Friday 17 November 2017

Post-Weinstein reflections on ‘Female Stars of British Cinema’


One of the things that is telling about the book-writing process is what you feel anxious about having omitted or fudged once a book is published and it’s too late to change anything, short of a second edition. With my book on David Lean it was my unwitting but still problematic editorial squeeze on material I originally had in the book about Lean’s frequent recourse to work by gay writers (Coward, Rattigan, Arthur Laurens, E M Forster) who used heterosexual narratives as allegories or cover stories for exploring the complexities of closeted gay experience. This ended up being reduced down to one reference to Andy Medhurst's (excellent) article on Noel Coward's queer authorship of Brief Encounter. But you can’t encompass everything in a single book already straining at the seams, you tell yourself, and so you move on, striving to be more carefully and thoughtfully inclusive in future endeavours.

With my most recent book, Female Stars of British Cinema, published this summer, the post-publication worries and regrets have been of a different order altogether. I am still very proud of the book's detailed analysis of star personae and careers, and still believe it makes a valuable contribution to our understandings of women's place on British screens over the last 75 years. But... Weinstein. And everything that’s happened since. If I had known then what I know now, I would have written an altogether angrier book. Re-reading it now, its feminist critique seems too gentle, tempered, modulated, careful: too bloody reasonable by half. At that point – not that long ago at all – I was not apprised of the full facts about quite how grimly sexist a place the film industry still continues to be for women, despite guessing at those darker depths from time to time via allusion, anecdote, or veiled inference. Although I had noted and critiqued the misogyny of the critical commentariat and the vile treatment meted out by the press to many of the stars I discussed, I was not as attentive to the toxic sexism in film production itself, nor to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment within it. It is impossible to inhabit that position of ignorance now, with the revelations around the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein having had a domino effect in exposing similar cultures of male entitlement and sexual violence not only in film but in many other professions besides.

In the case of Weinstein, it was clear from Peter Biskind's book Down and Dirty Pictures that the producer had always been an obnoxious operator whose business ethics were questionable to say the least but what hadn't been public knowledge (even if it had been industry lore) was his status as a sexual predator. Listening to the tapes of his intimidating, emphatic, relentless verbal bullying of Ambra Battilana Gutierrez as he attempted to get the aspiring actress to come into his hotel room is a chilling experience. So is reading the testimony of Rose McGowan, Asia Argento and a mounting number of other women who accuse Harvey Weinstein of molesting and raping them; this is a truly rotten, repulsive state of affairs. Understandably the lid was kept very tightly shut, with NDAs for all associates and employees of Weinstein, threats of legal action from his crack team of lawyers for anyone who dared to speak out publicly, and even, it seems, ex-Mossad agents working to discredit any potential whistleblowers. But simultaneously there was also a smokescreen put up of Weinstein being an advocate for women: the very tactic he attempted to use, without success, when he released his initial sorry/not sorry statement about needing to undertake therapeutic self-work to overcome his 'sex addiction’, in which he thought that setting up a fellowship for women filmmakers at USC would be enough to get him off the hook and make his mother proud of him again.

It was this same aspect of Weinstein, his desire to be seen as a friend to women in the industry, that I referred to in my chapter on Judi Dench in my book, noting that Weinstein had been a powerful advocate and ally for Dench, and she not only credited him with kick-starting her film career but was also able to indulge in affectionate practical joking with him. Quoted in innocence and ignorance, that material now leaves a bitter aftertaste. While Weinstein was proselyting for one woman's career, he was oppressing and attacking numerous others. An earlier chapter of my book dealt with teen discovery Emily Lloyd's distressing experiences of swimming with the Hollywood sharks in the late 80s and early 90s, drawing on material from her autobiography. But I wonder what she might have said about sexual harassment in the industry if she had been able to write without being in fear of litigation (especially since she was once up for the role Uma Thurman ended up playing in the Weinstein-produced Pulp Fiction). Certainly Hollywood as well as the British film industry found multiple ways to mistreat Lloyd that are already well documented but it would not be surprising if a whole further layer of foul behaviour now came to light. And in the conclusion to my book, I discussed the barriers to British BAME actresses being accorded with full star status and the repressive nostalgia of the dominant (white) English Rose ideal but I had no idea how this was so tightly intertwined with the erotic peccadillos of producers like Weinstein and their own racist understandings of who could be considered sufficiently star-worthy, i.e. ‘fuckable’. As Bim Adewunmi commented, ‘The next time you ponder the relative lack of black women on your screens, consider that the casting process starts long before the casting call goes out and can be debated, even when talent alone should have secured the role, taking in factors like the preference of a producer’s sexual desires.’

Concluding my book about the chequered history of women’s place in the British film industry as actresses and stars and then pondering the future for British female stardom was always going to be a big ask, and it proved so. There have been advances in some areas but backward steps in others, and given the choice between faith in gradual progress or despairing nihilism, I would always choose the former. But admittedly it is hard to sustain one’s optimism in the wake of such harrowing evidence; evidence of a media industry riddled with patriarchal power at its most poisonous and malign, of which Weinstein is only the tip of the iceberg. But I have to draw comfort from the female counter-history of rebellion and survival against the odds I was able to trace through my research: the warm, witty endurance of stars like Jean Kent and Diana Dors in spite of the reductive ‘bad girl’ label they had slung round their necks; the fact that unorthodox female stars like Rita Tushingham and Glenda Jackson bucked the prevailing trends of what a female star should look like (and were both erroneously dismissed as ugly as a result) and triumphed anyway; Emily Lloyd fighting against serious mental distress, and managing to survive into adulthood. There is much to celebrate in the long history of women on film in Britain and in the exhilarating possibilities created by its cultures of stardom, often giving a tangible presence to new and liberatory kinds of feminine embodiment. But there is equally a great deal to regret and to mourn, and to get angry about. It seems that we are only at the beginning of knowing the full extent of the masculine abuse that has delimited and defined the space in which women have been allowed to operate. But equally it feels like we might be at a crucial juncture for trying to change that culture forever – and we should demand nothing less.

About Auteuse Theory

Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.
Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.
And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Meek's Cutoff (2010): the unheightened moment; taking aim at the male gaze


Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) is an independent, art-house, revisionist American Western that knowingly disrupts and questions the ideals and traditional elements of the classic Western that trapped women in limiting codes and conventions. The film unequivocally subverts classical cinema’s relationship with “the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” (Mulvey, 1993 [1975], p.111).
Women in Westerns have historically been “trivialized and degraded” (Tompkins, 1993, p.17), “meek and passive, modest and silent” (Mesce, 2001, p.81). Westerns “tell stories […] from the positions men occupy in the social structure, […] from the man’s point of view” (Tompkins, 1993, p.40). Reichardt, a feminist auteuse and academic, reimagines reality for the women on the Oregon Trail by actively overturning and remodelling the Western, “a genre [that is] uninterested in women at best, overtly misogynist at worst” (Studlar, 2001, p.43). The film places the experience of women as its focal point to revise the original mythology of the Wild West, giving us “the reverse shot of the genre as a whole” (Binding et al, 2014).
Reichardt investigates the historically authentic experience for women travelling west in a wagon train in 1845. Rooted in primary sources, through research of women’s diaries and archives, she re-presents the story of the Wild West from the women’s perspective:

Women were the diary keepers and the diaries offer such a specific take on the history […]. The exceptions seemed to be the friendships the women formed with each other. […] one woman [wrote] that she was keeping a diary in case her husband should ever want to know her (Press Notes, 2010, p.3).

The film provides a greater sense of realism than the traditional Western, ‘remembering’ the period accurately and providing what a contemporary audience would find a more truthful depiction of relations between the sexes in the Wild West: “although women have been censored from the texts of history, they populate its reality and must be saved from obscurity” (Doane, 1984, p.67).
In a purposeful re-framing of the male gaze, Reichardt asks “‘What would John Wayne’s character look like from [the perspective of] the woman that served his soup?’” (Mayer, 2016, p.111). Through the camera, the spectator is encouraged to look at the women much more than the men. The film is clearly interested in them, but the spectator is required to study the women in a different way; they are not connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 1993 [1975], 116). Conversely, Reichardt’s actors “avoid performing, attempting [to be] as naturalistic as possible” (Quart, 2011, p.40). The camera does not wander across the women’s bodies via segmented close-ups, enticing the onlooker to imagine how it might feel to touch them. However, the viewer is often invited to consider what the women characters – especially Emily - might be thinking about, through medium close-ups on their faces. Like the film, this analysis focuses on the character of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and directly addresses Mulvey’s gaze theory (1993 [1975]).
In the first shot of all three women together, they are faceless, unidentifiable figures in diluted pastel colours, a beautifully composed moving image in long shot, that creates an aesthetic “distancing” (Morrison, 2010, p.42), with a backdrop of Graces’ ambient music suggesting the labour of their journey as they walk towards the static camera (see Fig. 1 below). The women trek wearisomely behind the men, hindered by long calico dresses and bonnets that cut off their peripheral view and ability to hear clearly, somehow imprisoned within the vast, barren landscape, the caged bird carried with them a metaphor for their lives. Reichardt echoes this motif in her decision to use the standard Academy square 4:3 aspect ratio, which literally cuts off the conventional wide-screen format used in many Westerns that might generically indicate the male hero’s symbiotic relationship with the wilderness. This restriction in their and the spectator’s view adds to the uncertainty of the route Meek ‘navigates’ on their relentless journey, in contrast for instance to Ethan Edward’s (John Wayne) intrepid mastery of the vast prairie in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956).

Fig. 1. Faceless, unidentifiable figures in diluted pastel colours
Whilst adopting recognisable motifs of the Western - wagons, guns, the wilderness landscape and a Native American - Reichardt rejects the more popular conventions and narrative clichés of Westerns such as the male protagonist’s ability to conquer women and the wilderness: “Westerns are so macho and masculine. They are collections of heightened moments” (Reichardt in Quart, 2011, p.41). An example of these “heightened moments” such as “a man [drowning] in the fording of a river, […] a child’s death […] as the result of a runaway wagon” (Morrison, 2010, p.42), is provided in Morrison’s comparison between Meek’s Cutoff and The Way West (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1967) a classical Western about the Oregon Trail. Morrison found “everything that had been expunged from Reichardt’s fiercely indie film: wide-screen Panavision format, big stars […], character development, action, drama, romance, a beginning and an ending” (2010, p.40).
As opposed to a linear, active, ‘masculine’ syntax, Reichardt employs “a feminine language […] more open, [with] multiplicities of meanings” (Kuhn, 1994, p.11). Glory White (Shirley Henderson) twice asks the other women “what are [the men] talking about?”. We regularly see the men standing around and talking at a distance in static wide shot, illustrating their separateness from the women. The unintelligible plans of the male group are mediated through the women’s perspective, as in the first few frames of the film, when the men can only just be heard on the other side of the river. This is political for Reichardt. Director Sally Potter observes (2011, p.14): “Point of view is usually only conspicuous when it is oppositional. The dominant, prevailing point of view remains invisible or apparently neutral and objective”. Neither the viewer nor the women can hear clearly what potentially life threatening decisions are being made: “While the women do what has to be done, the men discuss and decide on the direction to take” (Reichardt in Quart, 2011, p.41).
Laura Mulvey wrote at length about the kind of feminist cinema she thought would be sufficient to contend with patriarchal cinema: what a feminist avant-garde cinema might need to do to “construct a new language of cinema” (2009 [1978], p.123). Meek’s Cutoff is not quite avant-garde but Reichardt feels “alienated from mainstream filmmaking” (Reichardt in Quart 2011, p.42). Reichardt has focused on “the matter of film language itself, probing dislocation between cinematic form and cinematic material” (Mulvey, 2009 [1978], p.123). Meek’s Cutoff is slow, art-cinema: ambiguous, minimalist, observational, with silence, pared-down music and narrative and “psychologically complex characters” (Bordwell, 2002, p.718). Lingering on landscape to allow the spectator space for contemplation, the journey is apparently never-ending: you “get the sense that the diaries are the only thing besides the weather that mark the passing of time” (Press Notes, 2010, p.3). This sense of time passing is expressed through intricately considered, monotonous chores that are the women’s duties. This “diffuse temporality” notes Mayer “sets Reichardt’s film apart from the majority of action-oriented westerns” (2016, p.112).    Reichardt’s film is not classical in its textual properties. Very little happens: in terms of character arcs and a dramatic arc, it is purposefully subdued, capturing a well-documented moment in history, in the middle of a story, and in the middle of a journey, rather than providing an imagined, generic overview of the Oregon Trail that might “[imply] the migration path taken by thousands of settlers in the nineteenth century” such as in The Way West (Morrison, 2010, p.42). The film seems to ‘want’ to alienate anyone who would expect conventional pleasures, especially those associated with the genre, but also those associated with art cinema. It is a dismissal of the generic emphasis on display and “technological progress” (Mayer, 2016, p.54). It is a film with “many refusals” (Morrison, 2011, p.43).
Instead, you have to adjust your expectations to what the film is prepared to offer: a long, subtle, slowly developing exploration of power dynamics and interpersonal relationships in the arid plains of the American desert. The real-life Meek (Bruce Greenwood), “a blundering bully who took credit for others’ work” (Mayer, 2016, p.111) in the event of the “Lost Wagon Train of 1845”, was hired by over 1,000 people to guide them through a dangerous ‘short-cut’ west (Quart, 2011). Reichardt condenses the train down to three families. Unlike the male protagonist of classical cinema “free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action” (Mulvey, 1993 [1975], p.118), Meek is an anti-hero. He does not direct the gaze, nor is he the pivot of the film. Meek embodies the long-established attitudes - but not the prowess - of the mythical male hero in Westerns, particularly with regard to his stance on the Cayuse, with whom he tries to “assert [his] gender specific domination […] through sadomasochistic activity” (Studlar, 2001, p.44).
Meek is far from the “main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify” (Mulvey, 1993 [1975], p.116). It is through Emily that the spectator is given insight. The audience is ‘properly’ introduced to Emily as she rigorously cleans out a bowl: with a high-angle shot of her squatting on a rock, the spectator has no view of her cleavage or even her chest, her body completely covered but for her hands. The activity of cleaning is foregrounded (see Fig. 2 below). The first time the camera focuses on Emily’s face, is a 23-second, medium close-up of her walking purposefully, the soundtrack to the shot a mumbled, bombastic account of Meek’s ‘bravado’. With subtle disapproval, her look influences the spectator to take an early view of Meek’s character. Emily’s relationship with her husband Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) is the most mutually respectful of the husband and wife relationships. Solomon discusses the men’s concerns about Meek with her:

Emily: Is he ignorant, or […] just plain evil […]?

Solomon: We can’t know.

Emily: That’s very comforting Mr. Tetherow.

Solomon: Well, we made our decision […].

Emily: I don’t blame him for not knowing, I blame him for saying he did.

Fig. 2. The activity of cleaning is foregrounded
Her prescribed role is passive and domestic, as befits the era, but Emily gains more agency as the film progresses. Emily could be construed as the ‘real’ Meek’s ‘cutoff’. With astute foresight about his fraudulence, she cuts Meek off through language (and later through action) symbolising the threat of castration (Mulvey, 1993 [1975], p.112):

Meek: We’re going to make it alright.

Emily: Oh now, you don’t need to patronise me for it.
Meek: Well now I think you’re flirting with me ma’am.

Emily: You don’t know much about women do you Stephen Meek?

The camera, in medium close-up on Emily, is more interested in her perspective. Her face defiant, she stares directly at Meek and smirks at him. Shortly after this, Meek talks to Solomon “Took you a while to settle down I see. […] You’re a lucky man. Got yourself a nice, young woman”. Clearly interested in Emily, this dialogue demonstrates that Meek was probably flirting with her. There is also an implication that because Solomon is older he has done ‘well’ to ‘snag’ himself a young woman.
A key moment is when Emily takes the Indian water and sews his moccasin, representing an evolved, ‘modern’ attitude; the relationship that builds from this point, driven by Emily, is “life-saving” (Mayer, 2016, p.111). Emily has agency in this action, ensuring the Indian “owes [her] something”. Emily finds further authority as off-screen she utters “Vanity. That’s all I see” in response to Meek’s bragging about his slaughtering of Indians. Through medium close-ups on her face, the spectator reads that Emily is the central character, eventually representing the group’s voice and emotion, where “feeling rather than action is the motor” (Mayer, 2016, p.112).
Reichardt has created an “alternative cinema” that works in counterpoint to the male gaze of classical Hollywood (Mulvey, 1993 [1975], p.113). To examine this juxtaposition, a short analysis of two scenes of ‘girls with guns’ follows. In the classic epic Western Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946), Pearl is coded and sexualised for male titillation and overtly connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 1993 [1973], p.116). She wears red lipstick, a red skirt, a flowing red scarf. Raising a gun to Lewt, as the bullet hits him she dramatically breaks down. We see her face in extreme-close-up inciting the male viewer to imagine being that close to Pearl. High angle shots emphasise her breasts as the camera invites the male viewer to focus on her tight black blouse. She flings her entire body against a rock, performing emotion. The music is heightened and the moment artificial (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Pearl is coded and sexualised for male titillation
In contrast Meek’s Cutoff endeavours to prevent us from viewing the climactic gun scene as a traditional spectacular assertion of masculine/phallic action and power. Emily – an adult woman, serious and expert – is not an erotic object. She wears a practical dress that covers her from the unrelenting sun. With her bonnet resting on her back, alongside the spectator she can see and hear clearly now. When Meek points his gun at the Cayuse in low-shot, Emily lifts a much bigger rifle to Meek in high-shot, emphasising her power. Emily protects the Indian. A native American and a woman stand in progressive symphony on a hillside, the blustering cowboy they look down on consigned to history (see Fig. 4 below).
Pearl is a victim of her emotions. Emily is not. She is in control. It is a deliberately “unheightened moment” (Reichardt in Quart, 2010, p.41). No shots are fired. The hand-held camera invites the viewer to focus on medium close-up reaction shots of the party suggesting the destabilising effect this moment has had on the group. None of the men challenge Emily’s authority. Her movements are minimal, about survival. The spectator is never enticed by an extreme-close-up of Emily, as we are with Pearl, but forced to engage with her as a woman of agency. She is leading the action. Emily seizes ownership of the symbolic phallus, perhaps invoking castration anxiety in both Meek and the male viewer, threatening “to evoke the anxiety it originally signified” (Mulvey, 1993 [1975], p.119). Although Emily is the only character who actually shoots a gun when she loads a rifle expertly to alert the group to the Indian’s arrival, she does not use it as “a tool for conquest” (tieman64, 2013). As Meek aims at the Cayuse and Emily points her gun at Meek, it is reminiscent of a Mexican stand-off, except the Indian has no rifle and the camera is not still. There is no intense music, instead we hear ambient sounds of buzzing insects. There are no extreme close-ups on the guns cutting to extreme-close-ups on snarling facial expressions, or fast edits contrasted with slow motion hands moving to weapons. No one gets killed. The scene is realistic and authentic.

Fig. 4. A native American and a woman stand in progressive symphony on a hillside
However, there is potentially a problem here. The assertion “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, credited to Godard, postulated that sex and violence create the ultimate recipe for commercial cinema. Inevitably this scene invokes a palimpsest of the “aesthetically powerful juxtaposition” (Van Raalte, 2012) of decades of ‘girl with gun’ images. Has Reichardt inadvertently fetishized Emily by allowing her to adopt the violent gestures or the tools associated with masculine domination? Even this writer had been compelled to ‘confront’ and highlight the gun scene as the climactic moment of the analysis, perhaps opting for a masculine stance on the film. It is an event which the people marketing the film capitalised on. It is in the trailer, on the poster and its presence in the promotion far outweighs its presence in the film.
Although Reichardt works hard to disallow us from reading Emily’s use of a gun as a resort to patriarchal power, and although this moment in the film comes at a time in which it is powerfully obvious that we are not watching commercial entertainment, the inclusion of this scene ultimately endorses Goddard’s sentiments and Emily becomes a fetishised phallic woman. Perhaps an offscreen Ibsenesque event might have lent the scene more potency. The viewer already understands that Emily is pivotal. Her words and sagacity would have served to dissuade Meek from shooting the Cayuse. Her earlier questioning of Meek that represent the unspoken feelings of the group and her calm and resolute demeanour is what renders Emily truly powerful in this film, the use of her intellect far outweighing in potency the wielding of a heavily loaded weapon. Finally however, the message is clear: Emily’s use of the gun dilutes, but does not negate, the significance of Reichardt’s revisionist project.
The most telling part of the story is in the final scenes, where Meek says that he no longer even pretends to lead. He is following the Tetherows: “This was written long before we got here. We are all just playing our parts” says Meek. Brechtian in essence, this device, whilst reminding the audience that we are watching a film, brings the activity to a standstill (Morrison, 2010, p.43). Whereas in classical cinema, the woman’s role is to disrupt narrative, it is Meek’s presence that “work[s] against the development of [the] story-line, to freeze the flow of action” (Mulvey, 1993 [1975], p.116). The camera grants Emily the final decision as, framed from within the branches of a tree, her gaze leads the spectator to follow the Indian as he walks away, suggesting the group’s choice (see Fig. 5 below). In employing art cinema strategies such as non-linearity, non-activity, “uncoding, de-coding, deconstructing [and] de-familiarization” (Doane, 1981, p.24) related to feminine or feminist syntax, there is an intentional “absence of closure” (Kuhn, 1994, p.222). Reichardt offers a deliberately ambiguous ending, playfully ‘cutting off’ the story and challenging us to employ our intellect to fill in the gaps and create what happens next by “piecing together fragments of the story” (Kuhn, 1994, p.165).

Fig. 5. The camera grants Emily the final decision

Fundamentally, Meek’s Cutoff reclaims masculine territory: Emily asserts power as an individual in her restricted context, and symbolically Reichardt reclaims a power for women who have been disempowered by a historically patriarchal, dominant genre, ensuring “the careful work of feminist archivists, theorists, historians and artists is [not] neglected, devalued [or] obscured” (Mayer, 2016, p.113). The film is refreshing, political and important: “In many ways it is this exploration of “invisible” politics, […] challenging entrenched perceptions of how the world “is” [that] can contribute to the business of changing it” (Potter, 2011, p.14).
Meek’s Cutoff requires active participation of a different kind from Mulvey’s voyeuristic objectification or narcissist identification (1993 [1975], p.114): “Here, at last, the demands of women can have a determining effect on aesthetics, as the work of feminist film theorists and film-makers gains strength and influence” (Mulvey, 2009 [1978], p.130). In an “unheightened moment” (Reichardt in Quart, 2011, p.41) Reichardt also raises her gun: in an indelible remodelling of the Western hero, she takes a direct aim at the male gaze.


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Bordwell, D. (2002) ‘The Art Cinema as a mode of Film Practice’ in Fowler, C. (ed.), The European Cinema Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 94-102.
Doane, M. A. (1981) ‘Woman's Stake: Filming the Female Body’, The New Talkies, 17, pp. 22-36.
Doane, M. A. (1984) ‘The Woman’s Film: Possession and Address’ in Doane, M.A., Mellencamp, P. & Williams, L. (eds.), Re-Vision. Los Angeles: University Publications of America Inc., pp. 67-80.
Kuhn, A. (1994) Women’s pictures: feminism and cinema. 2nd edition. London: Verso.
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Meek’s Cutoff. Preliminary Press Notes [Online]. Oscilloscope Laboratories. [Accessed 20th December 2015]
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Morrison, S. (2010) ‘In Transit. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff’, Cineaction. Toronto International Film Festival: TIFF, pp. 40-44.

Mulvey, L. (1993 [1975]) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Easthope, A. (ed.), Contemporary Film Theory. London and New York: Longman, pp.111-124.
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Quart, L. (2011) ‘The Way West: A Feminist Perspective: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt’, Cineaste, 36 (2), pp. 40-42.

Potter, S. (2011) ‘The Prospects for Political Cinema Today’, Cineaste, 37 (1), pp. 6-17.

Studlar, G. (2001) ‘Sacred Duties, Poetic Passions. John Ford and the Issue of Femininity in the Western’ in Studlar, G. & Bernstein, M. (eds.), John Ford Made Westerns. Filming the Legend in the Sound Era, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

tieman64 (2013) ‘We're not lost. We're just a little locationally challenged’, [Online] IMDB 10th May, [Accessed 2nd January 2016]

Tompkins, J. (1993) West of Everything. The Inner Life of Westerns. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Raalte, C. (2012) Looking like a hero: constructions of the female gunfighter in Hollywood cinema. [Online]. Bournemouth University.  [Accessed 25th June 2016].


Duel in the Sun (1946). [film] Directed by King Vidor. USA.
Meek’s Cutoff (2011). [film] Directed by Kelly Reichardt. UK.
The Searchers (1956). [film] Directed by John Ford. USA.
The Way West (1967). [film] Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen. USA.


Friday 4 March 2016

Out of the shade and into the limelight: Women Amateur Filmmakers in Britain


Joanna Fryer, Make-Up (1978)

As International Women’s Day approaches, the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA), part of the University of East Anglia, has revealed over one hundred newly-digitised films by women amateur filmmakers. This fascinating collection offers unprecedented insights into the concerns and approaches of amateur female filmmakers working between the 1920s and late-1980s. These Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) award-winning films showcase an impressive variety of themes and topics, including observations of life in Britain (and abroad) and insights into the various social and cultural changes that took place over the period. These themes are explored through dramas, comedies, documentaries, animated films and travelogues.

The films also highlight the different ways in which women amateur filmmakers worked during the last century. Previously assumed to play a secondary or incidental role in amateur film productions, the research undertaken at EAFA during the cataloguing and digitisation of this collection demonstrates a more complex and varied range of production practices. These films were made by lone filmmakers, cine club teams, husband and wife partnerships, young women, students and children. For example, research carried out by Dr Francis Dyson into partnerships such as Stuart and Laurie Day revealed that women were key to such creative collaborations, while the all-female team of Sally Sallies Forth (Frances Lascot, 1928) arose out of cine-club interests. Indeed, the film is credited as the first amateur film produced wholly and exclusively by women.

Many of the women amateur filmmakers went on to make films professionally and the films featured in this collection offer a rare glimpse at the beginnings of the filmmaking styles they would go on to develop professionally. For example, Joanna Fryer’s film Make-Up (1978), produced when she was a student, demonstrates her skill for sketch animation which she would later use as an animator on The Snowman (1982). Meanwhile, animator Sheila Graber’s early films from the 1970s were screened at IAC festivals and seen by an agent, which led to her working on the Just So Stories (1979) and Paddington (1975-1986), and she continues to produce short films today.

The films also offer unique perspectives on significant historical and cultural moments, such as Eustace and Eunice Alliott’s travelogues, which were produced during their trips around Europe in the 1930s. The Alliott’s snapshots of their daily life on their travels are underscored by a sense of foreboding as they depict Europe on the brink of war. On the other hand, sometimes a film only becomes significant long after it was made, as is the case with Her Second Birthday (circa. 1934). The film captures a two-year-old girl playing in the garden and was not initially intended to be shown outside the family. This little girl grew up to be June Thorburn, the British actor who starred in films such as The Cruel Sea (1953) and Tom Thumb (1958), Thorburn was killed in an air crash in 1967, aged 36. 

These distinctive films shed light on the contribution women have made to amateur filmmaking in the twentieth century, and they are soon to take their place in the limelight as films are due to be
screened in selected cinemas across the UK from the 3rd of March 2016 to celebrate International Women’s Day. This will be followed in the coming weeks by special screenings and events to be announced. You can also find out more about the films via Twitter @EAFAAmateurFilm and Facebook.

The Women Amateur Filmmakers in Britain catalogue and a selection of the digitised films can be accessed here. For more information on the collection, or to arrange a screening, please contact Sarah Hill at the University of East Anglia.

Monday 13 July 2015

Artisan animation with a social agenda: 1970s children’s television in Finland




In October 2014 issue 3 of the Finnish, but Swedish language[i], publication Film Journalen allocated a substantial amount of space to animation and to women creators. Considering its international distribution and profile, it is hardly surprising that the cover should have featured two of the main characters from the 2014 Finnish-French co-production Moomins in the Riviera, the Snork Maiden and Moomintroll himself. The Moomins have grown to become one of Finland’s most successful cultural exports and their creator, Tove Jansson (1914-2001), assumed the status of a beloved national institution already in her life-time. However, while the article about the Moomin film is given a double page spread, a far more substantial portion of the journal is given to retrospective appraisals of domestic animation occasioned by 2014 as the centenary year of the animated film. Particular attention is given to a group of female freelance creators who during the 1970s brought about something of a golden age of home-grown animation within the Swedish-language children’s programming at the public broadcaster Yleisradio (translates roughly as ‘Public Radio’), or YLE. There is an essay running through fifty years of Swedish language children’s animation (Uggledahl 2014: 14-18), an article by Antonia Ringbom (2014: 20-25) based on transcripts from her documentary and a shorter piece by Johanna Minkkinen (2014: 36-37) about the 2014 release of a compilation DVD of animated shorts by Camilla Mickwitz as a cultural heritage undertaking by the Finland Swedish Film Centre. Before proceeding I should declare that Camilla Mickwitz (1937-1989), one of the key figures in Finnish children’s animation of this era, was my mother.  This means that my understanding of the topic, although grounded in research, also draws on memory and my position as an ‘inside observer’ (albeit a very young one) at the time in question. This piece is not intended to amount to a personal tribute, but it would be churlish not to include some personal recollection, as and when appropriate.

Hailed as significant and innovative contributors to Finland’s animation history by the Film Journalen issue and also a (somewhat patronisingly titled) television documentary, Berits stall – tjejmaffian/ Berit’s stable – the girl mafia (Pii Berg and Antonia Ringbom 2014), aired on YLE5 on the 10th of October 2014, Christina Andersson, Kati Bondstam, Ia Falck, Estelle Rosenlew, Antonia Ringbom and Camilla Mickwitz all worked with the children’s television producer and programmer Berit Neumann between 1968 and the mid-70s. This is a segment of women’s film history that offers multiple facets worthy of attention: gender and hierarchies of value in relation to children’s television; creative industries themes’ such as freelance and project based work, industry awards as determinants of quality (Connolly, Hanretty, Hargreaves Heap and Street 2015); barriers to the transnational flows of media in terms of language, and codes of representation. While dealing with each of these considerations in depth is beyond the scope here, I will aim to introduce some examples of content, as well as indicatively consider some contextual factors, in order to situate this fragment of Finnish animation and women’s film-making history. But the relative obscurity of this topic, and its cultural context, prompts me to first outline something of a background sketch.

There is a tendency to summarise Finland’s international profile by tentative listing of a handful of sports stars, design brands and latterly the mobile technology giant Nokia.  The country’s marginal position, culturally speaking, seems underlined geographically. Beyond a long land-border with Russia, it is set apart from surrounding countries by the Baltic Sea. Speeded-up connections by air travel have not managed to render this geographical circumstance any less psychologically potent; I grew up in the capital of Finland with a nagging sense of being incurably tucked away in a peripheral and parochial European region. It is perhaps unsurprising that, much later on, reading theoretical postulations about centre-margins dichotomies had immediate and experiential resonance.

A relatively young nation, Finland is Nordic, but not Scandinavian, and despite occupying a relatively large expanse of space, it has a small population and a (first) language that shares little in common with most other European languages. Historically, Finland in the post WW2 period has also held a somewhat singular position. Despite a being a European free market economy and having a fraught historical and political past with its larger, more powerful neighbour, the country maintained close ties with the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist states in terms of trade, but significantly also cultural links and exchanges. Why is this relevant here? Looking at the animation that flourished in Finnish children’s television in the 1970s it is possible to discern a fusion of influences of 1950s American limited animation, its aesthetics and principles, and the stop motion techniques and artisan production model of Eastern European animation.

Used by animation pioneers such as Winsor McKay and Earl Hurd (who sought to patent the process in 1914), Walt Disney is most commonly seen as the trail blazer and dominant figure in the history of cel animation. Cel animation involves creating the impression of movement by overlaying static and painted backgrounds with transparent celluloid acetate sheets, on which the figures and their movements are traced. In a report on Finnish animation published by the Finnish Film Foundation, Juho Gartz (1975) makes quite clear how despite the awe inspired by the technical superiority of Disney’s productions, home grown production was galvanised more radically by the (later) example set by UPA’s adoption of more financially feasible practices of limited animation. Meanwhile, possibilities of stop motion animation were vigorously explored in Eastern Europe, in particular in the, then, Republic of Czechoslovakia.

Stop motion animation creates movement through the physical movement of elements in between shots in order to effect the illusion of continuous movement once projected at a range of typically 12-24 frames per second. Time consuming and painstaking as this is, it is still less labour intensive than Disney-style cel animation. It does not, therefore, inherently necessitate an extensive work-force, especially if the goal is not a feature length film. While this technique also had proponents in the US and elsewhere, stop motion animation and puppet animation has a rich tradition in Eastern Europe. Famous names include the Soviet film maker Aleksandr Ptushko and the Czech Ladislas Starewitch.  John Halas and Roger Manwell (1969: 236) have accredited the proliferation of puppet animation here to longer standing folk traditions involving carved dolls. However, it would be wrong to discount the role of state subsidised cultural production of the socialist Eastern Bloc, which offered a platform for individuals and small production teams to explore the medium without the immediate pressure of sustaining profitable box office returns. This most certainly contributed to the emergence of influential post- WW2 creators such as Jan Šwankmajer and Jiří Trnka, the latter’s expression of political dissent in Ruka/The Hand (1965) notwithstanding.

State sponsored cultural production in Finland should by no means be directly compared to that of the structures both enabling and constraining the arts in Soviet era Eastern European countries. But, the 1970s in particular saw a pro-active arts policy in several parts of Northern Europe (Toepler and Zimmer: 32). Arts funding in part worked to support social democratic goals of equality and access for consumers, but also took the form of subsidies and grants schemes for small groups and individuals. Especially in comparatively small and young nations such as Finland, funding of artists and cultural producers by means of grants can be seen as an expression of the wider logic that informed Nordic cultural policy from the beginning of the 1960s up until the mid-70s; a protective measure against the perceived threat of commercial interests and a way of ‘strengthening national identities through cultural policy’ (Duelund 2008: 13).  According to this understanding public funding of artistic production, including the projects of individual and artisan cultural producers, works to protect authenticity, innovation and quality. The idea that the good of the nation is in need of such safe-guarding is informed by a view of the cultural industries that has since been debunked for its paternalistic attitude towards ‘the public’, and criticised for the dichotomy it constructs between commerce and notions of value. And yet, despite a rather comprehensive theoretical fall from grace and further erosion by the general political drift towards neoliberal and market-led positions, this period of cultural policy produced some interesting results.  And while the media and critical attention to this period in Finnish animation history has largely focused on creator personas, the creative industries perspective is found simmering not too far under the surface. But more on this later.

Camilla Mickwitz, having trained as a graphic artist and worked commercially as an illustrator, began her forays into animation under the wing of Berit Neumann, and tutelage of Aarre Aalto who ran the YLE special effects studio (Ringbom 2014: 22) in the late 1960s. At this point, no formal animation education was yet in place in Finland, and home-grown Finnish animation was most prominently featured in advertising, or as short segments in live-action programming. Juho Gartz (1975) has traced historical connections to comic book publishing and illustration, as well as the influential year-long stay in Helsinki in 1960-61 by Robert Balser, later famed for his contribution to the Beatles film Yellow Submarine (1968) and television series Jackson Five (1971-72).

Although the animation of Mickwitz and her contemporaries is far from characterised by technical sophistication (Gartz 1975: 110; Uggeldahl 2014:15), it did achieve significant critical acclaim. In fact, technical naiveté to some extent worked to underline prestige, by defining this group’s work against the slickness, high production values of large-scale production and ‘mass culture’ status of popular imports (read Disney). In other words, the work by this group of animators presented an exemplary fit with the cultural policy of the time. A far more sympathetic fit, supported by established cultural exchange programmes between Finland and socialist Eastern Bloc states, was found with the Eastern European craft orientated aesthetic. However, instead of puppet animation, early Finnish animation was more often a form of simple 2D stop motion: using cut-out pieces of paper and making drawings ‘come alive’ by applying basic principles of animation. This technique is, in fact, also known as cut-out animation. Many of the creators in question made children’s books as well as animated films, also in keeping with the Eastern European model. Seemingly driven in equal measure by the emphasis on a singular creative vision that characterises a field of restricted cultural production (Bourdieu 1993) and a social agenda, this was work asserting claims for children’s culture to be taken seriously.  Because access to these short films is limited, and translation issues (cultural as well as linguistic) further complicate their circulation, I feel that some examples of some of the stories and the characters inhabiting these depicted worlds is needed. It will hopefully help explain the general outlook of this particular crop of children’s animation.

Christina Andersson’s (1936-) very earliest film Tugsummarpojken/The Thumbsucking Boy includes a negotiation between son and father along the lines of ‘you quit smoking cigarettes, and I will stop sucking my thumb’ (Ringbom 2014: 22-23), Mats och hans Föräldrar/Mats and his Parents (1971) grappled with divorce and Jakob Dunderskägg/Jacob Thunderbeard (1979) featured as its central character a distinctly un-conventional child minder. As far from the prim and proper Mary Poppins as imaginable, Jakob, a gruff and unkempt pirate captain, showed that values beyond appearances and conventions ultimately win the day. But perhaps more significantly, especially when considering that he made his appearance more than twenty-five years ago, Andersson’s Jakob challenged gender assumptions in relation to child care. Some years later, taking a broader view and more heavy-handed approach, Anima och Monstret ‘Destruktor’/ Anima and the Monster ‘Destructor’ (1985) by Antonia Ringbom addressed threats to the environment from nuclear power and the excesses of disposable consumer culture. At fifty minutes this was a comparatively long film, and thus ambitious in terms of technical scope as well as its themes.


With a decidedly more upbeat quality characterising her body of work, Camilla Mickwitz went on to publish more than twenty children’s books and write and produce almost as many animated shorts. She also created the logo and ident for the children’s television channel ‘Pikku Kakkonen’ (‘Little Two’), which is currently still in use, and animated a long-running public information film about the dangers of playing on thin ice. Her very first animation, to the soundtrack of ‘The Mice’s Christmas Eve’ (which is a well-known by Norwegian songwriter Alf Prøysen), was aired on YLE’s fledgling Swedish language children’s programme slot in 1968. From there Mickwitz soon moved on to a more authorial approach; writing, drawing, directing and eventually also producing her own films. In order of appearance, her most well-known characters are a small boy called Jason, Emilia (who tells stories with her father, Oskar), and an anarchic little witch, Mimosa, who travels by broom-stick and generally takes it upon herself to be an instigator of disorder. All appeared in several short animations as well as books. The first film introducing Jason (1971) was no more than 5-6 minutes long. The film opens by showing the simply drawn shape of a tower block as the voice-over explains: ‘many people live in this house, big people and little people’.





Jason himself is first seen being pulled by the hand by his mother at such speed that he seemingly flies in her wake; she can’t be late for work and must drop Jason off at the child minder beforehand. Jason’s mother works on the production line in a factory, but earns extra cash as a life-drawing model for evening classes at the art school. In a provocative move, Mickwitz shows her posing between easels, a thought bubble revealing that she’s thinking about the new winter coat she wants to buy for Jason with her wages. The story details aspects of the everyday life this small family unit: watching television together, Jason playing with his friends and baking at the child-minder’s flat, a trip to the hair- dresser’s and the treat of an ice-cream cone bought from a small kiosk. But despite its hum-drum social realism the approach is far from down-beat.


As unsentimental as it is visually rich, this is a vibrant colour-world conjured by crayons and water soluble pencils and characterised by an assured graphic style and sensibility. The single parent family is represented but never explained, commented or elaborated on. In the later, and at 13 minutes slightly longer, Jason’s Summer (1973), Jason and his mother escape the dust and grime of the big city to stay in a rural guest house run by an elderly lady. Here Jason watches the various guests who all holiday in the villa while observing strict social protocols not to invade each other’s personal space. He eventually decides that this is a predictable and dull state of affairs, and by pushing all the small tables in the dining room together forces everybody to get to know each other.


Sharing, intergenerational relationships and the foibles and (ultimately redeemable) shortcomings of adults are recurring themes in Mickwitz’ work. In another Jason story, Angry Agnes, the bad-tempered neighbour who complains about noise on the landing, has an unexpected change of heart. When tooth-ache causes Agnes to swaddle her head in a thick shawl, she finds the isolation of complete silence disconcerting. This helps her realise that rather than just aggravating noise, sounds of other people in the building are in fact reassuring signs that she is not all alone. The Emilia stories tackle a variety of topics: sea pollution (Emilia and The Twins); totalitarianism and simultaneously the power relations between big people and small people (Emilia and King Oscar); elderly ladies reclaiming a sense of purpose as they interact with neighbourhood children (Emilia and Three Little Old Ladies); and not least, the story about the small boy who, despite wishing for a doll to dress and bathe and play with, only ever receives toy cars and trucks on birthdays and Christmases (Emilia and the Doll).                    


Presumably as a result of his thwarted childhood desires, when as an adult this protagonist meets a girl who looks exactly like a doll, he finds her irresistible and they soon move in together. But Nora (with a none-too-subtle nod to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen) eventually outgrows the doll’s house he has built for her and she leaves. The story ends by a conciliation on a park bench, as Nora (in a more fresh-faced and less frilly incarnation) and her newly re-constructed man agree that real persons are not objects to be owned. Perhaps a tad clunky, but as a politically engaged film aimed for child audiences, it also seems remarkably ahead of its time. Presenting a clear and radical counterpoint to the gender politics associated with Disney princess films, this contribution in fact significantly pre-dates the majority of them, with the exception of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). So evidently, stylistic markers and production models are not the only aspects worthy of consideration. I think it is true to say that the public funding model and cultural policy that contributed to this work’s emergence, in effect, reproduces the ‘charismatic ideology’ (Bourdieu 1996/1992: 167, cited by Hesmondhalgh 2006: 212) and consecrates of the individual creator. At the same time, it enabled the production and circulation of perspectives and values not necessarily made available in dominant market-led cultural production, producing added breadth in terms of resources for the construction of subjectivities and identities. The observational humour and determined social engagement that characterises this work is no less pronounced than the deliberately hand-crafted aesthetic.

Within the relatively small-scale national context of these films, their profile as domestically produced and pioneering products was further bolstered by critical attention in the form of awards. Prizes and awards are important mechanisms for attributing value by means of industry/peer recognition (Hanretty, Connolly, Street and Hargreaves-Heap 2015: 268). And as in any kind of award and grants economy, also familiar in academic contexts, having proven ability to attract funding significantly adds weight to future proposals. It is therefore a crucial consideration. International film festivals, and especially animation festivals such as the ones held in Bratislava and Annecy were not just networking opportunities. Recognition abroad reverberated back home with considerable effect. Andersson was awarded a prize from the Prix Jeunesse Foundation in Munich in 1972, which was followed by several domestic awards. Mickwitz also has a considerable list of Finnish prizes and accolades. Among others, she was awarded the Finnish State Award for Children’s Literature in 1973, and again in 1976 and 1986, followed by the State Award for Children’s Culture a year later. However, most commentaries on her career focus their attention on a prize given at the Hollywood International Television Awards in 1974. Despite its grand name, this was in fact a small and local industry festival that did not achieve the longevity of some of its competitors, and has since disappeared without trace from festival listing and archives. It is likely that the film was originally submitted by YLE as part of a promotional drive; exposure aimed to drum up interest from overseas networks. When the film was selected for special commendation, this recognition of a Finnish animator (with the instant glamour of the Hollywood name and kudos of the ‘International’ in its title) was picked up by the main national newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat. This in turn ignited interest from a slew of women’s magazines. This short-lived, but nonetheless potently frothy flurry of attention helped cement the idea of Mickwitz as a figure of note on the Finnish cultural scene. The chimera of ‘the Hollywood prize’ still lingers seductively and has become a staple in narratives surrounding Mickwitz’ contribution to Finnish animation and children’s culture.

Confirmations of international recognition are thus an important element in this particularly fertile and productive period in the history of Finnish animation. But despite such industry acknowledgements, and despite being showcased at larger European trade-fairs, most of these animated shorts were taken up and bought mainly by other Nordic broadcasters. It would seem that single parent families, artist’s models and the revolutionary overthrow of authoritarian patriarchs was deemed inappropriate content for children’s television further afield. Granted, this was several decades ago.  


But although topics such as marine pollution (Emilia och Tvillingarna/ Emilia and The Twins) would be unlikely to raise objections today, I struggle to imagine Jason’s mother’s evening job depicted on our screens even now. This display of asexual nudity (a concept that seems utterly incomprehensible beyond a Nordic setting), especially in the context of children’s programming, would surely cause extreme reactions.

Time to return to issues of production. This particular interlude of Finland’s public broadcasting corporation YLE, and in particular its Swedish language children’s television, as a showcase and conduit for artisan animation came to an end in 1975 due to a pay dispute. The work produced by this group of creators was on a freelance basis, and considering the labour intensive processes involved, it is perhaps unsurprising that the lack of contracts and conditions of pay eventually brought about this eventual collapse. Ia Falck (Ringbom 2014: 23) recollects limited understanding of the time scale involved in animation on the part of YLE’s finance department and studio booking system. Moreover, the conditions under which much of this work was produced, gave YLE the complete copyright to all of the films. Hence none of them have been released on video, or DVD[ii]. Antonia Ringbom (ibid: 25) explains how the women animators decided to join the union for freelance programme employees (FOT), which organised editors, graphic artists and others who were mainly employees of YLE, but working to fixed-term and project-based contracts. 1975 saw the first round of strike actions, and an organised boycott meant no more animation would be produced for the corporation. For some of the women who had collaborated with Neumann’s children’s TV department, these development prompted new directions and a move into other forms of production. But for Mickwitz this did not spell the end. She continued to build on a body of work that has come to, for some, earn her the moniker ‘the godmother of cut-out animation’ (Fransberg 1994:81, cited by Uggeldahl 2014: 16). From 1976 to her pre-mature death from an aneurism in 1989, Mickwitz created a large number of films with the independent production company Epidem. Having an established reputation no doubt facilitated further production grants from the Finnish Film Foundation, and YLE now had to pay fees when broadcasting her films.  

There are complex dynamics of cultural value at work in this narrative, and the uneven relations outlined above, between the symbolic sway of awards and accolades and the power struggles between institutional structures and producers working under untenable economic conditions and terms of employment is one such tension.  Another is the status of children’s media and culture in relation to cultural fare aimed for adults. According to a purely (simplistic) economic analysis it is logical that attention and effort should be concentrated on producing cultural goods with appeal to the parts of the population with the most disposable income. But such an instrumentalist view only gives a partial account, and there are other factors to consider, as well as the consequences. Viewing children’s culture as being of lesser consequence clearly has implications for producers of children’s culture, and the conditions under which they produce their work. Children have also notably been deemed a demographic that is particularly vulnerable to the damaging ‘effects’ of media products, and therefore in need of protection by codes and censorship. Connected to this, yet a quite separate, if equally thorny issue is the idea of ‘childhood innocence’ as a quality in need of safe-guarding. Cultural constructions of childhood present complicated debates, and would quickly take me beyond the scope of this contribution. But power relations between adults and children was a noticeable concern in much of this glut of early 1970s Finnish animation, as was the refusal to patronise young viewers by preconceived notions of what kind of content is suitable for them. I would suggest that a key characteristic of these films is that the children depicted in the films, as well as the audiences the films are created for and addressed to, are fundamentally conceived as actors with social and political agency.

And last, but certainly not least, it is unlikely to be mere coincidence that all of the animators in this group are women. In a patriarchal social structure the nurture of, in particular young and pre-school, children is a traditionally female domain, and the gendered allocation of professional roles some forty years ago would have been more normative than  might be the case today. Some of the attitudes by which these producers were met in the institutional contexts in which they initially developed their story-telling techniques would have been coloured by condescension both on the grounds that they were making work for children and that they were women. But the 1970s also included lively and loud challenges to the status quo, as exemplified by feminist and environmental movements. And the work by the women creators of this particular time and place is undeniably suffused by such a zeitgeist. Ringbom (2014: 25) points out the revolutionary spirit of 1968 as a profound influence for their generation, stating that ‘we wanted to impact the future, the whole world, through children’ (my translation), no less. With hindsight such earnestness might seem gauche. Yet the ambition exuding from the work of these women animators is difficult to deny, as it covers both textual content and the instigation of new working practices within the existing institutional frameworks.

Perhaps the best way to sum up will be by conjuring from personal memory. High/low culture and avant-garde/mass trash distinctions were never in question in my childhood home, nor was the privileging of individual creative genius. Mediocrity and petit-bourgeois convention were dispatched with disdain in accordance with the worst snobbishness of bohemian traditions. At the same time, and somehow unencumbered by the inherent paradox, the robustly socio-political agenda of my mother and her colleagues is testament to a progressive politics of change, equality and social responsibility.

My aim in writing this piece has been to insert what I consider a simultaneously vibrant and contradictory historical fragment into a broader transnational context of women’s film heritage and animation history. Going back to my earlier comments about centres and margins, I feel this history deserves some form of presence and connection beyond the northern shores of the Baltic Sea.



Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity.

Duelund, Peter. 2008. ‘Nordic Cultural Policies: a critical view’, International Journal of Cultural Policy 14 (1): 7–24.

Gartz, Juho. 1975. Elävöitettyjä Kuvia: raportti suomalaisesta animaatioelokuvasta/Animated Pictures: a report on Finnish animated film. Helsinki: Finnish Film Foundation.

Halas, John and Roger Manwell. 1969.  The Technique of Film Animation. London: Focal Press.

Hanretty, Chris, Sara Connolly, John Street, and Shaun Hargreaves-Heap. 2015. ‘What makes for prize-winning television?’ European Journal of Communication 30 (3): 267 –284.


Hesmondhalgh, Devid. 2006. ‘Bourdieu, the Media and Cultural Production.’ Media, Culture & Society 28 (2): 211–23.


Minkkinen, Johanna. 2014. ‘Film Centrum Vill Bevara den Finlandssvenska kulturskatten’/ ‘Film Centre Wants to Restore a Cultural Treasure’, Film Journalen 3: 36-37.

Ringbom, Antonia. 2014. ‘Den Animerade Tjejmaffian’/’The Animated Girl Mafia.’ Film Journalen 3: 20-25.

Toepler, Stefan and Annette Zimmer. 2002. ‘Subsidizing the Arts: art and government in Western Europe and The United States’. In Global Culture: Media, Arts, Policy, and Globalization, edited by Diana Crane, Nobuko Kawashima and Kenichi Kawasaki, 29-48. Hove: Psychology Press.

Uggeldahl, Krister. 2014. ‘Teckna, Klippa, Knåpa, Plåta: Femtio år av Finlandssvenk barnkammaranimation’/ ‘Draw, Cut, Craft, Shoot: Fifty Years of Swedish Language Kids’ Animation in Finland.’ Film Journalen 3: 14-18.


Camilla Mickwitz Filmography:

1968 Hiirten jouluaatto/ The Mice’s Christmas Eve
1969-1971 Max ja Murre/Max and Murre
1971 Pikku Kanin hassu päivä/ Small Rabbit’s Funny Day (with Kati Bondestam)
1972 Sormus/The Ring
1972 Jason
1973 Jason ja Frans/ Jason and Frank
1973 Jasonin kesä/Jason’s Summer
1974 Jason ja vihainen Viivi/ Jason and Angry Agnes
1976 Ollaan yhdessä/ We’re Together
1976-1979 The Emilia series:

Emilia ja omenapuumetsä/ Emilia and the Orchard, Emilia ja Kolme Pikkuista Tätiä/Emilia and Three Little Old Ladies, Emilia ja Kuningas Oskari/Emilia and King Oscar, Emilia ja Nukke/Emilia and the Doll, Emilia ja Onni/ Emilia and Happiness, Emilia ja Kaksoset/Emilia and the Twins.

1982 Mimosa
1985 ...Ja sinusta tulee pelle/ …And you get to be the clown
1987 Mimosan syntymäyö/ Mimosa’s Birthnight
1989 Pieni enkeli/ Little Angel

[i] Officially a bi-lingual country, Finland has a population of just under 5 and a half million, 5.5 % of which is Swedish speaking.
[ii] The recent publication of a dvd of Mickwitz’ work (2014) includes only her later output, produced with Epidem, which according to web pages in honour of the centenary of Finnish animation production, is the oldest Finnish production company specialising in animation.

Since completing doctoral study in the Department of Film, Television and Media at UEA in 2013, Nina Mickwitz has been working as a visiting lecturer and associate tutor at University of East Anglia, University of Hertfordshire and Anglia Ruskin University. Her monograph ‘Documentary Comics: graphic truth-telling in a skeptical age’ (Palgrave-US) is scheduled for publication in December 2015. Nina is one of the organisers of Transitions: New Directions in Comics Studies, an annual symposium at Birkbeck College, London. Current research interests include seriality and the symbolic construction of ‘Fortress Europe’ in European television drama.