Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Conference: The Global Cartographies of Cine-Feminisms

On Monday, I attended the first half of a day-long conference on film and feminism, held at Ewha Woman's University and sponsored by the Women's Film Festival. The conference included a book that contained all of the articles translated into both English and Korean. The schedule was as follows:

Keynote Address: Teresa de Lauretis, "Cine-feminism and the creation of vision"

Part 1: The Sustainabilities of Women's Cinema

Patricia White, "Women's Cinema as World Cinema"

Meaghan Morris, "Sustaining the Festive Principle: Between Realism and Pleasure in Institution-Building"

Part 2: Women's Cinema in East Asia

S. Louisa Wei, "Chinese and Japanese Female Film Directors: Could They Hold Up Half of the Sky?"

Ahn Ji-hye, "The Status and Future of Female Directors in the Korean Film Industry"

Peng Xiaolian, "Shanghai as Female Space"

There was also a third section devoted to questions. Again, unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first three presentations.

De Lauretis began her talk by commenting that the film festival and its directives as outlined on its website reminded her a great deal of when she first began considering the concept of "women's cinema" and "seeing the world through women's eyes." As she put it, it functioned almost as a kind of time travel:

"Looking at the Festival's website, for me, was more like the kind of travel that film and science fiction represent as a time loop: moving forward in space and time toward what will turn out to be the past -- not the past as it actually was, the historical and personal conditions in which I lived then, but rather the time of what might have happened in the future that I could imagine then."

What the theme of the festival ,with its focus on seeing the film through women's eyes, evoked for De Lauretis was her own personal history which also coincides with the history of both "women's cinema" and "feminist film theory". Discussing two films in this history, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975) and Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983), De Lauretis illustrates how feminist filmmaking and feminist film studies developed hand-in-hand. But what about today? Do feminist film studies constitute a legitimate and stable academic field? De Lauretis answers both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Women's Studies and Gender Studies have been well established, but no in that this has both fostered the post-feminist illusion that the goals of women have been met. Now, most of the work on feminism and film comes not from Film Studies programs but from interdisciplinary programs in the arts and humanities. As De Lauretis argues, this "has, on the one hand, the advantage of direct exposure to current critical debates and theories but, on the other hand, the danger of losing the knowledges and analytic skills specific to cinema."

In conclusion, De Lauretis returns to the question of sustainability and usefulness, especially in the light of many women rejecting the term "feminist" altogether. What can a cine-feminism do for these women, and can it exist without them? For De Lauretis, this points out the fact that a feminist film culture cannot come solely from within the academy. It depends instead on a "shared social and aesthetic project by women and for women, not as a global or transnational enterprise but as an intervention in specific cultural and social contexts and film traditions."

Patricia White's paper on "women's cinema" as "world cinema" flows logically from De Lauretis' keynote by considering how the notion of women's film has had to negotiate the politics of festival programming. As White points out, many early feminist academic essays and books emerged out of women's film festivals. Today, however, these have become increasingly rare (hence the importance of the Seoul festival). As White states: "In the less politicized, more prestigious arena, an unprecedented increase in the number and clout of international film festivals has eclipsed events dedicated to women'w work ... there is little consciousness of 'women's cinema' as such in the 'postfeminist' cultural climate fostered by the festival network."

The question becomes: how are these films made intelligible within the festival market? More and more women are making films, but they are framed as "world cinema" rather than specifically feminist films. Two examples White cites are Water (Deepa Metha, 2006) and Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parranaud, 2007), and White questions how these films made by and about women are used in the art cinema market to foster a very broad and vague humanism that treats the countries of India and Iran as simply backward (I had similar misgivings about Persepolis, which I discussed here).

White gives two other recent examples: Grabavica: Land of My Dreams (Jasmila Zhanic, 2006) and Love for Share (Nia Dinata, 2006). The first film received a Golden Bear at Berlin and a art-house release, while the later only had selective festival screenings. However, Dinata's film had a great deal of local impact in her native Indonesia. This brings White back to the question of feminism and world cinema. She notes the critique of the "sisterhood is global" assertion of 2nd wave feminists and agrees with the call for more situated of power. She quotes from scholar Priya Jaikumar, who urges that work on transnational women's film culture by a "search for alliances and solidarities that acknowledges potentially incommensurate difference." White closes by stating: "In evaluating this juncture of women's cinema, we need to remain committed to the 'global' question, but not seek global answers."

The final paper by Meaghan Morris discusses the notion of festivals from a different perspective, focusing on the very idea of "being festive", of using festivals to give pleasure within the institution-building process. Using slides of her own history of attending festivals and organized rallies, Morris looks at the question of how institutions can sustain and mature movements, and argues for the importance of the festive spirit to this goal. Citing Mary Douglas' work on "how institutions think", Morris is aware of the negative aspects of institutions, such as the "loss of imaginative independence" and the "pressure to conform". However, she sees the "festive principle" as being a potential counter to this:

"The 'festive principle' in institutional work is a political principle which manoeuvres between the harsh 'reality principle' which institutions are dedicated to reproducing, and the 'pleasure principle' which alone (I think) can over the historical long term sustain the 'good' narcissism of collective self-love and shared self-respect that social movements must affirm if they are to flourish."

Morris believes that in order to avoid cynicism and burnout within the academic institutional setting, sustaining the festive principle is crucial. She points out, correctly, that neo-liberal models of maximizing profit and economic value of even Arts departments can have a deadening effect on individuals working in these environments. This in turn can of course be counter to any kind of politically engaged work within these institutions. This is why Morris concludes by stating, "I hope I have explained why I see the 'festive principle' not as in contrast with a fighting activism but precisely as a way of making and taking bridges -- and as itself one of the battles to sustain women's cinema."

Overall, the three papers worked as a panel on the current state of feminist film both inside the academy and outside in the world of filmmaking. The very fact that the Women's film festival would have a conference associated with it points to the connections between theory and practice that remain in feminist filmmaking. Although these types of women's festivals have declined in North America, the presence and strength of this festival in Seoul is encouraging. Perhaps a return to the origins of women's cinema in the 1970s can, as De Lauretis suggests, point the way to future directions.

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