Five essential books on feminist film

Critic and author Sophie Mayer recommends some indispensable reading on feminist cinema.

Sophie Mayer
Updated:

Girlfriends (1978)

Girlfriends (1978)

2015 was the year the female gaze fought back, in the form of the founding of the Bechdel Test Fest and Reel Good Film Club; the release of Suffragette (Sarah Gavron); and the publication of Sight & Sound’s The Female Gaze (October 2015) issue, which inaugurated the BFI’s Woman With a Movie Camera monthly screening series. Oh, and also two studies of feminist film now: Patricia White’s Women’s Cinema, World Cinema and my Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (with plentiful references to White!).

As campaigns by programmers and audience bring back the ‘lost’ films (unavailable on DVD or legitimately online) charted in The Female Gaze issue, it’s increasingly clear that feminist film scholarship keeps the memory of such films alive, as well as elaborating beautiful new ways of seeing. These five books enact the manifesto for feminist film and criticism voiced in Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983): “Even as I look, and even as I see, I am changing what is there.”

Where we’re at:

Patricia White, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminism

Women's Cinema, World Cinema by Patricia White

A must-read for programmers, critics, teachers, and all viewers. The revolution will be subtitled, argues White, unassailably: women’s cinema has gone global, and global cinema is now feminist. It’s both a brilliant reading of some of the most inventive current filmmakers (that’s an image from Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men [2009] on the cover) and an insightful lowdown of changes in film production, exhibition and reception over the last decade. Read up on how international festivals, funders and media have been shaping the careers of emerging filmmakers from outside Anglophonia and Europe – and hand the book to anyone who says, “But there aren’t any women filmmakers (from)…”

Where it all began:

B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement

Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement by B. Ruby Rich book cover

For the personalities, the passions and the panorama, Chick Flicks is the perfect dinner party guest, with all the stories and the scintillating wit to tell them. Rich, like a feminist film Zelig, was there at every moment that counted from the late 1960s onwards, as the critic and curator who defined feminism as she “found it at the movies” (to borrow her Kael-riffing prologue title). Her up-close-and-personal style will inspire you to seek out the ‘lost’ classics her loving account has kept alive, such as One Way or Another (De cierta manera, Sara Gomez 1974), Regrouping (Lizzie Borden, 1976) or The Gold Diggers (1983).

How it works:

Julie Dash, with Toni Cade Bambara and bell hooks, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Women’s Film

 Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film by Julie Dash book cover

Few screenplays by female writer-directors make it into print, and even fewer receive such a beautiful treatment – and few deserve it as much as Dash’s first full-length feature (1991), a labour of infinite love. The book mirrors the film in presenting a community of African American women in joyous conversation, not only about film’s narrative and its long journey to screen, but about Dash’s technical challenges and historical research. The film was long unavailable on VHS/DVD, which demonstrates how feminist film books keep ‘lost’ films alive for viewers. Ironically, the film is now on DVD (and screening in a restored 35mm print), but the book is out of print.

What it means:

Annette Kuhn, Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema

Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema by Annette Kuhn book cover

Feminist film theory can be dense and knotty: after all, writers such as Laura Mulvey had to invent a language to make their arguments audible. But Annette Kuhn’s Women’s Pictures is remarkable for the wit and clarity with which she interprets and adds to this brand-new language. Starting on a “sunny Saturday in 1974” in Nottingham, Kuhn takes in the brave new world of feminist film theory as it tackles dominant cinema’s “trouble in the text”. Striking a sensitive balance of viewing pleasure and gender politics, Kuhn focuses part four on the exciting rush of second-wave feminist cinema, championing Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978), recently revived by I am Dora among others – another example of books keeping films alive.

What it changes:

Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense

The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme and the Image of Common Sense by Kara Keeling book cover

Keeling’s book is an astonishing example of how to do things with film and feminism, including Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou (1997). Working with the philosophies of Angela Davis and Antonio Gramsci as much as the canon of film theory, Keeling traces the rare and potent image of the black femme – which is all too often absent from cinema itself – through the visual field, noting how it shapes African American politics and lived experience. I believe this 2007 book helped make space for the work of Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes. Evidence that feminist film theory not only changes how you see the world, but changes the world itself.

Collections Focus July: Feminist Cinema
Sophie Mayer, for many years a frequent BFI Reuben Library visitor, has personally selected our display of 40 books to coincide with July 2016’s library event. The publications highlighted, which include the five books listed here, celebrate the history of feminist cinema and draw from the rich vein of work we hold in this area – reflecting Sophie’s research and her experience of our world-famous collection.

BFI Reading Room book list (July 2016): Feminist cinema

With thanks to Emma Smart, Peter Todd and Hayley Webb for advice and additions.

Bobo, Jacqueline. Black Women Film and Video Artists. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Bolton, Lucy. Film and Female Consciousness: Irigaray, Cinema and Thinking Women. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Camera Obscura 21:3 (63) (2006), inc. anniversary reflection Archive for the Future.

Camera Obscura 29:1 (85) (2014). Special Issue: The Place of the Contemporary Female Director.

Cheu, Hoi F. Cinematic Howling: Women’s Films, Women’s Film Theories. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.

Circles: Women’s Film and Video Distribution Catalogue. London: Circles, 1983.

Citron, Michelle. Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Clark, Vèvè A., Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman, eds. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works. Vol 1. Pts. 1 and 2. New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1984; 1988.

Clayton, Sue, ed. Women’s Movement: Film Catalogue. London: The Other Cinema, 1981.

Columpar, Corinn and Sophie Mayer, eds. There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010.

Cook, Pam and Philip Dodd, eds. Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader. London: Scarlet Press, n.d.

Dash, Julie, Toni Cade Bambara and bell hooks. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Women’s Film. New York: The New Press, 1992.

Duras, Marguerite. Green Eyes. Trans. Carol Bartko. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Denton, Nadia. The Black British Filmmaker’s Guide to Success. Self-published, 2011.

Ellerson, Beti. Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television. Trenton NJ and Asmara: Africa World Press, 2000.

Faludi, Susan. The Terror Dream: What 9/11 Revealed About America. London: Atlantic, 2007.

*Gever, Martha, John Greyson and Pratibha Parmar, eds. Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Ghosh, Shohini. Fire. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010.

Hamad, Hannah. Postfeminism and Paternity in Contemporary U.S. Film: Framing Fatherhood. New York and London: Routledge, 2014.

Hammer, Barbara. Hammer!: Making Movies out of Sex and Life. New York: Feminist Press, 2010.

hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1996.

*Johnston, Claire. Notes on Women’s Cinema. London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1973.

Keeling, Kara. The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

*Kuhn, Annette. Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Lant, Antonia and Ingrid Periz, eds. Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema. London & New York: Verso, 2006.

Laviosa, Flavia, ed. Visions of Struggle in Women’s Filmmaking in the Mediterranean. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Lewis, Randolph. Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker. Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.

———, and Anna Backman Rogers, eds. Feminisms: Diversity, Difference, and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015.

*National Film Theatre programme (April/May 1973). Includes Women’s Cinema season curated by Claire Johnston.

Paquot, Claudine, ed. Chantal Akerman: autoportrait en cineaste. Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma/Centre Georges Pompidou, 2004.

Pick, Anat. Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Potter, Sally. Naked Cinema: Working with Actors. London: Faber & Faber, 2014

Rainer, Yvonne. Feelings are Facts: A Life. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Rashkin, Elissa. Women Filmmakers in Mexico: The Country of Which We Dream. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Rich, B. Ruby. Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

——, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

Sight & Sound 25.10 (Oct 2015). Special Issue. The Female Gaze: 100 Overlooked Films by Women.

Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Sontag, Susan. A Susan Sontag Reader. Harmondsworth, Mdx.: Penguin, 1983.

*Tait, Margaret. Origins and Elements. Edinburgh: self-published, 1959.

Taormino, Tristan, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley, and Mireille Miller-Young, eds. The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure. New York: Feminist Press, 2013.

Tay, Sharon Lin. Women on the Edge: Twelve Political Film Practices. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Thornham, Helen and Elke Weissman, eds. Renewing Feminisms: Radical Narratives, Fantasies and Futures in Media Studies. London: IB Tauris, 2013.

Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Cinema Interval. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Varda, Agnès. Varda par Agnès. Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1994.

Villarejo, Amy. Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Politics of Desire. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Waldman, Diane and Janet Walker, eds. Feminism and Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

White, Patricia. Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

Wilson, Emma. Love, Mortality and the Moving Image. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

*These titles were not on display as they were bound or under repair.

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