Artists and Activists: The Personal is Political

Last weekend, the Barbican teamed up with The Women’s Film Preservation Fund and New York Women in Film & Television to curate a programme of second-wave feminist films – unique, powerful stories by and about women in the 1970s – as part of its “Art as Change” season. The final event – a double-bill screening of two very different personal documentaries – was as thought-provoking as what came before.

The Personal is Political started with introductions from BBC Radio 4 psychoanalyst Susie Orbach and filmmaker Amalie R Rothschild. Once one of just six women in a film class of 34 (none of whom were given 35mm to work with) Rothschild managed to direct a revolutionary documentary on the artist May Wilson. One of the few films made by a woman studying film, her subject was also a subversive character defying societal expectations. As the women’s movement began to gain traction nationwide, Rothschild founded New Day Films in 1971, a distribution collective specifically for the feminist films entirely ignored by her peers.

Filmed in 1970, Woo Who? Is the perfect example of how Second Wave Feminists pioneered the ‘personal documentary’ in film, a slice-of-life look at a woman finding meaning in her own individualism in the wake of four decades of marriage. In Woo Who? we meet May Wilson: one-time archetype of a 1960 housewife, a mother, a cleaner, a cook…and nothing else. When, aged 60, she is left by her husband of 40 years it is as much a shock to herself as to others that she ups and leaves for New York city, alone, to pursue her art.

Working as a multimedia artist creating sculptures, collages and paintings, Wilson makes quite a name for herself within the New York art scene. We watch as her eccentric bell continuously rings “WOO WHO” as she receives visitor after visitor, but the high turnover of entries and exits ultimately makes for a series of fleeting characters. She talks about how she suffers from heart-break as most of the people she meets in New York are young, and those she forms strong bonds with eventually leave on their travels as they try to find their way in the world. She has not met anyone her age who’s as active or artistic as she is, and it leaves her isolated to a degree. Although the film draws lots of laughs – as we watch May sticking pictures of her face over jockeys and renaissance figures, for example – her story is also sad at times.

Its legacy is ultimately a hopeful one, however. What May shows the audience is that each of us is on a journey towards personal fulfillment – and that journey is a perpetual one. In an age of disillusionment with the “if you work hard enough you can achieve your dreams” message Millenials and Gen Z kids grew up with, May emerges as a vital figure. The desire to move away from the 9-5 treadmill, the rise of the tech and online creative industries and simultaneously the crushing experience of decreasing opportunities for our artistic and entrepreneurial aspirations – as we’re suffocated by ‘Top 30 under 30’ lists, an invisible countdown to an age by which we should have achieved our goals, is it any wonder there is renewed support for anti-capitalism among young people today? This immense pressure that I know all too well is somewhat alleviated watching May stick doll heads and shoes together in her studio, watching her restart her entire life and making it something fantastical at 62 years old. The obstacles we all face are very real, but there is no time-frame for choosing to be yourself. A woman who had never had to worry about money before faced that challenge because she had to and because she found a reason to do so – she’d found a lifestyle that was better than anything she’d experience before.

The second film, Joe and Maxi is an intimate portrait of the relationship between father and daughter. Maxi Cohen chose to turn the camera on herself, her father Max and her entire family in the aftermath of her mother’s death. Cohen states the project is a way of getting to know her dad but, as she comes to realise at the end of the film, it is just as vital as a tool of self-reflection.

Whilst Maxi is progressive in making time for self-care and working towards a career in film, she struggles to understand or even acknowledge the toxicity of her father and the effect it has on her. There are poignant moments between Maxi and Joe and for a part of the film it seems that we are simply watching a normal family bickering, working, laughing and just living. However, it isn’t long before we witness the dark treatment that women face even at the hands of their own families.

One of the most important topics that the film touches on is women’s mental health. Maxi frequents a therapist – much to the amusement of her father who enjoys criticising her choice to do so. We watch as Maxi develops growing paranoia surrounding her health as both her parents developed cancer, and we see how a woman is not taken seriously in many aspects of her life. Darker still is how all of that is overshadowed, as we see Maxi ignore the worrying innuendos her father makes about her. She does open the film with a summary of her childhood relationship with him saying: “he came at me sexually […] pinching[…] I don’t know why he did that”. The audience at the Barbican gasped in shock but Maxi doesn’t address the issue any further: instead, we see her striving to be a supportive and dutiful daughter after her father is diagnosed with testicular cancer. We witness many more moments like this from Joe which make for uneasy viewing, yet the family – including Maxi – seems to accept it as part of his character. He is portrayed as a ‘working man’s man’, almost as if his worrying behaviour is supposed to endear him to us as a man who just has to be accepted as he is. The majority of the film sees Joe pestering Maxi about when she is getting married and having kids, and that’s the standard he measures her against until his death.

Whilst one documentary is about the subversive coming-of-age experience of a 62 year old artist who has left her traditional country life to start anew as an artist in New York, the other is an intimate portrait of a father-daughter relationship in what is one of the first examples of a ‘vlog’. Although they are so different in their subjects, both films are linked through their revelations on what it means to be a woman in society. Furthermore, both films are examples of disassociated states of self and an exploration of self-awareness. They are intimate perspectives from two women who, different in most ways, share something enlightening about womanhood. On a deeper level, these films are not just about being a woman, they are about being human in modern society.

The most striking note about both films is that although they were made during the second-wave feminist movement, both directors have stated that they did not intentionally attempt to tackle issues that were still unheeded. But while neither works are explicitly political, in their personal tones and subjectivity, we gain a first-hand understanding of what is to be a female artist in the 60s and 70s, and even more so, what it means to be a woman in the face of the toxic patriarchy. Subjective experiences defined by social parameters – this is ultimately how the personal becomes political.

 

Words by Hanna-Johara Dokal

 

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