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Invisible Women at Glasgow Film Festival 2024 (interview)

Rachel Pronger, Camilla Baier, and Lauren Clarke are Invisible Women, a feminist film collective formed in 2017. Self-described ‘archive activists’, Invisible Women research overlooked histories of women in film, contextualising them through screenings and editorial. SNACK spoke with the trio about the joys and challenges of working with the archive and their Glasgow Film Festival retrospective on Mexican actor Dolores del Río.

Dolores del Río and Pedro Almendáriz in María Candelaria (1943)

How did you all meet, and what was the impetus behind Invisible Women?

Rachel: Camilla and I were studying for a Film, Exhibition and Curation masters at the University of Edinburgh, and separately we’d both become interested in ideas around archives and feminism. We ended up working together as part of our final project. We used Marion and Ruby Grierson, the sisters of John Grierson, who made a significant number of films themselves, as a jumping-off point for a screening of works by pioneering female filmmakers spanning the 1930s to 1970s.

It was in the back of a small art gallery in Edinburgh and we were very green – hanging up a sheet ourselves, super DIY. It was clearly something people were interested in because actual people came, not just our parents and friends! That event effectively became Invisible Women’s pilot screening.

From there we accidentally started a business, which snowballed over the next couple of years. #MeToo happened quite soon after, which meant we were tapping into a zeitgeist around women’s stories in film. During the pandemic we built up our website and digital presence, and Lauren joined us in 2021.

Lauren: I did the same masters programme and I’d been following Invisible Women’s work. Outside of the collective I work as a festival programmer – I’ve always focused on women’s work and been interested in the archive, but I wanted to spend more time on these areas outside of an institutional context. After collaborating with Invisible Women on an event looking at women’s labour, called Punch In/Out, they graciously let me enter the fold.

What is it about archival work that appeals to you?

Camilla: It’s the idea that you have to look at your past to understand your present. When people make statements like ‘there weren’t any female filmmakers back then’, we get our hands dirty by going into the archive and actually finding the work.

We’re passionate about showing films in a tangible way – the archive’s an exciting space but we love to contextualise everything with interviews or extra research.

We also like working with other partners, for example the London collective TAPE, putting archive film next to contemporary film to talk about how they complement and speak to each other. Archive work is so interesting because it’s so timely, even though the films can be 70, 80, 100 years old!

Rachel: Historical work always has so much to say to us now. We’re doing a retrospective at the GFT in March on Dorothy Arzner, who’s an interesting example of how women have found ways to work in Hollywood. She made really pioneering films critiquing marriage and reflecting her own queer sexuality in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

We also have the Dolores del Río strand at Glasgow Film Festival, which speaks to how Latin American actors have worked in Hollywood and how the Latin American film industry developed over time, creating lots of amazing work that we still haven’t necessarily seen. It’s about getting people to see the long-running connections between Latin American and Hollywood cinema, and that the issues Latin American actors faced when working in the US are still relevant.

Vicios en la Cocina, las Papas Silban (Cine Mujer, 1978)

In January you introduced a screening of Colombian documentary maker Marta Rodríguez’s Amor, mujeres y flores at the GFT, which was beautifully and very recently restored. The night before, the CCA showed Rodríguez’s La Hoja sagrada and Amapola: la flor maldita, filmed on video in 1998 and 2001 and with a much rougher look and sound. What challenges and barriers are there to working with archive material?

Camilla: That’s a really interesting question because Rodríguez has a whole foundation around her to protect her and Jorge Silva’s [Rodríguez’s collaborator and partner] legacy, with a lab which restores her work in collaboration with other archives. So for example Amor, mujeres y flores was restored by the Arsenal in Berlin.

As for La Hoja sagrada and Amapola: la flor maldita, when we watched those screeners we knew we really wanted to show them, but we couldn’t in their current condition.

You couldn’t understand anything and there were no subtitles. So what we decided to do with CinemaAttic [Invisible Women’s partner for the Rodríguez events] was create subtitles.

Archive work can be tricky due to expense or lack of digitisation, but we sometimes find solutions like we did with the Rodríguez season. Working with small budgets like CinemaAttic and ourselves do, we found a more organic way of working where in exchange for us providing English subtitles, they lowered the fee.

Lauren: There can be huge barriers to accessing archive material, even just having the time and headspace to find those individual gems, so we try to make it more accessible. Sometimes we pair archival work with contemporary work, and we’ve supported some of the Latin American work with subtitling. It’s all about widening the opportunities for these films to be seen.

Dolores del Río en La Otra (1946)

How do you work as a trio?

Lauren: We meet every week to go through everything we’re working on. We have to be malleable around everybody’s capacity because we all have other jobs – this one doesn’t pay the bills. We’re all pals and there’s a lot of support and care and understanding that goes into how we share the workload.

There are certain projects that somebody leads on or works more intensely on – for example, the reason we’re able to do the del Río season is because Camilla speaks Spanish and could do the negotiations – but as a whole we’re always there to feed in and contribute to different aspects of the project.

How did your del Río retrospective at this year’s GFF come about?

Lauren: I got really into her from the Hollywood in Color podcast – the first season focused on the dynamic between del Río and Lupe Vélez. She led such an interesting life. When we first talked about her we decided to bank the idea for the right occasion. We were in the middle of a bunch of other projects, so we thought, let’s put this on the back-burner and come back to it eventually.

Camilla: I came across del Río while looking into the divas of the Mexican Golden Age, like her and María Félix. I started properly thinking about her while looking into Carmen Miranda for our Helena Solberg season.

We were asked by the GFF if we wanted to curate their retrospective this year. It was exciting to get asked to do something with a bigger festival and go in a direction we’d never gone in before by focusing on an actor. Usually we look at filmmakers, but we’ve never really looked at talent. 

Rachel: We talk a lot about, and challenge, the idea of authorship. We started out looking at women directors but realised early on how problematic that was – various structural issues meant that women didn’t get to make as many films. Film is super collaborative and the auteur theory is very much a patriarchal, hierarchical theory. It fundamentally erases a lot of the labour that goes into filmmaking that doesn’t come under the category of directing.

There are also stories of women who basically directed but were never recognised as such. Polly Platt’s a good example of that: we did a retrospective on her at the GFT two years ago. She was a producer and production designer, but if you break down what she did on set with Peter Bogdanovich, she also directed. Several people from the set of The Last Picture Show said that Platt was the real director in that room.

So part of what we’re trying to do is problematise the idea that the director is the one person we should focus on. Looking at an actor opens up alleyways to talk about the power (or lack of) that actors have in different contexts, and del Río’s a rich example of that.

No es por Gusto (Cine Mujer, 1981)

Across the films you’re screening with GFF, del Río plays an Indigenous Mexican woman, a Brazilian aristocrat, and a Native American woman. What can modern audiences learn from her career about Hollywood’s treatment of race and ethnicity?

Rachel: That’s a really exciting, huge topic. It’s important when screening historical work to understand the context it was made in. We’re not saying we think it’s great that del Río was cast as a Native American, but we recognise that it was common practice in Hollywood at the time, and that it still happens!

We can look at her performances in the context of what she was given to do and how she invested those roles with dignity and gravitas.

Camilla: She’s a good example of how sometimes you need to go back home to be appreciated. When she made Bird of Paradise the studio boss said ‘I don’t care what kind of film it is, the only thing I want is to see a half-naked del Río being thrown into a volcano’. When she left Hollywood and returned to Mexico she had more autonomy over the roles that she chose.

What’s really interesting is that all of this still happens. Latino actors get cast across ethnicity all the time – in Narcos you have a Brazilian [Wagner Moura] playing Pablo Escobar, which makes no sense.

When Salma Hayek wanted to make Frida, Harvey Weinstein said he would only greenlight it if Hayek played Frida and did a scene making out with another woman. Some of these issues are timeless.

What else does Invisible Women have coming up?

Camilla: We’re doing the Dorothy Arzner CineMasters strand in March at the GFT. At Glasgow Short Film Festival we’ve got two programmes of films from [Mexican feminist film collective] Cine Mujer, one of which has never been screened in the UK.

Lauren: Talking about archives speaking to the present, the Cine Mujer films are very poignant around women’s autonomy, sex work, unions, and building community.

Camilla: We’ve got a season at ¡Viva!, Manchester’s Spanish and Latin American film festival, about the Argentine filmmaker María Luisa Bemberg. Then we’ve got an amazing project with the Nottingham Contemporary gallery…

Rachel: …It’s called Peep Show and it’s a moving image installation, which is new territory for us. It’s about the male gaze in the history of film, using work by female directors to talk about the way it was shaped in early Hollywood. It also makes connections between early filmmaking and cinema of sensation, sideshows, and carnivals.

Dolores del Río in María Candelaria (1943)

Finally, since we’re approaching International Women’s Day, are there any women in film you’d like to give a shout out to?

Camilla: Lila Avilés, the director of Totém – one of my favourite films of last year. She’s one to watch as a feature filmmaker. And Tatiana Huezo, a Mexican documentary filmmaker.


Lauren:
For home-grown Scottish talent, Adura Onashile. I’ve been following her work since Expensive Shit and I’m buzzing to see what she does next.

Rachel: I was in Rotterdam recently and saw The Murder of Mr. Devil, the only film made by Czech filmmaker Ester Krumbachová. I’m obsessed with it and I’m screening it in Berlin for IWD. It’s a crazy comedy from the 70s about a single woman who invites a former flame over for dinner – he turns out to be the devil and eats her apartment! It’s so funny and weird and it looks incredible.

I could happily live my whole life only ever watching films made by dead women. There’s still so much out there in the archive to be found and refound.

Invisible Women can be found on X/Twitter (IW_Archives), Instagram (invisiblewomen_archives), and at invisible-women.co.uk.

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