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Club des Femmes' decade of queer feminist film programming

Posted 12 May 2017 by Duncan Carson in Cinema Careers, General

Club des Femmes blog montage
Films screened by Club des Femmes (L-R): Sepideh; De Cierta Manera; Carry Greenham Home 

Club des Femmes is a queer feminist collective that has now been showing films, running events and changing the shape of programming and culture for ten years. Founded in 2007 by programmer Selina Robertson and filmmaker Sarah Wood, then joined in 2009 by writer, curator and academic Sophie Mayer, it has proved an enduring and essential presence in the UK’s independent curation scene. With Sarah and Selina’s bond having been forged when they were both working at the Independent Cinema Office, we’re very happy to pay tribute to this programming force at this milestone.

This decade anniversary is marked by one of their most ambitious projects to date: a tribute and celebration of queer cinema royalty B. Ruby Rich at the Barbican in London. For those yet to be initiated into Club des Femmes’ modus operandi, the season is a strong indication: committed to showing work that has been underexposed, with a close eye both to the past and to the future, and with concerns that stretch way beyond the confines of film and cinema. Club des Femmes’ events have encompassed a powerful excavation of the Greenham Common Wimmin's Peace Camp, a highly oversubscribed night of feminist porn, a collective action on Wikipedia and much more. I spoke with Club des Femmes three core members and got their take on what is at the heart of the way they programme.

Programming is about sharing

CdF dykesploitation

The core of Club des Femmes work is to offer access to queer feminist film work and thought, bring a rich tapestry of new and neglected voices into the light, so they can be enjoyed, discussed and contextualised. 

Selina Robertson (SR): We are always generating new programming ideas between us. Sometimes we are invited to curate a season (as in the Barbican's Being Ruch Rich) or we decide to revisit a filmmaker whose body of work has been overlooked like Annette Kennerley's 16mm films - as with everything we do it's about showing films that have a critically and a feminist consciousness and rebel aesthetics (as B. Ruby Rich calls it).

Sarah Wood (SW): It's been central to what we do – to revive work, place it in a new context and see what resonances work for a contemporary audience. Women's work has often been marginalised. It takes a bit of extra work to find that work and put it back on screen but it’s always valuable when we do.

Sophie Mayer (SM): That's part of the impulse behind Being Ruby Rich: I certainly connected to feminist film through reading her accounts of films I thought I would never ever be able to see… Like The Gold Diggers not being on DVD or video until 2009! So there's something about translating the cultural and critical histories back ONTO the screen, with an audience – and panellists. It's never just a screening.

Sometimes it's even a bit like a seance: you need people present to create a presence. Of course zines and magazines do that too (and we make print artefacts), but screening a film that hasn't been screened for a decade or more – there's a frisson of presence to that.

Make sure everyone is included

One of the hallmarks of a Club des Femmes event is the collapsing of hierarchies between audiences and curators, experts and neophytes. Avoiding the typical relation between spectator and curator, a wide range of voices feel empowered to offer their perspective. If a great deal of the history of women’s movements has yet to be written, a Club des Femmes creates a space of active participation where that can happen. This helps avoid a digested, determined view of the work and open dialogues that have a lasting impact.

SW: There are many ways to think of cinema. For us it’s always been a space for ideas. It has to be. Our programming is a move away from questions of defining a single canon or authorship and towards a growing understanding of what women have brought to the screen in terms of politics, thought and aesthetics.

SM: Something that I've really noticed is that the CdF community/audience is very horizontal: someone who is an audience member at one screening might be a filmmaker we present later on; a panellist might give us a lead to our next project; a shy and nerdy viewer like me might become part of the team – so it is very much community-building around shared interests. A continuous flow of actions and conversations that don't assume anyone in the room has a fixed role.

Make the cinema a space for discussion

Carry Greenham Home

The cinema itself is often a harsh environment for honest and productive discussion amongst equals, especially given the ‘master and pupil’ dynamic of the traditional Q&A session. Showing radical work is inherently about opening up a space for new ideas, and so creating a space in which these ideas can circulate is something that Club des Femmes have taken care over (to the extent that their Carry Greenham Home event at the Rio in East London exploded into spontaneous song!).

SR: Our practice of collaboration is all that we have, and the queer feminist space that we actively create every time we come together...

SW: I agree. Because so much of culture is now mediated through screens, and viewing is so isolated there's nothing more exciting than humanising a screening event and enabling it to become properly about dialogue.

SM: I've learnt so much from audiences over the years. We've had great conversations because as a group we're not that interested in our own authority but what is possible through dialogue. We try to programme films that also have a welcoming stance (and to show that experimental and alternative cinema has its own forms of welcome and invitation), and to work with panellists who bring that off the screen.

Think practically and sustainably

Of course, there is a strong practical, as well as theoretical, element to producing an event. I was interested in how Club des Femmes have managed to stay sustainable and active across the ten years.

SW: Our projects have rarely been publicly funded but we have just about always managed to break even through box office splits with the venues we've worked with. The one good thing about this is that when you know you're relying only on the money you'll generate through ticket sales it keeps you on your toes about how you programme, how inclusive you can make it and how well you can communicate what you're doing to the widest possible audience. It's telling that we've taken risks with the films we've shown, risks that commercial cinemas would be wary to take but have proved that it's possible to screen unfamiliar work and still make a financial success of it. In a world where everything boils down to economics this is one of our quiet triumphs!

SM: We also try to keep ticket prices affordable, and (at the same time) to pay our guest speakers and filmmakers fairly, so that's always part of the consideration when we're budgeting an event and talking to a venue.

Club des femmes first event
Poster for Club des Femmes' inaugural season at Curzon Soho

SR: There's a lot of attention to detail, especially working with multiple formats and harder-to-find films!

For our first event at the Curzon, we were partly funded by them and supported the event through box office. We have been working like that ever since: covering our costs sometimes paying ourselves a little bit. Now we are being properly funded through Film Hub London, it's very exciting to be able to pay ourselves properly but it's still a VERY precarious job especially in London and we all work on a millions other projects to make it all work.

Celebrate history...

b ruby rich

Image source: IndieWire

With the Being Ruby Rich season, Club des Femmes are paying tribute to a figure who has proved emblematic of their project, celebrating not just ten years of their history but also twenty five years since Rich coined the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ in the pages of Sight & Sound.

SW: It symbolically honours all the women critics who shape film theory but often go unacknowledged. There's a wonderful legacy of thinking film and feminism. We are so lucky in this country to have Laura Mulvey and Elizabeth Cowie (just to name two of the amazing long list of women) helping us understand what cinema can be. I think this season and the acknowledgement of B. Ruby Rich's contribution to thought is genius. Club des Femmes has honoured women behind the camera, women experimenting with film, women on screen and now we honour the contribution made by women theorising cinema. It's going to be great.

SM: Ruby has been so connected to feminism and film in the UK since the 1970s, through Edinburgh Film Festival, Sight & Sound and New Queer Cinema that our intent is to tie those feminist history circles back together again for new audiences to appreciate and enjoy…

Thinking about ideas and moments often leads us to new films and filmmakers as well – there's often a sense of how much we need to learn to fill in gaps, or how excited we are when a new film like Wanuri Kahiu's Pumzi appears and we can programme it!

I've learned so much about how films actually travel through culture and memory by researching our events and putting things together.

...And look to the future

If one were looking for signs that Club des Femmes’ advocacy has made a difference over the last decade, it doesn’t take much to see.

SR: The margins/mainstream switch up all the time.... I guess the filmmakers that we showed our our launch event June 2007 at the Curzon were people like Lizzie Borden, Sadie Benning, Vivienne Dick. Last year Borden's Born in Flames was digitally restored and had a new 35mm print struck, which was very exciting to see this film finally recognized by mainstream film culture...

Edge

Image source: Sandra Lahire Edge 1986, film still. Courtesy LUX

SM: Feminist film in general has entered the mainstream conversation over the last ten years – as in the main-mainstream (national newspapers, BFI backed, etc), but it's in a way more exciting to see the kinds of experimental work that we've screened move into larger cultural spaces like Tate, like with Maud Jacquin's London Film-makers Co-op programme, which Sarah was part of.

SW: I think cinema itself has changed a lot in ten years and that what was once considered the margins is now a thriving alternative to mainstream commercial cinema, largely thanks to the activity of film clubs and festivals.

I asked Club des Femmes about what developments they were glad to see over the last ten years and which they could do without.

SR: Since we started there is now a really strong social network of queer feminist film curators, activists, programmers, pop ups, festivals in London – that links UK wide through alternative exhibitors  – e.g. Scalarama, SQIFF, Liverpool Small Cinema, Eyes Wide Open - whose rebel interventions within cultural cinema exhibition are significant and growing larger.

The development I am not happy seeing is the continuing exploitation by some cinemas of young feminist curators who are expected to give their skill and labour for free in return for supplying cinemas with ‘diverse’ content and audiences. This is an issue that needs to be addressed and we are talking within CdF about this a lot and how we can help change that. Watch this space!

SM: Online streaming and the emergence of boutique cinemas: these have both created opportunities and problems for making a breadth of films available.

I think the most important development is/was around digital projection enabling community cinema, especially with support from the BFI Neighbourhood Film Fund, which has created a massive growth in programming and curating (obviously supported by ICO training and distribution!), which can be local, responsive, communitarian, contextual, investigative and can offer real challenges to the status quo (like Liverpool Small Cinema’s 58% project); the second is theatrical release strategies for documentaries. As there are more women directing documentaries than fiction features, this has had a signal and dynamic effect, including raising filmmakers like Kim Longinotto to the deserved level of icons – although online streaming may mark the end of this brief golden era…

Have fun!

SR: We try to have as much fun as possible. Doing feminism is so much about that!

SW: Selina and I had both worked programming for different organisations but missed the freedom to follow our instincts and put film events together that could be more light of foot and responsive to what was happening in the world. We have always been creative and playful about the way we programme and that literally began with a conversation.

So, in the true spirit of Club des Femmes (and as a love of Tove Jannson and her creations was one of the original ways Sarah and Selina bonded at the ICO) I’m happy to share the official Moomins/Club des Femmes pairings as shared with me over the course of this interview:

Club Des Femmes Moomins2
(L-R: Little My AKA Selina Robinson; Moomintroll AKA Sarah Wood; Snufkin AKA Sophie Mayer)

Here’s to ten more years!

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