COMMUNITY VISIONS – Cinematic Narratives by Women
Mon, Feb 28, 2022, 11:46am | By Ariel Dougherty
My friend Laura X, founder of the Women's History Library, sends me two and three notices a day about film screenings. A multitask-juggler of scores of feminist concerns, it is difficult for me to keep up. Which e-mails do I open and pay attention to? One I did open just the other day unfolded a gem: Cinema Sabaya. It is the first feature dramatic film by Israeli filmmaker, Orit Fouks Rotem. She has translated her community-based film teaching experiences with women in several locales on both sides of the Middle East conflict into a cultural filmic story of how motion pictures can create allies. And enlarge our worlds.
I know something about community-based filmmaking, especially for women and girls. In 1972, with Sheila Paige, we initiated the first-ever community film teaching program for women when we incorporated Women Make Movies. In the multiracial, economically mixed Chelsea neighborhood in New York City. Secretaries, mothers, youth workers, retirees and teens came regularly to WMM's workshop. They learned to operate the spring-wind Bolex, to craft their ideas into a cinematic story, to shoot their films, and to dedicate time to editing their footage. They produced the first set of cinematic women-centered stories about community women's real concerns -- lost ambition, marriage roles, aging, rape. Produced at a time when film schools barely existed and feminist filmmaking was just establishing its sea legs, these works are dramatic (re)enactments by mostly nonprofessional actors, a hallmark of many of the Women Make Movies films -- whether by the community women or their teachers, WMM's co-founders. Such filmmaking was unusual in the period when feminist works were largely documentaries. Today these first, short dramatic community films or the co-founders' works are hardly known. A remarkable 40 productions were created under the banner of WMM from 1970 to 1980, an outstanding body of work that demands study. Now in the 50th year since the launching of this community teaching program, I am taking a handful of these works and my own films on the road.
With funding from the New Mexico Humanities Council and the Devasthali Family Foundation I am holding a series of screenings throughout New Mexico this spring. Each program will vary as I present the philosophy, tempo and nature of WMM films with a different selection of works at each screening and lead audience discussions. New in the mix will be a handful of more contemporary films from present-day girl-centered community film teaching programs. Thus far I have discovered 27 such programs operating in the past two decades in the U.S., inheritors of the community media teaching we did in the 1970s. The need is constant and persistent, an uphill fight to counter the male dominance of mainstream media. Community media making is a global movement for women. One of my favorite programs is the Deccan Development Society, in the Zaheerabad region of India. It started in the 1970s to serve poor rural women farmers. Later they realized that to achieve market autonomy they also needed media autonomy. Since the 1990s Deccan women have been making films and running a radio series. However, doing justice to the international scope of such community media was way beyond my capabilities of study.
So, I am thrilled to learn of similar programs that the filmmaker Rotem conducted in Israeli towns of Acres and Givat Haviva. In a recent article she explained, “[Cinema Sabaya] is based on my personal experience as an instructor of such groups, and of my desire to bring those ‘regular’ lives to the big screen.”
In April 2016 feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, noted for her 1975 treatise on the male gaze, and I both made presentations at the Experiments in Cinema in Albuquerque. On the same day we both said basically the same thing, “We expected to be much further along by now.” Mulvey restates this, again, in the must-see documentary Brainwashed, directed by Nina Menkes, which premiered at Sundance in January. The “big screen,” that Rotem refers to in the above quote, within the United States showcases women-directed films a miserable 2.75% percent of the time. No one person or group is addressing this huge gap of women's cinematic stories failing to reach general audiences. This, and other gaps in progress, have driven me into the realm of media and cultural policy.
At the end of the second paragraph in Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which by asterisk she states was written in 1973, but not published until 1975, she wrote “...man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent images of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning.” Already at the time she wrote this, Women Make Movies founders and five of WMM's community women filmmakers, had a total of nine films – mostly narratives – in the can that were bringing a feminist meaning to cinema. In June 1973, those community women sat on an international stage at the Women and Film: International Festival in Toronto to discuss the meaning of their work with an audience.
In intervening decades too few opportunities in the U.S. have existed for women to gain support for narrative filmmaking. Most funders have centered on documentaries as the means to delve into issues. An individualized story is ironically seen as simply one person's view, overlooking its potential for universality. There is much to review and understand from works of the 1970s when things were fresh, exploratory and raw, maybe even a bit crude or rudimentary, but dynamic.
The kickoff 50th Anniversary celebration screening is at Guild Cinema March 31. I will be in Silver City for a two-part program, Saturday, May 14 at the Silco Theater. On June 8 I will screen films at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. And the next day, June 9 I will show a different set of works at the Taos Center for the Arts in Taos. Details for screenings in two other communities are still being worked out.
For more information about these NMHC grant support public programs, please contact Ariel Dougherty at email@example.com.
Independent filmmaker and feminist cultural advocate, for over five decades Ariel Dougherty has been a leader in the building of women identified cultural organizations and one of their primary tasks, teaching strong woman centered arts to women and girls. In 2022 she is celebrating her work as a co-founder of Women Make Movies, Inc., today the globe's largest distributor of women's films.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post/article does not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.