Essay: Andrea Guzmán
Doing It Ourselves: Possibilities of Alternative Media Circulation
Pioneer feminist video activists Carole Roussopoulos and Delphine Seyrig only had a domestic video camera. Chilean queer artist Pedro Lemebel did not even have a camera, just his own body. Discourses that problematise the representation of the body, marginalisation or the violence inflicted by dominant power systems struggle to survive. Some may be recognised later in history, but often not in their own era. Those who do not find spaces in industry, institutional or intellectual circles have to do more than simply create content. They must explore techniques, tactics, and tools of self-production, and collaborate with others in creating an alternative circulation as both a political statement and an experimental approach filmmaking.
As one of the first video activists in France, Carole Roussopoulos’ great belief was that women must not just be represented in cinema but take cameras into their own hands and counter the dominant representation by telling their own stories. She embraced collaborative work with other women and domestic videotape techniques as a way of political movie making, while encouraging others to do the same. Back in the 70s, Roussopoulos would go out into the streets with a projector, ask for electricity at a little bar, sing to get people around and then project movies from her video collective THE INSOUMUSES. Started with her friend and one-time student, the Nouvelle Vague star Delphine Seyrig, THE INSOUMUSES filmed funny, sharp documentaries about their generation and captured social movements such as women’s liberation, LGBT protests and discussions about abortion and sex work (for which they had trouble even within the feminist movement). Also, they founded the first film archive made by women, understanding the very task of making cinema, collecting it and encouraging it as a way of emancipation.
Callisto McNulty – Roussopoulos’ granddaughter – premiered DELPHINE ET CAROL, INSOUMUSES in Berlinale Forum at the 69th Berlinale, addressing the story of her grandmother and Delphine Seyrig, the radical ideas of 70s “enchanted feminism” and their independent way of filmmaking. “Carole bought her camera when she was fired from Vogue magazine,” says directress Callisto McNulty. “It’s not that filming in video was very easy at that time, not like a cell phone. It also cost money, and the technique was complicated to understand. They had to learn it from the beginning and it was a collaborative work. I think that’s an important thing. I mean, I’m not at all a great critic of new media, I think of it as a platform. The way that it isn’t entirely a public place but not a private one either might be the first step for people to create things together.” She commented on how Delphine and Carole also engaged with the idea of using irony and sense of humour as a way of storytelling, “I think anger is very important. But I truly think that humour is the weapon of the destruction of patriarchy. Through editing the movie I tried to explore that sense of humour because I think the way of Delphine and Carole embodied feminism and activism was not only by being hostile or by giving lessons but by being ironic, having fun, making fun of things.”
As a lower-class artist during the Chilean dictatorship, Pedro Lemebel harnessed his own body as his art tool. He made performances that explore the violence of the marginalised bodies in his own body, transforming himself into a live essay. One of his most remembered live performances was “The Conquest of America”, in which he broke into the Human Rights Commission, took his shoes off and performed the traditional cueca dance over a map of South America covered in broken glass from Coca-Cola bottles. As a sharp-tongued, openly queer artist he was often rejected, even in left-wing circles. He addresses the idea of being an outsider and not belonging as his value; many of these live acts were completely flashy and ephemeral.
“He starts with these kinds of ideas in the middle of a very rough dictatorship in the 80s,” says Joanna Reposi Garibaldi, the Chilean directress of LEMEBEL, a documentary about the poet that premiered this year in Berlinale Panorama. “He was very avant-garde. And it is very tricky because in some way the rights that we already gained are now being questioned.” In fact, Lemebel’s work has started to be discouraged in Chilean schools. Garibaldi says: “He always was a politic character and he always was questioned in the cultural circles because of his reluctance to belong. I think he was a very important figure because he was never comfortable in any place, even in the LGBT movements. His deal was questioning the instances of power, whenever they are, and that’s always uncomfortable for everyone.”
Although Lemebel is now one of the best-known Latin American writers, this documentary was made almost without a budget in its first instance. Since Lemebel did not have resources in the 80s, only a lot of friends and curious fans, there is a lot of material, photos, and home videos in mostly low quality. Repossi Garibaldi chooses to make the historic reconstruction by giving space to this material in the diegesis of the movie, and by putting herself on camera while she looks for the archives. She projects slides in big spaces and also in the house of the artist as a way to show them to him in a modest but very poetical way. Through the images, Lemebel recalls moments of his life on camera and establishes a long fluid conversation about his life and career. “Although he was kind of a rock star in the underground, he was very reluctant to ask for funding. Of course, he has fans but also a lot of detractors. He was very difficult to manage. I searched for funding to finish this movie after his death in 2015, we were friends and did it almost by ourselves,” says Repossi Garibaldi.
From her words, and by taking a look at these stories from the 70s and 80s, we may ask ourselves about the possibilities of filmmaking in our era. Some of these discussions and specific concerns are still contemporary and are starting to be revisited. With new technologies and possibilities to reach audiences enabling a new normativity of media self-production, maybe the question is not only about gaining access, but finding opportunities to oppose: small but meaningful resistances to assimilated ways of thinking and truly thinking outside the box.