German Feminism and Film Culture

In West Germany, films by and for women have to be seen against two historical factors: The internal developments of the women's movement in late 1960s (the realization that feminist issues did not have a natural home inside the Marxist students' movement), and secondly, the cultural shifts which made television take up women's issues (creating from within the institution new spaces for their representation). But the feminist film culture, which by the early 1980s was associated internationally with the names of Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms, had also benefited enormously from the initiatives of women like Helke Sander, who had gained access to the media and who, rather than making a career as individual auteurs, had campaigned for political and institutional support structures which could discriminate positively in favor of first-time women filmmakers and women film collectives. Sander, a prominent member of the radical student left, but also a tireless organizer, brilliant polemicist and a filmmaker since 1966, had initiated, together with Claudia Alemann, the first international women's film seminar in 1973 and in 1974 founded the influential journal Frauen und Film. Equally as crucial as Helke Sander and Clara Burck-ner were Regina Ziegler (Head of Regina Ziegler Filmproduktion), Renee Gundelach (producer and managing director with Road Movies) and Erika Gregor (co-director of the Friends of the German Kinemathek and the International Forum of Young Film). Their role in the production, distribution and exhibition sectors gave women directors (though not only them) the adminstrative and often legal expertise essential for survival in the complicated funding and public subsidy system that was the backbone of the German film renaissance during the 1970s.

The West German women's movement shared with the first phase of the student movement an anti-authoritarian bias, but the struggle for women's rights on particular issues, above all abortion, soon understood itself as "autonomous" and even mobilized - however briefly - a strong social base. Politically active women came to film not least because they had, from direct and practical

experience, a very clear sense of the uses of the media in publicizing demands and pressing for their recognition: Helke Sander, Erika Runge, Ingrid Opper-mann's early interventions, taking mostly the form of didactic docu-dramas, investigative or observational films, dealt with experiences specific to women (Does the Pill Liberate?, Should Women earn as much as Men?, Why is Frau B. Happy?, Women: At the Tail End of Trade Unions?). But the uniqueness of the German situation was that women directors also tackled wider social issues (e.g., Helma Sanders-Brahms' first shorts, the fiction films of Marianne Ludcke, or the documentaries about education, Turkish immigrant families and working class communities made by graduates of the Berlin Film School (Suzanne Beyeler, Gisela Tuchtenhagen, Marlis Kallweit).

In one sense, these feminists provided clear examples of filmmaking relying for its primary audiences on the existence of politically motivated spectators. On the other hand, their work also highlighted certain institutional double-binds. The major source of funding for women came from television, which, with its voracious appetite for issues, discovered the women's question around 1975 much as it had discovered the working class around 1971. Through its current affairs slots, TV magazine features and documentary departments television created the need for in-depth reports and analyses where the individual touch or grassroots involvement were attractive assets. Some of the "topical" themes even of the more cinema-oriented feature films in West Germany (Margarethe von Trotta's first films, for instance, or those of Jeanine Meerapfel) also reflect this proximity to television.

As a reaction, some of the women directors who had come to film via militant struggles (a tendency encouraged by the entrance requirements and the syllabus of the Berlin Film and TV Academy), preferred to make films intended mainly to raise the self-awareness of those directly affected, through interviews, or by asking them to act out semi-fictional situations (for instance, Helga Reide-meister's Buying a Dream, 1977 and Who says "Fate"?, 1979). Such issue-orientation and intense local involvement may also explain why, perhaps earlier than in Britain or the US, this conception of women filmmaking was felt to lead to an impasse, especially after the social need for alternative information began to diminish, or was taken up in more consumable forms by television itself. Yet in order not to be swallowed up by television, women directors needed another forum: an independent producer or distributor with access to cinemas or at least to outlets that gave the films the kind of exposure which would result in newspaper coverage, discussions, invitations to present the work in person. Basis Film Verleih came to specialize in this thankless but vital area. It complemented that other tangible result of the high film-political profile women had achieved as a professional association spanning the film and television industries and embracing women film-technicians as well as directors and actresses.

The Union der Filmarbeiterinnen (Union of Women Film Workers), by demanding parity at all levels forcefully challenged the notion that women could be successful filmmakers only by either specializing on women's issues (and thus be ghettoized in television) or as authors (and thus become competitive, make it on the international festival scene, in order to achieve a better bargaining position at home).

The result was a redefinition and revitalization of the Autoren-film as practiced by Basis which was cooperative at the level of production, but individual at the level of exhibition. As Clara Burckner put it in her position paper at the ICA: "The more the film industry debases the filmmaker to a mere deliverer of a consumer product ... the more important it is to fight for the recognition of film as a cultural property ... with an author whose rights must be protected and whose artistic freedom is inalienable ... For Basis the question of the survival of the film d'auteur is the question of the survival of a national film culture. That is why, in the face of ... a television industry which floods the networks with images, we wish to continue helping our filmmakers ... New ways for bringing the films to the audience are being tested. First experiences as, for instance, how to re-conquer the cinema as a "cultural space" have been made." What scope does this program give the filmmakers? Does it result in new forms, and thus new potential uses? The example of four women filmmakers, all at one time associated with Basis, may give a clue to the options open in the 1980s.

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