I’m Spartacus!

By Catherine Fowler

orlando-sally-potter.jpgOrlando, dir. by Sally Potter, 1992

On no longer seeing films made by women

In the last issue of Vertigo Chris Dercon suggested that we now need to ask not ‘what is cinema’, but ‘where’ is cinema, since film’s inclusion in museums and galleries means that “cinema is everywhere”[1]. I am reminded of this comment on opening the home page of the website for Cinenova, the London- based distributor of films made by women (www.cinenova.org) which reads: “without the vision of women you’re seeing less than half the picture”. Gradually over the past two years Cinenova’s funding has been withdrawn. Thus this impressive site conceals the fact that the sole distributor of women’s films in Europe is disappearing without so much as a public whimper of protest.

The origins of this collection of women’s films – which mixes classics of film history (from Alice Guy through Maya Deren to Lizzie Borden) with experimental work from the last twenty years and documentaries (on subjects such as rape, race and cultural identity) goes back to 1979 with the formation of the feminist distributors Circles and Cinema of Women (the first by a collective including Felicity Sparrow and Lis Rhodes, the second being Audrey Somerville and Caroline Spry). The merging of these two to form Cinenova in 1991 marks nearly a dirty dozen years of under-funding. The London Film and Video Development Agency (LFVDA) withdrew what funding was left just over a year ago leaving Cinenova with no paid employees but one volunteer, and shared premises with Four Corners (historical bedfellows anyway).

With its history embedded in British feminist and Independent film culture the question is begged: is Cinenova, like the Lux, the victim of the non-existent infrastructure of support for work which orbits far outside any financially viable universe? or is its decline part of a more global disenchantment with films made by women? Though there are no other distributors dedicated to women’s films in Europe we might compare Cinenova to Women Make Movies, the most successful non-commercial and non-profit-making distributor in North America. Their market is obviously far bigger, yet WMM attribute their success to their connections not simply with academic communities but also with the public at large, thus they aim to get women’s film and video ‘to prisons, Native American tribes, battered women’s shelters, self-help groups, high schools and even the Girl Scouts.’[2]

vagabond-agnes-varda.jpgVagabond, dir. by Agnès Varda, 1985

For others ways of measuring visibility and interest we might look to festivals of women’s film. www.womenfilmnet.org lists 19 such festivals in Europe and 20 outside Europe with the oldest being the Créteil Festival des Films de Femmes, in its 24th year in 2002; though few match this longevity the fact that festivals dedicated to women filmmakers are still appearing is a testament to a certain amount of interest. Cinenova’s involvement with many of these festivals is ongoing, with a series of screenings from their catalogue scheduled in Warsaw in the Autumn and a section at the 2002 Barcelona’s Women’s Film Festival. In Britain, however, the last sustained women’s film event: the Cinewomen Festival (which began as the Norwich Women’s Film Weekend) ran in 1997, also the year of the last substantial touring programme, ‘Beacons of Style’, put together by Cinenova.

The 24th Festival at Créteil (near Paris) featured more than 150 films, all by women, over 10 days and included 20 longer and 30 short films in competition. It also ran a series of debates, profiled an autoportrait of French actress Nathalie Baye, offered ‘Leçons du cinema’ given by visiting filmmakers and a specially programmed section on ‘Latinas’, featuring Latin American, Portuguese and Spanish women directors. The sheer volume of work by women (both behind the scenes and on the screens) is awesome when juxtaposed with the British context within which Cinenova has to operate. However, behind this seemingly flourishing event lie years of struggle, and its survival is largely a testament to the grim and gritty determination of one of its co-founders: Jackie Buet. If the early years of feminist film fervour defined their project as ‘making women in the cinema visible’, by the end of the 1980s Créteil was faced with the decision of whether to try and compete with other world festivals as a commercial film market for women’s films. It is perhaps a sign of the inequality and prejudice that still exists for women working in the industry that such a project seemed unsustainable and Créteil instead took on an activist role, reflected in its new objectives in 2000. To the mission to “make known women’s films throughout the world” it now adds the desire to “emphasise our solidarity with women artists and all individuals who are suffering throughout the world and to resist the battle of images which make a spectacle out of their pain.”

Créteil has also had to prove its relevance to the local community in order to retain its exhibition space, with a series of regional initiatives which have cemented the festival’s foundations in the otherwise unremarkable eponymous suburb. These include initiating an exchange between local and international school children who then form a jury for one section of the festival: ‘Graine du cinéphage’, which features films appropriate for a young audience.

What Créteil and Cinenova commonly offer is a time line – through festival programmes or distribution catalogues – and their value lies in the consequent continuity which allows us to see the development of women’s work. Though the programme of this year’s Créteil event was too extensive to feature in detail here, one short film in particular would seem to epitomise the stunted progress which Cinenova is experiencing. In Spartacus (Virginie Lovisone, France, 2001, 7min) a young woman marches into a department store, roughly expels from her booth the woman who is announcing the day’s bargains to the perambulating shoppers and begins to shout out the ‘scum’ manifesto. Her assertion that women are oppressed and men the oppressors meets a stunned public, who freeze and stare. Finally evicted, the woman is marched downstairs and out of the store amidst the neon signs which ‘thank her for her visit’.

under-the-skin-carine-adler.jpgUnder the Skin, dir. by Carine Adler, 1997

This short film recalls the 1970s spirit of cine-activism which prompted the collecting of women’s films for more general exhibition in the first place. Rather than being a call to return to arms however, the film’s brief yet ingenious message can be taken from it’s title referencing the loyalty and solidarity against a common enemy evinced by the collective claim: ‘I’m Spartacus!’

The transformation of the independent film sector in Britain in the last five years has splintered exhibition and distribution, however a more important solidarity, that of women’s organisations who might stand together, is also prevented by funding crises. As examples, the Women’s Resource Centre, Women’s Art Library in London and Glasgow Women’s Library, with each of whom Cinenova might have merged, have all had funds cut or withdrawn in the last couple of years. Partly in response to these problems the WRC has been undertaking a research programme (in partnership with the Centre for Institutional Studies) examining funding and capacity building issues related to women’s organisations in London. One of its findings was that “nearly 60% of organisations had experienced a funding crisis in the last 5 years.”

With no other distributors of women’s films in Europe to look to, Cinenova might take a leaf out of Créteil’s book in order to provide sustainability: look to communities to support yourself. Here the aforementioned report also observes that “promoting women’s organisations as providing added value to neighbourhood renewal, public health improvement, community safety, sustainable development, social enterprise and lifelong learning has proved more effective in accessing public funds than seeking funds for gender equality.”

The films in Cinenova’s catalogue are edgy and educative, dazzling, dynamic and diverse. They reach out to audiences, academics and activists. In an age of digital daring this should make them easy to market. They are also all made by women which, as we’ve seen above, is not necessarily such a priority as it once was. This leads me to reply to Chris Dercon that though ‘conceptually’ all cinemas have access to ‘everywhere’, in reality women’s cinema (films made by women) in Britain is being denied the opportunity to occupy even half the picture. 


[1] Chris Dercon ‘Gleaning the future – from the Gallery Floor’ Vertigo vol 2 no 2 Spring 2002 pp3-5.
[2] Women Make Movies 1998 Film & Video Catalogue.

Useful Websites

www.filmsdefemmes.com (Creteil’s website)

Catherine Fowler teaches Film Studies at Southampton Institute of Higher Education.