In 1969, hours after being let go from her job at Vogue, Carole Roussopoulos met famed playwright Jean Genet. He convinced her to use her severance check to get a new video camera. Desperate and lost, she bought the second-ever video camera ever sold in Paris (the first went to Jean-Luc Godard) and began making movies. Soon she was teaching workshops to other women, and one of her students was famed French actress Delphine Seyrig, who had taken an interest in the growing feminist movement in France and was burning with a desire to step behind the camera. Together and under the tutelage of Simone de Beauvoir, in 1975 they would help form the radical feminist film collective Les Insoumuses (a portmanteau of insoumise, or “disobedient,” and “muses”). The friendship and collaboration between Roussopoulos and Seyrig is the subject of the new documentary Delphine et Carole: Insoumuses, which is screening at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema. Just over an hour long, the film sheds light on history that is unknown to many cinephiles, despite Seyrig’s iconic status.
The advent of video was integral to many social movements, due to its accessibility. Not only was it far cheaper than using a regular film camera, but it also offered an instantaneousness not possible when one needed to get film developed. It was championed as a new medium that could give voice to the people, rather than just talking head experts. In an archival interview from the mid-2000s, Roussopoulos describes how important it felt as a tool in the feminist movement: “video had no history, no school, no past, and men had not dominated it. It was a new medium that had not yet been colonized by men.”
Seyrig, who is best-known for her roles in films like Jeanne Dielman, Last Year at Marienbad, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, was also an outspoken feminist. She regularly appeared on TV, went to marches, and publicly supported adjacent causes. She signed the infamous Manifeste des 343, a 1971 public letter signed by 343 women admitting to having had abortions as a bid to help legalize the practice in France. She was a vocal supporter of sex workers, and assisted in and documented their rallies. As one of the wealthier members of Les Insoumuses, she helped fund projects and archives to assure the continued work of the group.
Video equipment was used during a Lyon church sit-in of sex workers in summer 1975 as a way to communicate uninterrupted with the public and media. Les Insoumuses’ material was also used by union efforts on behalf of activists who felt they needed to split from old unions to defend the rights and needs of women workers. Video also afforded the authority of voice. Not only was it impossible to be interrupted by men (the union workers in particular felt it was challenging to be heard), but the fact that their videos were screened on TVs often lent them an added layer of respect. It wasn’t just that people were no longer able to interrupt them; they no longer wanted to.
Together with Roussopoulos, Seyrig produced several movies on video. Calls and responses were frequent. They’d record segments off the TV and intercut their reactions. Other movies, like Be Pretty and Shut Up!, were reflections on the film industry, featuring Seyrig interviewing actresses from Europe and Hollywood about their experiences, asking frank and personal questions about beauty, harassment, and growing older. In other cases, they took to the streets to shoot feminist marches or read aloud banned or restricted reading material by so-called radicals.
The fact that this history has been largely underground until now speaks to a greater issue with the canonical considerations of film history (which has long been biased toward films made by men), as well as films made within the confines of the industry. The films of Les Insoumuses exist not only outside of the traditional male gaze, but also as outsider cinema. Their erasure both limits our perception of history and undermines the importance of the work and artistry of these women.
Les Insoumuses’ work is ripe for rediscovery, and their mission to make filmmaking accessible and political remains relevant in contemporary social movements. Many of their subjects, like workers’ rights, access to safe abortion, and freedom from sexual harassment, remain pertinent. More than just appreciating how far we’ve come, learning about these films also helps us rethink how we strategize and engage with movements today. Their methods, though sometimes crude, are still as powerful as their message.
Delphine et Carole: Insoumuses screens at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma October 18.