Women's interest in found footage and compilation has been extraordinarily intense from the very beginning.1 Even the origins of this peculiar mode of film production are tied to a woman's name, that of Esfir Shub, the great director of Soviet cinema who was the first to create an essayistic feature by putting together pieces of archival footage.2 Her seminal film of 1927, Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty), depicts the collapse of the Tsarist empire from the February Revolution to the October Revolution of 1917 purely by means of a montage of preexisting footage. Followed by a handful of other films she made with the same method in subsequent years, this first experimentation in compilation film was an opportunity for Shub to demonstrate the creative power of montage, showing how even the most resistant, unyielding materials can generate an entirely new meaning from the way they are combined—as for example in the case of the numerous shots taken by the camerapeople of the Tsarist film industry, which were transformed through her editing into incontrovertible proof of the necessity of the Revolution. In a way, then, Shub's work can be considered the most advanced result of all the philosophy of the Soviet avant-garde, for her films test Lev Kuleshov's intuition about the signifying power of montage by reworking preconstituted materials that had been originally produced to respond to a completely different, and sometimes even opposite, ideological project.3
Many more women after Shub have adopted compilation as their privileged approach to film production and experimentation. Once a marginal form even in the documentary field, found footage cinema is now enjoying an extremely vital phase, fostered by both the exponential growth of the audiovisual archive and the improvement of digital editing technologies that have made film images all the more usable. Up to the 1950s and through the appearance of new avant-garde movements at the end of that decade, the history of found footage cinema consists of very few names and a similarly small number of film titles. And yet, even in the first half of the twentieth century women are a notable presence in the field, not only for their sheer numbers, but also by virtue of the quality and originality of their work. In this context we need to cite at least the name of Germaine Dulac, whose archival film of 1935 anticipates many typical concerns of the contemporary debate about the historicity of the film image. Le cinéma au service de l'histoire (Cinema at the Service of History) was assembled by Dulac during a period of intensive archival research at Gaumont, where she had been employed until the previous year as coeditor of the company's newsreel, France Actualités. Her monumental film is constructed from fragments taken from Gaumont newsreels from 1905 to 1935, and presents itself as a recollection, as well as a critical assessment, of the historical experiences made by a generation, her own, that was equal in age with the cinema: the generation born during the Belle Epoque, educated in the myth of progress, and doomed to witness its ruinous dissolution in the disaster of World War I, only to find itself confronted with the advent of dictatorships and totalitarianism. Made in the political-cultural context of the Popular Front (the film was made to be screened on the occasion of the opening of an independent “all-newsreel” film venue), Cinema at the Service of History reveals a thorough confidence in the testimonial power of cinema.4 It is at once a requiem about the atrocities of war and its moral, social, political, and economic consequences, and a warning to the present about repeating the mistakes of the past.
Alongside Shub and Dulac, the third female master of found footage cinema before the 1960s is no doubt Nicole Vedrès. Her innovative work on Paris 1900 (1947) combined a “classical” approach to compilation film, based on exclusive use of documentary sources, and a more definitely modern approach, which regards the products of narrative cinema as no less legitimate sources of historical knowledge than documentary materials. Vedrès's work anticipates by several decades the awareness, typical of the debate on film and history of the early 1980s, that every film, whether narrative or documentary, bears a number of specifically historical traits—or, rather, what Vedrès characterizes as a specific form of historical truth that expresses itself in a visual quality on the order of photogénie.5
This early phase of the history of found footage cinema, where three women play a primary role, draws to a close at the end of the 1950s. A more critical, irreverent, and playful attitude toward archival images, and a tendency to employ the past to produce an allegory of the present, and often quite a complex one, appears in the work of diverse experimental filmmakers, including Isidore Isou, Stan VanDerBeek, Bruce Conner, and Guy Debord. Again, several women participate as well in this new moment that marks the evolution of found footage film as a major form of experimental cinema, often referred to as collage film. Though the women's names are more obscure today than the filmmakers we have just cited, their position in this shift is far from secondary in terms of their critical awareness and their innovations.
Already in 1959, Jane Conger Belson Shimané's Odds and Ends offered a precocious example of a collage film that mixes outtakes of travelogues with abstract animation, both painted on the filmstrip and created with paper cutouts. Since then, the ranks of women involved in the deconstruction of the codes of contemporary culture—and often particularly of its sexist stereotypes—through the reworking of preexisting footage has not stopped growing. Filmmakers such as Anita Thacher, Chick Strand, Dara Birnbaum, Peggy Ahwesh, Michelle Citron, Abigail Child, Hito Steyerl, Angela Ricci Lucchi, Leslie Thornton, Su Friedrich, Eve Heller, Vivian Ostrovsky, Nina Fonoroff, Sabine Hiebler, and Frédérique Devaux, or, among the younger ones, Lana Lin, Naomi Uman, Deborah Stratman, Caroline Avery, Cheryl Dunye, Cathy Joritz, Barbara Meter, Louise Bourque, Magda Matwiejew, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Rebecca Baron, Meike Fehre, Meryll Hardt, and Lisa Reboulleau—and those whose work is analyzed in this issue of Feminist Media Histories: Myriam Borsoutsky, Cecilia Mangini, Cécile Fontaine, Barbara Hammer, Valentina Monti, and Alina Marazzi—make us tempted to describe found footage cinema as a field where gender parity is close to being finally attained.
Yet we want to resist explaining away such a proliferation of female auteurs who choose a most difficult manner of expressing their own imagination and thought—through images created by others in different places and times—with some sort of specific or “essential” female inclination toward montage, maybe even by invoking its similarity to the tailoring operations of cutting and sewing. Such essentialist comparisons can certainly be suggestive, but they hardly help us understand the reality of women's experience in the sphere of filmmaking. Even less could we endorse a thesis that would interpret women's bent for compilation films as an ability to excel exclusively in contexts characterized by a minimum creative coefficient. On the contrary, the innovative content of cases such as those we briefly recall above should demonstrate the opposite—that is, women's extraordinary creative capacity, evidenced by their ability to extract the maximum coefficient of originality from seemingly inert materials.
But this would be a simplification, too, a sterile generalization based on a purely reactive attitude. A more interesting approach begins when one considers the apparent affinity between women and the practice of found footage, on the one hand, and on the other the material conditions of film production—more precisely, the difference that exists between the labor involved in editing and researching and that involved in shooting, especially in commercial cinema. All available data show that commercial cinema, which, as everyone knows, is basically a narrative and fictional type of cinema, is a field where only a few women succeed in reaching and holding directorial roles. We are then prompted to ask whether the specific difference that is responsible for found footage cinema being such a favorable field for women's initiative should not be sought at the level of what we mean by “film directing” in the first place.
Cameraless cinema does not imply “directing” in the common sense of the word. Women working in found footage do not direct actors and technicians on a film set; they do not preside over complex organizational machines from the apex of the film set's hierarchical system. If they work in a group, they do so by choosing a few close collaborators, often other women. Their work more closely resembles conducting a research project, including immersive sessions in archives and philological interrogations about the materials, than directing a film set. This amounts to saying that women, in the absence of directorial opportunities within the frame of institutional cinema, may have elected the practice of found footage as a way to build an autonomous space of creativity that allows them to transform limitations into a stylistic peculiarity.6
The subtitle of this issue, “Women Without a Movie Camera,” alludes in a clearly provocative way to the objective condition of limitation that women experience in their attempts to access professional opportunities for directing in the mainstream film industry, a situation that, in our interpretive hypothesis, can explain better than any tailoring metaphor the remarkable intensity of female creativity in found footage cinema.7 More than a yen for reusing archives, the breadth of female presence in the history of films derived from found footage proves women's tenacious will to make cinema at all costs, even if it means inventing their own modes of independent production under conditions of limitation and lack of means. Clear evidence of this is that even when they leave the particular sphere of found footage and take up the camera, these filmmakers usually keep working beyond the borders of mainstream narrative cinema, that is, in the fields of documentary, experimental, or animated cinema.
Put another way, if an affinity between women and found footage cinema exists, most likely it is not because the process resembles “cutting and sewing,” but because cameraless cinema appears as a utopian mode of production that can be practiced in perfect autonomy, or together with a small group of trusted collaborators, in which a lack of means can be countervailed with patience and flair. It is a cinema that, as in the case of Cécile Fontaine, can even be executed at home at the kitchen sink.
The remarkable number of women filmmakers who are or were active in found footage cinema could then be taken as confirmation of the famous hypothesis advanced by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own (1929), that we would now have many more female names in the history books if women had had their own rooms where they could work in peace, away from the stereotypes and performative codes of patriarchal culture. The separateness and seclusion of the editing room are more than just metaphors for Woolf's idea of the room of one's own as a space of autonomy and expressive freedom.
The field at stake is obviously much larger than is possible to analyze within the limits of the present publication. Unable to cover the entire, rich spectrum of women's contributions to the history of found footage cinema, we chose a series of studies on a few individual figures who represent various different approaches.8
The issue opens with a selection of articles by Esfir Shub, as yet unpublished in English, introduced and edited by Liubov Dyshlyuk. The publication of these materials drawn from Shub's autobiographical book Zhizn' moya – kinematograf (Cinema Is My Life, 1972) is a deserved homage to a figure who is regularly presented as the most influential pioneer of compilation film, but whose poetic reflections are almost completely unknown in the Western world. Dating back to the time of the making of The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), Shub's writings in this issue document her extraordinary awareness in tackling the task of assembling in a coherent montage a host of such heterogeneous materials as old newsreels, home movies, and institutional documentaries. In their rigorous as well as impassioned tone, which continuously emphasizes the political valences of filmmaking, these articles confirm the fundamental position that Shub occupies not only in the practice of, but also in reflections about, the practice of compilation cinema.
Monica Dall'Asta's essay on Myriam Borsoutsky and Nicole Vedrès focuses on two French figures who are almost completely forgotten today. In the virtually perfect obscurity of Borsoutsky (better known as Myriam)—who was Sacha Guitry's editor during the 1930s, before collaborating with Vedrès on Paris 1900 and codirecting La Course de taureaux (Bullfight, 1951) alongside Pierre Braunberger—Dall'Asta finds a clue to retracing a possible female genealogy of French found footage cinema. The rediscovery, or rather the discovery, of Myriam, whose skills in editing were so outstanding as to be called “diabolical” by André Bazin, discloses a whole cultural scene that includes as many different figures as Braunberger, Henri Langlois, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Jacques Brunius, Denise Tual, Victoria Mercanton, and Yannick Bellon. Paradoxically, Myriam's obscurity becomes the crucial element that illuminates a gray area in film history, beginning with Vedrès's groundbreaking work.
Better known for the documentaries she shot—which register, with the precision of an anthropologist's eye, the transformations of Italian society between the 1960s and the 1970s—Cecilia Mangini also belongs to the crowd of forgotten women filmmakers. Her films based on the technique of assemblage are examined in deep detail in Dalila Missero's essay. Mangini's work in the archives began with the making of All'armi siam fascisti! (To Arms! We're Fascists!, 1961–62), the film she made with her husband, Lino Del Fra, and the socialist film critic Lino Micciché, and continued with Stalin (1962–63), codirected with Lino Del Fra and the great Marxist poet Franco Fortini. As with Dulac's and Vedrès's earlier works, To Arms! We're Fascists! offers a critical reading of the historical experience of the authors' generation, born under the Fascist regime and subjected to the destructive fascinations of its ideology. To find the documentary materials for both this film and Stalin (issued in 1963 in a version reedited by the producer and disavowed by the authors), Mangini conducted research in several archives around the world, facing huge difficulties. Her interest in the meaning effects attainable through the recombination of stock footage is further documented by an intense sequence in her film of women's emancipation, Essere donne (Being Women, 1963–65), of which Missero proposes an extremely accurate analysis.
Barbara Hammer's first feature, Nitrate Kisses (1992), is examined by Alessandra Chiarini as an example of a film based on the construction of a complex relationship between stock footage and original shots. In conceiving of her cinema as a means for the expression of “feeling-images,” that is, “inseparable unity of emotion and thought/idea/image and internal bodily states of excitement,” Hammer is in search of an alternative style to the linear narration of mainstream cinema.9 In the movement of thoughts and emotions that spring from the flow of images in the film, Chiarini sees a method of assemblage that is reminiscent of Maya Deren's theorizations about “vertical cinema.” In Nitrate Kisses this method is adopted to stage a queer history of the twentieth century inspired by Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault. Found footage and original shots are combined in counterpoint to offer a critical reflection about history that calls into question the causal and chronological linearity of official historiography, thus revealing unforeseen connections between past and present, individual and collective.
A very different case is presented in Lucia Tralli's essay on Cécile Fontaine. A French filmmaker who is very representative of what Nicole Brenez has called a “material” approach to found footage, Fontaine performs the appropriation of preexisting images by way of physical interventions on the film strip, adopting a variety of techniques that include scratching, imbibition in chemical solutions, collage, and décollage of parts or layers of the film emulsion. Tralli concentrates her analysis on the relationship between the technical procedures, stylistic choices, and semantic and symbolic meanings that characterize Fontaine's works. From the abstractionist mode of La fissure (1984) to the figurative construction of The Last Lost Shot (1999), Fontaine's works are cinematographic artifacts where a fascination with the physical components of the film strip is progressively joined with an increasing attention to the historical-cultural content of the images. Among the most original aspects of the work, Tralli highlights the reuse of Super 8 footage belonging to Fontaine's private collection: the filmed letters that her father used to send her from Indochina when she was a child. In Histoires parallèles (Parallel Histories, 1990) these materials undergo a complex re-elaboration whose final and quite surprising result is the disclosure of the hidden contradictions of postcolonialism.
The reuse of amateur film archives to create new films is the subject of Paolo Simoni's essay. More particularly the article deals with the complex creative and productive process behind the making of Circle (2016), a film constructed from fragments from the private collection of the Togni family, an Italian circus dynasty. Made by Valentina Monti with Ilaria Fraioli at the editing station, Circle is just the latest step in a multifarious project that has additionally produced an installation, a multimedia catalogue, and a collective film, Circo Togni Home Movies (2006). Dating mainly from the 1940s, the images revive, as suggestive echoes of a lost era, the charismatic presences of Darix, Wioris, and Livio Togni, and document the activities of the family between private life and public performances. Simoni is careful to describe the work of Monti and Fraioli as a dialogue across time with the gazes behind the images, which belong to the women of the Togni family—Fiorenza Colombo, Liliana Casartelli, and Christiane Bottinelli—emphasizing at the same time the rigorous approach, ethical no less than formal, with which today's women appropriate images of yesterday's women to compose a truly “acrobatic” montage of apparently incompatible elements.
Finally, in the conversation with Ilaria Fraioli and Alina Marazzi that ends the issue, these two protagonists of contemporary found footage cinema discuss their experiences and their creative and professional relationship. Prompted by questions posed by four film scholars—Monica Dall'Asta, Barbara Grespi, Sandra Lischi, and Veronica Pravadelli—the filmmakers demonstrate a profound awareness in their approach to the practice of cameraless cinema. Marazzi, who is the author of wonderful films deeply rooted in the political culture of Italian feminism, has been regularly working with Fraioli since the early 2000s. Beginning with Marazzi's first feature, Un'ora sola ti vorrei (For One More Hour with You, 2002), their collaboration has yielded projects of exceptional interest and complexity. Especially impressive is the case of For One More Hour with You, which narrates the tragic story of Marazzi's mother, who committed suicide only a few years after Marazzi's birth, by combining materials from her family archive: Super 8 home movies shot by her grandfather and recovered after a long time from an old trunk, her mother's letters and diaries, photographs, and vinyl records from the 1960s. Most of the conversation centers on Vogliamo anche le rose (We Want Roses Too, 2007), a visual history of women's emancipation in Italy that, among a host of different materials, includes fragments from films shot by the feminist filmmaker Adriana Monti during the 1970s. Invited to reflect on complex issues such as the ethics of recycling preexisting images, the reuse of archival footage as a strategy of historiographical research, and the relationship between found footage filmmaking and women's cinema, Marazzi and Fraioli offer a series of very original readings, which highlight the centrality of montage in the expressive forms of women's cinema.
While inspired by the special creative bond that exists between Marazzi and Fraioli, the title of this contribution, “A Politics of Intimacy,” also alludes to the editing room as “a room of one's own,” a space where women, over the course of almost a century, have experimentally tested the productivity of Woolf's suggestion. The editing room as a site of separateness and autonomy is a space where women have learned to make of their intimacy a politics, thus gaining a margin of movement in the (objectively hostile) world of the film industry. If this is true, then we believe that found footage cinema should occupy an esteemed place in feminist film studies. We hope more new research will follow to uncover the work of not just the filmmakers, but also so many obscure editors still concealed behind the richness of these productions.