“Cinema’s ability to register traces of actuality, to document contingent and incidental events, and to give weight to a world of bodies, things, and experiences makes it an ideal means for the writing of (alternative) histories,” writes film scholar Teresa Castro. Her essay — one of the introductory texts for a new edited volume, Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image (The MIT Press, 2022) — makes a strong argument for seeing film as a terrain of feminist struggle. It is the exploration, documentation, and theorization of these alternative histories that grounds this 500-page tome.
Edited by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, Feminist Worldmaking compiles 18 commissioned essays, three conversations, and nine reproductions of historical writings from filmmakers — many of which appear in English for the first time. Pairing work from the primary source with the critique, the text considers women making nonfiction film and video — including Trinh T. Minh-ha, Lis Rhodes, Haneda Sumiko, Claudia von Alemann, Forugh Farrokhzad, and many others — across the world from the 1970s to the 1990s. And if that isn’t enough, the book is just a single branch of a much broader project of documenting and distributing often under-viewed or inaccessible works by women filmmakers, building on an exhibition and film program that took place last summer at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
In their introduction, Balsom and Peleg insist on the heterogeneity of their project. The term “feminism” is itself routinely interrogated; accordingly, many of the filmmakers included, particularly those from outside the West, specifically avoid the terminology. Nonetheless, these filmmakers have shared difficulties in securing funding, distribution, and recognition in largely male-dominated industries. Noting these obstacles, Balsom and Peleg present a fundamentally archival project that “pose[s] challenges to the dominant logic of the archive itself.”
The text excels in its specific excavations of this archive. If, as Cecilia Vicuña notes, “the history of the north excludes that of the south, and the history of the south excludes itself, embracing only the north’s vision,” then Feminist Worldmaking offers powerful alternatives.
Yasmina Price explores filmmaker Sarah Maldoror’s friendship with Aimé Césaire and an evolving relationship to Pan-Africanism. Rasha Salti considers Lebanese filmmakers Randa Chahal and Jocelyne Saab, referencing intimate portrayals of Beirut under siege while speaking to her own experience of war. Devika Girish looks at Deepa Dhanraj’s documentary on forced sterilization in India, noting an inversion of the Indian state’s ubiquitous propaganda videos, which promoted “population control” as part of an international development objective. Biographies morph into movement histories and reproduce the stories of anticolonial, Marxist, and feminist struggles in the Third World and beyond. Rich in detail and narrative, these essays both transform the filmmaker into the subject and provide new histories.
The book further demonstrates how women filmmakers departed from conventional filmmaking practices. As critic Beatrice Loayza comments, the films “take the creative principle of narration itself as a way of working through what collective liberation might look like.” In exile and separated from one another under Pinochet’s rule, Chilean filmmakers Valeria Sarmiento and Marilú Mallet exchange “film letters.” Elizabeth Ramírez Soto observes how they pose video as an intimate form of communication, and filmmaking as a practice of friendship. “My imagination is drained by the details of everyday life,” comments Mallet in one of their “ciné-dialogues,” revealing the potential of film as a “feminine,” marginal, and quotidian genre. Giovanna Zapperi examines how Italian filmmakers Marinella Pirelli and Annabella Miscuglio turn the camera on themselves as an “autonomous gaze,” in a movement to form a “separatist” women’s cinema.
These intimate experiments, however, often resulted from the failure of collective filmmaking efforts. Pirelli and Miscuglio were initially members of the Colectivo Feminista di Cinema, which collapsed in 1973 after being unable to resolve internal conflicts over hierarchy. Isabel Seguí points to the challenges of Grupo Chaski, a Peruvian cinema collective founded in 1982 by María Barea, Fernando Barreto, Fernando Espinoza, Stefan Kaspar, and Alejandro Legaspi. In their own words, the group sought to “serve as a channel of expression for those sectors excluded from the system of communication.” But Barea, the group’s sole founding female member, later commented that that her experience in the collective taught her the true meaning of “Machismo-Leninismo.”
Seguí also highlights the contradictions of the Colombian collective Cine Mujer, where urban, upper-class filmmakers made films about “subaltern” lower-class subject. She warns us against idealizing these collective experiments, but even acknowledging their limitations is instructive. Global inequalities in production meant that only a select few had access to equipment, funding, and technical expertise — looking at the quantity of films made by women in and outside of the West testifies to this gap. (Sarah Maldoror, for example, is credited as the first woman to direct a feature film in Africa — in 1972 — and as Price notes, she still faced difficulties securing funding in late in her career. Super 8 workshops only started dotting Latin America in the mid-1980s.) Though it’s clear that women making films in the Third World faced a more difficult path than their Western counterparts, these comparisons are at times avoided, obscuring the systems of power that shaped filmmakers and the contexts from which they created.
In presenting a vast heterogeneity, the book leaves an open question as to what affirmatively brings these works together. An easy distinction could be made between two rough groupings of filmmakers: those from Europe and the US navigating feminist movements and a sexist arts world, and those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with a Third Cinema lineage and an anticolonial lens. This division is certainly too simplistic — complicated by diasporic origins, Western education, class and racial identities, and the actual substance of films — but it does motivate a more comprehensive framework for how women filmmakers relate to the West, to imperialism and its afterlives. We could begin to understand, for example, how the notion of autonomy takes on vastly different meanings in its separate invocations — in the self-reflexive gaze of Pirelli’s camera versus Dhanraj’s documentary-like examination of NGO-backed forced sterilization.
Even with these remaining questions, the invitation for future investigation — enabled by a greatly expanded archive — is one of Feminist Worldmaking’s main triumphs. The book reminds us that feminist visions are abundant, and feminist critique is generative. Through its labor of compiling, translating, restoring, and disseminating, the unfinished project answers Lis Rhodes’s 1979 call to action, for “women who are engaged in research, writing, or filmmaking to discuss and describe our histories, in our own ways, on our own terms. A different history.”
Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image (2022), edited by Erika Balsom and Hill Peleg, is published by The MIT Press and is available online and in bookstores.
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