TIFF interview with Lynn Hershman, director of !Women Art Revolution

When I first heard about ! Women Art Revolution – A Secret History, I thought that a film had been made about the Guerrilla Girls and that era and was thrilled as it was a period of history crying out for a documentary. The film starts out quite ambiguously, introducing some of the characters, and then asks women through vox pops to name female artists – and my reaction as a viewer, and someone who went to art school, was of shock that people weren’t listing the likes of Jenny Saville, Sam Taylor-Wood, Gillian Wearing, Julie Doucet or even Tracy Emin straight off the bat. But then the film hurtles woman after woman at you, with images of works that I, and the majority of viewers, won’t have heard of and instantly you sit back down and listen because you realise that you are being presented with a story that is shockingly untold and important.

My first question falls into this vein. It’s evident throughout why you felt this story needed to be told. Being part of this extraordinary group, yourself, and witnessing the events firsthand, it must have created a feeling of injustice that these women aren’t household names and haven’t been recognised for the important role they played in introducing female artists into galleries. But how has it felt making this film over several decades, in terms of having this incredible story and wanting to expose this to an audience and knowing when to release it?

It has been incredibly difficult to make the film, not just because it took almost 3 months to see the material collected even once, but because of the responsibility and privilege in the material…the need to do justice to the women’s remarkable lives and courage and knowing how much would necessarily be left out. This was the impetus to address putting in the outtakes, questioning historical authenticity itself, and creating a vehicle for future exposure.

How do you feel about the current culture for women in the arts, when looking back at this unknown movement that you were part of?

It is slightly better than the 60s but not significantly. In order to go into the future we need to know our history, have a legacy, and be inspired to seek the rights and equality and opportunity that is deserved.

The Dinner Party is possibly one of the most shocking events in the film as the outcry against it goes as far as Congress getting involved. A large amount of the work these artists were creating was highly political, controversial, and shocking to a mainstream spectator. Do you think that it was the nature of the work as much as it was that the work was created by a woman that prevented it from being exhibited? Obviously, the time had a huge part in the subject matter, but would the art world have been more accepted if the artists had fit into more “acceptable” female stereotypes at the time?

I think it was originally because the artists were female. That was enough to be excluded. When artists felt there was nothing to lose, their political voices were amplified in bringing attention to pertinent issues in the society.

The film is part of an ongoing educational project to finally make the huge body of work these women created available for people to see. What are the plans for the film and the programme at the moment? Where will people be able to see the work in the future and will there be exhibitions to coincide with the film’s release?

We will show it at Sundance, Berlin, and Moma, and Whitechapel, and at Sundance we release rawwar.org, which is an online multimedia wiki for adding to history globally and democratically, and the Stanford archives are now online and up. We hope to show the movie on tv and have it accessible on dvd to many people. We also did a grapic novel by spain, and a curriculum guide that includes every exhibition, book, article, film and screening by feminist women from 1968 to the present that you can buy on on the womenartrevolution.com website.

Within filmmaking as a medium women seem to be far more drawn to documentary as opposed to fiction film and very few people, even documentary fans, have probably heard of Barbara Kopple or Kim Longinotto in the way that they have Errol Morris or Werner Herzog. It feels like there is still a long way to go. Do you think the hurdle is still a domination of attitude within art industries or the audiences?

There are many hurdles. To begin with, look at the 100 films selected by the Bell Lightbox: there is only one woman. Look at their commissions for the Lightbox: there are no women. Look at Telluride’s documentary list: there is one woman out of 34.

These attitudes die hard. To make a doc you need a camera and computer. Feature films require more advanced funding and are a bit more involved and there is an absolute exclusion of access to women. But as more women make successful films, and especially financially successful films, this will change. I have great faith in the next generation.

TIFF has 36% women and both Sundance and Berlin has high numbers of women and that is to be commended so some enlightened people are shifting the balance.

! Women Art Revolution – A Secret History had its world premiere at TIFF on Sunday and will be screening again at the times below –

Tuesday September 14 at 7:45pm PM AMC 10
Sunday September 19 at 3:45pm AMC 7

[updated 17/9/10]

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