Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
From the Archive
nº 10 - 2022 (2)
Notes on the feminist interventions in the Archive based on The Emerging Woman (Women's Film Project, 1974)
Elena Oroz (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid)
In this article, I propose an approach to the archive related to the growing interest within feminist film theory in addressing and systematising filmic practices of appropriation and assemblage of pre-existing materials (Mulvey, 2015; Dall'Asta and Chiarini, 2016; Russell, 2018). These contributions recover and advocate for the careers of women without a camera and establish connections between the main questions that have shaped feminist historiography and feminist expressions in found footage or détournement practices.
Nevertheless, the scope of these proposals is limited by a corpus centred on European pioneers —Esfir Shub, Germaine Dulac or Nicole Védrès— or filmmakers who belong to the American experimental cinema, leaving aside classic feminist documentaries —for example, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Connie Field, 1980)— or filmmakers from the Global South, such as the Mexican Carmen Toscano (Wood, 2009). In line with the topic of this special issue —and its decentered approach to women’s involvement in filmmaking— here, I dust off the compilation film The Emerging Woman (1974), produced by the Women's Film Project (WFP). After its release, it enjoyed extraordinary visibility and distribution: it was selected by the United States Bicentennial Commission (1976), 400 copies were sold to American schools, universities and libraries and became the subject of study in various courses on gender (Burton, 1986).
Image 1. Poster The Emerging Woman (click to zoom) / Imagen 2. The Emerging Woman Booklet (click download in PDF)
As Marina Cavalcanti (2022) points out, the singularity of the WFP lies in its internationalist commitment —which would lead them to examine the impact and specificities of feminism in Latin America— and in the fact that a Latin American filmmaker led it: Helena Solberg, who migrated from Brazil to the United States in 1971. At that time, Solberg had a notable career in her country. In 1964 she debuted with A Entrevista, a short film that examined how the “feminine mystique” had permeated upper-middle-class Brazilian women, and in 1970 she directed Meio Dia. Inspired by Zéro de conduite (Jean Vigo, 1933), this work, which depicted an insurrection in a school, became an indictment of Brazil's military dictatorship, underlined by the inclusion of Caetano Veloso’s song É Proibido Prohibir. Arrived in the United States, she soon got involved in the counterculture of the time, participating in independent film and video groups —with which she planned to film the demonstrations against Vietnam War— and with the effervescent feminism movement (Tavares, 2014). This is precisely the origin of the WPF since the collective was created to make a film that would recover the history of women’s struggles in the United States from the early nineteenth century to the Second Wave. To this end, Solberg recruited Melanie Maholick and Roberta Haber, then students at George Washington University, in charge of the research, and Lorraine Gray, a photographer who later gained recognition with the documentary With Babies and Banners (1978).
Image 3. Helena Solberg and Lorraine Gray during the shooting of The Emerging Woman
Solberg aimed to make a didactic film explaining the origins and nature of the vibrant women's liberation movement, its strength and its organizational capacity (Burton, 1986). The film, which lasts 40 minutes, is outstanding for its multifaceted historical approach that is attentive to the links between the abolition of slavery and women’s political organisation; its intersectionality, also considering race and social class; and the analysis of several models of oppressive femininities and their regulating discourses, such as legislation, psychoanalysis, and the media. Indeed, the documentary has a pedagogical will reinforced, in Solberg's words, by the chronological articulation (Burton, 1986) and a montage that, apparently, follows the principles of the expository mode of documentary characterized by an argumentative logic in which the image is subordinated to the voice-over narration as illustration or visual evidence. However, The Emerging Woman includes remarkable doses of reflexivity in making explicit who and how the film is made (Tavares, 2014, p. 42). We take up this observation to highlight how its reflexivity is also linked to a conscious feminist intervention in the archive, or the patriarchive (Derrida, 1996), as shown in its first sequences. These excerpts will allow me to trace echoes with the scholars' proposals above.
Interviewed by Julianne Burton (1986), Solberg emphasized the highly modest nature of the film, both in terms of its budget (barely 20,000 dollars) and the materials used, basically still images. This note on the scarcity reflects the precarious material conditions of the first feminist documentary and, following Laura Mulvey (2015), refers to the trope of the gleaning and its reverberations in feminist historiography, based on the difficulty of searching and gathering scarce, scattered, or undervalued information. Despite this precariousness, The Emerging Woman is surprising due to the enormous amount of gleaning that the team carried out over a year, gathering more than 300 prints, illustrations and photographs, as well as some moving images (Tavares 2014, p. 39).
On the other hand, following Mulvey, gleaning also alludes to women’s cultural marginality and the informal, anecdotal nature of their traditional cultural practices (2015, p. 29). In this respect, the commentary openly exposes women’s awareness of their absence and irrelevance in traditional historical accounts. Over a succession of portraits of diverse women in terms of social class, age, race or historical period, the film challenges us with this reflection:
How far back do we go to find out where to begin? We have looked through the history books, and there is no sign of us. What can we remember? We just have our memories and the stories we tell each other. Was it always like that? For how long have we lived as reflections, images without inside … to see our daughters repeat the same lives over and over again? Our mothers and grandmothers, how did they feel about it?
As Sheila Rowbotham (1974) noted at the same time, women have been “hidden from history” so that their rediscovery is only possible through heterogeneous and heterodox sources that, by this very condition, challenge the divisions between History and history from below, the public and the private, chronological temporality and affective temporality. After its opening, the narrative is articulated from fragments of poems, diary entries, interviews, statements by pioneering feminists or letters. Moreover, although the voice-over commentary draws together these disparate fragments, the film evidences their fragmentation through a polyphony of female voices that project emotional inflexions on the images and seek, as Tavares (2014, p. 174) notes, to recreate the age, origin, or mood of the authors in their speeches or writings, thus offering a subjective and embodied knowledge.
The film’s second sequence shows the WFP in its pre-production work; we see the women discussing, typing notes for the script, selecting photographs, and preparing the film set. Their voices blend and mingle on a soundtrack dominated by a piano melody. As Marina Tedesco (2022) has pointed out, the sequence is critical in informing us of a collective mode of authorial inscription so that individuality is acknowledged -—indicating their names— while collaboration and horizontality are also emphasized. On the other hand, if the female voice already displaces the logic of the expository documentary —in which the male voice-over is imbued with a rational and seamless epistemic authority— in this sequence, the women are positioned as figures of mediation and remediation. In these gestures —specifically in the opening shot, a woman rescuing a portrait from the archive, which suddenly freezes and occupies the entire screen— we find echoes of the “awakening from the gendered archive” (Russell, 2018). According to this scholar, this process of awakening and remembering involves, firstly, revealing the sexist codes that have marked the culture of the image and the patriarchive, to restore the image of women by inverting its codification as image, as Mulvey and Johnston denounced, and as the first off-screen intervention already signalled by pointing out femininity as “reflections”, as an “image without interior”.
The Emerging Woman is not only an almost forgotten film that recovers women’s forgotten and always fragile histories but also consciously exposes a feminist engagement with archival practices, valuing the visual “scraps” and eclectic memories of women and subverting the archive’s rules and principles of enunciation.
- Burton, J. (1986). Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with Filmmakers. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Cavalcanti Tedesco, M. (2022). The Women’s Film Project: an international collective in the career of Helena Solberg. Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media, 61. Retrieved from: https://ejumpcut.org/currentissue/MarinaCavalcantiTedesco/index.html
- Dall’Asta, M. & Chiarini, A. (2016). Found Footage: Women Without a Movie Camera. Feminist Media Histories, 2(3): 1-10.
- Derrida, J. (1996 ). Archive Fever. An Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Mulvey, L. (2015). Women Making History: Gleaning and the Compilation Film. En Arbeit, M. y Christie, I. (eds.): Where Is History Today? New Ways of Representing the Past. Olomouc: Palacký University Olomouc.
- Rowbotham, S. (1974). Hidden from History. Rediscovering Women in History from the 17th Century to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Tavares, M. (2014). Helena Solberg. Do Cinema Novo ao documentario contemporâneo. Sao Paulo: Imprenta Oficial do Estado de São Paulo.
- Wood, D. (2009). Memorias de una mexicana: La Revolución como monumento fílmico, Secuencia. Revista de historia y ciencias sociales, 75:147-170.
- Russell, C. (2018). Archiveology. Walter Benjamin And Archival Film Practices. Durham: Duke University Press.
- This article is the result of the research project “El documental institucional y el cine de aficionado coloniales: análisis y usos” (PID2021-123567NB-I00), funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation of the Government of Spain.
- Videos and images courtesy of Radiante Films
Other articles "From the Archive":
- Another Way of Exerting Censorship: The (Institutional) Limits of Creative Freedom (Issue 4, 2020.1)
- Nostalgia and queer tragedy: remembering Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift on Spanish television in the 80s (Issue 5, 2020.2)
- Sex, Politics and Provocation: The Curious and Exciting Story of Kôji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi (Issue 6, 2020.3)
- The Archive as Political Intervention: Migration and the Archive of Cinematic Mobility (Issue 7, 2021.1)
- Unidentified Animated Cinema: Pablo Llorens’ Pioneering Clay Work
(Issue 8, 2021.2)
- A risky misunderstanding. The three islands of Juan Antonio Bardem (Issue 9, 2022.1)