Women’s films at Knokke

by Verina Glaessner

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, p. 23
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

The Fifth International Festival of Experimental Film was held at Knokke in Belgium for some ten days over Christmas last year. It was late and finally arrived amid rumors that its organizer and guiding spirit of previous years, Jacques Ledoux, had felt some reluctance about staging it at all. Of some 75 films shown in competition only eleven were (partially or wholly) made by women; and the proportion was similarly small among the films shown out of competition. There were no women on the award-giving jury which consisted of P. Adams Sitney, Stephen Dwoskin, Ed Emschwiller, Dusan Makavejev and Harald Szeeman. At the last festival in 1967 the jury included Shirley Clark and Vera Chitilova. And only one, Marian Verstraeten, a specialist in visual art rather than film, on the selection jury.

The Knokke festival has an illustrious past. It was at previous festivals that Maya Deren showed AT LAND, RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME and MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON, key works in the U.S. cinema, Lotte Reiniger THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED, Agnes Varda LA POINTE COURT and OPERA MOUFFE.

This year the festival was essentially dominated by a lingering sense of alienation, despite the welcome and fruitful casual opportunities it offered for meetings and exchange of information and ideas. The alienation seemed to take its cue from the choice of films in competition and to extend out in most directions. The general feeling was reinforced by the festival’s hierarchical structure. There was marked lack of opportunity for discussion either with the selection jury or with (or between) filmmakers. Too many of the filmmakers represented couldn't afford to be present (while the critics were heavily subsidized). Almost inevitably those responsible for the most challenging work, for one reason or another, weren't present. Perhaps in the present temperature of avant-garde filmmaking, a Cannes-style festival simply doesn't make sense. What would have been more enlightening all around would have been a series of working parties, forums or simply discussions with the filmmaker.

The audience itself seemed increasingly bewildered and perplexed as the festival progressed. The regulation re-screening of the prize winners on the last day was met with vast indifference and some loudly expressed antipathy. And the sole programmed discussion with both jurors and selection committee came too late and was held in an atmosphere far too strained for anything creative to come out of it. In fact the films chosen (disregarding their widely varying standards for the moment) spanned the whole scale of filmmaking. Works ranged from the most spare and meditative minimalist work through to the most clichéd reworking of staple underground themes, taking in a far too large contingent that relied on subject matter and techniques which have become commonplace in commercial and/or “art” cinema. A times the films tended be rather unsympathetically programmed—with finely structured minimalist works rubbing shoulders with films that required a different kind of concentration. Such a programming tended to increase the problems of viewing the films in some kind of receptive frame of mind.

Interestingly, the women’s films tended to span the whole range of style and subject, from the most spare structuralist to the most intensely personal and “enacted.” Only a few actually touched on women’s problems as such—the festival seemed deliberately to steer clear of anything that could be called political in point of subject. The withdrawing of interest from the formula of underground days left the image of woman a fairly fleeting thing on the screen as well. Among the exceptions were Jim Johnson’s self-parody TRANSMAN in which “Cosmic man” seeks union with an idealized (naked!) female principle, and Ed Somers unabashed piece of erotica VERENA in which he films a woman slowly masturbating, or Hollis Frampton’s, I think acceptable, use of the nude female body in SOLLARI MAGELLANI, a vast mature work.

Knokke is a heavily bourgeois Belgian resort town. The Festival was held in one section of the vast casino complex. On one level, it was as if this situation too was reflected in certain expectations of a section of the audience. They wanted to be shocked and shocked in familiar (and familiarly sexist?) ways. The feeling reached a head towards the end of the Festival when a film (Anthony McCall’s LINE DESCRIBING A CONE) whose “shocking” quality was the result of its total lack of every ingredient generally thought of as associated with cinema—narrative, of course, performers, image—except for a very slowly growing line which described the cone of light coming from the projector. But it was nourished by the out-of-competition screening of Otto Muehl’s THE CHERRIES IN MY FATHER'S GARDEN (shown incidentally outside the cinema in the general concourse while an inch-by-inch photographing of the Daily Telegraph world map unfurled slowly in a virtually empty cinema). Muehi’s branch of cathartic cinema involves his performers in hysteric childlike and regressive tantrums involving vomiting, throwing fits, defecating, going the limits—while father figure Muehl stands there taking the abuse. In fact, this film with its unisex performers (all with short shorn hair and uncompromising brawny bodies) and on-screen birth greeted with a round of applause nonetheless proved (to me at least) both cathartic and liberating.

In the discussion Dusan Makavejev stood up and made an impassioned plea for a cinema of humor and human relevance, a cinema that, he said, he had found little evidence of at Knokke, one that “pulled the rug from under one’s feet. In fact, though, many films did challenge one’s expectations and some did it humorously. Without entirely following the structuralist credo, it seems self-evident that a cinema—and especially a feminist cinema —that attempts to build itself uncritically upon the traditional formulas of conventional narrative cinema is treading a hugely perilous path, if not heading straight for disaster. Feminist cinema must develop its own film language, a language adapted to its own ends. Of necessity, women have always been in the forefront of filmic experiment—one only has to go to Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac. And as film is arguably the single medium that has done most to stereotype and oppress women, it is crucial that we remain there. It is impossible after all that narrative cinema should have developed in the context of a masculine capitalist society without that ideology having been built into the language of film. Hence, the importance of precise research, experimentation, and a fresh look at the medium of film, the area of the screen.


Marilyn Halford’s (17 Marlborough Avenue, London E.8.) FOOTSTEPS was a film marked by extreme grace allied to a simple and logical structure. It alternated positive and negative loops of film in which a figure (Marilyn herself) standing with her back to the camera suddenly turns and smiles. Marilyn describes her film as

“a game re-enacted. The game in the making was between the camera and the actor, the actor and the cameraman, and a hundred feet of film.”

The impression of a game comes through clearly; it resembles one of those children’s games in which the players are suddenly called on to stop what they are doing and hold their position. And the film works by honing down the various possibilities open to film to a single component, the fleeting gesture, which we study in all its power and dramatic force. It is a dazzlingly simple film, remaining clearly in the viewer’s mind and carrying an almost inexplicably large charge of emotion.

Anna Ambrose, another British filmmaker, showed a group of films all dedicated to exploring the space of the screen in new and dislocating ways. NOODLE SPINNER was the most successful and accessible. Basically black and white footage of a Chinese chef spinning noodles in his kitchen, Anna has reworked and refilmed the original footage to give a split screen effect running, for instance, the right hand loop forwards and the left hand backwards until at the end of the film we have a kind of transient figure at the center of the screen, his body and face disappearing till he becomes nothing but a pair of hands working the dough—totally, in other words, absorbed in his work. Far from being sterile experimentation the film carries a welcome degree of wit and humor. UP AND DOWN made similar use of the screen, using film shot from constantly moving and open elevators. (103 Earls Court Road, London W.8.)

Shown out of competition, Anne Severson’s THE STRUGGLE OF THE MEAT presented an evocation of just that—a struggle embarked upon by creatures of the flesh—here animals in the wild shown in slow motion in desperate milling flight.

“My intentions were to create an experience of accumulating tension and release. I wanted the images to be visually recognizable, but abstracted in order to present a cooler, more open form. I want the film to be an invitation to the viewer to hear sounds not recorded, to see images other than those represented.”

It does just that, arousing through its use of conventionally beautiful footage (shot with a blue filter) an almost gut level identification. (12 Chepstow Place, London W.2. England).

Martha Haslanger’s (228O Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Maryland 02140) SYNTAX is a small gem, a film exhibiting what came to be something of the trademark for this small group of structuralist (or investigative) films made by women, a kind of joyful, competent wit and strength. She prowls her camera through several rooms in an ordinary middle class house while in a voice over she describes either what we have seen or what we are about to see. She never discusses what is actually on the screen, wringing the changes of the relationship of spoken word, image and printed word (words take the place of objects on the screen at one point. A pile of books turns into a pile of titles—including The Best of “Life” and the World Atlas.) The film closes around a sequence of a man writing at a table on a patio while the soundtrack becomes a melee of female voices. “I can't wait to see Shorebirds again” he writes, Shorebirds being the mass produced seascape on the living room wall. It is a wonderfully self-contained and seductive film.

The above films seemed among the strongest presented at the Festival (indeed Anna Abrose’s won the Belgian Television and Radio Prize). Of the rest, Dore O., an established German experimental filmmaker (who also won a prize) showed KASKARA, a film that explored the space around and within a country cabin, complete with male figure (her husband), framing it within black and white footage of an urban block marked by jagged broken glass in the windows. For me the film’s effect was somewhat spoiled by the addition of a chorus of voices on the soundtrack intoning vowel sounds. Birgit Hein’s collaborative STRUCTURAL STUDY was a pleasantly muscular piece—economical and dynamic. Both these films appeared probably unnecessarily cryptic and were shown in isolation from the filmmakers’ other works, and again without any framework of discussion. (Dore O. Nekes, Baherenfeldstr. 73D, 2 Hamburg 50, Germany; Birgit Hein, 36 Lupus Strasse, 5 Koln 1, Germany.)

There was also a large-ish group of women’s films that depended on more or less expressionistically, symbolically, or narratively arranged footage of performers going through various actions. Such films include Barbara Linkevitch’s TRACES and SILVERPOINT, Glenna Mills Johnson’s G---'S LAST COCKTAIL PARTY, Annik Leroy’s NBC, Susan Brockman’s DEPOT, and Claudine Eizykman’s VITESSE WOMEN. Of these several were specifically concerned with women and their relationships and many seemed to suffer a kind of Sylvia Plath-ism. Claudine Eizykinan’s VITESSE WOMEN singularly failed to question the highly cosmetic images of women it worked and reworked. Annik Leroy’s NBC relied too heavily on an unquestioning use of by now over-familiar “underground” images of vaguely counterculture figures fleeing some disaster. Barbara Linkevitch’s were probably the most interesting of these, but given the climate of the Festival, they tended to lose out.

Of the other films in the Festival a large contingent from Japan are worth a mention, including Toshio Matsumoto’s FLY; Michio Okabe’s KIYAMPU and SHONEN SHIKO, the latter elliptically about boys growing up against a background of Japanese militarism translated into vaguely sexual images. J.J. Murphy’s PRINT GENERATION revealed horror and chaos behind an ordinary image. Gerhardt Theuring’s LEAVE ME ALONE attempted a minimalist reworking of EASY RIDER with an added dimension of the questioning of seductive U.S. cultural imperialism. On the whole it was a relief to note the virtual disappearance of the woman’s body as object in self-absorbed male fantasy. And it was cheering to find within even such a small selection of women’s films, so many that even when quite obviously made on the slimmest of resources used those resources to strong and radical effect.

I would suggest that the time is ripe for a festival of women’s experimental cinema—except that women’s cinema tends by its nature and in many guises automatically towards the experimental. But the time is ripe for the inclusion of experimental and avant-garde women’s work in future women’s seasons.