Political Animals: Sophie Mayer on Feminist Film Books

9th Dec 2015

Political Animals: Sophie Mayer on Feminist Film Books
Image: Sophie Mayer
Even with the recent publication of Carol Morley's debut novel, 7 Miles Out, not many female filmmakers have also published novels (although Miranda July and Assia Djebar are writer-filmmakers extraordinaire). Yet, there’s a plethora of books that bring the magic of cinema to the page. From Virginie Despentes’ radical KING KONG THEORY to the lyrical works of Trinh T. Minh-Ha, the printed word has served as a vehicle for innovative female artists who – as we know – struggle to find the funding and distribution for screen works. Imaginative screenplay presentations such as Toni Cade Bambara, Julie Dash, and bell hooks’ Daughters of the Dust publication round out the ways we can engage with the variety of feminist cinema through the page. Author, poet and film critic, Sophie Mayer writes.

“I know that my father’s suicide gave me the desire to truly examine what it is to live, to find a way to try and make sense of the world and to resurrect the lost. It is, without a doubt, why I became a film-maker.”

—— Carol Morley, 7 Miles Out (Blink Publishing, 2015)

In Carol Morley’s film Dreams of a Life, Zawe Ashton plays Joyce Vincent, a mixed-race woman who died in London – and whose body lay undiscovered for three years. Ashton does more than play Vincent, she resurrects her, as do Vincent’s friends and lovers whom Morley contacted through a classified ad. She used a similar tactic, in fact, to find people who remembered meeting her during her adolescence of partying at the Hacienda, recorded unsparingly and with black humour in her film The Alcohol Years. Now – after the international success of The Falling – she’s returned to her memories in a new form: a novel. And it’s just as compelling as her films, with a similar idiosyncratic rhythm combined with an open-hearted generosity. Morley is passionately and unsparingly curious about the world – including about herself.

The protagonist of Morley’s 7 Miles Out is Ann, stuck seven miles from Manchester in Stockport. Aged eleven in 1977 when her father drops her at school then drives away to kill himself, she spends her adolescence looking for ways to remember her father – and, increasingly, to forget him, or the pain of mourning him. Music, sex, alcohol, distance, stories: Ann goes through them all, only to find a clearer, more painful but stronger self-knowledge, one that leads her eventually to be able to tell others’ stories. Ann is and is not Carol (the novel is based on Morley’s own experience): the difference in their names marks the distinction that Morley feels in having survived her teenage self.

Anyone who has passed through adolescence (I’d say a difficult adolescence, but they’re all differently difficult), especially anyone confronting questions about sexuality, gender identity, class, or familial loss, will immediately be absorbed into Ann’s passionate and precise worldview, identify with her curiosity that sometimes goes too far for friends and family, her oddity, her creativity. The final words of the book are “I became a film-maker” and above all, 7 Miles Out is a paean to the sometimes-painful awareness that pushes a person to become an artist.

While recent years have seen memoirs by Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, it’s been relatively rare to hear anything about what prompted female filmmakers to get in the game. While the male filmmaker’s memoir or how-to book is a well-established genre, stretching back to Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Bresson, for example, there are far fewer books by women who’ve got behind the camera. As in all arenas of art (and life), masculinity is identified with authority and vice versa, so female filmmakers – who have existed since the beginning of film – have been taken less seriously. When Maya Deren, who kickstarted the American avant-garde, offered her description of what makes an experimental film on a panel, she was mocked roundly by the other panellists, noted filmmakers (not) Dylan Thomas and Arthur Miller who (yawn) took the opportunity to make sexual remarks about her while mansplaining her field back to her.

Unsurprisingly, her only book – An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film – was long out of print, but can be read in the brilliant collection Essential Deren. Having told Esquire that she made her films ‘for what Hollywood spends on lipstick,’ Deren is an essential guide to low-budget filmmaking and distribution even in digital times: she shot and edited her own films, and screened them in her apartment. For many years they were almost unseen – although lesbian experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer recalls that Deren’s short ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ was the only film by a female filmmaker that she saw in film school in the late 1960s. Hammer’s book Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life is as essential as Deren’s collected, and definitely sexier: from lesbian communes in California to musings on gender non-binary artist Claude Cahun, Hammer! is a collection of thoughts, process notes, diary entries, and short stories all held together by the keen, sensual intellect of a great contemporary filmmaker. Along with filmmaker/choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s memoir Feelings are Facts, it’s a guide to how second wave feminist film came into being, how to radicalise your own story and make art outside the mainstream.

Several filmmakers have followed Deren’s example in Anagram of combining creative and political insights as well as autobiography, as Rainer does. Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory is a personal essay on feminism, and is as lively and radical as Baise-Moi, the controversial film she co-directed with Coralie Trinh Thi, a sort of SCUM manifesto for the riot grrrl generation. Video artist Hito Steyerl and experimental filmmaker Martha Rosler have both published short, sharp looks at our changing economic, social and media landscape: Rosler’s Culture Class is a biting critique of the professionalization and middle-class dominance of art-making, and Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen offers both an exploration of the exploitation of unpaid labour in the arts, and ideas for how digital media can offer a critical platform (if not a salary). Documentary-maker Astra Taylor looks at similar ideas, with a more practical emphasis, in The People’s Platform, her guide to taking back the internet.

If you’re looking for more direct how-to guides, then there’s surprisingly few female-authored studies to choose from. Top of the list is Sally Potter’s Naked Cinema: Working with Actors, which demystifies a major aspect of filmmaking. It’s one that’s rarely addressed in film schools because it involves skills often seen as feminine: listening, being emotionally attuned, collaborating. Potter’s book, based on decades of experience, is a handy, readable study on how to work with people, even when the camera’s not on. Far from regarding her actors as ‘warm props,’ Potter sees them as co-creators, as her interviews with everyone from Elle Fanning to Julie Christie reveal. A screen acting guide by Christie would be an ideal follow-up…

Feminist film publishing is dominated, perhaps unsurprisingly, by American filmmakers, and by white women. Julie Dash and Trinh Minh-Ha are rare exceptions: Dash collaborated with bell hooks and Toni Cade Bambara on one of the greatest screenplay publications, the script book for Daughters of the Dust, which is a practical, spiritual and poetic history of the film’s making. Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s many books, most notably Woman Native Other and When the Moon Waxes Red are classics that combine theory, politics and practice to argue for a critical, complex cinema that doesn’t get anywhere near enough airtime. These books by filmmakers whose work viewers in the UK would struggle to see, emphasise something crucial that Hammer points out in Hammer!:

a film rests in a can until it’s screened but a book can be opened at any time by anyone in any country. It doesn’t require a darkened room, a special location or equipment. I thought a book could be a portal to my films. Perhaps my films, a life’s work, could reach a new audience through the words and stories of my life.

Sophie Mayer is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, out now from I.B. Tauris. She reviews film for Sight & Sound and The F-Word, and works with queer feminist curators Club des Femmes and industry campaigners Raising Films. She is a widely-published poet, and her most recent collection is (O) (Arc, 2015).