Cinenova’s Crucial Role in Preserving and Distributing Feminist Film

Since 1991 the feminist collective has played a key role in nurturing a space for queer activism and sexual and identity politics on film

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Profiles | 06 SEP 18

Founded in 1991, the UK-based feminist film and video distributor Cinenova came out of the merger of two organizations dedicated to women’s film, both dating back to 1979. Circles, a group associated with the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, whose founders included Tina Keane, Annabel Nicolson and Lis Rhodes, brought film works from the early 20th century back into circulation, showing them alongside contemporary moving image; Cinema of Women distributed activist and documentary works including educational and trade union films, as well as features by women, such as Lizzie Borden’s seminal 1983 feminist sci-fi, Born in Flames. The two organizations had different enough remits not to be competitors – especially given that, until the mid-1980s, funding opportunities in London, particularly from the Greater London Council’s Women’s Committee and the British Film Institute, enabled both to thrive and pay their workers a wage. In 1991, as a consequence of funding cuts and pressure to render the organizations profitable, the two groups came together as Cinenova. Its remit was to collect and distribute film and video by women, and to preserve it – in some cases, Cinenova holds the only extant copy of a work, while other works are in poor condition and require conservation.

Carolyn Lazard, 'A Recipe for Disaster', 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Christa Holka

Since its formation, Cinenova has been concerned with questions of access to film and video production, distribution and exhibition. In its catalogue of some 500 titles covering the years 1912–2001, recurring themes include oppositional histories, post-colonial struggles and issues of labour, gender and sexuality, and the intersections between these areas. Such issues are addressed in the current exhibition, ‘If You Can’t Share No One Gets Any’, at LUX, London where Cinenova and part of its catalogue of films and video are based. Organized by five members of Cinenova’s working group (Emma Hedditch, Charlotte Procter, Ash Reid, Irene Revell and Louise Shelley), it includes films from the Cinenova collection, selected by the Glasgow-based Collective Text and supplemented with creative captions produced the group. A recent work by US artist Carolyn Lazard is also on display. The show experiments with a range of strategies for making film and video accessible to more diverse audiences, in particular to those with hearing and visual impairments and other disabilities.

Collective Text’s contributions include Alison Smith’s written reminiscence of the first time she encountered The Tokens, a Deaf and Disabled women’s choir featured in Pratibha Parmar’s 1992 documentary drama Double The Trouble Twice The Fun; Anna Schneider’s transcription of the sibilant voiceover in Heidi Tikka’s video about living in a foreign country On the Threshold of Liberty (1992), and Emilia Beatriz’s printed and spoken description of Jo Pearson’s short film about her epilepsy, All In Your Head (1991). More than just explanatory captions or descriptions, these responses are creative and critical expansions of the works, the latest in an ongoing drive to produce access material around the works in Cinenova’s collection.

Jo Pearson and Emilia Beatriz, All in your head, 1991/2018, film still. Courtesy: the artists

For their video A Recipe for Disaster (2017), Lazard started with an episode of Julia Child’s show ‘The French Chef’ (1963–73), the first TV programme shown with subtitles in the US. Lazard augments the broadcast with an additional audio description of the onscreen action and a second voiceover, which recites a text that also scrolls up the screen. On top of Child’s warbling speech, the new voices collide into an awkward conversation over the images of a woman making omelettes. This results in what the scrolling text and its accompanying voiceover describe as: ‘A suffusion. A cacophony. No legibility for some. Illegibility for all.’ Instead of making the work more accessible, Lazard’s interventions in the original video demonstrate how obscure and difficult moving image – even something as mainstream as a TV cookery show – already is to many people.

Since 2006, the Cinenova working group has developed a critical approach to the organization’s remit and activities, rethinking some of its original aims and updating its policies. For example, the descriptor has changed from ‘women’s film and video’ to ‘feminist film and video’, which more faithfully reflects the range of gender identifications of filmmakers in the collection. Much of Cinenova’s recent curatorial activity has built on themes common to old and new works, including queer activism, sexual and identity politics, and the erosion of the welfare state. They often pair contemporary film and video with earlier works, such as those commissioned in the 1980s by Cinema of Women for screenings in schools, prisons and local communities. Procter described these older works, as ‘potential tools for activism now’.

‘Reproductive Labour’, 2011, exhibition view, The Showroom. Courtesy: Daniel Brooke and The Showroom, London

An important moment for Cinenova was The Showroom’s 2011 exhibition ‘Reproductive Labour’, with screenings, talks and archival displays delving into the organization’s history and its ongoing activities in conservation, distribution and interpretation. It also foregrounded a conversation about Cinenova’s organizational model and examined questions around the ethics and sustainability of running a charity wholly dependent on voluntary work. Between 2014 and 2017, Cinenova set up a bookable access system at The Showroom, making the digitized works in the collection available to the general public to view. Today, online access is available on request at the Lux Library. 

The vicissitudes of funding triggered some of the major shifts in Cinenova’s history, from its inception to its transformation to a voluntary model and its various moves across the city. The intelligence and dedication of its members and their embrace of collaborative leadership have, over the past decade, pushed it in new and ambitious directions. Although the organization has not acquired any new work since 2001, the working group is keen to do so in the future in order to bring the catalogue up do date and bridge the gaps in its holdings. But the energy of volunteers has limits, and to grow in a sustainable and healthy way would undoubtedly require greater and more secure resources than are currently available.

As Cinenova put it in a 2017 article in Moving Image Review & Art Journal, the question remains: ‘How can an un(der) funded organization stand against the replication of exploitative working models?’

Main image: Heida Tikka and Anna Schneider, On The Threshold of Liberty, 1992/2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Christa Holka.

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.