Sophie Mayer & Her ‘Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema’
Sophie Mayer. She arrived at my place via her last book There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond (written with Corinn Columpar). She also has a beautiful, inspiring and generous online presence.
I love it that she’s also a poet — and a couple of years ago, when Jane Campion gave her workshops in Wellington (we’re both Campion fangirls) Sophie kindly contributed a post that explained Keats’ ‘negative capability’. I needed that. And I love it that she makes me laugh as well as challenging me to think and feel more fully.
One of the most interesting and challenging things about global women’s film activists is that as individuals we work hard to share and understand our different views of women’s filmmaking; and the different language we use to express our views. This interview is part of that ongoing conversation, prompted by her amazing new book, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema.
Many thanks, Sophie!
Where does Political Animals fit, within your stream of books on women in film, published over the 15 years you’ve been researching Political Animals?
From my perspective, it doesn’t feel like a stream: all four of the books I’ve been involved in on women in film have come about by different, interconnected chances and by the generosity of others, rather than a plan! I started by pitching the book on Sally Potter in 2005 — it was an extension of part of my Ph.D. (which had a chapter on Orlando), and at the same time, I was studying with Corinn Columpar, and we put together a plan for what became There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond. The anthology Lo Personal Es Politico: Feminismo Y Documental, which was put together for the Punto de Vista film festival, came via a contact out of the blue via a colleague who recommended me, and was an amazing project to be part of. Similarly, Political Animals began at the behest of my very insightful editor, Anna Coatman, who saw in 2013 that the time was right!
That makes it sound very passive in some ways — I think, as a cultural critic and historian, part of my work is being open to trends and ideas, but also requests to collaborate and contribute. I’ve never wanted a soapbox, but more to be part of a collective project. Political Animals has a more soapbox-y feel, because it’s not focused on one filmmaker (I felt, with Sally Potter, that the best work I could do came from active listening and reflecting) and it’s not an anthology — it’s more like 70 feature-length articles for Sight & Sound or The F-Word! So the challenge was making the scattered insights I’d had as a critical viewer over 15 years cohere into a single argument, and then working out how to open that argument out to include as much of what I could see around me as possible. Being organised + being open = a challenge for me, as I’m a centrifugal thinker — I love to link out widely, but really honing an argument while doing that was a challenge.
It must be a challenge to integrate your poet life, your academic work, your activism.
My Ph.D. was on experimental women poets and experimental women filmmakers, and how poetry appears in film/film appears in poetry within their work. I feel like I’m still working on some of those questions — for example, I’m about to write an essay on Julie Dash’s short film Four Women and its use of Nina Simone’s song. There’s something I’m trying to get to the heart of (and haven’t so far) about embodiment and representation, about the specificity of feminist work and what it’s experimenting with, what its effects are. Maybe about why this kind of work engages me when dominant culture is not only indifferent to it, but insidiously suppresses it by ignoring, misrepresenting and maltreating it.
That’s the only point of integration I have: what I’d call ‘rage for’, for want of a better term. If something makes me angry enough to take action, it tends to find a way of fitting into (or displacing or reshaping) what I’m doing — that happened with the Pussy Riot anthology, and it happened with Political Animals. So I find models around me all the time, mainly of activists who are letting their passion swell up and organise their thinking and being — you’ve definitely been one as I’ve written the book, Marian! I admire complex thinkers like Rebecca Solnit who can articulate their activism and act on their words.
My poetics, at the moment, comes from a similar ‘rage for’, a pressure into speaking. I feel privileged — by skin colour, education, geography and class — to have some access to some public platforms, and I feel some sense of responsibility with that: to advocate, to analyse, to argue, to amplify. But also as I’ve done that, I’ve become part of communities (different, overlapping) and then there’s an aspect of listening and speaking with the people in those communities — and trying to get them to speak to each other. There’s a resistance to connections between poetry and cinema in the UK in anything other than an almost-music video form, but the feminists in each community share so many concerns about the limits of conventional language and the excitement of experiment that I want to be a mediator, rather than focus on one form.
Does that ‘new’ in the title signal a change in direction for you, or just for feminist cinema? Did you purposefully create a framework that embraces a particular view of ‘feminist’ that demands you to consider some thing(s) differently than you did in your earlier/concurrent work?
Interesting question! In the UK, ‘fourth wave’ feminism has been announced, and I felt I had to address that sense (in the media) of a change or renewal of feminisms, particularly as it seems strongly marked by feminist media-making and media interventions. At the same time, I talk in the book about being wary of ‘waves’ as they tend to be predicated on dominant EuroWestern feminisms. The feminisms that the book tries to reflect and amplify are plural and present, but also connected to feminist histories. I am equally wary of ‘new’ and ‘first’ as narrative markers: I’m interested in connection and continuities.
But: I think there is a schism around the turn of the century in feminist media production and distribution, one that has two aspects — the (partial) democratisation (and subsequent corporatisation) of digital technologies; and the global impact of the 9/11 bombings and subsequent illegal invasions and their cultural narratives. Many American feminist filmmakers’ careers were disrupted, with many of them moving into television; maybe female filmmakers globally found their work circulating (co-opted?) as a liberal feminist counter-narrative to US foreign policy. A space appeared for films such as Buddha Collapsed out of Shame (Hana Makhmalbaf) and The Night of Truth (Fante Régina Nacro).
Patricia White argues strongly in Women’s Cinema, World Cinema that feminist film theory and criticism has been dominated by US, European and European settler state feminisms for far too long, and that the most compelling feminisms and feminist media are emerging outside of those fortresses. That is definitely something that shaped my considerations in a new way — I learned a lot, for example, about Latin American feminist cinemas while working on Lo Personal Es Politico, and wish that Political Animals could have been five times as long to fully address all the different feminist cinemas emerging globally.
How do you define ‘feminist’, ‘feminist cinema’ and ‘feminist film-and-filmmakers’ and did these definitions change as you researched and wrote and spoke?
This was a process, absolutely, one that I worked on and worried about from writing my proposal to finishing the final proof-reading. In the end, my definition was short and broad: ‘A stance of ongoing public activism, rooted in but not limited to gender equity, underlies my definition of a film, filmmaker, film theorist or film viewer as feminist’.
I also specifically don’t invoke ideas of a ‘female gaze’ or feminism as a style. I expand by saying–
The films I love thus share a commitment to and through the urgency of their resistant subjects, rather than a particular style or story. Flexing their forms inventively to fit their content, they tend to inhabit paradoxes: rich and raw; ambitious and chaotic; profound and funny; storytelling and poetic; cerebral and embod- ied; broad-ranging and local. Above all, they make me want to be part of their imaginative worlds, and to get involved in bringing them into being. As Angela Y. Davis, herself the subject of Shola Lynch’s rousing documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012), writes, ‘The feminist critical impulse, if we take it seriously, involves a dual commitment: a commitment to use knowledge in a transformative way, and to use knowledge to remake the world so that it is better for its inhabitants — not only for human beings, for all its living inhabitants’.
To me Davis’ definition is so powerful and empowering because it sidesteps all the reductive conversations about ‘identity politics’ and essentialism; feminism has to recognise and participate in an ecology, transformatively. So that’s what I looked for in the films and their politics.
It’s New Feminist CINEMA, not new feminist filmmaking or filmmakers. Can you write a bit about that choice? Who were you writing FOR?
That’s a tough question: the book discusses television, video art, installation art, online serials and videos, and even memes. I think ‘cinema’ is a word that has a lot of prestige attached to it, as a physical space and as an artform. Cinema is more than wealthy white cismale filmmakers arguing about getting to play with 35mm (i.e. getting to define what is and isn’t cinema). I wanted to claim it, and to argue that it includes a whole range of media-making. At the same time, it’s not an auteur study, or about instituting a canon. I love the idea that ‘cinema’ invokes a collective, and is a reminder that as an artform, it’s not just about filmmakers, but about a wide range of spaces and viewers as well — I think curation and criticism, at a whole range of scales from choosing something on Netflix to running a film festival, are crucial activities. So the choice of title was also about including audiences as part of the artform. The book is definitely for all of us as viewers, and was written very subjectively and open-heartedly from my position as a viewer (a privileged one, with access to film festivals, filmmakers, and so on). I’m not a filmmaker, and the interviews I did and read put me in awe of anyone who is, on any scale! But I believe that, as a viewer, I’m part of cinema.
Did you get surprises? What were the most interesting things you learned?
I started by being surprised by Anna’s idea! I’d not put all the reviewing and academic writing on film that I’d been doing together into the idea of a book. It took me about six months to plan the book, during which I did a lot of reading (and then another 6–8 months of intensive viewing — sometimes 12 or 15 films a week). What surprised me is that every initial idea or intuition or vague insight that I had, there were other writers online discussing it or discussing around it, or in conversation with it — I’d thought the book would be partially about reflecting and amplifying that new critical community, but participating in it — realising its depth and breadth and POWER — was amazing. It was particularly exciting to watch the journey of 2014/2015/2016 films through that community: through the growth of Women & Hollywood, through the way that internet fan and critical communities amplified Ava DuVernay before Hollywood paid any attention, through the way that short films and serials such as Cecile Emeke’s Strolling have circulated. When I started working on feminist film through Corinn’s class in 2004, it felt like a very niche pursuit (especially experimental and non-European filmmakers); then in London in 2007/08, I connected with curators Club des Femmes and realised it was maybe cult rather than niche: more fun, more cool, but still small.
But this year, Club des Femmes hosted sold-out, packed to the rafters screenings of Sandra Hochman’s Year of the Woman and Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, and the Bechdel Test Fest hosted sold out, packed screenings of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights — what has surprised me, as someone who thought they were pursuing a niche interest with committed colleagues, is the widespread, public *hunger* for feminist cinemas (all American films, I know, so there is still work to be done on extending that hunger to take in global cinemas). That has been a deliriously happy surprise, that I might be speaking to many people by writing the book, rather than to a few.
So I learned a lot about audiences, curators and programmers. I learned about how independent feminist filmmakers built production, distribution and exhibition strategies, and are consistently at the cutting edge of that because they have to be. I learned a lot about how debates around gender and culture play out in media internationally. And I learned that watching 500+ feminist films makes me super-intolerant of any film that isn’t — because it’s not that hard to tell a story with just baseline — baseline — equality and respect. And that privilege is real, is fragile, and real change always, always comes from collective action from below.
I enjoyed your list of films on Sight & Sound’s Greatest Film poll, back in 2012. If Sight & Sound asked you to submit another list of films today, would they be different?
I don’t think my list for that context would change: all of those films continue to be hugely resonant for me across a couple of decades. I was very pleased to make the list evenly split between male and female filmmakers, and to choose films from six countries and six decades (although it definitely reflects my coming of age in the 1990s, and my British base). Maybe in 10 or 20 years time, some of the films I watched more recently for the book would join the list. Part of the process has been about being floored by the diversity and inventiveness of global filmmakers, and the impossibility of list-making! We need more horizontal, equal ways of recording and rewarding the effects that films have on our lives, at different times and for different reasons!
One of the big problems I have in New Zealand is accessing women-made films and filmmakers, especially those by women who don’t work in English and those in the United States who work outside Hollywood. I’d hoped that media convergence would mean that there’d be more online/cinema distribution + chat, like the National Theatre Live series, that there’d be some global online women’s film festivals and associated debate. But it hasn’t happened. We have lots of lists now, as the #FavWomanFilmmaker campaign highlighted, but nowhere that we can all find the films that are on those lists. (Yes, there’s Trailblazing Women, but it’s by and for Americans.) The allocation of rights by geography really complicates things, as does the cost of rating films here in NZ. Was lack of access a problem for you when you were researching the book? If so, how did you deal with it?
It was a HUGE problem for me. I’d read about films that you and Beti Ellerson were writing about and almost weep with frustration. In some rare cases, I’d highlight a film even if I hadn’t seen it, or had seen it only partially, by quoting from someone giving a strong account of it or the filmmaker being interviewed, just so its presence could be felt in the book.
In several cases, the generosity of filmmakers and their producers was astounding, so I was able to watch screeners or get non-commercial DVDs. Festivals are also hugely important, and I was lucky enough to have covered Toronto and Berlin, as well as having the London Film Festival, BFI Flare, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Birds Eye View and Underwire.
Even with films by European and American directors, it can be hugely frustrating to access them: I remember checking Tugg every day for months to see when it would be possible to see Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay) in the UK. Many films, even from this decade, haven’t been released by DVD or online. I made a massive spreadsheet where I listed films I’d seen and films I wanted to see, and then checked their availability on VHS, DVD, Netflix, iTunes, and via the BFI mediatheque. The results were often frustrating. It’s why in the 1970s feminist distribution was so important: Cinenova are continuing this in the UK (I wouldn’t be able to work on Four Women without them!)
The workings of turbo-capitalism are byzantine and — I think — self-defeating. Information finds a way to travel, but I’d hope it will do so in a way where the viewer can reward the independent filmmaker directly, as with Cecile Emeke’s work. I’d much rather pay £2–5 to an individual filmmaker for their work than £5–10 a month to corporations such as Apple and Amazon. But that depends on massive infrastructure and accessible, fast internet: it’s not a global solution.
I was interested to read in one of your tweets today: ‘500 non cismale filmmakers’. Can you write a little bit about the language you use to categorise gender and who you included/excluded and why and why that was important?
I think this is a very complex debate, and I am not comfortable with the way that the phrase ‘non-cismale’ recentres cismasculinity as the norm. In the book, I note that I chose to focus on non-cismale filmmakers even though there are cismale filmmakers I consider feminist, but that auteur and national cinema studies tend to amplify cismale filmmakers even if they are queer or non-white. It’s interesting to me that cismale directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who is gay, create more compelling female characters — and I would argue more feminist narrative shapes — than straight identified cismale directors. So it makes me think that kinship and alliance is possible.
For me, it comes down to alliance and amplification — many trans and non-gender-binary filmmakers struggle to make films (and indeed be in the world) and have them seen in ways that intersect with, and often replicate, the struggles of cisfemale filmmakers. I believe we can be allies and accomplices. That doesn’t mean not being able to talk about misogyny or entitlement and privilege where they might occur; to take a headline example, I think it’s very possible to be constructively critical of the portrayals of female characters in Lana Wachowski’s work (even in Sense8, Nomi is the most victimised, passive character). But as a queer-identified ciswoman who struggles with femininity, I feel that it’s crucial to be an ally and to be open to allies.
The other side of this is that there are female-helmed films, and female filmmakers and writers, that I consider un- or even anti-feminist, so I’m uncomfortable with essentialising claims about what a feminist/film might be. Whereas there are films by trans and non-binary filmmakers that are committed to a feminist point of view, for me as a viewer. I believe in the right to gender self-determination, but a filmmaker’s gender doesn’t determine my reception of their film within the framework of feminism.
Another difficult issue is story sovereignty. Colonisation processes within filmmaking have damaged women and girls and members of many other groups, some of which intersect with us. How best can those who are misrepresented and under-represented present their stories with authority? I struggle with men making films about lesbians (just because they can more easily access resources!) and with white women like Kim Longinotto and Celine Sciamma making films about women of colour and indigenous people. Although there’s been no feature written and directed by a Maori or Pasifika woman since Merata Mita’s Mauri in 1988, we’re blessed here in the Pacific, that the ‘authoritative’ Maori and Pasifika voices and images come from diverse Maori and Pasifika writers, artists and filmmakers, probably, I believe, thanks to the puawaitanga (flowering) of the 70s and the analysis and practices that came from that. For instance, analysis like Merata Mita’s of The Piano, in an interview with Peter Britos–
I was asked to give my opinion of [The Piano], and my opinion of it wasn’t that high. There are other works of Jane Campion’s that I like better. So I was out of line with the rest of the world who deemed it to be a masterpiece or a work of art or something. I thought that the Maori characters were very flawed.
PB: Sure, they had no voice.
MM: Right. Worse than that they had no home. They were sort of draped around the shrubbery and stuff like some kind of spectacle, you know, hovering. And I thought to myself, my gosh, the Maori are a hovering kind of people.
I agree with Mita’s critique of The Piano: what is interesting to me is that Campion has attempted to learn from those critiques, particularly in Water Diary and Top of the Lake. I think she still comes from a liberal-settler perspective, but she has listened. I’d also take The Piano over Avatar any day, a thousand times — but somehow when white male filmmakers allegorise indigeneity, no-one criticises them as much. That doesn’t mean I think Campion’s backgrounding of the Maori community in the film was right, but that the problem is widespread and insidious.
As someone who has also written about and in alliance with indigenous cinemas, I think story sovereignty is important and anyone who is exploitative, objectifying or not willing to engage with the complexities of working with a community has no right to work with that community. At the same time, I think about–
a) settler state funding structures and how story sovereignty relates to them. Many of the indigenous films that I have written about, from Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat to Jules Koostachin’s PLACEnta, have settler state funding, and often non-indigenous producers, co-directors, heads of department, etc., as well as the execs sitting on the budget and organising distribution. How far does story sovereignty extend? This is a serious question, one that connects to feminist radical separatist practices. Is there not a measure of discomfort in the Commonwealth Institute producing and distributing indigenous films, when it represents British imperialism? I don’t know the resolution to this question.
b) Maya Deren fully committing to train as a vodoun priestess while shooting Divine Horsemen (which she never finished editing in her lifetime, so can’t be discussed on the basis of her husband’s cut); and I do think about the way that Kim Longinotto and the women she films remain connected to each other, how she places them front and centre rather than herself; and I do think there is a distinction and a possibility of alliance. With Longinotto, part of it is that Gaea Girls and Shinjuku Boys were very important films to me as a late teenager, like Monika Treut’s Gendernauts: they resonated with me. So I am aware that I have a subjective perspective on her work, and I’m open to criticism of that.
There have also been critiques, for example, of Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors delivering a tragic story (predicated on violence against women) that fulfils Pakeha guilt responses while replicating negative models of Maori identity, so again, I don’t think there is a straight, essentialist connection between having an identity and representing it for a variety of audiences. That’s the risk for any film that is singled out or tokenised: if there were hundreds of films a year about different Maori communities, histories, identities, no one film would carry the weight. What I think is correctly troubling about Girlhood is that it’s the first French film to have North African girls as its protagonists: there’s no terms of comparison. I listened very carefully to lots of viewers’ responses — including enormously positive responses from my female students of colour in London, who are of a similar age — about Girlhood, but I also hear the critiques.
So we need a greater diversity of critical voices, more democratised film funding, better distribution for marginalised films and filmmakers, so that this discussion can take place more fully.
You’re part of Raising Films (‘Making Babies, Making Films, Making Change’). Did your research for Political Animals tell you that parenthood is a key issue for feminist cinema? And if so in what way(s)?
My research, particularly conversations with filmmakers, funders and programmers told me that there are many major attrition points for female filmmakers: fewer of them get their first films into festivals, and when they do, fewer get distributed. There is less P&A spend on women’s films, so there tends to be a proportionately lower box office, which leads to fewer women getting funded to make second or third films. This all results from unconscious bias in ways that are hard to take pragmatic action about.
But when I looked at the list of British filmmakers I was writing about, one thing that I definitely noticed was that almost all of them were not mothers (as I am not). I didn’t know them well enough to know if that was by choice, but it seemed notable that the industry preferred child-free women. Talking to Hope [Dickson Leach], and then through Raising Films to a number of filmmakers, it seemed that this was an unconscious bias that–
a) affects all female filmmakers. Even those who don’t have children are affected by assumptions about their potential future decisions, about their cultural associations with emotional and caring labour (i.e. as unsuitable for leadership, as inefficient), and that contributes to dominant cinema’s slick, soulless disengagement and disembodiment, as well as an unsafe work environment that is time=money highly pressurised, and highly stratified which leads to bullying, harrassment, risk-taking and other pressures that may drive women out of all filmmaking roles because sexist behaviour is so rampant.
b) could be made clearly visible and therefore practically addressed. The statistics on participation and attrition offer a very clear break point on female participation in the industry — but discussions around practical solutions have also brought out male allies who would like to work in a more humane industry that tells a wider variety of stories. It’s a useful and passionately felt rallying point.
When we first started planning Raising Films, we were concerned that childcare and access to creative labour would be seen as a middle-class prerogative, but we feel strongly — and we’re seeing through our contributors — that it is an issue that differentially affects different women, with working class women, single mothers, women from migrant backgrounds (who may not have family support networks), and LGBTQ+ women (who may also not have family support, or may be in a double low-income partnership) exponentially affected. It allows us to organise around all kinds of exclusions in a practical way: there’s no point having a million schemes and statements about equal opportunities in film if there’s no support system to allow those who are not the ‘model’ filmmaker (white, straight, male, middle class, either single or with a wife to manage all family commitments) to make and exhibit film sustainably.
Why do alliances matter to you, especially as you’re highly achieving as an individual, arguably without alliances?
There’s nothing I do without alliances, communities and collectives. Even being a writer depends on a communion between me and one reader. I don’t see myself as an individual, but as someone who participates — in a panel, a classroom, an email chain. Even as a solo author, I’m always quoting, disseminating, sharing the work of others that has allowed me to do my work. Transgenerational and historical communities are so important to me: as a bookish child stranded in a conservative religious community, books were my friends — not in the sense of being mates with the characters (although that immersion can be fun), but the idea that a woman once wrote a book AND PUBLISHED IT! That that was allowed! That was incredible to me, and so sustaining. So at the best of times, I feel like a collective of historical and present voices, selves, ideas, transmissions, supports, gazes, futures. One of the most attractive aspects of cinema, for me, is that it’s so collective at every stage. Even if you write, shoot, edit, perform all by yourself, you are dependent on the labour of those who made your camera, built and cleaned the environment you work in, maintain digital networks — and finally, of the viewer who gives you their time.
What do you see as the most important issues for the future(s) of feminist cinema?
Ending capitalism. Defeating patriarchy.
Good places to start: decentring mainstream cinema. You know, just ignoring it. Not feeling that you *have* to see the new Bond film because everyone else is and it’s being advertised to you relentlessly. Exercising your right to refuse to be dominated by the popular and bankable.
Dissemination and amplification of feminist films, feminist film criticism and feminist film curation: we need to keep writing about these so they are not erased by dominant culture, as so many generations of feminist film work have been. Wouldn’t it be great if the next generation didn’t have to start AGAIN at point zero, not knowing much about what had come before, re-inventing the wheel, mourning losses?
Challenging funders and distributors on unconscious bias by whatever means necessary: lawsuits, FBI investigations, fines, protests, strikes, blog posts, viral videos, wear boots on the red carpet at Cannes, ANYTHING that breaks the culture of silence around discrimination. We have to do that together so that blacklisting isn’t possible.
Filmmaking is a slow process so it’s often 2–3 years behind where audiences are politically: we need to speed that up so there’s more immediate engagement. And we need to celebrate online media and other rapid forms of transmission for themselves, and as forms of audience-building and community empowerment. And we need to pay and support everyone who makes media and art.
Sophie totally deserved that gorgeous cake, I reckon! Wish I could deliver another one, right now! & I really like her boots —
Political Animals tumbler, fuckyeahfeministcinema, one of my very favorite tumblr sites; it makes me laugh, often.
Raising Films website
Please, order Political Animals via the publisher or at your local good bookshop, even if it takes a bit longer?
Sophie’s other film books–
The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009) — reviewed in Chroma by Kate Ince and Screen by Lucy Bolton
There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond (Wayne State University Press, 2009). Co-edited with Corinn Columpar
The Personal is Political: Feminism and Documentary (INAAC, 2001). Co-edited with Elena Oroz
Originally published at wellywoodwoman.blogspot.co.nz on November 13, 2015.