Walk down the steps into the cavernous exhibition hall at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in the summer of 2022, and you would hear a woman’s voice.footnote1 ‘So much I want to say, so much I want to say, so much I want to say,’ she utters, over and over again, her words resonating in the otherwise hushed space. Directly ahead is the source of the incantatory repetition: a cathode-ray monitor mounted on a plinth displays a 1983 video by the Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum titled, unsurprisingly, So Much I Want to Say. Originating in a performance broadcast live from Vancouver to Vienna using the slow-scan satellite method of transmission, the five-minute work comprises still, monochrome images that refresh every eight seconds. The artist’s face is framed in close-up, her mouth covered by male hands. With each new frame, the hands have moved to a new position, pressing against soft flesh and hard bone, impeding speech. Yet even as her image telegraphs an enforced silence, Hatoum’s voice pours out on the soundtrack, articulating the desire for expansive self-expression.
So Much I Want to Say is positioned at the entrance of ‘No Master Territories: Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image’, an exhibition I co-curated with Hila Peleg. Hatoum’s video sits within an 800-square-metre space filled with documents, artworks and 43 other screens of varying sizes, each showing a work on a continuous digital loop. There are no black boxes to enter, just a continuous choreography of bodies, objects and light, unfolding across a purple floor. From 19 June to 28 August 2022, the exhibition hall is dimmer than usual, transformed into something between a gallery and a mediathèque, populated with viewing stations and outfitted with an rfid-enabled sound system that allows visitors to access the soundtrack of whichever screen they choose using a single pair of headphones (So Much I Want to Say is the only display with open sound). A large fabric banner by African-American artist Cauleen Smith hangs from the ceiling, blue and orange, emblazoned with a chiasmatic call for antagonism and care: ‘Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.’
To the right, a small balcony overlooks the ground floor; it houses a selection of books and a presentation of materials devoted to the reception contexts of feminist cinemas. Here and there, architectural elements demarcate the space of the large hall, but the overall impression is one of openness. To the right of the monitor showing So Much I Want to Say is a 1993 video by us media collective Paper Tiger Television, SisterhoodTM: Hyping the Female Market. This 25-minute work lampoons the commodification of the strong, successful woman, humorously appropriating televisual genres and analyzing Nike and Reebok advertisements to mount an assault on what would later be known as ‘lean in’ feminism. The ads sell ‘individualism and autonomy’, the video suggests, offering ‘a nice-smelling, pretty, neat, feminine model of feminism’—‘a feminism that does not offend’, directing attention away from structural inequalities and towards the self. SisterhoodTM shows how promises of empowerment for a privileged few come at the expense of the many: the $80 trainers are made at a labour cost of 12 cents a pair in Indonesia, by a majority-female workforce. The notion of ‘sisterhood’, ill-founded from the start yet central to second-wave feminism, has been hollowed out, made into a brand.
Look to the left and there is a large screen showing a digital transfer of a 16mm work by Canadian experimental filmmaker Joyce Wieland, shot in April 1973 at a rally of 5,000 people in support of a strike at Dare Foods Limited, a cookie factory in Kitchener, Ontario. The employees—275 out of 365 of them women—walked out in protest at their poor working conditions and the gender pay gap. In Wieland’s representation, the individuality of the face is nowhere to be found. Instead, she looks to the anonymity of the ground, filming the feet of the strikers and their supporters as they traipse over grass and pavement, prams and dogs in tow. On the soundtrack, the impersonal murmur of the crowd prevails. They chat and cheer, ‘Don’t buy Dare!’ and ‘Gonna Roll the Union On.’ In the second half, the voice of a union organizer explains the purpose of the strike—‘to fight against the inhuman exploitation of women, which has been a speciality of the Dare company’—and details the plan to organize a cross-Canada boycott of cookies produced by scab labour. She speaks passionately but is never seen; Wieland’s Bolex remains pointed downward. Throughout the film’s eleven-minute duration, a single word, the work’s title, is emblazoned in white across the centre of the frame: Solidarity.
Nearby, two works thematize the use of 16mm technology. Made in Seoul at the height of the Park dictatorship, Han Ok-hee’s Untitled 77A (1977) opens with a shot of a woman sitting by a projector, cutting up strips of celluloid film with a pair of scissors. In this experimental depiction of the acts of filming, editing and projection, feminist anger and feminist joy mingle; like a latter-day Dziga Vertov, here a woman with a movie camera suggests that filmmaking is a means of dismantling the world in order to creatively reassemble it otherwise. Screening close to it, Women’s Camera (1971) is a tonal contrast: this dryly humorous instructional film from West Germany about how to use an Arriflex 16bl camera was made by Gardi Deppe, Barbara Kasper, Brigitte Krause, Ingrid Oppermann and Tamara Wyss as foundation-year students in a male-dominated class at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie (dffb) in Berlin. Sardonically, they turn to stereotypically feminine actions to demonstrate filmic technique: sample scenes involve knitting or peeling potatoes, skewering sexist assumptions that a woman’s place is in the home, far away from a film set.
Drift further on and issues of settler colonialism and ecological activism come to the fore, in stylistically diverse works by the Ojibwe artist Rebecca Belmore, the indigenous Australian filmmakers Essie Coffey and Tracey Moffatt or the British artists Tina Keane and Sandra Lahire; you can move between the deforestation and contamination of indigenous land in Canada, the struggles of Aboriginal peoples and the peace camp at Greenham Common. Turn towards another area, and you might plunge into realms of sexuality and fantasy in We Aim to Please (1976) by Australian anarcho-feminists Robin Laurie and Margot Nash or in Between (1989), a reappropriation of the visual language of pornography by German experimental filmmaker Claudia Schillinger. From there, the threat of violence might intrude, whether in the claustrophobic video art of Letícia Parente—made under and in oblique response to the military dictatorship and its torturers in Brazil—or in Trial for Rape (Processo per stupro, 1979), an observational documentary of a trial for gang rape in the Roman suburbs, made by a group of women working for Italian national broadcaster rai. Next to this last work are intimate Super 8 portraits that one of its makers, Annabella Miscuglio, filmed of two of her colleagues and close friends, Rony Daopulo and Paola de Martiis, between 1973 and 1976; evincing a palpable trust between filmmaker and subject, these lyrical works stand against the confrontational formality of Processo’s courtroom and speak to the bonds between women that inform feminist activism.
‘No Master Territories’ is devoted to nonfiction film and video made by women. The earliest pieces date from 1928, including Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic fieldwork footage—shot among Black communities in Florida and Alabama, on a hand-cranked 16mm camera—and, from the same year, Nikolai Khodataev and Olga Khodatayeva’s charmingly drawn Soviet animation, Terrible Vavila and Auntie Arina (Grozny Vavila i tetka Arina), which shows village women escaping domestic drudgery to speak at an 8 March International Women’s Day rally, while their drunken husbands are chased away by dancing utensils and farm implements. The most recent is from 2022: Trinh Minh-ha’s What About China?, a 135-minute work by the Hanoi-born, Berkeley-based theorist and practitioner. But most of the works in ‘No Master Territories’ were produced in the 1970s and 80s, a time when women’s liberation groups sprang up around the world. Many of these pieces were conceived in intimate relation to this feminist activism, which recognized the importance of visual media as a means of resistance, as well as a machinery of domination. Others have no affiliation to any organized social movement. Some were made by women who do not identify as feminist, but whose films nonetheless resonate with feminist concerns. Spanning a vast geography, these works conform to no single aesthetic style. There are pieces of performative video art, like Hatoum’s, but also observational documentaries, portraits, newsreels, ethnographies, essay films, docufictions, avant-garde experiments and more besides. What there were not were any instances of the capital-intensive format that has dominated cinema screens worldwide since the 1910s: the fiction feature film.