Programming a feminist film season
In response to these alarming statistics, since February the Gulbenkian in Canterbury has been screening a film season entitled Fifty Years of Feminism, a partnership with the cinema and the film department at the University of Kent. Professor of Film Studies Elizabeth Cowie observed that cinema and feminism both arose at the end of the nineteenth century in 1895 and was moved to mark the relationship between the two.
The selection of films in this season is designed to prompt the audience to think about the progress of feminism and women’s rights, and the changing landscape for women both in society, and on film, throughout the 20th century.”
As Elizabeth progressed with the idea, her first challenge was to think about what we mean by feminist film. “I quickly decided that the season would be broadly woman-centred, with key films – both fiction and documentary – mainly made by female filmmakers that address the issues and politics of being women and exploring stories of women as workers, as wives and lovers;daughters, sisters and mothers and the constant struggle for an equality that meaningfully recognises difference.”
As with any thematic season the wealth of material presented a curatorial challenge. “There are so many wonderful films that explore female identity, and this season could only accommodate ten! While there are still far too few films made by women in general, there are such fantastic contemporary female filmmakers, and it has been exciting to see concurrent programming at the Gulbenkian that includes so many related films – new releases such as Wild, and The Falling and Mommy, all playing at the Gulbenkian in the coming months.”
The increased interest in feminist concerns in film has meant that the season has provided an opportunity for the university to exploit their links with the Gulbenkian to reach new audiences for academically focused film programming.The Gulbenkian has long housed an arts cinema alongside its theatre, with which academic staff have been involved in programming and introducing films and events. The season has been selected to include the widest possible audience, not just students and academics,” Cowie explains.
Having dedicated her career to furthering discussions around feminist film theory, Cowie’s final selection, whilst not a comprehensive reflection of the depth of her knowledge, certainly demonstrates her ardent passion for the subject. Each film is special to me. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Clio Barnard’s The Arbor are films I really love for the complex ways in which they each address young women and their intimate struggles with family and identity. Agnes Varda’s One Sings and the Other Doesn’t is a wonderful portrait of female friendship and a profound celebration of femininity and feminism. Todd Haynes gorgeous melodrama Far From Heaven not only also references the Hollywood woman’s film and the clear inspiration of directors such as Douglas Sirk, but shows that feminist and woman-centred films can be made by men, with Haynes interested in drawing out the contradictions posed by issues of family, desire and race for both his male and female characters as they navigate life in a repressive society. I am also really pleased to be able to screen The Song of the Shirt, the 1979 film which is cinematically radical and politically complex in its investigative rethinking of the history of women’s work.
Looking into the future, she hopes that a similar season might be curated at the Gulbenkian, but this time hopes that an equity between male and female filmmakers will have been established so that such a season needn’t be labelled as feminist film, but simply “a retrospective of the plethora of the cinematic riches of the twentieth century.”