In 2016, the Edinburgh International Film Festival celebrated its 70th anniversary. At the time, I was researching the history of the festival, particularly its role in supporting alternative forms of filmmaking. Another anniversary was on my mind – 40 years since the landmark 1976 edition, which hosted two major symposia on avant-garde film and cinema and psychoanalysis. To revisit this influential period, the Black Box experimental strand programmed a mini retrospective, at the centre of which was feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden’s little-known and rarely screened debut feature Regrouping (1976). Also at that year’s event was feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, whose article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ remains the most cited theoretical text in the history of film studies. Mulvey had strong ties with the festival during the 1970s and she has some fascinating stories to tell! 

This small celebration was, for me, part of a larger project that would mark the 1970s as an important decade to revisit and consider the legacy of across subsequent decades. I’ve always been interested in how the past resonates in the contemporary moment, and 2022 is the perfect year to make those discoveries since it sees us celebrating another landmark moment – 50 years since the 1972 Women’s Event, organised by Mulvey, Claire Johnston and Lynda Myles (then Creative Director). This was one of the earliest festival events to focus on the work of women directors across nations, genres and historical periods. In that sense, it played a key role in establishing the discourse on women’s film and feminist film theory, which was the focus of the festival’s Feminism and Cinema Event in 1979. This really was a vibrant time for EIFF!

Earlier this year, I handed over the Black Box programming to Lydia Beilby (previously Shorts Programmer), after 14 years in the role, and set about curating a retrospective of women’s cinema that would respond not just to the 1972 event, but to the general radical spirit of that decade. But where to start?! There is so much to say, so many angles to take, arguments to make. I occasionally felt overwhelmed by the history, and by the feeling that I could easily travel the wrong path. Historical narratives trouble me, and curating has often seemed like walking a tightrope, balancing subjective interpretation and taste with an overview approach to film history and aesthetics. 

Black Box has always been about pushing the boundaries of what film is and can be, and through several inspiring discussions with our new Creative Director Kristy Matheson I realised that my starting point had to be Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1976), a truly radical film that has fascinated me for a while. Having studied film at university, I knew Mulvey’s article inside-out – her discussion of the male gaze in Hollywood cinema and how it positions women as objects to be looked at. It wasn’t until years later, however, that I encountered her filmmaking and understood how the theory and practice relate to each other. Although Riddles is often seen as difficult, it’s also an incredibly compelling take on film form, with a highly relatable storyline that centres on the competing demands of work and motherhood. Using a 360 panning movement and a fragmented narrative structure, Mulvey and Wollen ask the viewer to take up a different position in relation to the images and their meaning. 

A still from Riddle of the Sphinx featuring a trapeze artist.

Thinking about this film, several avenues for the retrospective revealed themselves to me. How have female filmmakers challenged narrative conventions through a focus on the gaze, domestic space, the space of the frame, and the frame of history? I was also interested in the relationship between fiction and non-fiction, which plays out in different ways across the eight screenings. The meandering narrative structure of Riddles is echoed in Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty (2019), which follows a group of young queer and transgender New Yorkers as they grapple with their shifting identities and relationships. It’s a film so beautifully shot, so sensitively portrayed, and so delicately paced that I could watch it over and over again and never get bored. It’s the perfect contemporary queer response to Mulvey and Wollen’s film: the fluid, non-objectifying camera movements transcend binary divisions and fixed identities. 

A group of people lay on a bed sleeping.

In between these two features sit a selection of short and feature-length films and videos. Moving through the decades, the retrospective explores some landmark works of feminist filmmaking, as well as lesser-known engagements with representation, film form and the body. From Trinh T. Minh-ha’s poetic depiction of domestic spaces and rituals in six African countries (Naked Spaces: Living is Round, 1985) to Barbara Hammer’s irreverent retelling of lesbian history through archival reworkings (History Lessons, 2000), the programme is exciting in its diversity of approaches. 

After a two-year break from in-person screenings at EIFF, I can’t wait to back in the cinema, taking viewers on a journey through some of the most ground-breaking women’s filmmaking from 1972 to now. 

Click here to find out more about Reframing the Gaze at EIFF22.