Marielle Nitoslawska, Breaking the Frame, 2012, digital video, 100 minutes.


Canadian Marielle Nitoslawska’s feature film Breaking the Frame (2012) is a portrait of the American artist Carolee Schneemann. A collage drawn from interviews, excerpts from her private notebooks, and music composed by the late James Tenney, the film celebrates Schneemann as a guide for subsequent generations of artists. Breaking the Frame’s US theatrical premiere will run at Anthology Film Archives in New York from January 31 to February 6, 2014, and will be followed by screenings at London’s ICA. Nitoslawska and Schneemann will be in discussion on opening night in NYC.

MY PREVIOUS FILM BAD GIRL surveyed different representations of sexuality by female artists and activists. When it was finished I wanted to take a deeper, more personal approach to the topic of the body. Schneemann’s approach was closest to me. For nearly fifty years, Carolee had subverted art in thinking deeply about the female body and sexuality. And so Breaking the Frame closely follows Carolee’s beliefs, as well as her activities, her artwork, and it gives context for how all these elements have evolved together over time. I hope that people who see the film in one-hundred years will still be able to get a sense of an artist who was living in a particular place at a particular time—a woman who came into her own in the late 1950s and early ’60s—but who is also alive and still working in the twenty-first century.

Carolee’s aesthetic has always been very close to me, especially her way of working with the materials of daily life. I saw her film Fuses (1965) in my twenties at a little repertory theater in Montreal and it stuck with me. What felt so powerful and surprising to me was how the film rendered the feeling of lovemaking. The solely physical aspect is subverted, and instead we get into a person’s emotional experience. I had never ever seen explicit images of sexuality before then, but I didn’t find it shocking. It was warm, even hopeful.

I’ve read most of what’s been written about Schneemann—as well as her own voluminous correspondence with peers—I knew that my film had to be about her ideas and to go beyond language. It needed to be tactile, and to show things in motion. So I made a visually layered work about Carolee’s life and work with a lot of archival footage as well as with Super 8 and 16 mm footage that I shot myself, and with a narrative structure less linear than ephemeral, taking you through her works as though they were pearls on a string. I would connect these to her personal life, as they were connected for her. I would try to evoke, not teach but enchant.

I would also try to tell another, larger story. In 1975 Carolee wrote, “By the year 2000, no young woman artist will believe that our deepest energies were nurtured in secret.” I felt that I would include my own voice, sometimes speaking about Carolee in order to create the presence of an active female artist from another, later generation. I am one of the women she was addressing, and I felt that through me viewers could enter a once-unspeakable story about women artists, a story that must be told and retold. Carolee has also said that when she first began painting, she was a “visitor in the house of male culture.” Today our situation is very different. That, clearly, is partly due to her work. In its light, many feel Schneemann deserves a major retrospective in one of the world’s top museums, just like several of her peers have received.

— As told to Aaron Cutler