BY John Douglas Millar in Reviews | 01 FEB 12

Sisters! 2011, DVD still

The London Women’s Film Group (LWFG) was formed in 1972, with the aim of putting into practice the tenets of feminist film theory. Working collectively, the group made films that dealt with the lives of working-class women, such as Betteshanger Kent (1972), which explores the life of a miner’s wife active in organizing women in a Kentish coal village, and The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1974), a film that set out to ‘provide an analysis of sexism within capitalist society’.

In 1975, the movement was given a powerful manifesto in the form of Laura Mulvey’s seminal Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, a polemic that demanded a reconfiguration of the patriarchal character of filmmaking and spectatorship, and supported the LWFG’s statement that ‘a film should not be judged on its own merit regardless of the oppression that went into its making’. Armed with this critical apparatus and the establishment of other feminist film collectives outside of London – notably in Sheffield, Leeds and Cardiff – the movement gained a momentum that projected it well into the 1980s. Indeed, with the establishment of Channel 4 in 1983, many members of these groups went mainstream taking production and commissioning roles.

Against the backdrop of protests against the National Front presence, the mass arrest of protesters and the killing of Blair Peach by Special Patrol Group officers, the Southall Black Sisters (SBS) was founded in West London in 1979. Ostensibly an advocacy service for women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who have suffered abuse or who have asylum difficulties, the group is also prominent in foisting a socialist and secularist agenda. Sisters! (2011) brings these two strands of radical feminist history together in what is billed as a collaborative work between the Swedish artist Petra Bauer (who hosted a screening of the LWFG’s work at Raven Row, London, in 2010) and members of the SBS. Just how the work is collaborative is not made clear, and it is odd that Bauer’s name is the only one used to advertise it. Sisters! is a 90-minute film that uses the documentary mode to stage an investigation into the current conditions of the emancipatory narratives and aesthetics of the 1970s and ’80s.

Following the work of the SBS for one week, Sisters! gives absolute centrality to the voices of the group’s members. We hear their end of telephone conversations with battered women; we see and hear their founder and chairperson Pragna Patel chair meetings with council officials, press and celebrities. (Pop singer Pixie Lott appears at a meeting looking for all the world like an Aryan fantasy: a symbol of women’s emancipation within the record industry or evidence of regression?) We see a group of women being primed for the citizenship test, while the film’s dénouement features a fundraising event in Stoke Newington town hall, where Patel gives a barnstorming speech calling for a defense of secularism, socialism and an affirmation that feminism and anti-racism agendas are as relevant, if not more relevant, than ever.

In an article for the New Statesman in 2008, Patel attacked the then government’s ‘cohesion’ agenda on the grounds that it put power in the hands of male religious leaders whose aims are not to foster equality, but to ensure state institutions accommodate ‘authentic religious identity: an identity which demands control of female sexuality’. She writes: ‘This is now our most important struggle in addressing gender-based violence, in the face of attempts by the state and religious leaders to corral us into specific reactionary religious identities in the name of “cohesion”, on the assumption that we live in a post-racist, post-feminist and classless society. ’

This is the film’s vital narrative, an examination of Jürgen Habermas’s notion of the ‘post-secular society’. As resistance grows to the coalition government’s deconstruction of the welfare state, and in the year of Tahrir Square and the Occupy movement, is the long-slumbering Modernist meta-narrative of personal emancipation slowly waking? As one of the members comments during the film, whilst looking at some old protest banners: ‘If you had told me then that I would be fighting the same battles in 30 years time, I wouldn’t have believed you.’

John Douglas Millar is a writer based in London, UK. His book Brutalist Readings: Essays on Literature was published earlier this year by Sternberg Press.