The Very Eye of Night is a series of columns on non-binary and female avant-garde film and video artists. The title refers to Maya Deren’s last completed film.
Anthology Film Archives in New York presents a five-program retrospective of Carole Roussopoulos’s videos from November 7–9, 2017. The screenings will be introduced by Nicole Fernández Ferrer, director of the Simone de Beauvoir Audiovisual Center.
Jean-Luc Godard wrote a letter to Carole Roussopoulos in 1979 for Cahiers du cinéma in which he reflected on the motivations behind making films, and inquired: “Sometimes I wonder what has happened to all you have filmed in the four corners of France and the world… And I wonder why people in cinema want to film others with so much frenzy.” As Nicole Brenez recalls, the Swiss filmmaker responded to him: “to privilege the approach of those without a voice.”
Carole Roussopoulos made more than a hundred videos, the last three in 2009, when she passed at age 64. In 1970, her friend, the poet and revolutionary Jean Genet, urged her to acquire a portable video camera, which propelled a fearless trajectory participating in and documenting social liberation movements. One of her first contributions to the public, cultural dialogue was the creation of the militant collective Vidéo Out for the production of audiovisual works. Together with filmmakers Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder, in 1982 she founded the Simone de Beauvoir Audiovisual Center in Paris, the first media institution devoted to feminist history. In her late years, concerned by human rights ignored in her country of origin, she moved back to Switzerland and made a series of videos on aging, domestic violence, healthcare, and death. She was named Dame of the Legion of Honor in France for what became 40 years of service to filmmaking.
The work of a giver in a world of takers, Roussopoulos’s videos help to unfold crucial social issues, but are scarcely shown. This is true beginning with her first known production, Genet Talks About Angela Davis (1971). In this compilation of raw footage from three different recording takes, Genet reads a statement against the arrest of American political activist, Davis, in New York that year. Besides offering the perspectives of each camera, the video heeds the increasing intensity of Genet’s performance. While taking his glasses on and off, he emphasizes the words supporting Davis’s involvement with the Black Panther Party and the Civil Rights Movement. The filmmaker includes the images from the behind-the-scenes of those recordings in an unpolished assemblage. With this, she accentuates that Genet’s intended appearance on French television was never broadcast. Also that year, in collaboration with her husband Paul Roussopoulos and Chris Marker, she edited Congo Oyé (We Have Come Back), a film that was never finished. Roussopoulos’s partner was a Greek political refugee, and they both appeared in Marker’s L’ambassade (1973), a Super 8mm film of a group of intellectuals and artists searching for protection at an imaginary embassy.
Roussopoulos’s early videos coincided with the emergence of second-wave feminism in France. The recording of the experiences of women was just the beginning of a body of work that evolved in inclusion and diversity. Her videos discard gender and feminist clichés in favor of a reality where all people can define their own experiences. Some are sex workers, rape victims, oyster farmers, homeless men, and immigrants, as in The March of Women at Hendaye (1975). Shortly before Francisco Franco died, a thousand exiled Spaniard women living in France gathered in bordering Hendaye, where the caudillo and Adolf Hitler met in 1940. The women sang in French, “bombs can do nothing, rumba la, rumba la, rumba la, where there is heart,” while demonstrating against the summary executions of five anti-fascist male activists in Madrid, Barcelona, and Burgos. The lyrics are from ¡Ay, Carmela!, one of the most popular tunes of the Republican resistance in Spain’s Civil War.
Innovating, pushing against, and sifting through the cinematic cues of the documentary film form, Roussopoulos fought the varied degrees of authoritarianisms, latent and enforced. She was not especially aware of avant-garde cinema at that time, and certainly never called herself an artist. It was her critical and committed spirit that made her work thrive freely in open and unconventional territories. One of her strategies to disrupt discursive boundaries was to utilize images from the television screen. She recorded the edges of the monitor, and the waveform alterations of the analog video signal as distancing effects. For instance, almost ten years after American radical Valerie Solanas wrote S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1967), Roussopoulos created a video of same title to weigh on the relevance of the Society-for-Cutting-Up-Men text. Since the book was out of print in French by then, in the video Seyrig translates out loud some extracts, including punctuation, while Roussopoulos types the words up until she stops half way through. Between them, a television set shows the live news feed: explosions in Beirut, and women marching for peace in Belfast. A camera on a tripod registers the process without interruption. The legacy of this video remains significant and, in 2017, filmmaker Jill Godmilow made her own color, Polish-language, high definition version.
Inspired by Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), two years later Roussopoulos, together with Wieder, Seyrig, and sociologist Nadja Ringart, made Maso and Miso Go Boating. Maso, the masochist, and Miso, the misogynist, are the roles assigned to each of the participants of a French talk show featuring, among others, Minister of Women’s Rights, Françoise Giroud. The video is a reworking of the show that highlights absurdity by interjecting incisive title cards and repeatedly rewinding the countless disrespectful-to-women declarations, including those by Giroud. Lured by the continuous denigration, the video’s hilarious montage delegitimizes pseudo liberal politics and mass media, to conclude: "The images from television are neither willing nor capable of expressing what we are. It is with video that we will tell our story ourselves.” Maso and Miso Go Boating became so popular that Giroud pressed to retire it from circulation.
Roussopoulos was a rapid and highly intuitive videographer. Her camera does not explain, but listens, often through long takes. Allowing people to talk, and giving them the time and attention to elaborate on their points of view become profoundly revolutionary. The work, though, goes beyond being observational. With precise camera movements, and frequently smoking while recording, Roussopoulos involves herself in the action, capturing commentaries and counter-reactions that serve as illuminating context. In Le F.H.A.R. (1971), images of the first Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action demonstrations in Paris are intertwined with footage of an unrehearsed, public discussion at the University of Vincennes. Roussopoulos recorded the group after showing them the images from the protests that she had taped. To capture the vibrant energy of the moment, she wipes her camera from side to side of the room just as the attendants commence to elaborate on their arguments on sex and power relations, still pertinent today.
A believer in “anyone can do it” rather than “do it yourself,” Roussopoulos assembled her videos with just tape and scissors. Her editing style is, above all, non-judgmental of those in front of the camera, many of them risking safety for their rights, no matter how controversial. She often inserts images of her own equipment and filming strategies, exposing a commitment to transparency in her engagement with the world. In her work, those consistently cast out as inferior others shine in strength and dignity for everyone to see without condescending allowance—people’s power was there in first place.
International, avant-garde, feminist film-and-video making has proved itself to be a most impactful cultural intervention. Ana Mendieta, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Carolee Schneemann, Lis Rhodes, Catherine Elwes, Friedl vom Gröller, Ulrike Rosenbach, Ja’Tovia Gary, Nazlı Dinçel, Marwa Arsanios, Sanja Iveković, and Elisabeth Subrin are some of the artists whose film and video work has taken on violence, discrimination, and silenced history upon race and gender. The infrequent exhibition of many of these works has to do not only with a decision-making based on personal favoritisms, but also with a generalized lack of substantial historical research. In this invisibility, Carole Roussopoulos’s videos are not an exception. They continue to raise questions that disturb all kinds of imposed collective narratives, rewriting legacies and mobilizing towards change.