: ...people used to talk then about what a woman's aesthetic or a feminist aesthetic could be if women could make film and videos. And they never foresaw films made by women being distributed in movie theaters like they are now, like Lynn's film is now, or someone like Miranda July. This was a one-time event at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and it was phenomenal. For years afterwards I met women who said it changed their lives: women who had left their marriages, women who had decided to go back to school, women who changed their profession. It had a profound effect at that moment on a certain generation of women in Chicago. In a way that nothing could have that effect now, because there are so many choices in options and traditions and sensibilities.
MB: There's a lot of power in imagination, in that act of imagining what could be. So, jumping forward, now that we're past that moment, do you see same kind of energy being focused somewhere, or even being capable of being harnessed like that? Because even though there is a Miranda July and other films made by women, there's still a long way to go.
BRR: There is a very long way to go. I think it's hard now, because even though many spaces have been opened up, and it seems to a lot of people as if it's a level playing field, the numbers indicate that it obviously is not. You just have to go around to galleries and museums and film festivals and see what the numbers are. You see that it's not as changed as people would think.
And I think a lot of the problem is that there isn't a movement, we're assumed to be in what's considered a post-movement moment. Just as people talk about being in a post-race moment, which also isn't true, this isn't true. I think that what's difficult is that—once again—it comes down to the individual. And women feel that they succeed on their own, and that it's their own fault if they don't succeed. And that's a terrible situation—and that's the old situation.
MB: So we're sort of right back where we were?
BRR: Right back, in terms of attitude. Not right back in terms of options. I think there are, in fact, a lot more options, but not to the extent of any kind of equity. And the drawback is that it's very, very hard if not impossible for women to make common cause. If you look at the media, they always talk about the difference between this generation and that generation. Yet, when I talk to young women it doesn't seem that way. I think that there's a greater recognition of differences than a commonality.
MB: It's been remarkable to see at the opening night of this film at IFC, in the audience, a collection of various women artists and filmmakers who were all part of this movement in different ways, and they all seem to know each other! Even though they're working in different disciplines. And you have a really interesting quote in this film about how when women who were part of this movement get together it's like a meeting of the…
BRR: Oh, like the KGB and the CIA?
MB: Right. That who else is going to know about this secret war that's been fought. Do you find that that's true here, at these screenings?
BRR: Oh yeah, sure. I find that true even when I go to film festivals, with critics who had different points of view, with different filmmakers. At least we know who each other are. There's a certain history that's kept alive by that.
Slant Magazine also has a review of the film by Laren Wissot, here.