FemFlix interview: Forgotten films capture the unique voice of 90s feminism in Australia
August 10th 2016
Image credit: Queeny by Rebecca McLean, 1994, showing in FemFlix. Still courtesy of the artist.
The 90s gave us a lot of things. Midriffs, scrunchies, chokers. Wynona Ryder, Harvey Danger, Pokémon you didn’t have to ‘Go’ for. And a wealth of powerful, irreverent and downright hilarious films and animations by Australian women – which don’t often make the nostalgia listicles.
In an era marked by a strong DIY aesthetic, a multiplicity of women were working prolifically in film and animation. Their work captures the unique voice of Australian feminism in the 90s – one that is often overlooked.
Now, three Australian women are on a quest to recapture and celebrate this body of work. Jacqueline Millner, Jane Schneider and Deborah Szapiro have spent a year researching and hunting down long-lost independent films and rare VHS recordings from mothers’ garages. The culmination of this huge project is FemFlix: an exhibition of short films, digital interactive works, animation and video, telling the intriguing story of 90s feminism in Australia.
FBi’s Katie Winten caught up with the co-curators to talk about the exhibition and some of the incredible stories that emerged throughout their research. Listen/read their conversation.
- Katie Winten :: Interview with Femflix curators
KW: This exhibition is the culmination of one year’s worth of research, can you talk about the selection process involved? There would have been a huge amount of content that you had to go through.
JM: The idea came from an exhibition that we hosted as part of the Contemporary Art and Feminism research cluster last year, which looked at a snapshot of 70s films made by feminist filmmakers. After that, FemFlix emerged from an informal conversation I was having with Jane about how great it would be to maybe re-visit some of our favourite films from that particular period and use a similar format. The process began then, in actually identifying the films and whittling them down. At that point, it had become very apparent that animation was a huge part of that period for feminist filmmakers. Jane then suggested that we invite Deborah Szapiro onto the curation team.
JS: There were some startling titles that we could remember, but I didn’t want to leave it at that. It’s a story about archiving, really. I went through the major film archives for that decade in Australia. Those that kept archives! Anything that was screened that looked like it might have been made about women, by women, I noted. By then, Deb was on board and was focusing on animation.
We put a list through to the National Film and Sound Archive, and I contacted individual filmmakers to see what they had – often it was on VHS and was their only copy. Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne was fantastic, as was the Australian Film and Television School. So we looked through their libraries with this list, and a lot of films fell by the wayside.
JM: We were looking at these films not only for their historical significance, but to see how they stood up today, which was part of the criteria that we brought to that selection process.
JS: Not everybody had a copy of their film!
It would have been really difficult to get some of these films because of their VHS format.
JS: Exactly. And u-matic, have you ever heard of that? Probably not!
DS: There are a lot of films in shoeboxes in mothers’ garages. I was a filmmaker through the 90s and did a lot of lobbying for animation, so I actually know a lot of these filmmakers. The interesting thing about that period was the complete explosion of animation. If you’d gone to the 1980s, you would have gotten about 10 independent animated films. In the 1990s, there were about 45 or 50 because of all the work that had been done before that. It was actually really hard, because there were so many strong films.
JS: People weren’t necessarily conscious of creating a legacy, either. They were mostly approaching it by saying, “Oh, I’ve made this film and it’s really great, but that’s over now.” It’s not over!
Hollywood is one of the worst industries for gender inequality and representation. Was that part of the reasoning behind showing particularly feminist films, as opposed to just showing films by female directors?
JM: We maintain that the 90s was somewhat overlooked as a feminist decade. There has been something of a feminist revival in recent times, and you can see it in popular culture and the media. Often the point of reference is 70s second wave feminism, which of course deserves merit. But the 90s probably warrants another look. The emergence of queer theory really problematised some of the essentialist ideas of second wave feminism. It was also the emergence of new Indigenous perspectives that became really strong at that time, as well as other post-colonial critiques. Then there was the radical transformation in technology.
We see these theoretical sensibilities reflected in many of the films that are curated into FemFlix. There was this very strong interaction between visual culture and screen cultures and feminist theory of the time, and I think still has a lot to say to contemporary audiences.
What was the reasoning behind showing these films in a gallery context as opposed to a film screening series?
JS: Let’s face it, we watch content on screens that are getting smaller and smaller. I certainly saw it as having no conflict with the audience. It’s very democratic – you can walk through, and if you’re disinterested, you can just move onto the next film. You can cherry pick and move around, which is an exciting way to experience these films. I’ve often had an issue with how passive film can be. As much as I love a dark space and the escapism of it, at other times you’re sort of trapped, and it’s rude to walk out. This just cuts through all of that.
JM: It frees you up.
DS: For me, it’s viewing films in a non-linear context. So often we just sit there and it’s a very linear experience, and you also don’t have the context of the other films around. You don’t experience those films at the same time, you experience them one film after the other. Having it in an exhibition space, you really get a sense of the body of work, and how each film does or doesn’t relate to the other.
JM: It’s also aligned with some of the feminist philosophies and methodologies that we’re using as well – not only the idea of it being democratic, but also being multiple. There are multiple voices that are in discourse with one another, and they form part of a body of work but they’re also quite individual and specific. There’s that sense that you’re experiencing a generality but you’re also experiencing many multiple specificities, which I think is very much apiece with the feminist thinking of the time.
JS: The installation itself has a dramatic effect.
DS: One of the really fantastic things for me looking at the animated work is how radical it was to have women’s stories in animation, and how radical it was to bring the domestic into that space. It was such a rare thing to do in animation, and I think if you go along and see the exhibition, you’ll see that multiplicity of women. And humour, as well. Beautiful humour.
Saturday Night Beaver, Twilight Girls, 1997, featuring in FemFlix. Photo: Courtesy of the artists.
That was another question I had, in relation to the use of humour as a subversive tool. How does that work into a lot of the films that are shown?
JS: We interviewed Samantha Lang as part of this exhibition, who felt that she was finding a new way to be feminist. She wanted to reposition it. Maybe some issues are not directly hit on the hammer, but humour comes into it in a very strong way. Lang’s film ‘Out’ is very funny, it’s about a woman trying to go out. Just a woman trying to go out!
KW: It’s such a commonly used tool in art and film – humour as a way of engaging audiences. It’s the classic tool in place of getting angry, which just doesn’t seem to work.
JS: It can work! There’s a few things that we’ve got to be angry about!
KW: Oh no, I’m not disputing that at all. I just think that humour has such a role to play in engaging audiences that would not necessarily engage otherwise.
JM: It’s also a huge survival strategy. It allows you to actually contextualise and absorb the slings and arrows of a misogynist society, and to also find a sense of collectivity – laughing together is such a strong bonding experience.
DS: There’s a sense of irreverence in many of the films, not just in subject matter but also in process. It’s quite fascinating how the films have been made, with the risk taking and the “let’s just go for it” attitude.
JM: DIY is definitely one of the sensibilities through it, and that was very much of the time as well – the 90s are renowned for that DIY aesthetic.
KW: There’s this line in the catalogue that reads, “The aesthetic of 90s feminist visual culture was marked by an irreverence for just about everything.” Did you feel a strong personal connection to this exhibition when curating it?
JM: Yes, I think we all share that passion, that humour, that irreverence that we were talking about, which actually feels like a real source of strength. Circumstances have changed since that time, and some would say that sexism has intensified and gotten worse. When we looked at the statistics in the Gender Matters reports for instance, we were thinking back to that time when there was a sense of greater empowerment. Humour and irreverence was right at the centre of that empowerment.
DS: What I find really fascinating about the exhibition is that it’s an ongoing dialogue. Now that I’m at university, I really want my students – male and female – to enter into this dialogue. Like all good exhibitions, it doesn’t end when the exhibition closes. Another really important element is the different side of Australia that the exhibition shows.
It shows an Australia that was interested in social justice and diversity, and was beginning to understand that there needed to be a strong Indigenous perspective. It speaks to an Australia that had a sense of itself, and a sense of self-esteem that was not just looking elsewhere. It was saying, “Hey, our stories are really important!” – and not in a jingoistic way.
These are really interesting, fascinating stories, and that to me is something that really came across when I was watching the films.
JS: Sometimes when you live through something, you don’t really see it for what it is. Technology was changing, like we’ve mentioned. We were all very excited and also very suspicious about it. My first university essay was handwritten, that’s how much it’s changed. The DIY aesthetic was about people just trying stuff! We didn’t have an app for this and an app for that – and they weren’t called apps then anyway, they were called plug-ins! You just had to invent it! It was an inventive time, and I’d forgotten that.
KW: I also wanted to talk to you about the future of this project. Is it going to be something that you continue to work with?
JS: One thing is for sure, we’re going to archive it!
DS: The Melbourne International Animation Festival has approached me about having the animation program as part of their program. Academically, it’s really brought up a lot that I want to write about and explore further.
JM: Absolutely, I feel the same way. Obviously we have this incredible resource now that we’ve created. We have ten interviews – five with animators, five with live action directors, which will potentially lead to further research. We are also looking at asking some other institutions whether they might be interested in touring the exhibition. We haven’t actually explored that yet, but I think given the amazing interest that we’ve so far garnered just through little press releases here and there, it’s obvious there’s an enormous audience for this, not only in the general public but also amongst students and filmmakers of any gender.
FemFlix opens on Wednesday August 10th at Sydney College of the Arts. Opening night features a performance by Tina Havelock Stevens and 90s cyberfeminist pioneers VNS Matrix, who will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of their Cyberfeminist Manifesto. Opening night also features DJ Gemma.
FemFlix events include a screening and Q & A of Janet Merewether’s Jabe Babe: A Heightened Life on 17 August from 6 – 8pm, and the Sydney launch of Women and Animation Australia (WANDAA) on 24 August from 6 – 8pm, both at the SCA Auditorium.
WHAT: FemFlix, curated by Jacqueline Millner, Jane Schneider and Deborah Szapiro
WHERE: SCA Galleries, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, Kirbride Way, Lilyfield
WHEN: 11 August – 3 September (official opening 10 August, 6-8pm)
HOW MUCH: Free! More info here