Approaches to histories:work, audience, memory.

Some notes on approaches to women and film history: work, audience, memory.

(Introduction. Anxious that like Freud in the ‘New Introductory Lectures’, I am telling you what you already know. For instance, the first principle of historical research is that the use made of the archive/website will depend on the research questions asked – whether history of women, films, industry or audience’; sources themselves will raise new questions and approaches. Women’s film history will throw light on Britain’s economy, identity and culture, its global reach and cosmopolitan composition, and because cinema’s icons, mise-en-scenes, emotional landscapes, its elaboration of glamour transformed daily lives, ethics and aspirations, in ways with which we still grapple, the wfn will encourage new understandings of relations between media and people. With these wider histories in mind, what follows are first, some reflections on the reconstruction of the sexual division of labour in the film industry; second - more briefly - audiences and memory-work.)

Work: Sexual division of labour in industry.
I began to think about film and its uses through the Women’s Liberation Movement (wlm) in the late sixties early seventies. I, like many of my contemporaries, became a historian as I taught feminist history and film was one source for the history of modern women. Feminist film practice and theory at that time came out of the political practice of the women’s movement: consciousness raising, local groups, workshops and conferences; it was part of the ubiquitous demand for ‘a language/history/literature/film practice of our own’. So (in response to Jane Gaines’s essay) feminist history, film making and film theory emerged – in Britain at least - with the women’s movement.

In the late sixties, early 1970s in Britain few women worked in the creative or production side of the film industry, fewer than during cinema’s early years, more could be known perhaps about why this was the case. In the silent era (and probably forties and fifties too; today on cameras and i-phones?) women had been keen amateur film makers, costume designers, make-up artists, casting directors, editors and continuity girls. Where did they come from, what were their biographies, what did they have in common? How many had the arts or theatre if not film in their blood? How many were actors turned editors, screen writers and so on, because earning a living, simply keeping on working in the highly competitive industry, was then as it is now always difficult; people have to constantly invent new projects, re-invent oneself. Women directors and producers were always rare, but whereas most ‘literary’ men had a spell of ‘scenario’ writing for the quota second features in the thirties according to Anthony Powell’s fictional hero (whose only mention of a woman in film is of a beautiful model wanting to become a star), few women wrote screenplays. If, in the seventies, the ACTT’s closed shop did not explicitly ban women from certain trades (camera work, lighting, sound), custom and practice made it difficult for women to complete their training or to find work. The parallels in Britain are with other skilled and luxury trades: tailoring, engineering, jewellery, rather than arts because cinema from the first, an industry developed with new technology, financed by the City of London, with cosmopolitan migrant labour formative. When did the exclusion happen exactly? Did unions in the film industry grow stronger post-45?

Neverthless, the closed shop does not by itself explain relatively few women in the industry in the seventies. The British film industry after the first world war failed to use women’s talent and creativity invigorated by women’s suffrage, education, and inspite of their high profile as wage earners in teaching, nursing, the civil service and the ‘new industries’ (of which the cinema was one), a lack of initiative which suggests the industry’s failure to sustain drive and innovation interwar when European cinema was competing and challenging Hollywood at the beginning of its ‘golden age’. Parts of this history are documented. The wfh would do a valuable service cataloguing this work, creating bibliographies, making known and establishing links between research projects and so on. More could be known about which women and how many were employed in the production processes of the film industry during the quota quickies or as a result of the Irish and Jewish migration to Britain in the middle decades of the 20thc? What opportunities were there in the transition from silent to sound, for women to work as technicians, artists as well as actors? What effect did the economic depressions of the early nineteen twenties and 1931 have on women’s employment throughout the industry. We know that women moved into film making at all levels during the Second World War, with men away; we know that tv put women and children in front of the screen at home from the fifties onwards. Do we know how this happened, whether there was a crossover of personnel from film to tv by women in the industries etc? Were women active making films in the documentary movement of the thirties, the ‘free Cinema’ movement of the early 1960s? What evidence/sources might be found, digitalised, cross referenced that would enable researchers to reconstruct these histories through individuals, industrial sectors, genres (these categories need refining)?

Returning to the seventies: when some feminists working in the industry together with some artists and would-be filmmakers formed the Women In Film Collective in 1971 in London, the aim was to teach each other and to challenge the customs of the industry and unions, as well as to make films – on a shoestring - with a feminist perspective, experimenting with stories, image, camera-work. British and French New Wave were part of the provocation and inspiration for this sort of film making; so was the new left’s fascination with film and cinema history. New feminist film practice represented – or attempted - a break with those cinemas? Bertolt Brecht’s alienation or distancing of the audience from identification with character and plot I seem to remember was often cited; so were Walter Benjamin’s warnings against the close-up. Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s independent films, touchstone of seventies feminist independent film practice – deconstruction of myth, broken image, repetition, juxtaposition of past and present – were underpinned by Freud’s notions of identification and scopophilia. A preoccupation with class, with Marxist concepts of mode of production, division of labour, labour process, with radical if not revolutionary politics lent itself to austere analysis of process. Claire Johnston was the theorist of this moment whose outcrop of films included in Britain Francine Winham’s Rapunzel, Mulvey/Wollens’ films from Pentheselea to Amy, Berwick St Film Collective’s (which included the artist Mary Kelly) Nightcleaners (part two unfinished to this day). Sally Potter’s work in the London Film Co-operative, Sue Clayton’s Song of the Shirt (1979, made with Jonathan Curling) about seamstresses during the long industrial revolution which interrogated Parliamentary Blue Books. In some of these films, the process, the film-makers’ own subjectivity a presence or force in the film, as feminist historian Carolyn Steedman has done in her essays on the archive in Dust (Manchester 2001). My own personal low point of enthusiasm with this self-conscious phase of feminist film practice came one evening in the late seventies when, straight from too much of my own kitchen and nursery, Laura Mulvey took me to ICA to watch very long film about housewife-prostitute - Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Jeanne Dielman and Margaretta Von Trotta’s German Sisters (1981) haunt me still, as do the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s, in particular ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’ (1972) and ‘Ali: Fear eats the Soul’ (1974) which thousands of feminists saw in the seventies and eighties. But Von Trotta’s film about one sister who was a journalist, the other a revolutionary, because it interrogated both love between sisters and the question of women and political violence often comes to mind in this present time of war and seismic social and economic change.

By the end of the 1970s more women were working in the commercial as well as the independents sectors of the film industry, and they were beginning to learn about their predecessors. These seventies radical film makers (or some of them) should be interviewed, their life-stories, intellectual and aesthetic biographies recorded in collaboration with the National Sound Archive at the British Library, or the Women’s Library; and with the help of the bfi their films catalogued, copies preserved. Much of this work is already done I daresay. The new Leverhulme funded research project Sisterhood and After, An Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement, directed by Margaretta Jolly at the Sussex based Centre for Life-writing, which will begin in March 2010 might be a model. The wlm Oral History follows on from the survey and cataloguing of all the UK/Ireland resources of women’s history and archives, also funded by Leverhulme, based at the WL, with Rachel Cohen as facilitator during 2008/9. Independent feminist film had affinities with agit-prop, experimental documentary and so on, nevertheless constituted a genre fo women’s film – like flappers, film noir and others?

As well as creating a new (and open ended) archive of oral histories; a website of resources/links/digitalised sources etc, I want to plead for two more criteria in the research questions. The first is that one of the research question be in any study of women’s employment in the film industry, what was/is the sexual division of labour throughout the production, distribution process of film, every side and up and down of the camera. Division of labour has been the principle of modern industry since Adam Smith in the 1770s; it brings women in relation to men in industry. Sexual rather than gender division because the former refers to sexual difference, meaning bodily difference, capacity for motherhood; if unconscious fantasy is to be taken into account then also patriarchy or law of the father, oedipal myth - sight, love law, to mis-quote Julia Kristeva. Whenever women directors, film editors, screen writers are asked about their work, or about discrimination in the industry, they mention motherhood, children – women’s different priorities and outlook on life and work from men - in interviews. ‘Gender’, ‘queer’ as descriptive categories simply doesn’t capture this dimension of women’s experience. Both gender and queer avoid/gloss sexuality/bodily difference which pervasive effects run through every nook and cranny of the film industry - production, distribution, performance, audience - irrespective of whether protagonists either side of the camera are male or female.

The second criteria of research into women’s work in the film industry is that digital or web resources should enable the user to discover, engage with and contribute to a history of the sexual division of labour in the industry from top to toe, cleaners, usherettes, factory workers - the lot. (In this respect, we might learn from two recent studies of 20thc industries: Gisela Bock, Pat Thane, Women in European Welfare States, 1995 argued that volunteers, pressure groups, as well as civil servants, feminist organisations and individuals contributed to the ideas and formation of welfare states; they put maternity at the centre of welfare state organisation; their approach is comparative. Kate Murphy’s research on women in the BBC contains a study of the sexual division of labour throughout the institution/industry, because exceptional, creative women, women in management are placed in context by understanding the typing pool, cleaners, canteen workers and others; one of Murphy’s concerns in historicising programmes for women is to discover whether or not there was a feminist aesthetic in programme making, and how and when it has changed. Since most BBC programmes have been lost or destroyed part of the story is told through the careers and biographies of individual women, using personal papers when they have survived. The BBC archives in Caversham are an exceptionally rich source. Welfare states and the BBC are institutions founded on ideas and visions; both are self-consciously modern; both differentiate women from men as employees, consumers/audience, etc; both changed the relationship between inner psychic worlds, social conditions and public lives and selves. In all these respects there are clear resonances with the film industry. The class hierarchies, inequalities, forms of social injustice built into the histories of these industries are reconfigured through feminist analysis and reconstruction.)

Audience and Memory.
To move quickly from work in the industry, to the pleasures and pains of film consumption. We know a good deal about film going because from its beginnings women and children have been the majority audience for cinema, and cinema audiences have been interviewed since at least the first world war by social researchers anxious to discover the relationship between cinema and safety, morals, poverty, unemployment, and much more. Cinema and oral history are two vast new historical archives of the twentieth century and knowledge of both often comes together in spoken memory. Mass Observation was the first to ask their respondents for film-going experience, since then diverse historians of 20thc century, and of memory, have created their own archives. Respondents of oral history interviews (since the 1970s) remember little of the content of films, Annette Kuhn has pointed out; they remember only that they went, enjoyed or were terrified, sometimes a favourite star or genre, often what the star wore or looked like, her gesture or style of acting. Nevertheless we know something vital happens between the image on the screen and the mind’s eye through ‘memory-talk’ (Annette Kuhn again).

Cinema and memory come into close proximity too, in descriptions of mentality which in the twentieth and twenty first centuries sound remarkably cinematic. Cultural commentators use cinema’s qualities of rapid image, screen, camera-work and cutting, for instance, as visual metaphors for mental process itself. Like cinema, memory is a mode of perception and way of thinking which fuses the imaginative world with everyday life, the past is dramatised and re-created as it is retrieved. Memory reveals the dreams, nightmares, hallucinations and emotions which drive the human psyche. The visual imagery in the mind’s eye has close affinities with the camera, though whether the camera or the audience’s imagination infuses the image with feeling, meaning and thought is forever unsettled. Memory – like cinema - works on the cusp of inner and outer reality where time, space and image are compound, yet social change sounds in memory as it is revealed on screen; in these ways cinema and memory shape thought and feeling, and the way we experience everyday life. Neither – of course – are the same as history; both are vital sources for history making in the 21st century.

Sally Alexander
Emerita Professor of Modern History, Goldsmiths UL

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