'68, Once Again: Image Preservation and the Women's Movement

By Helke Sander

frauen-und-film.jpgFrauen und Film (Women and Film), Cutterinnen, N°9, Berlin, 1976

In all the countries that are yet again taking up the label of ‘68’ on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, there will be photographs of mostly young men engaged in more or less dramatic confrontations with the state authorities ad nauseam. Where the old Federal Republic of Germany is concerned, there will also be photographs of naked communards – male and female. The fact that the FRG’s new women’s movement started in Berlin in January 1968 is not represented in any iconic photographs. And indeed there are very few. This is an interesting phenomenon, considering that the effects of the new women’s movement soon changed the look of everyday life recognizably. It is striking what little role this changed look plays in the current retrospection of the period. With very few exceptions this retrospection is focused on the male protagonist in ‘the struggle’.

The many scenes that constituted this new look of the everyday, which however didn’t produce new kinds of photographs, would have been unthinkable without the women’s movement, as they were the result of the many discussions it provoked and their practical results. These scenes were as much part of what happened in the streets as the demonstrations. For the first time you could see men pushing a pram or men with shopping bags queuing alongside women at the supermarket checkouts. Women would stop dead in their tracks at the sight of these science-fiction characters. At home things also looked different. All of a sudden men and children could be observed cooking and cleaning. It was no longer the classic nuclear family that could be seen assembled around the dining table but more diverse groups of people, who were younger and often of different colours.

The many groups of the women’s movement gave women the confidence to tackle domestic confrontations on their own. What mattered to them was to be able to use the freedom they had gained to take part in the general political discussions. There were new kinds of fights within relationships and women would continuously ask how they were supposed to combine having children with being professionally and socially involved. All these scenes, sights and situations were strikingly new, but probably deemed too unspectacular or too much part of private life to be photographed.

allround-reduced-personality-helke-sander.jpgHelke Sander as Edda in The Allround Reduced Personality, 1977

But this does not explain the almost total absence of photographs of the activities of the new women’s movement which actually managed to attract attention in quite spectacular ways. It was quite common for male photographers to start packing away their cameras when, on a rare occasion, a woman spoke at a public political event. As if according to some unwritten rule it was assumed that the most important part of the event was over. The general noise level rose. Hardly anyone continued listening. Though women tended to be ignored rather than spoilt by public attention, women’s groups now began vehemently to resist being photographed, and the occasional male photographer that showed an interest in their activities would be lucky to get away without a beating and a destroyed camera. As the result of the many essays about the male gaze and the female gaze, about looking and being looked at, written and fought over in those early years, women no longer wanted to be represented as ‘objects’. They were horrified at continuing to be mere ‘photo candy’ without any control over their own image. This fear is also partly responsible for the lack of photographs of the first years of the women’s movement.

And another reason was that there were very few women photographers and no camerawomen. At the film schools women were still in a total minority, a situation that only changed through the efforts of the few women who had made it through. A lot of the early photographs and films of the women’s movement were therefore not produced inside an institutional framework, but by the women on their own through ‘learning by doing’. This in turn means that much of this work is now lost and cannot be found in official archives.

As a reaction to the absences described above and to fill in the gaps I have tried to find and preserve as many of these old, decaying documents as possible for my film. And they are well worth a look.

One of the most important filmmakers to emerge from 1960s Germany, Helke Sander is known as much for her active involvement in the women’s movement as for her films. After starting out as a theatre director in Helsinki, she became a film student and a single working mother in Berlin during the 1960s student revolt. She has started many initiatives to challenge the divisions between private life and public politics and to question political concepts from the point of view of women and children. In 1973 she co-organised the first International Film Seminar (1973) together with filmmaker Claudia von Alemann and founded the journal Women and Film (1974), which still exists. She made her first long feature,The Allround Reduced Personality – Redupers in 1977. Many of her prize-winning films, including The Subjective Factor (1980 /81), Liberators Take Liberties (1991 /92) or In the Midst of the Malestream (2005) address the social and political concerns of women. She was a professor at the Film Academy in Hamburg (1981-2001), taught in many other countries, and her many written publications include journalistic and critical texts as well as short stories. The Three Women K. was published in English in 1991 by Serpent’s Tail, London.

A retrospective of Helke Sander’s work will be shown at the Goethe-Institut London from mid-May-mid-June. Helke Sander will be in London for the screening of Break the Power of the Manipulators (1967/68) and In the Midst of the Malestream (2005) between 14-16 May 08. For exact dates more and information see www.goethe.de/london