Gaining Ground: The Case for Programming Beyond the Canon

Posted on September 20, 2018 by So Mayer

If we want a more inclusive film future, how do we get there without knowing the diversity and struggle of film history? Following our and Club des Femmes’ groundbreaking Revolt She Said: Women and Film after ’68 tour that brought back into the spotlight female filmmakers whose work had often been overlooked, author and film activist So Mayer investigates whose films get filed in the canon, and whose are allowed to fall away – if they were even able to make them in the first place. 

There are twelve of us, sitting in the Magistrate’s Court on Victoria Street, Liverpool, in the summer of 2016. The case before us is a complex one: how do you judge a 35 year old film, Losing Ground (1982), that you’ve never heard of, let alone seen, before? Whose writer-director slipped through the net of film history – not least because Kathleen Collins was an African American woman independent writer across genres and media.

The case, of course, begins long before the audience arrives here at the converted courtroom that housed the volunteer-run Liverpool Small Cinema for two years. It begins in the knotty question that LSC’s ambitiously game-changing 58% programming, foregrounding women, trans and/or non-binary filmmakers of colour, came into being to address: whose films – if they are able to make them, in the first place – get filed in the canon, and whose are allowed to fall away? Programmers who want to intervene face a subsequent set of questions that can feel hopelessly circular, amounting to: how do we get an audience for a film no-one’s heard of, one that is difficult to even place in film history because of how it was made, or who made it? And if we want a more inclusive film future, how do we get there without knowing the diversity and struggle of film history?

Losing Ground (1982)

Programmers across the UK who took the challenge to screen Losing Ground had a few factors in their favour: the film had been gloriously restored by US DVD label Milestone Films, and screened as the centrepiece of a season of black New York indie cinema at the prestigious Lincoln Center in 2015, with Richard Brody calling the film a ‘masterwork’ in the New Yorker. Collins’ daughter Nina Collins had written and spoken eloquently about the experience of recovering the prints her mother’s film. Collins died far too young, at 46, in 1988, so the film arrived freighted with emotional significance, as well as its huge importance for film history as the first feature-length drama directed by a black American woman. Its recovery was concurrent with Beyoncé’s front-and-centre references in Lemonade to Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992), the first feature-length drama directed by a black American woman to receive theatrical distribution. The films’ resonance created an additional sense of zeitgeist, not least amid continuing statistically-charged conversations about representation behind and before the camera, especially given that the structural and systemic inequalities that made Losing Ground both a first and an erasure continue. As Angelica Jade Bastien writes, ‘Watching Losing Ground for the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder about the films Collins could have made if she had the structural support, money, and good health to do so.’

Between its production in 1988 and its revival in the 2010s, it would have been triply impossible to programme Losing Ground: firstly, because the mainstream conversation about representation and inclusion had stalled between the much-vaunted Year of the Woman (1993) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award win in 2008, when it restarted with a bang; secondly, because the film was ‘little known outside academic and black cinephile circles,’ as Ashley Clark notes, and because of a lack of wider engagement with texts that might have dropped a hint beyond those circles; and thirdly, because of the lack of either available prints or digitisation. Restoration and digital distribution of independent and world cinema appears to be a growth industry, tied in to the voracity of streaming sites and festivals for new material, to the rise of blu-ray as an archive quality format, and to the appetite for event cinema where scarcity value and/or expert speakers offer rationales for increased theatrical attendance.

The constellation of an emergent grassroots cinephilia and an emphasis on diversifying our screens created the perfect conditions for Losing Ground to tour the UK successfully – but also highlighted the crux point: access, access, access. Programmers need access to materials that are both in viable condition and affordable, which often means restoration of prints and the creation of DCPs. That may be affected by complex issues of copyright and ownership as well as the basic principle of cost, particularly for truly independent radical cinema. While non-standard archival and distribution conditions affect hundreds of thousands of films from the century of cinema, they disproportionately affect the few films made by filmmakers from marginalised and under-represented communities.

Sugar Cane Alley (1983)

And so the vicious cycle that leaves film festival directors claiming ‘there are no women filmmakers’ seems condemned to repeat itself. The BFI London Film Festival, for example, boasts a single feature film by a woman filmmaker in its Treasures archival programme in 2018 (1/16 = 6%): Sugar Cane Alley (1983), the crucial first feature by Martiniquean filmmaker Euzhan Palcy, whose second film A Dry White Season (1989) was the first Hollywood studio-produced film directed by a black woman. Criterion are releasing the latter on blu-ray this year, from a director-approved 4K restoration, which Kyle Turner calculates has pushed Criterion’s percentage of films directed by solo women directors up to 28/955, or 2.93%, an increase of 0.03% on the figures I calculated in 2015. It is worthy of applause that Palcy’s work is being restored and celebrated, but it is also too little, and it risks being too late. Not only for Palcy’s continuing career and visibility (would that a Hollywood studio should back her proposed biopic of Bessie Coleman) but to create a continuous legacy of and for black woman filmmakers globally.

Dominant cinema – films by white cismen – has had over 100 years of a booster programme, maintained by the free gift of the lion’s share of marketing, publicity, exhibition, scholarship and conversation: it’s educational to wonder just how successful or celebrated they would be without that unfair advantage. That any films by under-represented and marginalised filmmakers were and are made at all is worth celebrating – and that requires a little levelling of the playing field. That requires a concerted effort across restoration, programming, and criticism to dedicate resources to filling in what we know to be gaps. It means attending to a ‘we’ beyond the dominant, too: to caring about the knowledge of, for example, black cinephiles equally. While the Martin Scorsese Film Foundation continues to enlarge the mainstream optic beyond Hollywood cinema, it has so far paid little attention to other axes of exclusion, although its offshoot, the World Film Project, is offering a corrective – at least in terms of international diversity; not a single non cismale director appears on its list. Like the Criterion brand, the Film Foundation explicitly underwrites a continuing history of cismale-dominated cinema, despite the efforts of archival research such as the outstanding Women Film Pioneers project.

Without accessible materials, films are unable to change that conversation because they cannot be screened, only talked about in hushed whispers by those who remember seeing them at festivals. Archives such as June Givanni’s Pan African Cinema Archive (which is open to the public but has no public funding), and scholarly books such as Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women Film and Video Artists do invaluable work as cultural memory for the most at-risk films. More comprehensive film education, from A-Level through degrees to lifelong learning, would and should highlight and make use of these dedicated resources that enable students to read beyond the canon, even where films are unavailable, creating a hunger for films that could be rediscovered. As I wrote for VIDA, expanding the horizons of film criticism and scholarship beyond canonical texts is essential to creating contexts and audiences for films such as Losing Ground.

When Club des Femmes and the ICO assembled the nine film programmes that comprised our national tour Revolt, She Said: Women and Film After ’68, one of our priorities was generating new critical contexts, and in some cases – such as Pat Murphy’s and John Davies’ Maeve (1982) – the only available critical contexts. It was written into our funding bid. By commissioning short essays by a range of critics, thinkers and filmmakers focusing on individual films, we could tell the story of how the films we’d chosen fit into both film and feminist histories, personal and political. The feedback cycle between film criticism and film programming may be secondary to the costly, time-consuming work of archival research and restoration, but is available to every cinema or independent programmer with a website. It’s a small-scale, affordable intervention that additionally engages community and provides a legacy for your programme. The Watershed’s Cinema Rediscovered critics’ programme offers an excellent example of how involving writers in your event amplifies the impact of your programming.

Maeve (1982)

As Tara Jennett wrote about the festival’s 25th anniversary screening of Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1993), ‘We know that allowing sections of history to be forgotten is damaging to our future, so shouldn’t we treat fiction films with the same regard? Jennett notes that, at the screening, ‘the main emotion [she] felt was anger… bitterly upset,’ to be confronted with the way in which distribution, exhibition and production treat the legacy of under-represented filmmakers, maintaining the status quo. With Revolt, She Said, we experienced and wanted to tap into that same anger that parallels the need for social and cultural revolutions, and learning the histories thereof. Audiences for films such as Losing Ground are small but impassioned; and they are small, currently, only because the entire edifice of film education and criticism needs to change in order for contexts and histories to be readily available to audiences who don’t have educational or geographical privilege.

As we found on our tour, they may also be audiences who currently feel excluded from and unreflected by most first-run, and even cultural, cinema programming, meaning that awareness of and outreach to potential audiences, via community and activist networks, might be another intervention more readily available than the Lost Film Reels of the Un(der)known Filmmaker. As Anim18’s Umulkhayr Mohamed wrote for the ICO blog, ‘If your organisation’s audience demographic is not representative of the diverse communities that live close by, those communities aren’t “hard to reach” – you’re inaccessible.’ Taking on the challenge of programming far beyond the canon may, perhaps counter-intuitively given that we think of archive cinema (wrongly) as elitist, make your venue more accessible, as it restores a lost aspect of film history to a community hungry for representation.

Sitting in the former Magistrate’s Court, we came to our verdict: cinema has inherited too much of the Western justice system, reliant on the absolute decisions of a largely white, largely cismale judiciary who too often operate also as jury and executioner. Like Liverpool Small Cinema’s volunteer team, we need to create screening spaces where we can shift the focus from what that (in)judicious process has included in the canon. The crime under consideration is a real one: the eradication of film history. Not a black film history, or a women’s film history, or perhaps even film history but history itself. Our story of film is far less than half the story.

We should all be angry and bitterly upset to be deprived of our pasts, and we should be excited – as excited as the audiences who closed Revolt, She Said screenings with standing ovations – to encounter films from beyond the canon. What a thrill to watch the brilliant colours of Losing Ground arrive on our screens (as AO Scott wrote), ‘like news, like a bulletin from a vital and as-yet-unexplored dimension of reality.’ Films that made change, that speak truth to power, that were firsts or onlies or dares or outliers, are news that stays news, and audiences thrive on that encounter. The reality that such films were made is too often denied and elided, across the board. Yet these films speak to diverse, thriving cultures, not only those in which they were produced, but the globally-connected, active and activist viewership of contemporary screen media. We can only regain that ground – and gain that audience – if we use our platforms to refuse to see these films as inaccessible, in all its senses.

So Mayer is part of queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes, and a co-founder of industry campaigners Raising Films. So is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (2009). Twitter: @tr0ublemayer

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