An epistolary transliteration of a performative dialogue on the possibility of building a non-fiction cinema for the memory of women (as political subjects) – and the role of male academics in that process. Originally presented at Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Catalunya by Núria Araüna Baro and David Archibald.
As you hopefully remember, I wrote to you with regards to undertaking a short research stay in Glasgow to study political documentary. This brief email is to let you know that in my home institution we have been recently awarded funding to develop a project on Feminist Documentary Film and Intersectionality. I was intrigued by your work with Glasgow Glam Rock Dialogues and I wondered if you would be interested in coming to Tarragona in October, when we plan to kick off the project, and maybe deliver a presentation. Perhaps this could become some kind of article later.
Since it will be the first meeting of our team, we don’t need to prepare a finished article, maybe just a starting point for further research. If you think you might feel comfortable in this project, please let me know.
All best, and hopefully seeing you soon,
Thanks for your e-mail. Thanks also for the invite; I’ve visited Tarragona previously and I would be delighted to return there in an academic context. But while it is always flattering to be invited to an international event, I’m not convinced that I’m the most qualified person to talk on the subject of ‘Feminist Documentary Film and Intersectionality’. In recent years I have been teaching Feminist Film Theory and Intersectionality, but at an introductory level. Even at this level, though, I’ve been reflecting on the role of my own subject position in this process. Or to frame it as a question: ‘What is the role of men in teaching and researching women’s cinema?’ This question has recently emerged in film culture more generally with the controversy surrounding the release of Women Make Film (Cousins, 2019) a 14-hour documentary on the role of women in film. That the film is directed by a man has caused considerable consternation amongst several feminist film critics. Before agreeing to participate, I wonder if you would outline what your thoughts, and perhaps the thoughts of those in the research project, are on this question.
I look forward to hearing from you,
There are other white men in our research team. So, at least, you won’t be the only self-defined male in the seminar. I should say that when we looked for experts on the topic of Documentary Film and Feminism, we (unintentionally) mainly came across female researchers. On the other hand, we did not reflect specifically on the gender identities (let alone other identities, besides that of being an Academic) of the team members. However, I must admit that the controversy surrounding Mark Cousins’ documentary has made me think a little bit on our position in the research project, regarding the participation of dominant groups in the study of minoritized people. If I go a little bit further in this direction, I think that we actually want your work. Let’s say that it has always been a curious yet obvious thing that when we attend conferences or seminars on gender topics, audience members and speakers tend to be mainly women as well. But if we regard Feminism as a concern for gender equality and equity, I don’t see why achieving this difficult endeavour should be an exclusively feminine task. Considering that men have historically benefited from women’s unpaid work, maybe you could give back some energy to the Feminist cause? I’m just thinking aloud. In any case, I suppose your presence in the seminar – or that of the other men in the research team – will not be contentious. But even if it was, it would become an opportunity to enforce our commitment to better understand gender inequalities in the context of intersectionality. Also, it might bring us to discuss what has been termed ‘epistemic privilege’ by Nancy Harstock –the idea that oppressed subjects would have a clearer picture of social inequalities.
Besides, I do really think that your method of delivering academic speeches through dialogues could be an interesting point in breaking the authoritative (patriarchal?) structures of academic production of knowledge. In this regard, perhaps Mark Cousins took too much authority (and protagonism) in dealing with women’s roles in Film History.
Let me know what you think,
Thanks, there’s much to respond to in your e-mail. The position of men here reminds of a debate that took place when I was on a demonstration in 1980s against proposed restrictions to abortion right in London. Some women argued that men should be allowed to march side by side with women, others argued that they should march at the back. I don’t recall anyone arguing that they should march in front. But I think we may well return to the question of, as you put it, ‘dominant groups in the study of minoritized people’, for this invites reflection on the distinction between knowledge and experience. While academic members of dominant groups may have knowledge of oppression, as they do not experience it directly, they should proceed with caution when intervening in such debates. Regarding Harstock’s take on epistemic privilege, perhaps in this focusing on feminist documentary film, a more inclusive view of cinema can be brought into being, one which reaches beyond the specificities of the researcher’s gender identity. So, I’m happy to proceed, with the degree of excitement that a new research project brings, but also with a degree of caution. Let’s see where it takes us. Before we get to the films, perhaps we could say a few words about Intersectionality. In an interview reflecting on the two decades since she first coined the term Kimberlé Crenshaw suggests that intersectionality ‘is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides’ (Crenshaw, 2017). Crenshaw’s use of the words ‘lens’ and ‘see’, which conjure elements of the cinematic production process and the viewing experience, perhaps invite us to reflect on the extent to which intersectionality, which she also describes as a ‘tool’, might be utilised as an interpretive framework, in Film and Television Studies. If part of understanding the world, is understanding the world of cinema, what possibilities might be opened up by utilizing an intersectional approach?
NA: My colleague Laia Quílez and I started to think about the need to introduce an intersectional perspective in the analysis of documentary film precisely when we were dealing with the work of Carolina Astudillo. Her films consist mainly of archive footage, which she uses to deliberately introduce a feminist perspective to the telling of the past and to look at women’s experiences in history, if there is such a collective experience. When Astudillo made a film about the involvement of Communist militant Clara Pueyo in the Spanish Civil War, she discovered that there was no footage of her; just a couple of still photographs. So she opted to use archive footage of other women who were represented from the period. Predominantly members of the higher classes. Clara Pueyo was not erased from the archive. She was never in the archive in the first place, which raises the question: what does it mean to be part of the archive? Or, what does it mean to not be a part of the archive?
DA: We see here that working-class women are supporting characters in the personal filmed archive of the middle class and the bourgeoisie. For, at the risk of the stating the obvious, the creation of a personal cinematic archive is a costly exercise, consequently, the only extant archive materials we have of Clara are the written letters we hear over the moving images of wealthy women.
NA: Poor women and rich women, winners and losers, do not have the same fate in the regimes of the living and in the regimes of representation. The intersection of different systems of oppression and its translability to ‘modes of viewing’ has been evoked many times. The worn-out motto of Catalan writer Maria Mercè Marçal relates the positionality of the gaze to multiple axes of oppression and implies a potential political action which is built within this intersection. She writes ‘To fate, I thank three gifts: to have been born a woman, of a low class and of an oppressed nation’, an experience that, according to her, ‘makes her three times a rebel’.
If this gaze has a rebel configuration, then, its presentation in a cinematic language might produce a specific form of political cinema, one which is located in oppositional perspectives regarding different axes. Yet it is likely that because of the mechanisms of power and the discrimination that flows in its wake, these gazes do not reach mainstream audiovisual production and distribution. So-called ‘creative positions’ (a terminology which also implies hierarchies between types of labour) remain dominated by white middle or upper class male subjects –even if lately there’s been an effort for inclusion in the industry. And their representations of the world imply a loss. Not only misrepresentation and lack of recognition but also a global failure in terms of understanding and, of course, social justice.
DA: I’m interested in intersectionality because it conjures a sense of oppression within the totality. Particularly, I’m interested in a Marxist intersectionality (Bohrer, 2019) which names that totality as capitalism. As it happens, later this semester, I will be discussing intersectionality and using a relatively recent film, Glasgow, Love and Apartheid (BBC, Chetty, 2018), to interrogate the concept. This film is of interest not least, as the gaze which you describe is, in this instance, presented centre stage – via the British Broadcasting Corporation. Glasgow, Love and Apartheid focuses on the struggle of a Scottish family, a white Scottish mother and a ‘coloured’ Scottish- South African father, to raise their daughters in Scotland with the struggle against apartheid as a backdrop. As such, the film throws up multiple layers of oppression, which demands a careful and nuanced response. In contrast to El Gran Vuelo, which comprises only archive footage, Glasgow, Love and Apartheid combines archive footage of political events in South Africa and Scotland, and footage from the Chetty family’s personal archive. In opposition to the state-sanctioned official narrative, the Chetty family archive becomes the archive of opposition. Not the archive of armed insurrection, perhaps, but the archive of small moments of the personal, where black and white skin met against the wishes of the apartheid state, captured by the lens of a camera not destined for theatrical release, but for domestic presentation. A small act of rebellion, inspired by love as much as activism. And yet perhaps it is love that underpins that rebellion. ‘What does it mean to live well?’ is a question which has vexed philosophers from antiquity to the present. For apartheid South Africa to live well meant in a racially segregated, white supremacist state. But the Chetty archive provides an alternative: for we see in these images that to live well involves struggling to overcomes these barriers in our personal lives, but also that we must enjoin in the battles to free all from these barriers.
NA: What struck me when I first watched this film was Dhivya’s personal narration. But, where is Dhivya’s voice in this clip? I remember considering that voice part of a feminist program. In the same way that the personal archives become political archives, the personal voice of the director becomes her political weapon to look back from her particular intersection. Her way of subverting what Marianne Hirsch (1997) labeled “the familial gaze”. Dhivya’s voice-over rejects domination in two different dimensions. First, the tone and text of the voice is not authoritative but a voice which wanders around and doubts, it constructs a somewhat shy character which does not impose her story upon her parents’ stories. Second, she makes explicit her subject position, the arbitrariness of her tale, the fact that her gaze is constructed just like ours are.
DA: I watched a rough cut of the film and discussed it with Dhivya. Here an absolute contradiction emerged. On the one hand, contra the chest-beating male directors who often place themselves at the centre of all their narratives, Dhivya was extremely reluctant to even be in the film. She did not want to use her voice-over or to include herself as a character in the film. What I showed you before was the taster for the project as she wanted it to be. It was the producer at Hopscotch Films who insisted that she should include her voice-over. He argued that it would make the story more dramatic and broaden its appeal. Perhaps the contradiction here is that the aspect of the film which you champion was brought into being by a white man in power.
NA: Then maybe this lack of control has something to do with intersectionality, David. Some feminist film scholars, including myself, in a recent conference discussed the emancipatory potential of first person accounts, of the reflective use of the archive, and of the empathy shown by the director towards the subjects represented. But this example shows that form, televisual or cinematic, should not be essentialised. Here, first-person narration works as both feminist intervention AND mainstream television dramatisation. Dhivya told me that the producers sought to give the film a televisual look to broaden its appeal and boost the viewing figures. However, she also said that as a result of this, she was happy that her family received so much support from the community after the film was screened by BBC Scotland. This film holds out love and solidarity as progressive acts amidst an increasingly hostile political environment in the UK, particularly for migrants. The use of archive in this film shows another path.
DA: There’s more to say about Dhivya’s film for sure, but to return to El Gran Vuelo, you suggested that the story of the life and disappearance of Clara Pueyo is told both through her family archive and the personal archive of others. By drawing on other personal archives to construct this singular narrative the archive footage in this film conjures a new future from old pasts. Forgive me from speculating from afar, however; this seems particularly relevant as capitalism faces ongoing economic turmoil, fascist forces in the twenty-first century intervene in Spanish film culture directly, and violently, Catalan politicians are sentenced to draconian prison sentences. Although there are considerable differences with the Spain of the time of El Gran Vuelo, the fault lines of the period crack open once more. Derrida suggests that in constructing the archive it is always for the future: these images appear both of a distant past, and yet a past which is running to catch up with the present. As such the film functions as both a promise and a warning.
NA: David, I think you are saying that the archive has a dialectical dimension. Do you think this dialogue has a feminist dimension?
DA: I hope so. In Britain, there is a major move to de-colonise the academy and a shift in the form and method of conventional academic work needs to be part of that. Feminist methodologies need to be centre stage in that process. I look forward to discussing all these matters with the people gathered here today, and in the days to come.
Glasgow, Love and Apartheid is available to watch here.
Download an excerpt of El Gran Vuelo here.
Bohrer, Ashley (2019) Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism, Columbia: Columbia University Press
Crenshaw, Kimberley (2017) ’Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality, more than two decades later’, accessed https://www.law.columbia.edu/pt-br/news/2017/06/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality.
Derrida, Jacques (1998) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Fricker, Miranda (1999) ‘Epistemic Oppression and Epistemic Privilege’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 29(1), pp. 191–210.
Hirsch, Marianne (1997), Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press.
 The screening of Amenábar’s last film, While at War (Mientras dure la guerra, 2019), a film about the Spanish Civil War, was interrupted by far-right protesters shouting slogans such as ‘Long live Spain’, related to conservative nationalism and Francoism.