Deep Cuts: The First International Women’s Film Seminar

By Erika Balsom

Lately it feels like everywhere I look obscure old films are being dusted off and presented to eager publics. Even a right-wing newspaper like London’s Telegraph had cause last November to speak of a “repertory boom” in the city where I live, deeming it “the year’s most unlikely media trend.” Their idea of what this looks like is a bit different than mine; not everyone is “suddenly” lining up to see Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). What I have in mind can’t exactly be described as “repertory” in the standard sense, since it involves nothing like cycling through an established set of titles. Rather than the pleasures of the classics, it’s about reaching for the deepest of deep cuts. I’m thinking of the fetish for prints with provenance, the vogue for the unfinished and the lost, and the large number (and high quality) of festivals and exhibitions presenting extensive historical materials, far beyond the usual suspects who have been doing it forever. I’m referring to restorations so brilliant one can scarcely believe they had been absent from screens for so long (e.g., Bushman, 1971) and presentations of curiosities that are, let’s face it, sometimes more interesting to talk about than to actually watch. Witnessing this flurry of activity, it’s easy to feel like an inversion has taken place in my little corner of film culture. New releases now seem like a sidebar; old films are the main attraction. 

Summer was the season of blockbusters even in this bizarro realm, where films like Barbie and Oppenheimer are scarcely relevant. June brought not only the perennial embarrassment of riches that is Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, a festival that seems to only gain in popularity, but also Archival Assembly #2, which took place at the Arsenal in Berlin. There, I saw Prem Kapoor’s Badnam Basti (1971), presented by Shai Heredia, who informed us that we would be watching the sole surviving 35mm copy of India’s first queer film. If that weren’t enough, a second event presented in collaboration with the feminist elsewheres collective remains etched in my memory months later as a highlight of the year: the premiere screening of 109 minutes of digitized 16mm footage of the First International Women’s Film Seminar, shot by Norwegian filmmaker Vibeke Løkkeberg. Organized by filmmakers Claudia von Alemann and Helke Sander, the seminar had taken place nearly 50 years before, from November 15–18, 1973. It was the first event of its kind in West Germany, with 45 contemporary films from seven countries shown to an audience of some 250 people. The program addressed four principal themes: women in the workplace; the representation of women in the media; abortion, sexuality, and gender roles; and the women’s movement in Europe and the US. 

Løkkeberg was at the seminar to show Abortion (1971), a hybrid film that combines documentary interviews with a fictional story of a young woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy under the restrictive Norwegian law of the time. While in Berlin, the director took the opportunity to interview attendees with a view to making a film called Myth and Media about the experiences of women working in the cinema and television industries. The project was never completed and for some time the footage was presumed lost, before eventually resurfacing in the National Library of Norway in 2019. It is often said that feminist film exhibition is as much about what takes place around the screen as what is shown on it, and yet moving-image documentation of events like the 1973 Berlin seminar is rare, making works like Barbara Hammer’s Audience (1982) and the Vidéa collective’s Musidora: Festival des films de femmes (1974) all the more precious. Now there is a new entry to add to this short filmography. 

I had seen Abisag Tüllmann’s photographs of the 1973 seminar; I had read a report von Alemann and Sander wrote in its aftermath. I had watched many of the films they chose to show, such as Elsa Rasbach’s His-Story (1972), the Collettivo Femminista di Cinema’s L’Aggetivo Donna (1972), or Newsreel’s The Woman’s Film (1970). Yet it was in seeing Løkkeberg’s footage that the First Women’s Film Seminar truly came alive for me. Not, however, because I was frictionlessly immersed in the debates of 50 years before. The Arsenal screening put time out of joint; it was at once spectral and marked by an electrifying liveness. It transpired that Løkkeberg’s sound elements had been stored separately from her film material. It took time to locate them, and they were not ready for the screening. As a result, her footage was shown silently, with live commentary provided by women in the audience who were described as “time witnesses.” This was no doubt a literal translation from the German, a phrase that would not typically be used in English. But it was somehow a beautiful way of capturing the doubleness of bodies that at once appeared onscreen and sat amongst us, bridging then and now.

Most loquacious of all was the formidable von Alemann, who was next to Løkkeberg in the front row, responding in German and English to the film and to questions coming from others in the room. Spectators pointed at the screen and called out names, identifying participants. Halfway through, Sander walked out for reasons that I never discovered. Everyone else stayed the course, watching women onscreen talk and talk for nearly two hours without ever knowing what they were saying. This strange encounter seemed to me to be to a good (albeit unintentional) allegory of how the past invariably holds something back from us, no matter how furious our attempts to grasp it. Fantasy and speculation took hold, mingling with the fragmentary recollections flowing from the time witnesses. The event was a spontaneous oral history, an unearthing of an unpolished archival gem, a riotous feminist convening. It was, in other words, sometimes chaotic but never dull. 

In their 2023 collection Incomplete: The Feminist Possibilities of Unfinished Film, editors Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon argue that attending to unfinished films like Løkkeberg’s comprises a feminist historiographical method: “Whether abandoned, interrupted, or lost,” they write, “unfinished films are usually dismissed as unworthy objects of study. They are seen as minor works, of marginal importance to film history.” To do justice to the breadth and circumstances of women’s contributions means taking account of barriers and obstacles, and that means widening the frame of inquiry. The “finished” thus joins 35mm, feature length, and fiction as a hegemonic category that pushes important work to the margins. Chip away at their dominance and filmographies suddenly grow larger and gaps smaller; trajectories of life and work are thrown into relief. Beeston and Solomon propose “a feminist transvaluation of the unfinished film’s signs of deficiency” so as to “recast them as signs of possibility.”

This is what occurred at the Arsenal in June: the muteness of Løkkeberg’s rushes ceased to figure as a lack and became the ground of an encounter that did not claim to reveal the past as exactly it was—an impossibility—but which instead opened a space of negotiation and imagination. When I later watched a tight 15-minute cut of the footage with sound included, alone with my laptop, it was a strangely deflating experience. Somehow the sense of possibility and collectivity that radiated from the June screening had dissipated—as if, in moving closer to something resembling a finished film, some of the latent energy of the material had been spent. In one respect, the interest in the unfinished risks dwelling in failure and fetishizing the marginal. But seen from another perspective, it is a way of activating the register of the “might have been” in all its dreamy fullness.

If it is true, as Beeston and Solomon note, that academic scholarship typically dismisses unfinished films, this has historically been even more the case in the realm of film exhibition. The success of the Løkkeberg event notwithstanding, curators may have better reasons than scholars do for neglecting the unfinished: the absence of a completed work poses real questions about how—or if—it is possible to present the material to the public in a satisfactory way. Unlike the gallery, where contextualizing materials can be displayed alongside historical artefacts for a viewer free to roam, in the cinema the act of sitting through a movie remains unavoidably primary and emphatically durational. You really have to watch the thing—the whole thing.

Here we come to a dark cloud gathering over the pursuit of the deepest of deep cuts: films with fascinating backstories that don’t quite hold up in a screening pose a problem, be they finished or unfinished. This year, a curator friend and I started to wonder, only half-jokingly, if we have reached “peak archive,” a state in which obscurity is sometimes valued for its own sake, with the curatorial desire for rarity outweighing the intrinsic interest of the material. It would be easy to say that this entails a rejection of the obsession with novelty that governs the new release calendar and the regime of festival premieres, but in fact novelty prevails here too as an abiding principle, since the logic of “discovery,” with all its problems, is generally close at hand.

Of course, the mention of a peak suggests that decline is imminent. Will the archive fever break and fatigue set in? Perhaps. But I doubt the obsession with esoterica is going anywhere, and nor do I want it to. It may well be that certain programming strategies will show themselves to be increasingly threadbare. Yet the resources of film heritage are far from being exhausted, and, as the present changes, so too will what is of interest in the past. The Telegraph called the repertory boom “unlikely,” but it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. It has been underway for some time now, motivated by many of the same forces that Hal Foster identified already in 2004 as fueling an “archival impulse” in contemporary art: “a will to connect,” “a desire to turn belatedness into becomingness” and thereby revive utopian possibilities. Peak archive is inextricable from very necessary efforts to rethink film canons and destabilize notions of centre and periphery. It could also be part of a reckoning with the fact that, no matter how many incredible films continue to be made, cinema is now an irrevocably old medium. Rather than denying this, why not celebrate its rich and expansive histories, especially those that have been tragically underappreciated?

Less optimistically, it might also be that melancholic retrospection is a way of avoiding a bleak present. Notably, von Alemann and Sander felt no need to show historical films, even though this strategy was taken up by some other feminist film festivals at the time. There was too much vital contemporary production that needed to be shown and seen and discussed. Everything was ahead of them—to be built, made, argued about. Needless to say, this is not the dominant feeling today. However you parse it, this phenomenon is one that stands with and against our contemporary moment. It both depends on the digital and contests the glut of content to which the digital has given us access. It is easier than ever (which is not to say easy) to preview and program cinematic arcana; it is easier than ever to feel overwhelmed by hyperavailable sameness, bored by the small screen, and propelled towards something unique. The fever continues to burn. What visions are still to emerge from this delirium? Balsom Erika