~ feminism ~

A month of women’s poetry film: some observations and questions

Film critic Laura Mulvey in 2010 (photo: Mariusz Kubik, CC BY 3.0)

Did you notice? I didn’t notice myself until about two weeks in that I’d only been posting videos or films directed by women and featuring the work of women poets. At that point, I wondered how long I could keep it up (pretty much indefinitely, it turns out) and whether anyone would ever notice and ask about it (no one has). The last video featuring a male poet was on 27 October (“The Laundry Can Wait” by Cyril Wong, directed by Sarah Howell), and the last film directed by a man was on 24 October (“Dancing Lesson” by Rachel Kann, directed by Bradford L. Cooper). Which is not to say that men haven’t played key roles in making some of the things I’ve featured since, as editors, videographers, composers, etc., just that women occupied the lead roles.

The point of this post is not what a great, enlightened guy I am (ask my partner how often I interrupt her in the course of an average conversation). But it seemed like a fitting response to the on-going revelations of rampant sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood and beyond. And the exercise does raise some interesting questions, I think:

1. There are a LOT of good women directors of poetry films at all levels of professionalism and ability. So many of them are now “regulars” at Moving Poems that I can go quite a few days without posting anything made by a man, purely by chance, just as sometimes I may go for a week or two without posting any women. Does this mean that the number of men and women active in poetry film and videopoetry is roughly equal? Or might it be partly because male directors gravitate toward certain types of poetry (Charles Bukowski, for example) or filmmaking (superficially pretty shots) that don’t interest me as much? I’m really not sure.

2. Contrary to stereotype, female poets might be, if anything, less likely than their male counterparts to shy away from the technical challenges of making their own videopoems. Or perhaps women are just more adventuresome, or less likely than men to be narrowly focused on following traditional routes of advancement as poets?

3. Thinking about the major, long-term collaborative partnerships in the world of English-language poetry film, I actually can’t think of any that are exclusively male. If both partners aren’t female, than either the poet or the filmmaker is going to be a woman. I’m sure there must be exceptions to this, but the fact that I can’t think of any off-hand dovetails with another thought I’ve often had over the years: Could it be that women are more open to creative collaboration in general?

4. As hybrid forms, videopoetry and poetry film benefit from hybrid visions. An openness to collaboration would therefore be a huge advantage. But mightn’t it also be a disadvantage from a careerist perspective, luring people away from a single-minded focus on their own work necessary to, for example, qualify for tenure at an American university?

5. The male gaze has long been a tool of oppression, reducing women to objects. It’s worth remembering that this very insight came originally from a feminist film critic (Laura Mulvey). So wanting to have more women behind the camera is potentially more than just a matter of wanting to be fair and give equal opportunity. Might it not open up the possibility of depicting the world in new, potentially revolutionary ways, as feminist film critics suggest? What might the female gaze and hypermediacy mean for poetry film in particular?

6. Do videopoems or poetry films made by women have any unique characteristics that we might identify? For example, are there certain kinds of shots that female filmmakers use more often than men? Do women gravitate more than men to certain strategies of juxtaposition or disjunction in videopoetry?

7. What about poems and films of feminist advocacy? Is it possible to be prescriptive and suggest the best poetry film-making strategies to move viewers toward a greater sympathy with and understanding of diverse perspectives?

8. I’m obviously no scholar, but I can think of one cynical explanation for why women directors and poets might be so well represented in poetry film and videopoetry right now: it’s not prestigious yet. Historically speaking, as soon as a woman-dominated art, craft or industry begins to make money, men elbow in and quickly take over, whether it’s brewing beer, making textiles, or even writing computer code — a woman-dominated field until the mid 1970s. Could the same thing happen with poetry film? If it does, one day editors like me might have to work quite a bit harder to avoid posting any male-directed films for a month.

I invite comments below on any of these points. Email me if you’d like to submit a post. (And personal stories are just as welcome as critical analysis.)

Videopoetry and feminism: an interview with Penny Florence and Sarah Tremlett

The first five minutes of the October 14 ScreenSister podcast features an interview with radical filmmaker Penny Florence and Sarah Tremlett of Liberated Words Poetry Film Festival, recorded during the festival.

I loved this bit from Florence:

[The screening Tremlett curated] was a revelation for me, actually, because I’d been plowing a lonely furrow on my own for quite a long time until I got involved in digital poetry. Digital poetry seems to me to be really important because, just by the possibility to work digitally, it changes what poetry is.

I find this very exciting in feminist terms, because feminism, importantly, has to find ways of saying things that have not been said before, of making silence speak.

The interviewer asks if digital poetry is a medium that suits women in particular. Florence responds:

Yes I do. And I think it’s much more interesting than some of the ways in which we used to understand working collectively. The individual voice got subordinated. And in art that won’t do.

I like the stress they put on the unique accessibility of videopoetry and other digital media to a wider field of contributors, including young people in workshops and other new filmmakers. This certainly jibes with my own experience and observations. While there will of course always be room for highly professional filmmakers, at this stage they don’t yet dominate the field — and may never, given the continual progress of media creation tools toward user-friendliness.

As Tremlett says, you can check out the Liberated Words account on Vimeo and the Liberated Words website for growing archives of films and videos screened at the Bristol-based festival.