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Notebook Primer: Feminist Film Collectives

In the 1960s and '70s, a wave of female-led collectives emerging simultaneously around the world, challenging patriarchal norms.
Rachel Pronger
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history. 
Be Pretty and Shut Up! (1976).
Always, throughout the history of cinema, women have made films. And always, they’ve worked within the limits of a patriarchal industry. As a result, the films that women have made have historically been compromised by this imbalance of power. But what if there was another way? What if this inherently collaborative artform could become a space of solidarity, subversion and sisterhood?
This was the vision put forward by the feminist film collectives of the 1970s and 1980s. As counterculture and social revolution spread, a wave of politicised women-led film groups began to emerge around the world. These collectives turned their cameras to feminist causes, seizing upon the potential of film to raise awareness, change minds and present new perspectives. For these collectives, control of the camera meant control of the conversation, as women pooled their resources to make films examining gendered issues such as reproductive freedom, working conditions, domestic labor, and sexual violence. They challenged the dominance of the male gaze, upended traditional power dynamics between filmmaker, spectator and subject, and innovated new working models. And while most of the collectives that led the way in this period lasted only a few years, they left behind a rich legacy of alternative practice that continues to inspire today.
The “Golden Age” of feminist film collectives grew from the revolutionary spirit of the late 1960s, the product of a confluence of socio-political and technological factors that created the conditions in which women could find one another, organize and produce their own work. By the 1970s, a wave of female-led collectives was emerging simultaneously around the world. From Paris to Mexico City, New York to London, Bogota to Bangalore, groups of women began to work together to harness film as a consciousness-raising tool.
These collectives were organized groups with the explicit aim of using film to further political aims. Some were mixed gender, but all were female-led, and all created work in direct dialogue with second-wave feminism. Most of these collectives were only active for a few years, and by the mid-1990s the movement had begun to fade into the background, bringing this golden era to an end. Nevertheless, a small number of collectives managed to build sustainable models, staying active for decades, or even surviving in some form until the present day.
It’s important to acknowledge too that this collectivized filmmaking existed within a wider ecosystem of art and activism. Feminist distribution networks, such as New Day Films in the US and Circles in the UK, played a crucial role in circulating feminist work during this period, while some collectives developed in tandem with cooperatives, such as The Filmmakers’ Coop in New York and London, which provided equipment, knowledge and networks to support avant-garde filmmakers.
The Prostitutes of Lyon Speak (1975).
Researching feminist collectives is challenging. As with so much of women’s history, we struggle with a lack of sources and scholarship, and many of the films produced within collectives remain uncatalogued, undigitized, and inaccessible. The movement was international, but it’s inevitably easier to find films and information on collectives from Europe and North America than the Global South. Strikingly, the challenges we face when we research these collectives reflect the very power dynamics that these women were seeking to address through their activism.
Some of Les Insoumuses’s most effective work draws directly on Seyrig’s background in the film industry. In Be Pretty and Shut Up! (1976) Seyrig interviews twenty-four actresses, including Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, and Maria Schneider, asking candid questions about their experiences of sexism at work. The grey grainy aesthetic strips away the glamorous veneer of the dream factory to offer a bleak, unvarnished insight into the reality of a discriminatory industry. Be Pretty is credited to Seyrig as director but was produced within the collective and very much encapsulates their political and artistic spirit. Another intervention, Maso and Miso Go Boating (1976) channels a proto-punk approach, chopping up and parodying an episode of a chat show to mercilessly expose the appalling sexism of French television.
Les Insoumuses were not content however to simply turn the camera inwards. Roussopoulos was an early adopter of the video camera, and this new technology was to prove central to realizing her vision of amplifying marginalized female voices. The portability of video cameras made it easier to shoot spontaneously, as well as allowing filmmakers to rewatch footage on location, a flexibility that was crucial to helping Roussopoulos win the trust of her subjects. The Prostitutes of Lyon Speak (1975), which follows sex workers protesting in Lyon over their working conditions, is the perfect example of the kind of activist filmmaking made possible by this medium. As the end title card of Maso and Miso puts it: “No TV image is willing nor capable of expressing who we are. We will tell our story through video.”
Women's Things (1978).
At the same moment that Les Insoumuses were bringing video to the streets of Paris, other collectives were forming around the world. Latin America was to prove a particularly rich context. From the 1950s, a wide-reaching revolutionary cinema movement had developed across the continent, but while New Latin American Cinema defined itself in opposition to Hollywood, it remained dominated by male voices. Some women made work within this context, but others struggled to progress in male-dominated revolutionary circles and broke away to start their own groups. From the mid-1970s onwards a number of feminist collectives appeared across the continent, including Cine Mujer in Mexico and Colombia (unrelated despite the shared name), Grupo Feminista Miércoles in Venezuela, WARMI Cine y Video in Peru, and Lilith Video in Brazil.
In Mexico, the birth of feminist collectives was closely tied to student politics. In 1963, the first film school in Latin America had opened within UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), an institution with an especially radical student body. It was within this context that a group of women, led by Rosa Martha Fernández and Beatriz Mira, founded Cine Mujer in 1975. That same year, the UN World Conference in Mexico City, announced the “Decade for Women.” The next ten years saw great growth for women’s organizations across Latin America, cultivating an eco-system within which, for a period, feminist collectives could thrive.
A key foundational issue for Cine Mujer was reproductive freedom. The collective’s first film Women’s Things (1978) is an uncompromising 40-minute documentary, shot on black and white 16mm, which follows a young sociology student as she undergoes an illegal abortion. Bold and unflinching, Women's Things was one of the first films in the country to explicitly address this taboo issue, and it set a precedent for fearless, outspoken work. Across the next decade, Cine Mujer continued to tackle controversial subjects central to the feminist movement. Breaking the Silence (1979) uses fiction to explore the experiences of rape victims attempting to find justice and healing in the face of discrimination, while Vices in the Kitchen (1977) draws on Sylvia Plath to illustrate of the burdens faced by working mothers in the home. Later video projects widened the collective’s gaze beyond middle-class perspectives to examine factory workers on the US-Mexico border, the unionization of seamstresses and the lives of Indigenous women.
Although Cine Mujer originated in a university, its members were determined to bring the films they made outside of academic circuits, screening their work in women’s groups, community spaces and trade unions across rural and urban Mexico. These screenings served as meeting points, providing a space in which women could gather to discuss the key political issues governing their lives. Yet, ironically given the work that Cine Mujer did to get their work widely seen, after the collective dissolved in the 1980s their films fell into obscurity, and they remain largely inaccessible to public audiences outside of academia.
And What Does Your Mother Do? (1980).
In Mexico, the new film schools served as a useful meeting point for female filmmakers. Further South in Colombia however, there were no film schools at the time. For aspiring Colombian filmmakers, the only opportunity to train came from studying abroad, a huge barrier to entry, especially for women.
In 1978, Sara Bright and Eulalia Carrizosa sought to overcome this by forming their own collective, also called Cine Mujer. Bright and Carrizosa had been inspired to start the group having first worked together on The Reality of Abortion (1975), a slideshow screened as part of a campaign to legalize abortion. The campaign failed, but Bright and Carrizosa saw the activist possibilities of audio-visual work, and soon they were joined by a core group including Rita Escobar, Patricia Restrepo, Dora Cecilia Ramírez, Clara Riascos, and Fanny Tobón. Aside from Bright, who had studied in England, none of the women were formally trained. Instead, they found alternative routes into filmmaking, learning from other collectives and at cinema clubs.
Challenging the hierarchy of auteurist models was central to Cine Mujer Colombia’s philosophy. Restrepo, who had initially worked as part of the male-led collective Grupo de Cali before realizing that she would have to leave to have her work acknowledged, described Cine Mujer’s horizontal approach to researcher Lorena Cervera Ferrer:
"What we wanted was horizontality. We were not interested in vertical relationships, all that seemed terribly patriarchal… We all were at the same level and the idea was to support each other. I think this was the basis of our feminism, in the way we established our work relations."
This “horizontality” was reflected in the content and form of the collective’s films. As with their sisters in Mexico, Cine Mujer’s subject matter widened over time. An initial preoccupation with the personal as political dominates early films such as the mischievous And What Does Your Mother Do? (1980) in which a harried housewife completes her domestic chores at surreal super speed. Over time the focus moved outward encompassing experimental hybrid approaches in order to reflect the diversity of female experiences. Myriam’s Gaze (1987) typifies this ambition, blending fiction and documentary to capture the interiority of a single mother living on the outskirts of Bogotá. This progression reflected evolving discourses within the wider feminist movement and demonstrated a desire to make films that talked alongside subjects, rather than about them—horizontal, rather than vertical filmmaking.
As Ferrer points out in her research, the contribution of feminist film collectives to New Latin American Cinema has often been neglected in histories of revolutionary filmmaking. This erasure seems all the more cruel in Cine Mujer Colombia’s case because of their remarkable longevity. Collectives, forged as they are within the maelstrom of political campaigning, often have short shelf lives. Cine Mujer remained active for twenty years, leaving behind a rich back catalogue.
Is This Just a Story (1983).
While Cine Mujer Colombia’s longevity is impressive, short-lived collectives can also have a remarkable impact. In 1980, a group of friends in Bangalore—Abha Bhaiya, Navroze Contractor, Deepa Dhanraj, and Meera Rao—founded Yugantar, India’s first feminist film collective. Yugantar was only active until 1983, but in that time made four powerful films. 
Yugantar’s work demonstrated how closely entangled art and activism could be. The collective worked in close collaboration with their subjects to find innovative ways to reflect the reality of women’s lives in a rapidly changing country. In Tobacco Embers (1982), filmmakers spent four months with female tobacco factory workers in Nipani, following the negotiations of the unionizing workers and documenting their exploitative working conditions. Here, the collective’s politics is reflected in a pluralistic approach, with the subjects playing an active role in constructing the film, working together to develop a semi-fictionalised script, participating in dramatic reenactments and offering a multitude of voiceovers from different perspectives.
Yugantar’s working methods were embedded in India’s autonomous women’s movement and, like the Latin American collectives, they operated within a wider system that included trade unions, universities and community groups. Mirroring Cine Mujer’s vision of horizontality, Deepa Dhanraj has described how the collective sought to establish a “continuous loop,” a circular conversation between the filmmaker and the community. 
Yugantar’s best-known film demonstrates the creative possibilities of this hyper-receptive approach. Is This Just a Story (1983) is a semi-improvised study of domestic violence which was developed in collaboration with feminist activists Stree Shakti Sanghatan and shot across one week with little film stock and only one camera. Despite these restrictions, the film proved revelatory to contemporary audiences. As it toured communities in southern India, Dhanraj recalls the unusually strong reactions that greeted the films—women of all castes, classes and ages crying throughout the screening, and sitting in silence at the film’s end, before lively discussions would inevitably begin.
Give Us a Smile (1983).
By grappling with filmmaking’s inherent power imbalances, Yugantar fought to establish more equal relationships between camera, subject and audience. Challenging these dynamics also played a crucial role in the development of the feminist workshop movement in the UK.
From the late 1960s the UK’s avant-garde scene had included prominent collectives, such as the mixed gender Cinema Action and Berwick Street Collective, and the all-female London Women’s Film Group. These groups produced significant feminist films, most notably Berwick Street’s landmark Nightcleaners (1975) an experimental study of unionizing female cleaners, and the LWFG’s The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1974), a playful burlesque which mashed up genres—horror, musical, comedy—to capture the absurdity of the pay gap. But despite lively arts scenes across the country, alternative filmmaking remained overwhelmingly concentrated in London. Issues of representation and access were heightened by the recession of the late 1970s, which threatened the existence of experimental filmmakers who, as either contract workers or unwaged, were ineligible for union representation and locked out of funding and commissions.
The Workshop Declaration and the establishment of Channel 4 in the early 1980s, shifted this balance. The new workshop system supported integrative practice, opening up funding for groups which offered distribution and education activities alongside filmmaking, while Channel 4 pledged long-term funding to support innovative programming. For the next decade workshops (effectively collectives by another name) would thrive across the UK, as regional groups took advantage of this new support. This included a new wave of feminist collectives such as the Leeds Animation Workshop, WITCH (Women’s IndependenT Cinema House) in Liverpool, Red Flannel in Cardiff and the Sheffield Film Coop.
These collectives tapped into the rebellious spirit of the Greenham Common and Act Up protest movements, challenging Thatcherite individualism with films that promoted solidarity and centred working-class and queer women. Like their sisters in Cine Mujer Colombia, the regional film collectives were often built by women without formal training who shared resources and taught one another how to make work. These workshops also supported female workers with inclusive working models—Sheffield Film Coop for example provided a free nursery to enable mothers to participate.
The work produced by the feminist workshops are defined by their pragmatic politics and scrappy energy. Revisiting overlooked women’s history is a recurring theme. The Sheffield Film Coop’s Red Skirts on Clydeside (1984) and Red Flannel’s Mam (1988) are both works of revisionism which capture oral testimonies in order to reinsert working class women’s stories into the historical record. Leeds AnimationWorkshop (established 1978, still active today) used their uniquely flexible medium to make eye-catching, agenda-setting shorts exploring topics such as childcare, sexual harassment and housing. These ambitious, anarchic films demonstrated animation’s potential to tackle serious subject matter. Give Us a Smile (1983) is typical of LAW’s style, harnessing music, found images, court testimony, animation and music to explore rape culture.
Perfect Image (1988).
The workshops also created an environment that enabled a wave of collectives led by Black and Asian filmmakers. Groups such as Sankofa, Ceddo and the Black Audio Film Collective aimed to create work centering Black stories and perspectives to serve as a corrective to an overwhelmingly white media. These groups were mixed gender, but Black feminist perspectives were central to this approach. Sankofa’s Perfect Image (Maureen Blackwood, 1988) which touches upon misogynoir and beauty standards, and Dreaming Rivers (Martina Attile, 1988), which reflects on diasporic experiences through a distinctly female lens, are both key examples. Just as no history of US independent feminist cinema is complete without acknowledge of work made by the women of the L.A. Rebellion, films produced by the Black Film Workshops are an essential part of the story of feminist collectivised making in the UK.
By the mid-1990s, the Golden Age of the feminist film collective was beginning to come to an end. Creeping neo-liberal ideology and new funding structures began to incentivise individual over collective making, while schisms within the second wave feminist movement started to fracture the networks of artist, activist, and community groups that had fed the movement. Women, of course, continued to make work together and carve out alternative spaces—notably within the DIY ethos of Riot Grrrl in the US—but the sense of an interconnected global phenomenon had begun to fade away.
Nevertheless, these feminist collectives leave behind a legacy that has only become more relevant. As we travel deeper into the turbulent 2020s and grapple with the defining issues of our age—climate crisis, inequality, colonial legacies—the movement can serve as a powerful resource and inspiration. Over the past few years, films by these collectives have begun to re-emerge, digitized and restored, back in circulation. When we revisit these films today, we become part of Yugantar’s “continuous loop,” drawn back into the conversation that these women started decades ago. Camera, subject, spectator, connected once again, enraged, energised, inspired.


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