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Cinenova, ‘Reproductive Labour’ at the Showroom, London, 2011

Cinenova is a volunteer-run organisation dedicated to preserving and distributing the work of women and feminist film and video makers based in London. The Working Group, those of us who volunteer for the organisation, came together in 2008 with the intention of making public and urgent Cinenova’s continued, practical ability to preserve, promote and distribute the work in the collection. The intention and activity of the Working Group is not separate or competing with the daily practical and organisational work of running Cinenova; both practices are inextricably linked. It did, however, feel necessary to form a discursive practice that would support the practical work we were doing, and why we are doing it. This is how the Working Group is implied.

Recently, Cinenova completed an exhibition project at the Showroom in London, entitled Reproductive Labour. The title refers to the different kinds of labour involved in the project, and acknowledges the ‘reproductive’ labour or maintenance work we do. We’ve considered maintenance of the organisation in relation to the free reproductive work performed by women and as part of ourselves, which is often invisible and unpaid labour. The term also refers (with humour) to the mechanical reproduction of the film and video materials themselves, which constitutes a significant part of our work and time.

Reproductive Labour was less a display and more a way of offering different ways of engaging with Cinenova and its moving image materials. It was possible for visitors to research films, videos and ephemera that includes photographs, posters and articles pertaining to the films and videos and their makers. Invited selectors nominated a work from the collection that was featured daily, while the digitisation and cataloguing of the Cinenova collection simultaneously took place in the exhibition space. Events were organised over the six-week period, initiated by the Working Group and also by Showroom visitors who took it upon themselves to organise screenings and discussions in the space.

Cinenova distributes over 500 titles that include experimental film, narrative feature films, artists’ moving image, documentary and educational videos made from the 1920s to the present. The thematics in these titles include oppositional histories, post-colonial struggles, reproductive labour, representation of gender and sexuality and, importantly, the relations and alliances between these different struggles. Cinenova currently uses the model of distributor, rather than archive, because it foregrounds social relations between the producer and the viewer of film and video works. The distributor mediates the desire of the maker to have their film or video shown and the desire of the viewer to see the film or video; creates a job for herself and an organisation, culture or community around this labour; has a direct influence on the films and videos that are seen, where they are seen and who sees them. The distributor also monetises these relations. The money from sales and rental of works to cinemas, television and external organisations is split 50/50 between the maker and the organisation. Significantly, however, the independent non-commercial sector has yet to achieve financial survival from this income alone, which is why organisations like LUX or the British Film institute have been subsidised by state funding since their inception. Cinenova is often approached to make curatorial decisions for institutions about what they should show, and to provide contextualising materials or introductions for screening events. While this is part of the work that we do, distribution is the political and conceptual framework for the organisation.

Initially self-organised and based on structures defined by its community of feminists and filmmakers, Cinenova has always aimed to provide the means to support the production and distribution of women’s work, and has played critical roles in the creation of independent and radical media. But to understand how the organisation is constituted, it is important to recognise both its history as well as its process of reassessment now. Cinenova was established in 1991 following the merger of two feminist film and video distributors, Circles and Cinema of Women, which were both founded in the early 1980s.

Circles started following the 1979 Arts Council touring exhibition Film As Film, in which Annabel Nicolson, Felicity Sparrow, Jane Clarke, Jeanette Iljon, Lis Rhodes, Mary Pat Leece, Pat Murphy and Susan Stein co-authored the essay ‘Woman And the Formal Film’, published in the exhibition catalogue in place of presenting works in the exhibition. They wrote: “We made the decision not to carry on, not to continue working in a situation that was hostile and ultimately fruitless for the individual women involved. it is better that the historical research be published elsewhere and the work of contemporary women filmmakers, artists and critics be presented in a context where they are valued.”

The first films distributed were also those made by the women who started Circles, as well as the women they had researched for the exhibition, namely Germaine Dulac, Alice Guy and Maya Deren. Later acquisitions expanded and shifted from this basis as the core group running Circles began to change. Circles focused largely on film and video made by artists, although not exclusively, since these categories were part of the film and video culture that Circles was seeking to transform, or do away with. As Lis Rhodes wrote in her essay ‘Whose History?’, which also appeared in the Film As Film catalogue.

At the present time we need to show in a polemical but positive way the destructive and creative aspects of working as women in film, and examine these phenomena as products of our society, and the particular society of film/art. Women filmmakers may or may not have made ‘formalist’ films, but is the term in itself valid as a means of reconstructing history?

Cinema of Women (COW) started at roughly the same time as Circles. We think it was founded by Jane Root, Jenny Shabbaz Wallace, Caroline Spry and Eileen McNulty. Our speculation on its origins is due, in part, to the lack of records of COW and contact with those who started the organisation; it seemed to operate more anonymously and discreetly than Circles, the latter of which emphasised a more curatorial approach.

COW distributed many social and political documentary works, educational films and videos as well as feature-length fiction films. According to Abina Manning, who worked for COW towards the end of its existence, people would send in their work for potential acquisition and the organisers of COW would go to festivals and look for material. A committee of women from the organisation and women from the field would review possible new acquisitions based on what their customers were interested in or how well the work fitted with the existing catalogue. Records show that many small groups of women formed specifically to watch and discuss films from COW, and there were often questionnaires available at screenings so viewers could give feedback to the organisation and inform the kinds of work in the catalogue.

Film and video from both Circles and COW form the existing Cinenova distribution catalogue. As all funding for Cinenova was cut in 2001, there has been a suspension of gathering new contributions due to the organisation’s precarious financial situation. Since 2001, Cinenova has been run by volunteers dedicated to the constellation of films, histories and politics that make up Cinenova. We believe in the necessity of keeping the collection together and autonomous, rather than dispersed into larger and more general archives. The case of Cinenova reflects on the desires and problems that arise through collective cultural work, along with the practicalities and labour involved in maintaining such an organisation. to act as an organisation today means to preserve the material. The structure Cinenova is still based on a network of people built up over time, and who support each other and share their experiences. We have close relations to feminist organisations like the Lambeth’s Women Project, the Bildwechsel Archive in Hamburg and to other film distributors.

We are currently discussing what could the invitation of new films and videos into the collection mean; who may have difficulties accessing the contemporary distribution system; which issues are currently marginalised; and to what extent is there a need for a women-only organisation? We also see the necessity to open up even more towards a diversity of cultural contexts and visual languages. the fact that we use the term ‘women’ provokes discussion in the Working Group, as well as reactions from outside. Some filmmakers in the collection wanted their work to be distributed by Cinenova because it was founded as a women- only distributor, whereas for others this became a reason not to work with the organisation.

We understand that we are contributing to a discussion on gender and sexuality through continuing to use the term ‘women’. There are many productions by queer and transgender persons in the collection. Already by posing the question in a different way, that is if filmmakers had identified themselves as women when they shot the film, but now identify as men, the term ‘women’ is challenged. Yet we also want to value what was historically important for women and the influence of feminism on all aspects of life.

Since Reproductive Labour ended, we have been working on the practical manoeuvres key to setting the organisation on a firmer financial basis: we started a supporters campaign, we are applying for funding from the Heritage lottery Fund and are currently accepting invitations to speak, write and present this project, in exchange for funds that we return to the organisation. In this way we are thinking about alternatives to applying for state funding directly, or only.

While we have an affinity with this material we do not want to possess it; Cinenova does not hold exclusive rights to any of the work it distributes. We are thinking about how to protect a history, but also how to let it be and distribute it in the present with others. We don’t have an object that we want to make, but we do want to design different structures within which we can work and invite others to contribute.

Selected works from the Cinenova archive will be presented by Emma Hedditch, a member of the Working Group, in conversation with Isla Leaver-Yap at Tramway, Glasgow, 21 June, 7.30pm