This is the second part of an interview that Bluestockings conducted with Beth Capper and Maggie Hennefeld, two of the organizers of the Feminist and Women’s Media Festival in Providence. The FWMF is being hosted at the Cable Car Cinema and Brown University’s Granoff Center in Providence RI from March 13-March 16. The festival includes screenings of documentary, narrative, and experimental cinema, a photography installation, symposia panels, and a keynote address by Nandita Das. Screenings, panels and events are free and open to the public.
Ann Kremen: What blueprint did you use to develop the festival? How did the curation process happen; how were things selected?
Beth Capper: In some ways the curation happened quite organically. There’s five of us and we all have very different investments and things that we like, that we know about and wanted to bring in. So in some ways what happened, happened quite organically and came together nicely. We had ideas or frameworks for the days, and each day we have a panel. The focus of the first day is questions of Industry: we originally had Lena Waithe coming to talk about the television industry, and then we have Nandita Das, who is this huge film star and also a filmmaker—
Maggie Hennefeld: —who iconizes a sense of the global film industry beyond Hollywood but also very much extended from Hollywood in certain ways as well.
BC: Then on the second day we have an “Archives and Race” panel, and on the third day is “Borders.” So these are the three themes we had in mind, but not everything we curated every day falls into those themes. In the end, I feel like it was a really equal effort in terms of the curating. I come from a Contemporary Art perspective, so I have more of an affinity for experimental film and video—
MH: —so the Depression film screening, and the French Feminist Video program.
BC: And then I was interested in bringing Cauleen Smith, a contemporary, Afrofuturist artist who is on the “Archives and Race” panel and whose work we’re showing on Saturday night. Using archival research, she went around and filmed locations throughout Chicago, tracking the traces of Sun Ra’s presence. In that process, she was working with the Experimental Sound Studio to find all of these old recordings, and also finding musicians in Chicago and filming them. It ends up as this expansive Afrofuturist crazy tapestry, and at the end of it, it’s amazing, there’s this live performance of African-American brass band performing Space is the Place in Chinatown in Chicago.
And then Lakshmi’s completely responsible for bringing Nandita Das—
MH: There’s a strong Bollywood presence in the festival as well.
I’m really excited about Saturday’s programming and also the panel in Granoff at 4:30pm with Rhea Combs who is an African-American media history curator at the Smithsonian, of course Cauleen Smith, and Portia Cobb who’s an experimental filmmaker who’s worked in West Africa and in the United States and is engaged with questions of time and place as they emerge through film language. That’s going to be a really great panel!
BC: There’s a lot of other really great stuff that day too, that day is probably my favorite day in terms of curating.
There’s Akousa Adoma Owusu who’s American-Ghanese and she makes really interesting and amazing work. She made this film called Me Broni Ba from when she went to Ghana and filmed hair braiding salons, trying to think about African-American women’s hair in the US together with hair braiding in Ghana.
Sophia Seawell: Looking through the program, it spans a century. How did you select the early films to screen? Was building or making visible these alternate histories of women’s participation in media and film part of the intention of the program?
MH: Yes. Some of the work that I’m most excited to show is the Saturday morning silent film programs at 11 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. just because this stuff is so vital and shown so rarely. People don’t know how much work Black women and African-American women did in the 20s and 30s in silent film production. For instance, even though its a very problematic film, the star of Laughing Gas, Bertha Regustus, is one of the few black actresses who’s made visible in silent cinema in that way, and it is in some ways doubly coded; it has a mixed message.
Also, the gospel films by James and Eloyce Gist were just fragments in archives until the 1970s when Howard University professor Steve Torriano Barry unearthed them and undertook a tremendous archival project to restore them into any kind of coherent narrative form. The Gists were very religious and they used cinema as a spiritualizing medium. They exhibited the films in Churches, as vignettes with reformist educational functions, to get people to abandon sin and lead a pious life. But almost no one knows about these and they’re shown so rarely.
AK: All the panelists for the festival are women of color. Was this an intentional decision, or did it happen organically due to the nature of the themes of the panels?
MH: This was certainly not unintentional! We did originally invite Lena Dunham, who couldn’t make it, as a keynote, and at one point also tried to invite Marguerite von Trotta. We certainly never made any kind of hard and fast decision only to invite women of color, but as we were curating the “Archives and Race” and “Borders” themed panels and programming, these were just the guests whom it seemed compelling to bring here for the festival and who we thought would really be in conversation with one another. The main thing we wanted to make sure is that we had a range of artists/practitioners working in a variety of mediums, and then scholars/academics.
SS: Given technological advancements, how have the modes of representing bodies and experiences shifted, and what are the politics thereof?
MH: Early cinema is basically just about the body—or not just about the body, but it’s an incredibly different mode of address than in the classical narrative cinema that seeks to efface its own means of narration. Early films are called a cinema of attractions often because performers will bow and wink at the camera, and when film was such a novel medium, spectators would actually turn away from the screen or get up and walk around the theatre and marvel at the projector, and do other forms of hanky-panky in the theatre during public exhibitions. So I think the early films represent a radically embodied mode of experience, but one that definitely makes the body visible in very different ways than some of the seventies experimental works about the body.
BC: The “Feminism?” Project by Amber Hawk Swanson responds to a certain kind of sexualized representation of women that has become dominant in both independent and mass media, and thinks through the various forms of femininity that we still associate with mass-consumption or with idiocy. She did these interviews with women in Iowa, where she’s from, asking what they understand by the term ‘feminism.’ Then she stages the interview responses in videos in which she enacts various forms of eroticism: getting spanked, having her dad paint her toenails, all these femme-y or sexualized positions, while ventriloquizing these interviews in a stereotypical ‘Valley Girl’ accent. It takes on the contemporary ways in which the idea of what feminism is has been so reduced to soundbites or stereotypes as to be kind of meaningless and no longer speak to structural oppression: ‘feminism is about choice,’ ‘feminism is about lifestyle’—it’s lifestyle politics.
And then we have something like Mommy is Coming, Cheryl Dunye’s film, which is this kinky, porn-y, porn-ish, queer film set in Berlin, all about the sex club nightlife in Berlin. Obviously that’s a pretty radical transition from early cinema’s modes of representing.
MH: That’s the dialectic. Or The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye—
BC: Which is about Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who is the lead singer of Throbbing Gristle, which was part of eighties electronic music, being a big player. The film documents his love affair with this woman Lady Jaye; they each had cosmetic surgery to resemble the other. It’s this way of thinking about the body as an artwork or a canvas for creation, and questions of gender and body manipulation. It’s not even about gender reassignment, it’s about crafting and sculpting one another’s bodies to become one another. It’s a beautiful love story.
MH: Ramchand Pakistani, which is showing on Friday, is a film that dramatizes what happens when a body is on the wrong side of the border. And Portia Cobb’s experimental work on Saturday is about staging the body in different places and locations. A lot of Sunday’s programming is about what modes of representation are made available when the body is, not just limited to its physical form, but is confined in a certain place, in a certain culture, in a certain physical space, habits, routines, what the body can do as an agential subject.
AK: Can you tell us about where the films are coming from?
MH: A couple of the films come from Women Make Movies, a unique distribution company dedicated to only distributing works made by women. A couple of things from the Library of Congress, some of the silent films come from the archive of the Library of Congress, The Red Lantern comes from the Belgian cinematheque.
BC: Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years by Dagmar Schultz comes from a minority owned distribution company. The French Feminist Video Program comes from the Simone de Beauvoir Audiovisual Center in France, it’s a center that’s invested in promoting feminist and women’s filmmaking and video art.
MH: Patricia Cobb and most of the panelists are bringing their own works to show.
SS: It’s amazing that all of this work is going to be in the same place—it’s going to be a special weekend.
Interview by Ann Kremen and Sophia Seawell.
Image (source): Mehreen Jabbar, Ramchand Pakistani, 2008