London

View of “Reproductive Labour,” 2011.

View of “Reproductive Labour,” 2011.

“Reproductive Labour”

View of “Reproductive Labour,” 2011.

Cinenova is a UK-based distributor of films and videos by women. Its complete collection—with works dating from 1920 to 2000 and ranging from artist’s films to documentary and educational videos to narrative feature films—was presented for viewing in the exhibition “Reproductive Labour: An exhibition exploring the work of Cinenova.” Visitors could choose works from shelves of VHS and U-matic tapes and DVDs and watch their selections in the dimly lit, editing-suite ambiance of the show. Throughout the space were film posters, flyers, and pamphlets promoting the works and activities of the filmmakers and organizations that made them. Among them are well-known directors and artists such as Sally Potter, Yvonne Rainer, Babette Mangolte, Martha Rosler, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, but one of the collection’s strengths is a wealth of work by lesser-known filmmakers, some of whom worked for only a short time, many within the context of feminist debates of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. By preserving marginal works from an important political period, Cinenova presents another, less recognized film history.

Reproductive Labour” was organized by the Cinenova Working Group, a loose collective formed in 2008 to maintain and work with the distributor after perennial funding cuts and institutional closures made the organization’s existence precarious. The exhibition’s showcasing hundreds of video- and filmmakers’ works at once gave it a pleasantly authorless quality, while the works were reinterpreted and brought into dialogue with current practices through public screenings and events. One film shown in a special presentation was Sweet Sugar Rage (1985) by Sistren Theatre Collective, a working-class women’s organization in Kingston, Jamaica, which follows the group as they conduct interviews and workshops with rural women working on sugar estates—with the aim of composing a play to portray the unjust labor conditions the women face. However, Sistren’s ensuing performance functions not just as a finished theatrical work but also as a catalyst for reflection and action.

In Almost Out (1984), Jayne Parker probes the gendered dynamics of self-perception and viewing by staging a confrontation in an editing suite where she or her mother each face a video camera while nude. Dialectics of social conditioning and caring emerge as the women cope with making themselves vulnerable in this way. Catherine Saalfield and Zoe Leonard’s video Keep Your Laws Off My Body (1990) intercuts alluring footage of intimate moments between two female lovers with shots of an extreme police presence and show of force at a 1989 act up demonstration. Intermittent on-screen texts detail homophobic and misogynist laws passed throughout the 1970s and ’80s while, on the sound track, sirens disrupt the gentle whir of a film projector.

A jewel in Cinenova’s crown is Lizzie Borden’s feminist classic Born in Flames (1983), a low-budget, sci-fi feature film set after a social-democratic revolution has transformed America. However, in this seemingly just new world women still deal with the same sexist social relations as before. An army of women organizes across class and racial divides to combat these injustices, taking direct action in strikes but also by arming themselves and seizing media outlets to broadcast their message of revolt. Meanwhile they make dissident music, run pirate radio stations, and share their experiences. One might draw a parallel with Cinenova’s fight to stay alive, which is a vital and productive process in itself that, by reflecting on previous works and debates, draws attention to conditions that still need to change.

Melanie Gilligan