On Screen, Off Screen: Self-Documentation and Women’s Liberation

Shedding light on the feminist film collectives of the 1980s, Talulah Thomas examines their lasting legacy on feminist activism today.

Red Flannel Films emerged from the South Wales Women’s Film group – the first women’s film workshop in Wales, established in the early 1980s. Tracing their collaborative art forms, which took place in spaces of solidarity, resistance and sisterhood, allows us to engage with the rich legacy of alternative feminist practices. 

The Pontypridd / Rhondda Cynon Tâf-based collective was founded by Michele Ryan, Clare Richardson, Claire Pollak, Carol White, Penny Stempel, Frances Bowyer, Eileen Smith and Pearl Berry. The group had set up the foundation for Red Flannel through their work documenting the 1980s Miners’ Strike. From the start, their projects were firmly rooted in a demonstration of their politics and marginalisation as working-class women in the Rhondda Valleys. Behind these revisionist films were women who worked to capture oral testimonies in order to reinsert working class women’s stories into the historical record. The coming together of the trade union politics of the ‘80s, feminist organising, and networks of artist, activist, and community groups was at the heart of Red Flannel’s origins.

Crucial to Red Flannel’s organisation was a non-hierarchical structure. Everyone involved in the workshop worked as a collective, and everyone had their say in the research and script development of each film. At the same time, during their production of Mam (1988), which documented the history of the women of the South Wales Valleys and the role of motherhood in this community, the collective encouraged women who had been part of their screening groups to come and work with them. This work included catering, organising and administration, with the women sharing resources and teaching one another how to make work.

This process of skill-sharing between women in the 1980s Rhondda Valleys reveals the real power and effects of non-hierarchical organising. They even had a nursery setup, where members of the workshop would take care of each other’s children while they worked. Red Flannel goes far beyond the popular DIY ethos of carving out alternative feminist spaces in the ‘70s and ‘80s. This was a space which centred the politics of care in a culturally and politically distinct way, within a specific time period of change and upheaval in Welsh social and political history. Here was an area where many working-class Welsh women often did not get the opportunity, or rather allowed themselves, to receive care. To work creatively, and to work collectively, in order to create works filled with such sensitivity, care and mutual understanding, such as Mam, required this welfare-based organisation and structure. 

The coming together of the trade union politics of the ‘80s, feminist organising, and networks of artist, activist, and community groups was at the heart of Red Flannel’s origins.

So, what made Red Flannel possible? The establishment of Channel 4 and the Workshop Declaration during the early 1980s facilitated this new workshop system which funded integrative filmmaking practice. For the next decade, workshops and collectives surged in the UK, including the Leeds Animation Workshop, Women’s IndependenT Cinema House in Liverpool (WITCH), and the Sheffield Film Co-op. Amidst an era rich with the spirit of the Greenham Common movement and anti-Thatcherite, anti-individualist sentiments, many of these films were built to promote political solidarity.

In particular, these workshops also encouraged a wave of collectives led by Black and Asian filmmakers to emerge. Groups including Sankofa, Ceddo, and the Black Audio Film Collective created works centering Black feminist perspectives in an overwhelmingly white media and industry. In particular, Perfect Image (Maureen Blackwood, 1988) explores misogynoir and Eurocentric beauty standards, alongside Marina Attile’s Dreaming Rivers (1988), which meditates on diasporic experiences through a distinctly female lens. These stories are key in tracing feminist collectivised filmmaking in the UK during the 1980s. 

Beyond Red Flannel – The Global World

A wave of women-centred film collectives also emerged internationally throughout this period. Working within the limits of a patriarchal and male-dominated industry, many women filmmakers from around the world turned their cameras to distinctly feminist causes. Women combined their resources to create films examining gendered issues such as domestic labour and gendered violence. Central to this evolving practice was Sara Bright and Eulalia Carrizosa’s 1978 collective Cine Mujer, a core group of women filmmakers that evolved throughout the 1980s. Although none of the women were formally trained, apart from Bright, they discovered alternative routes into filmmaking.  This included learning from other collectives and hanging out at cinema clubs.

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Rejecting hierarchical models of filmmaking, Cine Mujer played a central role in allowing Colombian women filmmakers to tell their stories on their own terms. Crucially, the production of these stories was firmly rooted in the demonstration of politics through a lens of audio-visual activism. The contribution of feminist film collectives to New Latin American Cinema, such as Cine Mujer, has been neglected in histories of revolutionary filmmaking. Too often, these collectives have a short shelf life but they have still managed to leave behind rich catalogues of work and legacies of alternative working methods. 

In 1980, a group of friends in Bangalore – Abha Bhaiya, Navroze Contractor, Deepa Dhanraj, and Meera Rao – founded Yugantar, India’s first feminist film collective. Filmmakers in Yugantar spent four months with women tobacco factory workers in Nipani for Tobacco Embers (1982), following the negotiations of the unionising workers and attempted to document their exploitative working conditions. The subjects played an incredibly active role in creating and producing the film, and worked together to participate in dramatic reenactments and develop a semi-fictionalised script. Similarly to the Latin American collectives, and the Valleys’ own Red Flannel, Yugantar operated within a wider system built upon ideas around community. This included trade unions, universities and community groups. 

Feminist Legacies – A Messy Site of Making

What connects these diverse and distinct legacies of feminist collectivised film-making? These spaces of opportunity and togetherness touch on the crucial need for women of this period to self-document. Who else was going to do it? It had to be women spearheading the movement for self-documentation, inserting their stories into the historical archives. The feminist film collectives mentioned here moved in ways that were grounded in the politics of care, love and community; reflecting the importance of workshopping and of a ‘messy’ site of making. 

Crucially, the production of these stories was firmly rooted in the demonstration of politics through a lens of audio-visual activism

For me, it is precisely this ‘messiness’ of self-documentation which makes the feminist collectivised filmmaking of the late twentieth century so intimate. Red Flannel’s weaving of a distinct Welsh, working-class identity with a clear feminist and socialist expression of the period speaks to its power in reconfiguring Welsh women’s place in the archives. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

This article was commissioned and edited by Maisie Allen thanks to the Books Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.

Talulah Thomas is a Welsh-language writer and artist from North Wales

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