Periodising Site Specific Practice - an essay by Stephanie Beth
CIRCUIT and the Documentary Research Group at AUT held a Symposium in September 2018 entitled The Time of the Now. I was invited to discuss my film practice of the late 1970’s as part of the theme ‘Returning agency to the female perspective’. The organisers were keen to know more about the history of women being critically self-reflective on film in New Zealand, and my part in it. This was no opportunity to be missed.
"I literally threw the baby in the cot. If I had been a mother now I would consider that my child was bashed. But, yes, I literally threw my child into the cot." - Josepha Judd. Interviewee, I Want to be Joan (1977)
I Want to be Joan was a commission from the United Women's Convention (UWC) organizing committee in Christchurch in 1977. I was given carte blanche on how I went about my process. Content was drawn from interviews with attendees at the Conference. In preparation for filming I complimented my background in film theory with three months of readings and discussions on feminism and politics. What to say about the commission responsibility? Four years prior to Fine Art School, I had been constantly travelling overseas, working hotels and restaurants and doing some infant teaching. I had noted the reckless and post-traumatic behaviour of soldiers on leave in Bangkok. I met soldiers from Israel who took off from Hydra early one morning to join the Arab Israeli War. I began to note traditions of difference. So, I noted violent, disruptive, distressed worlds, but, at the age of 21, did not know Domesticity or the sense of isolations women experienced. It was to books that I went for guidance. Viewing from my Western perspective, I saw how the roots of struggle were in class and economic bases. My other tool was education already undertaken in Documentary at the school. So, I had made decision about cuts for essay style, or whether to use camera as fixed or handheld, for example. Or, whether to use 'talking heads’.
I decided the best strategy to put in place for intuitive recording of women speaking was to find out how they positioned their personal narratives. The function of a Second Wave of Feminism was to see worth in making analysis of the social systems that bred and trained women to be an underclass. I had a three-month lead-up to plan a strategy whereby I might access women at this convention with confidence or courage enough to talk about ‘ sense of self ’ in public discourse and locate sufficient honesty in representations. So, I looked at the workshops being booked. One that stood out was, 'Guilt the Great Controller'.
The film needed to be reflective. Self-disclosing content was hoped for. If it wasn’t a certain dogma from religion in the air of women’s lives it was passivity from conditioning. Individuals had to see their opportunity as of the secular framework. These phrases sound almost melodramatic, but innocence and naivety about power structures were prevalent. Angers and frustrations were real. The film site was a chance for each woman to make some kind of ‘breakthrough’ with confidence. And my chance was to share a tapestry of thoughts, embracing these efforts with respect and care.
I had put out to the committee that I wished to recruit scouts to bring me prospective interviewees. I would be busy on a set providing calm and acoustic comfort. I had faith that a film title would arise out of the organic process. I set up weekly ‘book group’ meetings with a range of women who had heard I was making the film. We held these at the University Film School house in evenings. In our group, questions of ‘consciousness raising’ were strongly argued. For example, Canadian/American Shulamith Firestone wrote The Dialectic of Sex in 1970. Engels, Marx and Freud were often cited in her argument for Feminist theory.
I had three days to find and my women and one day to film them. I hired two professional journalists (one working in television and one working in radio) to make preliminary audiocassette interviews, one to one with the women in private booths. Each of the first three nights I scrolled through these tapes. After the 3rd night I picked up the phone and invited the selected interviewees to be filmed the next day. I let them know that this phone conversation was our last opportunity for any discussion and preparation before we turned the camera on the next day.
I selected women with no affiliation with leadership or movements. They were from the silent unknown majority. They were chosen via a process of sub-selection undertaken by my crew of twenty scouts (the book study group) who went into the convention on my behalf after being asked to look for women who were ‘listening 'in the workshops but not speaking. The interviewees’ words resolved into the final film as a document of six private insights offered by six women and with particularities about marriage and motherhood. Afterwards, I gathered pick up shots of poetry, art and song to punctuate the interviews with points of staccato and affiliation. The heightened atmosphere of collected women in situ (because they all attended one convention) aided a kind of psychological fast track to their determination. Filming was to be at this convention or never. The participants were irresistibly excited by the chance.
Hilary Findlay, interviewee, I Want to be Joan (1977)
"I still want to be a mother. I don’t think I want to be a wife anymore. I want to develop my mind... through my own fault I have never developed my mind properly and I want to do it now, right now. And, I don’t know what I want to do. I have never known what I want to do, ever since the day I left school. I went into an office because I didn’t know what wanted to do." - Hilary Findlay, interviewee, I Want to be Joan (1977)
These UWC conventions/gatherings ran biannually, commencing in 1971 in New Zealand, first in Auckland, then Wellington, Christchurch and closing in Hamilton. Ideas touched upon included Second-wave feminism issues - Family, Sexuality, Work, Abortion Rights, Violence in Society, The Law.
Day four at the convention was an intense relay of shoots. The ‘subjects’ ‘were women living married lives, seeing through the degrees of their disempowering ‘normalisation’, which overshadowed cognisance of their personal health and well-being. From out of the matrix of commonality as a gender, and because of the context of the conference and the camera, they found voice to analyse their self-perspective. These women spoke subjective perspectives. There is no such thing as truth. (1) Using the technique of 'talking heads' was apt for the task. The dawn of Nietzsche was “brought back to life”, Finnigan may have said. (2) As, “Truth is a style of life”. The power in the film was the power of personal vocal delivery. The punch of the voice. It would become a document of individuals who gained more self-awareness due to their practice of critical reflection.
An aspect distinct to the filming of Joan was the complete absence of men in the speaking space, thus giving women 100% airtime. This opportunity commenced at the convention by decree from the committee in the opening plenary. “All male members of the Press please leave” was announced, due to sexist reportage of the 1971 Auckland event.
The screening tour of I Want to be Joan continued in this vein. Within each discussion circle after the film, the men in the audience were asked to please not speak, but rather, listen to women. These discussion sessions invariably ran for one and a half hours. Women were learning assertion.
I was able to take Joan on tour with confidence, because of the rarity of such a congregation speaking out. My confidence was rewarded at the premiere at the James Hay Theatre in the Christchurch Town Hall when the screening concluded with a Steinway piano performance and a song, to resounding applause. Over the next nineteen months my Thundering Through New Zealand tour was an on-again-off again set of screenings and discussion groups. I carried the film reel from place to place with organisers billeting me, borrowing 16mm projectors wherever I went.
B: …and now I am finally succeeding. And he’s happy about it.
H: Any comment on how difficult it was?
B: It’s particularly difficult. But, if you really want to develop yourself as a person you have to keep trying, trying, trying. You can’t give up. And, well, even to the point of being beaten you have to keep going. For me it was just natural. I knew who I was and what I was. That was where I was going. Whether it was with my husband or without him I would have still carried on.
- interview with Hilary Findlay, I Want to be Joan (1977)
Barbara Paine, interviewee, I want to be Joan (1977)
A second film, IN JOY (1980), is a companion piece to Joan. I made this one as a particular response to violence against women in society. My research included being a volunteer at a Women's Refuge in Christchurch in 1979 for three months. Concluding there, I decided to make some currency out of the old art form of mime. Student life had fed to me Les Enfants du Paradis (1945). It would be enjoyable to work next in the non-verbal realm, and keeping me positive at work was a key objective.
I contacted a Performance teacher, Maggie Eyre. I had seen her in a mime at that past United Women’s Convention. She ran workshops in improvisation, play and performance. I went to Auckland to plan this film shoot at a four-day workshop we co-wrote, to run at a Parnell Community Hall. IN JOY was a shift from ‘talking heads’ to a study of movement, mime, play and performance with kinesthesis, laughter and sliding tears as outcomes of learning. In subsequent screenings, these films became part of discussions exploring ways to live a more mindful and physically integrated life.
Neither documentary was produced within the mainstream known by then as Television. I recall being approached by the television producers of arts show Kaleidoscope in 1981 about airing IN JOY. I declined the invitation saying that I wanted the film in a prime time documentary slot.
Each film was a 16mm print. The first I took around the country on a road tour. The print deteriorated from use. It was a single reversal film print that was converted to VHS video some years later when the technology was available. The second film was a release print made from processing and colour grading negative film, a costly process done then in Sydney.
After editing was complete, a combination of private funds and institutional resources enabled me to distribute the work. I became quite indebted to my various supporters, and Koha entry fees from the Joan tour supported my day-to-day running costs.
Various institutional partners supported the work at home and abroad. The first grant came to me from Creative New Zealand, after this the National Library Service of 1978, who distributed JOAN in libraries for twenty years on VHS. After this Creative New Zealand again, then TVNZ support for IN JOY completion, and a New Zealand Film Commission grant for a punt on it in an NZ selection journeying to Cannes. I took IN JOY to four venues in New Zealand, Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch and it was screened in the 1981 Oberhausen Short Film Festival, Germany. In the 1990s it was screened at the BFI National Film Theatre, London as part of a collection presented by the New Zealand Film Commission. My films were later digitised and both now reside in the vaults of Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.
The forces and risks of the 1960s had emboldened 1970s creative output. A strong slogan of the time was ‘a woman is made not born’. ‘The ‘Time of the Now’ back then was fuelled by an idealised shift towards an emerging plurality of ‘voices’, seeking to address issues of racism, the position of women and later, issues of post-colonialism and gender. Meanwhile the general populace of New Zealand fell into more of a somnolence of depression as power elites secured their hold and thumbed ‘others’ further to perimeters.
In the 1970s we were looser in how we were influenced by intellectual or conceptual thought. Nowadays, with so much proliferation of data and questions around media manipulation, would one proceed without either the reassurance of mass data gathering, or a more conscious examination of process? Nevertheless, critique never went away and achievements that matter were made politically and professionally towards gender and discrimination reform. Written publications such as Broadsheet and Spiral printed essays, poetry and some book publishing.
It is of political interest to note that in Hamilton in 1979 there was a fourth New Zealand United Women’s Convention. I attended this. There was a challenge to the middle class Pākehā nature of these conventions from a flange of activists carrying banners proclaiming UWC’s as ‘WHITE WOMENS’ CONVENTION(s)’. In 1979 protesters refused the convention interior setting and made dissenting speeches outside. The UWC's folded after this rupture. (3) In the years later, instead of unity gatherings, professionals returned to increase their workloads, education numbers for women began to soar. A lot later, Mana Wahine - as well as the forerunners of more radical protests or, indeed, recanters of positions - showed their head as New Zealand folded into hardline neoliberalism.
Collective Women: Feminist Art Archives from the 1970s to the 1990s is a private collection of publications and ephemera that opened in late 2017 at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. It includes many objects, from copies of Broadsheet and Spiral to event posters, a film and Marti Friedlander photographs gifted to the gallery by Juliet Batten (4). The display sits alongside other periodicals and catalogues as well as significant information files; including New Zealand Women Artists, a collection of fifty-nine audiocassette tape interviews with artists recorded 1971-1984. (5)
To my astonishment and delight, this curated collection in Auckland Art Gallery I found the day after the CIRCUIT Symposium. The delight came because I went twice to look at contemporary artist Ruth Buchanan's exhibition BAD VISUAL SYSTEMS, (2018). As part of Buchanan’s installation a Gallery Attendant guided me to the collection of historical ephemera. Had I not sought out Buchanan I would otherwise have not seen that collection. Buchanan was a nominee then, and a winner now of the 2018 Walters Art Prize. She has smartly and wondrously incorporated the Feminist Art Archives as her ‘Site 4’ of BAD VISUAL SYSTEMS by instructing a Gallery Attendant to take any visitors to see this historical collection at 2.30pm of any day. To Buchanan, happily, that collection acts as a most satisfactory New Zealand Women artists' precursor to her own heavings of action. Her significant and breathtaking contemporary installation addresses not only voice, but also manifesto, feminism, and exhibition spaces, giving refreshed urgency to the complexities of body politics. (6)
It was my luck that I attended this exhibition just one day after speaking at CIRCUIT that September day, and for the first time, heard my 1984 voice on one of those fifty-nine cassettes discussing my heartfelt times making these films. By participating in Buchanan's swift and provocative navigation I fell in love with Art as life once more.
This essay is dedicated to Vivian Lynn.
(1) Finnigan, Maureen, Nietzsche’s Perspective: Beyond Truth as an Ideal (2000) in Topics in Feminism, History and Philosophy, IWM Junior Visiting Fellows Conferences, Vol. VI/9
(3) In 1979 what I called a rupture is interpreted in this article as “socialist and lesbian feminists refusing to join mainstream groups”. The writing is in the ‘lifestyle’ section of a pulp Australian magazine Now to Love (2018)
(4) E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Juliet Batten (2008)
(6) Buchanan. R. BAD VISUAL SYSTEMS (2016, 2018). Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Curator. Conlan. N. July 2018-April 2019