Our History: Personal & Political

Club des Femmes archive. Design by Sarah Wood.

By Selina Robertson

Sarah Wood and I launched Club des Femmes in June 2007 because we wanted to watch queer feminist experimental films in the cinema together, and show this dynamic, exciting work to our friends and their friends… that’s where friends des femmes first came from. In London at the time, there was a space to be filled in the cinema, in that it was hard to find year-round queer feminist film screenings and events. We named ourselves Club des Femmes, after the 1936 French comedy Club de Femmes (The Women’s Club) by Jacques Deval. The film is one of the earliest, positive representations of a lesbian character in cinema. I think one of us must have recently seen it at the BFI, it in our consciousness. It’s still rarely shown, the last time I checked the rights have expired, like so much women’s political cinema. When Sarah was designing our logo, she added an ‘s’ to ‘de’ and we decided to leave it, we liked the way it looked and the plurality of possibilities –  and of course everything sounds better in French. We used yellow and black, mirroring the colours that Derek Jarman used to paint his cottage in Dungeness.

We have Verena von Stackelberg (founder of the Berlin art cinema Wolf) to thank for giving us a break and letting us take over one of the small cinemas at Curzon Soho. I remember Verena even contributed to some of the film hire and despatch budget because we had no money just our newfound friendship and total passion for cinema, feminist art, queer culture, music and clothes. We ran the whole weekend from the box office returns. Digging into our archive, I found the original press release we sent out. I think it’s the only press release we wrote. The images are from some of the work that was presented, film and video by Vivienne Dick, Sadie Benning and Lizzie Borden. Filmmakers ‘who defined a whole new world order’, feminist punk films we both loved and wanted to watch together in the cinema with queer feminist audiences. Reading it again now, I love its energy, its world re-making, a feminist film utopia, name checking The Guerrilla Girls. We got DIVA to write about us and review the weekend, they commented that we sounded like a collective from the 1970s. We thought great: we’re bringing cinema and feminist politics back together again.

Club des Femmes archive.

I remember watching Born in Flames on a knackered 35mm print. Unbeknown to us So (Mayer), recently returned to London from studying in Toronto, was in the audience too. Later, the collective expanded to include them. This was the first time that I had seen the film projected in the cinema. Wow. Today audiences can watch the film restored on 35mm and digital. Our ‘Dykesploitation’ screening was crammed, this was programming for pleasure – Little Darlings was a film I watched many times as a teenager, my first site of a butch on screen. Kristy McNichol plays bad girl/baby butch Angel, she’s dressed in a jean jacket, white t-shirt, blue jeans, smoking Marlboros…looking hot AND the film had Matt Dillon as her unconvincing love interest. Audiences loved the film, and we felt the passion for reviving films and seeing what works for contemporary audiences. 250 people came down, this is what we recorded in our blog:

Thank you to everybody who came along to Summer Camp for Girls, our 1st Club des Femmes last month – all 250 of you! It was great to screen such cool films and meet so many interesting people in the audience. Even our party turned into a kind of art action. A big thank you to everybody who supported us: despite the threat of bombs and Wimbledon Ladies Final it was very exciting to feel so much good will.

Next, we were invited by London Short Film Festival co-founder Kate Taylor to programme something for the festival in January 2008. We chose to celebrate Kathy Acker, the experimental novelist, sex positive feminist, essayist and body builder. We presented Bette Gordon’s Variety on 35mm, a film scripted by Acker, Nan Goldin acts. After, we showed a programme of sex positive shorts with readings by Ali Smith and Kathleen Bryson. Sarah and I never documented anything, we hardly prepared before we introduced the films, we never wrote anything down or took photos. But we have is our memories and the blog that we wrote, that is our archive of those early days. I remember the electric feeling of experiencing a full cinema, standing in the back of the ICA Cinema 1 auditorium, watching audiences watch films that we loved, like Carolee Schneeman’s beautifully erotic Fuses and Jennifer Reeves’ exquisite Darling International. I still like to watch audiences watch films.

She Had Her Gun Already. Vivienne Dick. Image courtesy of LUX and the artist.

After the LSFF, things just snowballed and we got more and more invites to do fun, interesting programming. Peccadillo and Pride London sponsored us for bits and pieces of curating work. We were took risks and were responsive to what was going on around us. As we had little to no funding, we kept on our toes about how we programme, how inclusive we could be, affordable, accessible, and how to communicate all these things to the widest possible audiences. We went to FACT in Liverpool to present a programme, using Linda Nochlin’s canon-busting essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists’ for our title and theme. There, we presented work by Lis Rhodes, Martha Rosler and Elisabeth Subrin. After their landmark Sally Potter season at the BFI, in 2009 So joined us, bringing their knowledge and bountiful organisational skills.

The Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury became our second home. Tai Shani and Roger Burton were amazing, they let us do whatever we wanted in their lovingly kept Victorian horse hospital next door to Russell Square tube. In 2011, collaborating with the LSFF again, we approached Tai and Roger about showing a programme of sex positive feminist porn films, they said ‘of course’, whilst some cinemas told us they were afraid that they would get into trouble with their local councils. Dirty Diaries, produced by Mia Engberg, was the first screening we hosted that made us a profit, we set up a CDF kitty. We kicked ourselves for not putting on a repeat screening. It’s good that we didn’t. Film programming is an ephemeral, live practice, you have to be there. I remember So sitting at the table when you walk down the ramp, taking tickets from a little red box, the long queue outside, people waiting patiently to come in, we had to turn people away. I remember my nerves introducing the films.

Looking back to those early days, personal highlights include our swoonsome Romy Schneider season in 2009 (thank you Maren from the Goethe Institute), where we showed a rare double bill of both Mädchen in Uniform films from 1931 and 1958. Movies have to remain present by showing them, it’s brilliant that we are re-presenting Leontine Sagan’s recently restored 1931 film again this Sunday at Rio with Fringe!. In fact, we collaborated with the first Fringe! Queer Film and Arts festival in 2011 and I have fond memories of managing to persuade Chantal Akerman’s French distributor to let us show her debut feature Je Tu It Elle from 1976 in a queer context. In 2012, we marked Ken Russell’s passing with a joyful screening Women in Love (1969) at Hackney Picturehouse. We tried  hard to get Glenda Jackson to come to the screening, but she was a Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate then and her focus lay elsewhere, not remembering Gudrun. I remember the political intent in which we showed Hito Steyerl’s films for a Pussy Riot fundraiser at Amnesty in Shoreditch in 2012. The same year, we posted So’s funny and smart reassessment of New Queer Cinema, 20 years on. Maybe that was the beginning of Culture Club?

What year was it… I can’t quite remember, but the year we had the horrible technical meltdown at the Rio, when we invited Sadie Lee’s band Spinster to perform live before a late-night screening of Eine Flexible Frau. Sorry, Sheila from Battersea, we know you had a crap night! Our She Must be Wiki-edit-a-thon at the ICA in 2014 and a 16mm screening of She Must be Seeing Things was formidable. We gathered as many friends and colleagues together in the ICA upstairs studio to write women, queers and feminist collectives back into film history. I remember our Greenham and Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä film screenings and events which will always continue, and my persistence in persuading Sandra Hochman over long transatlantic telephone calls to her apartment in New York, to let us show her rarely  sighted women’s liberation film Year of the Woman at our event to mark Verso’s re-publishing of Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. 

Club des Femmes archive. Design by Sarah Wood.

Jenny joined the collective in 2014 bringing her razor-sharp skills as a short film programmer and social media know-how. She came onboard for ‘Ada and After’, our season that explored  feminist contributions to science and sci fi. That was the first time we applied for funding from Film London, we were growing. Highlights there include presenting Lynn Hershamm-Leeson’s Conceiving Ada, the documentary Bjork: Biophilia Live and Berit Madsen’s documentary Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars. I remember we asked Shami Chakrabarti to intro Sepideh but I got the dates mixed up and told her the wrong day and she couldn’t make the screening. Terrible programming error! But we did manage to deliver a special interactive workshop on writing feminist science fiction for the screen with friend des femmes writer/director Campbell X and novelist Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring).

In 2017 the ICO published an interview with Sarah, So and myself , which succinctly assesses the first 10 years of CDF’s programming. After that came our larger, more ambitious seasons: Being Ruby Rich (collaboration with Barbican and Birkbeck) with Ruby in person…….and Revolt, She Said: Women and Film after ’68 (in collaboration with the ICO). All of us have stories from programming and delivering those memorable screenings and events, too many to go into here. Our collective now includes force of nature Ania, self-described Polish-British intersectional feminist with her fingers in too many veggie pies.

It’s amazing to think how long CDF has existed. We started from a simple idea of wanting to show different films differently (to borrow feminist curator Stephanie Schulte Strathaus’ programming idea), we wanted to share the untold stories of queer feminist cinema to our friends and their friends in the cinema and have fun doing it. In 2007, we set out on a feminist project to explore women’s, queer and feminist contributions to ideas, politics and aesthetics through film programming, design work, live events and more recently publishing new writing. It feels good to reflect on the fact that we’ve pretty much stuck to our queer feminist roots that foreground pleasure and politics with collectively ways of working


‘Single sparks can start prairie fires, especially out of celluloid’. Laura Mulvey, Claire Johnston, Lynda Myles, Women’s Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival 1972.