This essay offers a microhistory of the feminist film distributor Moonforce Media. Between 1975 and 1980, Moonforce Media built the National Women's Film Circuit, a lesbian feminist distribution system that circulated preconstituted packages of multigeneric feminist films through as wide a nontheatrical feminist U.S. market as possible. Drawing on the organization's records and ephemera, now located in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, and oral histories with its founders, this analysis of the development of Moonforce Media—its distribution policies, programming choices, and exhibition strategies—and audiences' reception of the National Women's Film Circuit provides insight into how feminist media workers strove to change society through the ongoing learning process of relating to one another and to their audiences. It also offers an opportunity to return to the emergence of cultural feminism and to rethink the economic and affective labor of lesbian feminist organizations and lesbian feminist cinema in particular. Often thought to have redirected second-wave efforts away from radical feminism's earlier revolutionary challenges of systemic sexism and toward the more retreatist and capitalist creation of a female counterculture, here cultural/lesbian feminism does not delimit political possibility, but instead supports a range of political practices in its variegated conception of lesbian media and deployment of said media across geographies and ideologies. In its exhibition, lesbian feminist cinema brought together diverse audiences with a wide range of expectations and demands for its feminist films, and, in turn, these cinematic encounters constituted an affective archive of 1970s U.S. feminisms.
As feminists working collectively in film and video we see our media as an ongoing process both in terms of the way it is made and the way it's distributed and shown. We are committed to feminist control of that entire process. We do not accept the existing power structure and we are committed to changing it by the content and structure of our images and by the ways we relate to each other in our work and with our audience. Making and showing our work is an ongoing cyclical process, and we are responsible for changing and developing our approaches as we learn from this experience.
We see ourselves as part of the larger movement of women dedicated to changing society by struggling against oppression as it manifests itself in sexism, heterosexism, classism, racism, ageism, and imperialism. Questioning and deepening our understanding of words and how language itself can be oppressive is part of the ongoing struggle. Within this struggle we want to affirm and share the positive aspects of our experience as women in celebration. “an ongoing manifesto,” february 2, 19751
At the start of February 1975, Women Make Movies—a feminist film education, production, and distribution organization located in Chelsea in Manhattan—organized the two-day Conference of Feminist Film and Video Organizations.2 Representatives from over forty feminist media organizations from across the United States as well as from Canada and Australia participated in its workshops and screenings.3 At an afternoon workshop on the second day, twenty-two of these women signed the manifesto quoted above.4 Titled “An Ongoing Manifesto,” it was intended as a starting point, an initiation of the collective sharing of ideas among feminist media workers. At this time, Frances Reid and Cathy Zheutlin, two of its signatories, were organizing the Feminist Eye Conference at the Woman's Building in Los Angeles for late March, and after the New York conference they circulated the manifesto to registered Feminist Eye attendees with the declared hope that “the values and ideas expressed in this manifesto will be discussed, expanded, or further definitions will be made in the spirit of the ‘On-going’ nature of the manifesto.”5 The two conferences were initially organized independently, but upon discovering each other, they joined forces so as to reduce excess labor and “creat[e] a national feminist media network.”6 One project to emerge from these conferences, with the goal of continuing to build such a network, was Moonforce Media's National Women's Film Circuit (NWFC; 1975–80), a lesbian feminist distribution system that circulated preconstituted packages of multigeneric feminist films through as wide a nontheatrical feminist U.S. market as possible.
This essay offers a microhistory of this brief but ambitious and imaginative project. Drawing on the organization's records and related ephemera, now located in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, as well as oral histories I conducted with its founders, my analysis of the development of Moonforce Media out of these conferences—addressing its distribution policies, programming choices, exhibition strategies—and audiences' reception of the films' materialization as the NWFC provides insight into how feminist media workers put the tenets of the 1975 manifesto into practice and worked to change the existing power structure through the ongoing cyclical learning process of relating to one another and to their audiences. It also offers an opportunity to return to the emergence of cultural feminism in the mid-1970s and to rethink the economic and affective labor of lesbian feminist organizations and lesbian feminist cinema in particular. Moonforce Media was founded by the established lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB) and her partner, Mary Lee Farmer, a women's music distributor and the manager of the Washington, DC, women's bookstore and community center Lammas Books. As such, the media network Moonforce was helping to build was also part of the larger wellspring of lesbian feminist cultural organizations emerging across the United States and Canada at this time. Often thought to have redirected second-wave efforts away from radical feminism's earlier revolutionary challenges of systemic sexism and toward the more retreatist and capitalist creation of a white female counterculture,7 here lesbian/cultural feminism does not delimit political possibility, but instead supports a range of political practices in its variegated conception of lesbian media and deployment of said media across geographies and ideologies.
I return to this history of lesbian feminism in the United States and look to the case study of Moonforce Media's NWFC in order to make the argument that lesbian feminist cinema did a surprising number of things. Barbara Hammer and Jan Oxenberg's lesbian films may have been picked up for distribution and rented predominantly by other white lesbians, many of whom, much like the filmmakers, felt an urgent need for self-representation.8 However, in its exhibition, lesbian feminist cinema also brought together diverse audiences with a wide range of expectations and demands for its feminist films, and, in turn, these cinematic encounters constituted an affective archive of 1970s U.S. feminisms. As the NWFC traveled around the country, feminisms ventured forth as well. Onscreen, the California lesbians of Hammer and Oxenberg's films commingled with the subjects of the other feminist shorts that Moonforce programmed alongside them, including the two women serving twenty-five-year sentences in the Missouri State Correctional Center for Women in Tomato Productions' Like a Rose and the New England women's health advocates in Women Make Movies' Healthcaring: From Our End of the Speculum. In the women's centers, college auditoriums, and union halls where Moonforce Media's packages were screened, each of these filmic subjects came face to face, so to speak, with factory workers in Minnesota, southern dykes, and feminists of various sorts all over. Their meetings may have been brief, but the questionnaires Moonforce collected from local circuit producers suggest that the films had lasting effects on their audiences. I contend that the converse is true as well. Lesbian feminist cinema, and the histories of feminist, lesbian, and queer cinema in turn, cannot be understood without looking to the affective labor of lesbian films' earliest audiences. I start, however, with the very real labor that made this emotional and intellectual work possible.
Before Moonforce Media became Moonforce Media and implemented the NWFC, it was “Iris East,” the East Coast half of Iris Films (later the Iris Feminist Collective, Inc.). Founded at the 1975 New York and Los Angeles conferences, Iris was initially set up as a bicoastal lesbian feminist film distribution organization. At the Conference of Feminist Film and Video Organizations in New York City that February, Frances Reid and Cathy Zheutlin—both of whom had been working in film production for a few years and who had recently become friends when walking off the set of a misogynist Hollywood film director together9—met Joan E. Biren, who had been supporting herself as a freelance photographer, documenting the women's movement for the Washington Blade, Post, and Star as well as off our backs, Ms., and other feminist publications since her rather infamous 1972 expulsion from the living, working lesbian separatist collective The Furies.10 The three hit it off, and when they reunited less than two months later at the Feminist Eye Conference, Reid, Zheutlin, Biren, Reid's partner Liz Stevens, and Biren's partner Mary Lee Farmer formed Iris Films. While Reid and Zheutlin brought experience working in film to the group, Biren and Farmer contributed extensive organizing experience, and both had a number of contacts within the women's movement that would prove useful in distributing feminist films, Biren as a photographer and Farmer as a women's music distributor and women's bookstore manager.11 By collaborating, the five put the “Ongoing Manifesto” into practice and envisioned changing the content, structure, and producer-audience relations of cinema.
Developing how they “relate to each other in [their] work,” however, was also part of the task outlined by the manifesto. For Iris, there were particular challenges in this regard, and they got creative in their attempts to overcome them. Reid, Stevens, and Zheutlin lived in LA and Biren and Farmer in DC, which meant that the five conducted most of their business through correspondence. Long-distance phone calls were expensive and letters limiting, so the group soon began to supplement these more traditional forms of communication with audiotapes that they mailed back and forth with their letters. These allowed them to communicate more thoroughly. They also provided a more personal way to get to know one another as they developed their collective. On the tapes, the group gossiped about relationships, family, pets, and local women's movement politics, wished one another well when one was feeling sick, and sang one another “Happy Birthday.” On the few occasions when they were able to meet in person, they also taped their discussions. The tape the group made at the Feminist Eye Conference records them brainstorming12 about what women could use most in terms of a new film organization and how such a bicoastal endeavor would work. Reid and Zheutlin were interested in returning to production and had ideas of films to make with Iris, including a women's music film with Olivia Records and a documentary about lesbian mothers, who, like Stevens, were currently facing unprecedented challenges in custody battles. However, they all eventually agreed that a strong, national, and explicitly lesbian distribution effort was of most immediate importance. Together the five came up with the idea of the NWFC as a way to get feminist films to interested audiences.
Before they could get films out to women's communities across the United States, however, Iris wanted to get a clearer sense of all the women's films that they might distribute. They knew that many women's films were hiding away in drawers, never having been seen by anyone other than the filmmaker's friends or perhaps those in a class she may have made the film for.13 Iris therefore decided to produce a festival at the end of August 1975 in DC where they might screen as many of these films as possible and select which to send out on the circuit afterward. In May 1975, they put out a call for films, describing the need for feminist film distribution thus: “Film communicating women's ideas and feelings are being made, but, unfortunately, not enough people are seeing them. While the need to define and expand women's culture is greater every day, commercial distributors either reject or neglect films made by women that express the realities of our lives and visions.”14 Iris advertised that in addition to organizing this festival, they would be selecting from the festival's submissions the films that they then would distribute as part of a nationwide series of film screenings called the National Women's Film Circuit. They promised to try to program all submitted films. The only restrictions to submissions were that they be on 16mm film and not be sexist, classist, or racist.15
Although they had to wait until after the festival to put together the various packages for distribution along the circuit, Iris wanted the turnaround time to be quick and thus began reaching out to possible producers in various cities across the country and planning routes and schedules for the films' circulation that fall. This took a lot of coordination between Iris West and Iris East, as the two halves of the collective split the responsibilities and shared their work via postal service. They tried to figure out the finances for the operation: budgets for shipping prints, paying projectionists and renting spaces and projectors in the various cities, admission costs, and how to split the filmmakers' pay. At this point, Iris had yet to incorporate as a nonprofit or receive any grants, and they were financing the operation completely by themselves. For this reason, one pair of their tapes was dedicated to each coast's detailing of their personal finances so that they might all gain a clearer sense of how much they had to work with and how much they would need to fundraise.16 These tapes also gave them the opportunity to acknowledge that there were class differences within the collective, which meant varying means in terms of contributing both money and time. Tensions often ran high in these tapes, and these only escalated as the group came to realize that they did not share the same attitudes toward many of their decisions (for example, East advocated for as wide a circuit as possible, while West thought it perhaps best to begin in cities closer to their two home bases in case of emergencies) and that they took varying approaches to their discussion through audiotape. East processed their thoughts on the business matters at hand and then recorded their conclusions, while West used the tapes to process their thinking, which made for much less organized and longer-winded tapes—a difference that reflected East and West Coast feminist attitudes, but also was partially due to the fact that West was made up of a couple and an individual, who arguably had to exert more time and effort in such processing.17
These differences and disagreements also led to the expression of bigger concerns, such as whether East trusted West with their half of the responsibilities and the uneven division of labor due to the festival being held in DC. Among other things, Biren and Farmer worked with friends who were law students at Georgetown to find an auditorium for the festival. They were also prescreening hundreds of festival submissions whenever they could, sometimes with friends or their softball team, in Biren's living room.18 At one point, Reid and Stevens entertained the idea of not attending the festival at all, for financial and personal reasons—the two would be sacrificing their vacation time as a couple, and flying across the country was more expensive than the camping trip they had been planning. Throughout these discussions, each of the Irises (as they had come to call themselves) tried to speak as individuals in order to be as specific as possible and responsible to one another as equals. However, disagreements— often between the two couples, with Zheutlin awkwardly in the middle—kept arising.19 Ultimately, however, they did come to a number of important agreements about the NWFC, including that the pricing of tickets probably should vary from town to town and that this and other decisions—such as whether screenings should be mixed or “for women only”—ought to be left to each individual producer, who would know her town, its women, and their expectations for such events and means to pay for them better than Iris in LA and DC could.
THE WASHINGTON, DC, FESTIVAL OF THE NATIONAL WOMEN'S FILM CIRCUIT, THE DISSOLUTION OF IRIS EAST, AND THE FORMATION OF MOONFORCE MEDIA
The DC Festival ran from August 22 to 26, 1975, with two to four programs a day that together screened approximately one hundred films by more than seventy women (figure 1).20 All had been made over the preceding six years across the United States, England, Canada, and Australia, and many were premiering for the first time anywhere.21 Every screening was different, and no film was shown twice. An audience discussion of the films followed each screening, and surveys on each of the films were collected. At the top of the festival schedule (figure 2), a header read, “These films were made by women. They examine the world we all live in. They analyze the situation of women in this world. They imagine a different world and inspire us with their vision. These films are part of a process of changing the world. The process continues as you use the films.”22
This dual function of critique and imagination is what reviewers picked up on in their analyses of the films. In her review for the DC underground paper Grass Roots, Beth Stone writes, “In today's culture, where we are constantly assaulted and insulted by negative images of women peddled by the commercial media, the better films of the festival served as an affirmation for women who are seeking strong role models and new images as individuals.”23 Among the six films she profiles are four that would end up in circuit packages: Kathleen Shannon's Would I Ever Like to Work (1974), a short about a mother on welfare; Cambridge Documentary Films' Taking Our Bodies Back: The Women's Health Movement (1974), which critiques for-profit medicine's devastating effects on women's health; Tomato Productions' Like a Rose (1975), a documentary about two women serving twenty-five-year sentences in the Missouri State Correctional Center for Women; and Donna Deitch's Woman to Woman (1975), which Stone likes for its “free-flowing raps,” which “glide between hookers, housewives, mothers and friends.”24 Meanwhile, in her review for the women's art and culture journal Sibyl-Child, Pat Dowell seems to predict the Circuit popularity of Oxenberg and Hammer's films, claiming they offer festival audiences a “new dispensation” in women's art for “women moving confidently and joyfully into a new culture.”25 While Dowell contrasts this to an “old dispensation” that examines women's oppression, indicating a progression that she wishes for women's cinema, she considers the programming of both kinds of films together—which the NWFC would continue to do—to be a strong point of their exhibition.26
These same reviews also picked up on the festival's emphasis on process. Stone writes, “Much of the festival's excitement came from audience participation,” elaborating that the “discussion forums enhanced our experiences by allowing us to share our responses to the visual messages.”27 Stone also notes that these discussions were tape-recorded, and her speculation that they would become both part of the historical record and part of the process of sparking new ideas in the development of the movement is interesting, as it demonstrates both the historical nature of the event, as perceived in the moment, and the future-oriented thinking that such programming generated. Dowell's review echoes these sentiments. Having attended every screening, she describes the festival as “occasionally grueling, with scarcely time to stand up between programs without missing something.” She continues, “I felt like I was settled in for a long campaign, and it was worth it, not only for the films I saw but for the experience of the festival itself, which was organized along principles different from those I have come to expect in film events.”28 She, too, makes note of the surveys and the discussions, and though she found the discussions to be cramped for time, she writes that they were nonetheless “quite stimulating, providing an energetic exchange of ideas.”29 Dowell commends Biren and Farmer for providing time at the end of the festival for self-critique, writing, “Their responsive attitude toward the audience was precisely what made this festival special beyond the films themselves,” and she adds that the audiences' participation in discussions of the films and the festival “indicated that an audience will respond just as intelligently as they are treated.”30 She concludes her review by predicting that what the NWFC will offer feminist audiences, as indicated by this initial festival, is “real participation,” a right denied to audiences by commercial film exhibition and even most expert-run university and museum exhibition.31
After the DC festival in August 1975, Iris Films split into two independent organizations. Negotiating decision-making between LA and DC had become too complicated, and their method of mailing the cassettes of their meetings back and forth, although innovative, caused delays. At the festival, the two coasts learned that they had a difficult time making decisions even in person, and they came to the conclusion that their recurring disagreements about how to run the company were irresolvable.32 Reid, Stevens, and Zheutlin's organization retained the name Iris and went on to distribute women's films as well as to produce their own documentary about lesbian mothers, In the Best Interests of the Children (1977). In addition to their own films and those of Barbara Hammer and Jan Oxenberg, Iris distributed Joint Productions' We're Alive (1975), “a production of solidarity and love” made over the course of an eight-month weekly video workshop at the California Institute for Women; the Santa Cruz Women's Media Collective's Wishfulfilming (1973), a black-and-white “docu-drama about a women's film collective making a movie [that] explores new ideas about non-hierarchal work, and visions of a society based on needs, not profit”; Lois Tupper's dramatic short about female adolescence, Our Little Munchkin Here (1975); and Linda Klosky's animated short about deforestation, And Then There Were (1973).33 Biren and Farmer in DC, meanwhile, quickly incorporated as the nonprofit Moonforce Media and continued the work of the NWFC. Immediately following the split, Reid, Stevens, and Zheutlin briefly entertained running a separate California circuit, feeling responsible to the West Coast producers they had worked with in preparation for the NWFC,34 but they soon decided against it and cordially facilitated introductions between Moonforce Media and West Coast producers. Zheutlin produced the circuit whenever it came to LA, but otherwise, beginning on September 1, 1975, the two organizations developed independently.
MOONFORCE MEDIA AND THE NATIONAL WOMEN'S FILM CIRCUIT
Like Iris and other U.S. feminist film distributors in the 1970s—namely, Women Make Movies in New York City and the Women's Film Co-op in Northampton, Massachusetts—Moonforce Media held nonexclusive contracts with their filmmakers, meaning that Moonforce was but one company to distribute these films. Unsurprisingly, a number of the films that Reid, Stevens, and Zheutlin selected for Iris came from those they had screened with Biren and Farmer at the festival, and Iris's initial distribution offerings overlapped with those of Moonforce Media. Moonforce also included the Women Make Movies productions Livia Makes Some Changes (1974) and Healthcaring: From Our End of the Speculum (1976) in two different packages. Unlike these other feminist film distributors, however, Moonforce Media did not rent out individual films. Instead, they curated packages of five or six short films, representing the range of recent feminist filmmaking, and collaborated with local “producers” in the exhibition of their town's NWFC screenings. As a result, in addition to more popular titles available through Iris, Women Make Movies, and/or the Women's Film Co-op, Moonforce rented out, in its packages, a number of films that were either unavailable to rent, such as Sharon Madden's Friends (1976); could only otherwise be rented directly from their filmmakers, such as Deitch's Woman to Woman; or had to be rented from a foreign institution, such as Shannon's Would I Ever Like to Work, which was coproduced by the National Film Board of Canada.
As had been their plan with Iris, Biren and Farmer reached out to their women's movement contacts across the country, and as a result the NWFC traveled to approximately fifty different locations, including big cities and small towns in every geographical region from the South to the Pacific Northwest.35 NWFC screenings were produced by cinema clubs, women's community centers, lesbian task forces, unions, women's studies departments and student associations, the National Organization for Women, women's bookstores, production companies, music stores, and restaurants.36 Nontheatrical exhibition was typical of much women's movement media at this time.37 However, the number and range of local producers with which Moonforce Media partnered was extraordinary and possible only due to their unique method of combining distribution, programming, and exhibition support. Their packages, as small collections of women's recent work, provided greater access to feminist media to those outside of metropolitan hubs and nonmedia workers, as they made it easier for women's groups to program entire evenings of women's films. While Reid and Zheutlin had been trained by working in film production and expressed reservations about women with little experience exhibiting NWFC packages,38 Biren and Farmer, as recently self-taught media workers themselves, were more confident in women's abilities to learn on the spot, and with each package they included detailed instructions about how to organize and run a film screening for those local producers doing it for the first time. As a result, women across the United States were able to access films made by other women while also gaining media skills of their own.
Moonforce remained committed, as did Iris, to serving women's communities as an explicitly lesbian feminist organization.39 However, what their lesbian feminist programming would include and how they would facilitate its audiences' engagement with it were far from predictable. Biren and Farmer marketed the circuit to all feminist groups, left decisions about whether audiences would be women-only to the local producers, and programmed lesbian films alongside films with other subjects. In doing so, both the original NWFC and the records and ephemera in its archive today demonstrate how the circuit's meaning emerged, as Ann Cvetkovich writes in the context of lesbian popular culture archives, “from the queer sensibility of its collector.”40 While the call for the August 1975 festival had welcomed all films made by women as long as they were not sexist, classist, or racist, the films selected for packages were feminist in a more specific sense. Each selected film was not only made by women, but also, as Biren told an interviewer in 1978, included a “critique of the society that we're living in now” as well as “a vision of how that might change in such a way to make that society better for us all to live in.”41 Biren elaborates that this did not necessarily mean that the films had to be documentaries, but they did have to somehow practice this dual critique/vision within the parameters of their filmmaking. In fact, all the NWFC packages included fiction films and documentaries, and a couple even included animation. All the packages also covered a variety of women's issues, from healthcare to imprisonment to sexuality. With this purposeful but also permeable selection of feminist films, Moonforce Media sought to reach as many women as possible and empower them as localized, politicized subjects who might or might not be lesbians, wives, mothers, daughters, healthcare patients, workers, prison abolitionists, and/or antiracist protesters as well as feminists and film viewers. By naming such collections of films and their programming “lesbian,” Moonforce offered its audiences a “lesbian” that was not only not separatist, but also explicitly intersectional. Within this framework, Moonforce highlighted women's sexuality as a topic of discussion for feminist film audiences—an apt choice considering feminist film theory, which was burgeoning simultaneously, would centralize questions of sexual desire and cinematic pleasure but do so with substantial heterosexual and male-oriented blinders on.42
Immediately after the August festival, Biren and Farmer put together the first two NWFC packages from films that had played well at the festival.43 Over the course of the festival weekend, they had collected approximately one thousand surveys, which they used to make their selections for the NWFC packages, balancing the festival's most popular titles with others that also had fared well, which they thought would pair nicely in terms of subject matters, genres, and lengths. The fliers for the circuit announced that the films were drawn “from over 100 festival entries—the best in feminist filmmaking today” or declared them “6 of the nation's best feminist films” (figure 3).44 Such promotional strategies were intended to solicit audiences and get people in seats (whether those were actual theater or classroom seats or lesbian diner booths and bookstore couches); however, making more money than actually was needed to run the circuit itself was never the goal. Moonforce Media was not a lucrative endeavor, nor did they especially try to be. They did not rent out their films for a fee. Whoever wanted to produce a NWFC screening could do so. Moonforce simply asked producers to charge minimal admission fees (however much seemed fit for their town) to cover the costs of screenings (shipping fees, projector, screen, and/or space rental). Producers could keep 10 percent of the gross receipts from ticket sales as compensation after these costs had been covered. Not every screening made a profit, but 40 percent of whatever profits Moonforce did make went back to the filmmakers, and the rest they used to maintain the operation. They never paid themselves a salary,45 and the organization's largest annual income was in 1976, when they made just over $3,300.46 These small profits allowed them to curate two more packages in the spring of 1978 after another survey screening of seventy new films in Washington, DC.47 The new packages traveled to both prior circuit destinations and new destinations, and the first two packages continued to circulate to new destinations as well.
Each package included not only its five or six films and instructions for running a film screening, but also a set of discussion questions about each film and a questionnaire for the producer to fill out about the audiences' responses. Of the Women's Film Project's Emerging Women (1974), a documentary about the history of the women's movement, Moonforce Media suggested asking, “What lessons can be drawn from it as to the effectiveness of separatist vs. coalition politics and reformist vs. radical politics? What do you feel can be done to unite within one political movement women of different races and classes?”48 For Tomato Productions' Like a Rose, they prompted audiences to discuss what women outside of prison can do to help women on the inside. When it came to Barbara Hammer's Women I Love (1976), they asked viewers to compare and contrast their own daydreams about past lovers with those in the film and then to discuss how the filmmaker's style affected the tone and emotional quality of the film and whether such explicit representations of lesbian sexuality could help to dispel homophobic prejudices inside and outside the women's community.49 In these discussion guides, they provided a list of resources for those interested in learning more about lesbianism, domestic violence, women's health, and so forth. Moonforce Media, however, did not conceive of this work as a top-down endeavor. Contrary to Annette Kuhn's claim that 1970s independent film distribution served the primary function of helping political filmmakers direct their films toward specific audiences and delimit interpretations,50 Moonforce selected films with a wide range of critiques and visions, taught women how to run film screenings, and put together discussion guides precisely in order to encourage critical engagement with their programming.
AFFECTIVITY'S EPHEMERA: LABOR IN THE ARCHIVE OF MOONFORCE MEDIA'S QUESTIONNAIRES
In The Folklore of Consensus (1998), Marcia Landy demonstrates that the labor time invested in “the consumption of cultural narratives, images, and sounds,” including the reception of cinematic texts, is necessary for “the maintenance of social life under capitalism.”51 Affectivity, as this labor, fuses the spectator and the film she is watching, but the fusion is not total. Thus, through the sorting out of her simultaneous involvement and detachment, the spectator participates in the production of the film's social value.52 Moonforce's carefully tended lesbian programming, distribution, and exhibition of feminist films via the NWFC recognized that this participation in the commodity's production through consumption is significant for a feminist subculture resistant to but nonetheless working within a capitalist system. “‘Alternative distribution,’” Freude notes in a 1979 Camera Obscura article, “is a misnomer albeit a handy one.”53 She elaborates, “In a capitalist society fueled by advertising and packaging the most effective means of distribution are through established, accepted channels of merchandising. As a result, most distribution, whether done by a large commercial company or by a filmmaker self-distributing her/his own work, will employ similar methods.”54 After putting together these packages, complete with projection instructions and discussion guides, and “placing films before audiences” through their “mail-order business,” as Freude rather flatly puts it,55 Moonforce Media turned the labor over to NWFC audiences.
However, affectivity, as these audiences' labor, was labor of an entirely different sort than that of Biren and Farmer, which got the film packages before them. As Kara Keeling explains while elaborating on Landy, affectivity is a form of labor that “does not yet register in the economic sense as labor.”56 Instead, it is the labor integral to producing reality and, especially for subaltern or marginalized and oppressed groups, surviving that reality.57 While Moonforce—by gathering producer questionnaires and responding to recurring criticisms and requests in the programming of their later packages—could be seen as trying to “capitalize” on this labor in the most generic sense, I argue, following José Esteban Muñoz, that these questionnaires would better be understood as ephemeral evidence of what this lesbian feminist media did and the queer acts—whether epistemological or social—that it initiated.58 These questionnaires index the anecdotal, as local producers record their impressions of different audiences' responses to the films. The forms, usually handwritten often immediately after a screening, sometimes reflect the strong prejudices of the individual producer, but more often than not they relay fleeting moments of reception—audiences' discussions, reflections, and comments—afterward. As such, they can be seen as preserving affective value, as Cvetkovich describes gay and lesbian archives doing,59 in that they record emotional responses to the films. However, these same comments also offer “traces, glimmers, residues, and specks of things”60 as evidence of the affectivity, more along the lines of Landy and Keeling, taking place during and after variously situated collective engagements with these films. In doing as much, these questionnaires give us a sense of the work that lesbian feminist cinema (by which I mean not just Oxenberg and Hammer's films and their production, but also their distribution, exhibition, and reception) did within, across, and between certain 1970s feminist geographies.
In certain places, often in the South or rural areas, producers would use their questionnaires to highlight the importance of such media in sustaining local lesbian or women's communities. In these places, the existence of lesbian groups was tenuous and often dependent upon the ongoing organizing efforts of a few committed women. In October 1977 in New Orleans, for example, the package that included Deitch's Woman to Woman, Women Make Movies' Livia Makes Some Changes, Tupper's Our Little Munchkin Here, Oxenberg's Home Movie, Hammer's Menses, and Cambridge Documentary Films' Taking Our Bodies Back was programmed twice, once for a lesbian group and once at an arts center, gathering a total of only forty-eight viewers.61 Across her questionnaire, Casey, the local producer, makes a number of contrasts between the “dyke” and “liberal art center” audiences before making a case for the former's need for more film programming such as Moonforce's. Casey writes that the dyke audience was not amused by Livia Makes Some Changes (a docudrama about a stay-at-home mother returning to the workforce), while the liberal art center audience thought it was “cute.” The dykes found Menses “comic,” while the liberals were “horrified” by the blood. Both audiences, however, loved Home Movie, the dykes getting “really rowdy” during its screening and the liberals “chuckl[ing] heavily.” Casey concludes that, although the low attendance perhaps would be discouraging to Moonforce, she thinks it is important that the NWFC keep coming, and quickly, too, as “the dyke South needs to get films that are current, not 4 years later.”62 Mary, the producer from Athens, Georgia, similarly writes, “The women's community was very excited about the films and want to see another package!”63 She elaborates that, while having seventy people in attendance might not seem “worth it” to Moonforce, for the Athens women's community the circuit could prove vital in helping to sustain the growing local lesbian activity, which in the last few months had just expanded to include a regular meeting group and newsletter. In her questionnaire, the producer from Mama Peaches Restaurant in Chicago expresses similar sentiments, writing that the Chicago women's community was struggling to maintain coherence and that events such as the NWFC provided integral moments of strength.64
In many cases, however, the reception of the NWFC exceeded any coherent sense of a local community, as many hundreds of people showed up for its screenings, bringing a wide range of perspectives and debates to its discussions. In January 1976, 850 people in Minneapolis–St. Paul saw the Woman to Woman/Livia Makes Some Changes/Our Little Munchkin Here/Home Movie/Menses/Taking Our Bodies Back package over five screenings in the course of a weekend.65 Kathleen Laughlin, the local producer, notes in her questionnaire that the films drew rather mixed audiences, including fewer lesbians and more men then she had expected, as well as plenty of students and factory workers and increasingly racially diverse audiences each night, suggesting that word of mouth after the first couple of screenings had been responsible for bringing more people of color to the program.66 Laughlin makes a number of notes about the general reactions that each film garnered, as well as a few pointed audience critiques that stood out to her—such as one woman telling her afterward that she and her friends thought Taking Our Bodies Back was a downer for the program to end on, especially due to what they found to be its simplified takes on childbirth and abortion, which surprised Laughlin. She then exclaims, “But who can ever speak for a ‘whole audience's’ reaction?!”67 With the exception of a few particularly small audiences, such as those noted above, locations typically brought in between one and three hundred viewers across two or three screenings. On these forms, too, producers often reflect on the challenges of recording such audiences' responses (in Lexington, Kentucky, the audience is described as including everyone from “grandmothers to local leaping lesbians”).68 As a result, they often note where local interest seemed particularly acute. In St. Louis, for example, Sue Hyde mentions that much of the 161-person audience had first-hand experience with the Tipton, Missouri, prison of Like a Rose, which led to an engaged and productive discussion of the film.69
Across these questionnaires and their attendant geographies, however, a few common threads can be identified. Notably, although Moonforce included only one explicitly lesbian film in each package (Jan Oxenberg's Home Movie, Barbara Hammer's Dyketactics or Women I Love, or Christina Mohana's Ninja), it was these films that often provoked the strongest reactions, especially in mixed-gender audiences. A few producer questionnaires note that people walked out of screenings after these films were shown, and in a couple of places the packages were censored after local politicians learned of their lesbian content.70 Everywhere that it did show and for those audiences who did stay, however, Oxenberg's Home Movie—an autobiographical documentary about lesbian childhood and finding community in the women's movement in Los Angeles—appears to have been enthusiastically received (figures 4–7).71 Comments in producers' questionnaires suggest that many lesbians found Oxenberg's story of growing up gay with an otherwise “typical” (middle-class, American, white) childhood and teenage life relatable. Many audience members, lesbian and nonlesbian alike, seem to have found her tale of being a cheerleader in order to spend more time with other girls charming. A few found the conclusion, which cut together footage of a lesbian football game and that of a gay pride march to a Debra Quinn song about women's freedom, to be a hopeful indicator of what was to come. The producer in Makawao, Hawaii, writes of audiences' responses to Home Movie, “Many comments on seeing the usually macho, murderous game of football played lovingly. Everyone felt the glow from this one.”72 Meanwhile, the producer in Norman, Oklahoma, writes, “The Darling of them all! Never has slow motion football been so acclaimed—also, I think a few women got the message that lesbians are everywhere and it's OK.”73
The same questionnaires, however, suggest that Barbara Hammer's films, including Menses but more so Dyketactics and Women I Love, garnered the greatest debate and vitriol. A common theme in their circuit reception seems to have been discussion of what constitutes lesbianism and how it ought to be filmed. Although NWFC audiences constantly debated whether women's love or their sexual desire for one another ought to take precedence, oddly they did not come to a consensus on which of these Hammer's films offer. Some found Dyketactics, which Hammer and Moonforce advertised as a “lesbian commercial,”74 to be too pornographic, while others thought the sex was too clinical and not sexy enough (figures 8–9). Women I Love, a highly experimental film that cuts together footage of time spent with past lovers with stop-motion animation of yonic plants and vegetables, was “too abstract” for the Student Association for Women in Normal, Illinois (figures 10–14).75 At the premier of the third and fourth packages at the Ontario Theater in DC, where individuals each got their own questionnaire, a number of audience members commented on how exciting they found Women I Love's use of experimental techniques. A few, however, noted that they want to see more of the relationships in the film, one person writing, “Little redeeming values except perhaps the vegetables.”76 On their feedback form the National Organization of Women in DC, meanwhile, simply declares that the women's movement is not “ready ‘for that film’ yet.”77 When discussing the future of the circuit in Amarillo, Texas, the producer there comments that while she is relatively comfortable showing Home Movie because she thinks it “reaches gay and straight women,” she would be uncomfortable showing Women I Love, as in her opinion it is “made for lesbians” and she does not think it reaches straight women at all.78 While some of the more resistant responses to these films are clearly indicative of ideological battles going on within the women's movement at this time,79 others suggest the very strangeness of seeing lesbianism onscreen, even for feminist audiences. Oxenberg and Hammer's films never seem to have received critiques of didacticism, as more “straight” documentaries in NWFC packages often did. In fact, whether positively or negatively received, the lesbian films were often singled out as offering something that all audiences—gay, straight, women-only or mixed—had never seen before.
These films' NWFC reception demonstrates the dynamic nature of 1970s lesbian feminist cinema. While early gay and lesbian media scholars writing in the 1980s were quick to draw on Hammer's own writing about her films and make connections between her ideas in making them and the essentializing and romanticizing ideology of much cultural feminism (so much so that it has become practically reflexive for queer film scholars to do so since),80 the work of lesbian feminist cinema, these surveys reveal, did not end with its filmmakers or even its distributors. Recently Greg Youmans has done excellent work in complicating Hammer's own relationship to cultural feminism. By looking to new queer media artists' returns to Hammer's early oeuvre and by highlighting the sexiness and humor they find there, Youmans makes the case for a more performative reading of Dyketactics', Menses', and Women I Love's essentialist tropes.81 He also cites Hammer as saying she never insisted on women-only screenings, although cultural feminist venues were the most common places that her films were screened into the 1980s.82 However, left intact by Youmans is the sense that most of Hammer's audiences were drawn to her films and appreciated them for their uncritical conception of “woman” as biological being. These films were cherished as the first films made by “out” lesbian filmmakers, and their attempts to address the concerns and lives of contemporary women were appreciated; however, their representations of “lesbian” and Moonforce's advertising of the circuit as such were never taken as the be-all and end-all in the matter. Instead, these films offered women's communities across the United States a starting point, an initiation of lesbian possibilities to be taken up, extended, and critiqued in reception. These questionnaires provide ephemeral evidence that NWFC audiences did as much. Reading records of the myriad responses generated at any given screening can be dizzying, as local producers, trying to account for all the reactions, write in just brief strings of words or phrases. Of Dyketactics, the Albuquerque producer writes: “‘a beautiful film of humans loving humans’ ‘filth’ ‘it's about time we were out of the closet’ ‘I don't want anyone to know what my lover and I do’ ‘there's more to us than just our sexuality’ ‘beautiful’” (figure 15).83 In fact, each of these lesbian films was only one in a five- or six-film program billed as “lesbian,” and audiences also evaluated and anticipated a lesbian cinema in response to the entire program.
At the bottom of these questionnaires, Moonforce asked producers whether they think the circuit should return to their town; if so, how often; and “What do people want to see?” One recurring and resounding answer to this last question was that audiences wanted to see more films by and about women of color. In particular, they wanted more Black, Chicana, and Native American films that were lesbian films and fun films, rather than just the few fairly serious documentaries in the packages that did address women of color's lives. The producer of the January 1976 Albuquerque screenings writes, “There were no real criticisms of the films until the Saturday night all women's show. These were aimed primarily at ‘The Emerging Woman’ and ‘Dyketactics.’ Many women felt that once more Chicana and Native American women were ignored” (figure 16).84 Because of this, she concludes, “Many women will not come back to another showing.”85 Nonetheless, the NWFC did return to Albuquerque, this time with the Woman to Woman/Home Movie/Menses package, and the same producer notes that those who had resented Emerging Woman and Dyketactics appreciated Deitch's film, which humorously drew connections among the lives of working women of different classes and races, including suburban housewives, sex workers, imprisoned women, a lesbian psychologist, and a telephone operator. Audiences in Athens, Georgia, concurred, the producer writing of Woman to Woman, “People liked seeing Chicanas and Black women as well as the usual whites.”86 While the history of lesbian cinema, as it is typically written by way of filmmaker and representation in the most mimetic sense, appears to be exclusively white until the 1980s, when Michelle Parkerson's shorts debuted, the NWFC's reception reveals that at least its audiences' aspirations were otherwise from the start. The presentation of anecdotal and ephemeral evidence, Muñoz writes, “grants entrance and access to those who have been locked out of official histories and, for that matter, ‘material reality.’”87 In this case, local producer questionnaires reveal that in the discussions following NWFC screenings, Black, Chicana, and Native American audiences courageously practiced what Audre Lorde called the “transformation of silence into language and action.”88 As early as the first white lesbian films' releases, these women demanded lesbian of color films. In the face of the specifically white lesbian feminist reality placed before them, they articulated their own, refusing to remain silent.
Biren and Farmer kept track of and engaged with audiences' recurring criticisms in their programming of later packages. They were not involved in production and could distribute only what was produced and submitted for consideration, but one common critique of their first two packages that they did feel confident in meeting with the third and fourth packages was audiences' desires for “slicker” women's films. In the questionnaires, producers often note that audience members were disappointed in the technical quality of the films, especially considering that they had been advertised as some of the “best” feminist films. The producer in Cleveland, for example, writes that some audience members had come expecting “to see professional Hollywood-type films that had been made by women.”89 While Biren and Farmer would continue to place value on showing women's first films and to see their packaging system as a way to feature new feminist filmmakers as well as those more experienced, their second selection screening in DC did include more technologically sophisticated films; thus, prior to their premier at the Ontario Theater, they could tell an interviewer with confidence that “these two packages of films really, from end-to-end, are just gorgeous, well-made films.”90
Biren and Farmer also, however, received requests from local producers as well as filmmakers that they could not meet due to the scale and budget of their organization. Moonforce Media, much to the disappointment of a number of interested fledgling female filmmakers who inquired, distributed only 16mm films. They were dependent upon NWFC producers to find projectors and projectionists in each of the circuit's locations, and Biren and Farmer believed that combining formats within packages—such as 8mm, Super-8 or video in addition to 16mm—would lead to too many complications.91 Similarly, Moonforce received requests for international screenings. Most were from Canadian organizations, but some hailed from as far away as Hong Kong.92 To each of these, Biren and Farmer wrote back that they would love to distribute internationally but that at the time they could not risk the delays and expenses of shipping the films to these places.93 As a result, the farthest the circuit traveled was to Makawao, Hawaii. Though interest in the NWFC never waned, Biren and Farmer's business model did not allow them to hire employees, and when the couple broke up in 1980, the circuit came to an end as well.94 While Women Make Movies was developing its distribution wing at this time and, as a feminist media organization with a better eye for business, would continue to forge long-distance relations with feminists across the country and around the globe,95 nothing quite like the NWFC would ever replace it.
To say that this essay has drawn heavily on the Moonforce Media records now located at Smith College would be an understatement. It has been completely dependent upon these materials' existence and is, at the very least, a first report on their contents. That these questionnaires as well as many of the early Iris audiotapes and Moonforce budgets, brochures, and fliers exist is in great part due to the people who thought to make them in the first place, especially Joan E. Biren, who saved them for many years and donated them as a small portion of her extensive collection of cultural work and related files. “Against the traumatic loss of gay and lesbian history,” as Ann Cvetkovich writes, “documentaries and archives serve a vital task of cultural memory.”96 And yet, such work is not always easy, as even “its pleasures are often attached to other more painful emotions.”97 In paying close attention to a single archive and its accumulation of ephemeral evidence across feminist geographies, I have sought to reveal how the affective process of lesbian feminist cinema—through distribution, exhibition, and reception—varied by audience and often included an amalgamation of responses, both critical and celebratory. I have done so with the goal that this ample example might, in turn, contribute to complicating our own contemporary affective relation to 1970s feminisms.
Queer history and queer theories of temporality and historiography have consistently turned to pre-Stonewall periods to think about the ways in which nonnormative sexualized and gendered subjects have lived in time and how and why we might relate to them, their lives, and their work now.98 Only recently has queer studies begun to look at its 1970s histories,99 resistant to the pride and positivity that are often seen as having quickly calcified into homonationalist, neoliberal identitarian politics so divergent from their “homosexual” or “invert” subcultural pasts as well as the perhaps “queerer” present. And yet the 1970s, as a liminal period, can be quite fascinating. Its archives could surprise.
In this case, lesbian feminist cinema is revealed to have done more than one might have expected. The lesbian feminist cinema of Moonforce Media did the important and necessary work of financially supporting female filmmakers and circulating some of the earliest lesbian films to anticipatory lesbian audiences. However, Moonforce was also part of a broader effort of feminist media workers striving to change society through the ongoing learning process of relating to one another and to their audiences. With their contribution to the building of a national feminist media network through the creation of a lesbian feminist distribution system, Biren and Farmer facilitated critical engagements with feminist critiques and visions. NWFC audiences engaged with these films in order to make sense of and articulate, for themselves and with one another, their lesbian realities. The ephemera of these cinematic encounters do not grant researchers today total access to what these women thought, said, or imagined as a part of this process, but they do provide faint and yet potent evidence of the period's tenuous sense of possibility and change.
I would like to thank Joan E. Biren, Mary Lee Farmer, Frances Reid, and Cathy Zheutlin for offering their reflections and memories, without which wading through these materials would have been significantly more difficult, never mind much less fun. Thank you to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College for a generous travel grant and the assistance of a wonderful team of archivists. Maida Goodwin has been especially helpful and patient. Thank you to Robin Blaetz, Julia Lesage, Shira Segal, and the critical and insightful audience members at our panel “Unfamiliar Feminisms: Alternative Narratives of Women and Experimental Cinema,” at the 2014 meeting of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies. Their comments have been integral to the development of this research and writing for publication. Thank you also to Jennifer DeClue, Raffi Sarkissian, and an anonymous reader, all three of whom offered generous and instructive readings. Thank you to Laura Serna for encouragement, guidance, and support. All mistakes are my own.