We speak with Camilla and Rachel from Invisible Women, and Isra from T A P E Collective about their upcoming short film programme, Touched, ahead of its UK wide tour in February. Touched showed at London Short Film Festival in mid-January and the next screening is Sunday 13th February at the British Film Institute London Southbank, then later in Scotland.
The exciting programme celebrates the spectrum of female and non-binary desire, self-love and acceptance of desire; whether a communal, queer or asexual experience. Coming out of a period of isolation, the curators chose to explore what many struggled with, missing touch, intimacy and connection, through experimental and emotive short films from the 1990s to 2021.  We discuss feminism, accessibility, auteurs, Valentines and the joy of going to the cinema.
Why did you feel it was important to focus on female and non-binary desire and sexuality for this programme?
Isra, T A P E Collective: Women and non-binary people and filmmakers are very deeply embedded in Invisible Women and T A P E’s work. In a way, we have always been allies and queer leaning, and feel there is an erasure in the films that are being screened. It is what we know and what we work with. We never thought of anything as taboo while working on this programme, but were aware people could consider it to be. It is a conversation that is rarely had as we are used to seeing sexuality through the male gaze. I suppose we were, not so explicitly, trying to subvert that; looking at what we know, the films we adore, and putting something together that excites people.
Rachel, Invisible Women: Isra came to us with the idea, and through what we have been doing with Invisible Women we have become more aware of how the gender binary leads to the erasure of a lot of narratives that don’t fit into easy categories. So, I think part of what we wanted to do with this programme is talk about nuances and flexibility, and a spectrum of desire. You get female gaze programmes all the time, but there can be a tendency to focus on a certain kind of hyper feminized sexuality that excludes lots of people, so we were trying to create something that is a bit more nuanced than that.
What was the selection process like for the films? Was it a tough choice? Is there any other commonality beyond the subject matter?
Isra: I’m really inspired by the work that Invisible Women do and their expertise and experience with archive films. It’s something T A P E has dabbled with but it’s not our expertise at all, and that is another element of what we are trying to do: demystifying the archive because it should be more widely accessible and more accessed. The idea was to come together with what Invisible Women know really well and T A P E’s work with a lot of emerging filmmakers.
In terms of choosing, there were a few films that were on my radar that I didn’t know when I would be able to use it. There is a film, Fuck You, by Anette Sidor which I thought was really great, but we couldn’t put it online as free access because of the mature content, and we couldn’t really incorporate it into our previous programmes, and so it just felt perfect.
Camilla, Invisible Women: As Isra very kindly said, we have a lot of expertise working with archives, but a lot of the time we find things but have the same problem of not knowing where to fit it in, or maybe the money isn’t there to screen it, or it isn’t accessible. So, working on a bigger project with a bigger budget allows us to bring back some of the ‘darlings’ that we have seen in the past. We have screened one of the films in the programme before but working on bigger projects and collaborations just opens so many more doors. we have a huge spreadsheet of things that we would love to screen, and sometimes a big opportunity comes along, and we can just be like “this is it”. But also, because of the more mature, or what could be considered taboo, themes, some of the more gentle programmes we have had before we wouldn’t have been able to screen some of these films, so this is how we began to work through our long list basically.
Rachel: Yeah, before we even began research for this specific programme I think we had a list of about twenty films because we had so many offcuts, things we hadn’t been able to screen before, or things we had seen other people screen that we thought were incredible and wanted to show again. There is this stereotype around screening archive films, or screening heritage as the BFI call it, which is that it is quite polite and dusty with very buttoned-up posh people in it. There is great 1940s stuff that we show, but this was a great opportunity to show how the archive can be sexy, rebellious and interesting. Nearly everything in the program is from the ’90s, I think we have one ‘80s film in there. That is a period we find particularly exciting because in the UK you have a lot of exciting, DIY, female artists and we struggle to slot that into programmes next to the black and white 1940s stuff. So, this is an opportunity to draw a line from the stuff that these innovative and rebellious women were doing in the ‘90s to recent films like Fuck You, where it is provocative in a different way but is in the same tradition of pushing sexual boundaries and showing how female desire manifests in provocative ways, not just safe ways. I think that’s what’s so exciting about working with Isra and T A P E, we get to make those connections across time, and also get a new set of eyes and different perspective.
Isra: I would send them contemporary films too and just ask “what do you think, does this work?” because it is so important in terms of narrowing it down. I remember a lot of putting the programme together was about how does it work together and complement each other, it isn’t about choosing your favourite films, as it never is. It’s about what works together, both contemporary and from the archive. It was also never about centring a relationship, it was more about that longing, whether masturbation, asexual or desire.
Rachel: None of the films have a central relationship, it is about desire coming from within, or from a community in a non-nuclear way of having a relationship. I think this is so exciting for this programme, suggesting other ways you can exercise your desire.
Isra: Yeah, there is something about the realisation of self-love and knowing what you want, looking within. I think we get told so many times what pleasure is, and what we like and don’t like, and so it is so much about these characters and filmmakers starting with the question “What do you want? What do you desire?”. Fun stuff!
Would you say reclaiming the film archive and film heritage is a feminist issue? Are you trying to keep these films alive over archived with what you do and with the tour?
Camilla: I mean, I think our projects tagline could be “archiving is a feminist issue.” It absolutely is. If you look into the canon of film history it says, look at all these great auteurs, look at all these male filmmakers, there were no women. We screen work by women and people respond asking if there were really women filmmakers, yeah there was!
Rachel: And they were good! They were making good films, and people think we don’t remember them because they weren’t, but no.
Camilla: They’ve not been catalogued, they haven’t received the same treatment as their male contemporaries. And that is where programmes like this come in, as Rachel was saying archives have this reputation of being old and dusty and boring and it’s not. Our definition of the archive starts with films in the ‘90s, we don’t need to go far back to find films that haven’t received the level of attention they deserved.
Rachel: And that’s why it is so important working with Isra and T A P E; when you start selecting films and screening them and saying these are special, you start creating canons. That is why you have interesting and diverse people curating from different perspectives. What has happened historically is that those initial taste cultures haven’t been built up because male critics have been so dismissive of female work. You need to have a record saying these were screened, people enjoyed them, and they are important. And that’s what Isra and T A P E are doing with their other work such as ‘But where are you really from?’, creating another canon, and that is why their work is relevant to the archive.
Isra: Yeah, I love archive films and we have used them in the past as Rachel said, for those exact reasons, because the less interest or perceived interest the less they will be preserved. And there is so much work out there, whether it is enlightening, exciting or educational, it is there and we need to use it, because I don’t think that audience doesn’t like it, I think our audiences in the UK and Europe would love these programmes if there is the opportunity to watch them for an affordable price. And that’s why the funding (supported by Film Hub London, managed by Film London. Proud to be a partner of the BFI Film Audience Network, funded by the National Lottery), due to the various costs we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do it. And that’s what Camilla was saying, when you get the opportunity to pull together and discuss these films, and then make sure they are affordable and accessible, we need to have that support in place to be able to do that.
So, there are a lot of barriers in place before you get to show these films then?
Isra: Yes, even things like access, rights, costs of licenses, condition and formats of the films; maybe they don’t have a digital version, so we need a budget for digitising which is exciting but costly. This programme is making these things more accessible which is great.
Rachel: And all of the films are closed-captioned for hard of hearing audiences which is really important. We are also doing another programme on Latin American films and Camilla was able to get those captioned in English for the first time, and stuff like that is where you feel like you are making a longer-term difference. Once you have the close captions and the digital file, other people can use that, so you are hopefully creating a ripple effect that will keep these films in circulation.
And also create more audiences for them, which is great! You guys mentioned earlier male auteurs leading the canon, would you consider these filmmakers auteurs then? I know this is a debated term so I would love to hear your take on that.
Camilla: We don’t really subscribe to the whole auteur theory thing. When we look at the work we screen and that has been made, they have been made as a collective effort, even when not by collectives. Women were able to do the work they did by working together and collaborating, and so I have my issues with auteur theory anyway, but it is the prevalent narrative, we are here to challenge that.
Rachel: It can be useful to say we think this director is a really amazing auteur or artist, because that’s the language we have used for so long. But I agree that fundamentally we should be challenging that, because nobody makes films on their own, that’s not how they happen. You get amazing editors, designers and actors as well who you can say are authors of those projects. But they are less likely to get acknowledged, which is a feminist issue as well because those roles are more likely to be filled by women because historically it was harder for women to be directors or cinematographers. But I am also loathed to adopt the language of the oppressor, to put it in heavy terms, because I would rather not say auteur, but it is the shorthand and I find myself using it.
Isra: This is the second conversation I’ve had about auteurs today. Just in the experience of curation that I’ve had, it’s always existed outside of and challenged auteur theory. It’s always challenged the idea of quality because of the barriers we are trying to remove for filmmakers to be seen. It is also a different conversation when you are discussing short films or moving image works. Auteur is what you usually label directors of feature films as part of the discussion around it. But when we are discussing short films, which is a more accessible practice, suddenly that label isn’t available. I think they are just really good filmmakers. Everyone we work with is incredible and it is a collective way of filmmaking but also incredible authorship.
Rachel: When thinking of auteurs, you are looking for that signature. But these directors work with people over and over again, for example Scorsese always works with Thelma Schoonmaker, how much is she an author of these films? And often when one of these people leaves the films quality goes down. George Lucas [and his former wife/collaborator Marcia Lucas] is a great example of this, is the differences in the Star Wars films after his divorce a coincidence?
Back to the tour, is it important for you to have this aspect of the programme? Somewhere for the films to go after the film festival, and a larger and more diverse audience?
Isra: It started with us wanting to do one screening in London because of costs, then it was two screenings, then it was thinking about how we can package it well, because it is such an important screening, and then there is scope to offer it up to other cinemas in the UK. T A P E is producing the Special Events Industry Programme at London Short Film Festival (LSFF). We realised it is the sort of work that should be included more in cinemas and programmes.
Rachel: And because me and Camilla have so many links in Scotland and in the Scottish film industry we were able to discuss it with venues up there, as well as across the UK. As people not from or based in London, we feel that regional film is very important, and the Scottish film scene is incredible and there are some open programmers at venues who said yes in areas where they wouldn’t normally have access to these films which is really nice.
What is your hope, for the films, filmmakers, and your own organisations, after this programme? What are you really excited for?
Isra: I think the collaboration has been exciting, and the fact we were able to bring together archive and contemporary films, which was a throw away initial idea, but it was almost obvious. The collaboration has gone well, and even reaching out to programmers and cinemas has been quite natural to come together to do. So, we are really excited about that and future collaborations, and also the fact that we have created what I feel is a beautiful programme which will look beautiful on screen, so it is also really exciting that audiences will get to enjoy and access that. We are doing it as one-off screenings at different venues, so I think it is going to be a really special event and experience. A lot of the work T A P E does in general is bringing films that maybe were forgotten or didn’t have that successful first run but are actually great to the front, filmmakers sometimes wonder how we even found them and their films to show them, which is always fun.
Rachel: We all found the collaboration really exciting. Me and Isra have been friends for a while and admired each others work, so it was great to all come together as organisations to work on something. The screenings will also congregate around Valentines or Galentines day, so I am really excited to have something that’s an alternative offer, about romance being internal and coming from yourself. You don’t have to take a date to something that is overpriced and rubbish basically. You can take yourself to watch a bunch of weird, horny, old, and new films for Valentines which for me is exciting.
Isra: You can go with your friends or with a date to tell them what you’re into, its so versatile! Valentine’s programming has never been for me, people are waking up to other options that make sense. I should mention the whole idea of TOUCHED was about coming out of a pandemic. Touch, intimacy, and desire in solitude and isolation was so intense so that is feeding into the programme, as well as the idea of what if you have completely changed over the last two years? Who are you, what do you want, how do you go back into that space?
Rachel: I think we all feel differently about ourselves, our relationships and our bodies after lockdowns, so it is a good program to reset your feelings. But we are also pickier with what we want to spend our time with. So I’ll say here is this perfectly curated programme of films, we promise not to waste your hour and a half.
It’s great you can show it in person then. Would you have considered doing it as an online programme?
Isra: I think we would move it if restrictions changed. We are hoping it goes well in February, but we are so fed up with watching things online, especially when talking about giving films our full attention, it’s best not to have them in the background. We wanted to have that full experience of being immersed, but also communal viewing and discussing it afterwards.
The LSFF website states that “this programme subverts and examines ideas around self-love, asexuality, lust and longing.” How does asexuality tie into your understanding of desire for this programme? Is this subversive of what we may expect?
Rachel: None of the films are about a relationship, they are about self-love, self-discovery, self-desire, masturbation, and desire coming from within. There’s a lot of room for interpretation, but Lois’ film has an interesting angle.
Isra: T A P E supported the finishing touches of a film called What About Me? directed by Lois Stevenson who we worked with closely, and we helped it with the festival run. It’s not just about sexuality but it stems from heartbreak. It’s emotive, experimental, and very beautiful, and you just get it when you watch it. I felt it fit very well into the programme because its about figuring something out through the process without caring too much about labels and definitions and breaking away from traditional ideas of heartbreak and loneliness. We started with this film because it’s about breaking away from all that and thinking is this who I am, what I want to do? With self-love, it’s a nod to masturbation and self-pleasure, things we get hung up on about self-love. It’s a bit tongue in cheek, because it isn’t about proving yourself, looking better, or new year new you. The self-love we are talking about is acceptance, and acceptance of your preferences. And it is important to discuss asexuality and have that visible with the conversations about self-love and valentines. I think we are just fed up with the same things. When you’ve got to that point, it’s important to do whatever you want to do, and the filmmakers have done that, and there’s nothing performative or about the filmmaker’s identity or being an auteur; its raw and natural.
Rachel: And it’s this huge span of ages, experiences, sexualities, there is a film that will appeal to everyone, even your mum. We start off with this film about an individual, and its designed so you feel like you’re inside their head, then by the end it’s Sarah Turners film [She Wanted Green Lawns], almost like a music video, about desire within a community, a triumphant coming together after a period of isolation. You are going on a journey with the filmmakers.
What’s next for you all?
Isra: T A P E still has But Where are you Really From, and we have 30 events at LSFF next week, Nolly Nights from February which is an ode to Nollywood, and we commission writing, so very exciting stuff!
Camilla: We are excited to publish our first commissioned article on Wednesday for our monthly newsletter, and as well as touched we also have our Latin American film programme as LSFF as well, and the Touched tour coming to Scotland too, which means I can go to those!
Rachel: And we have a lot of educational and industry facing things coming up that we do. But the most exciting thing is commissioning and bringing in people with different expertise and experiences. The first piece is on Nollywood, which is so big but we know nothing about it, so its great to be able to pay a Nigerian writer to write this and tell us about it. The project is to make Invisible Women into a more wide reaching operation addressing world cinema, and we can’t do that because we only have our own frames of reference to look through, so we are hoping to get more people to show us invisible women from their eyes. And the Latin American programme was a labour of love for Camilla using her Spanish and Portuguese skills to find these obscure films, so yeah that’s going to be great. We are hoping for another busy year.
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She Wanted Green Lawns, Sarah Turner, 1989
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Random Acts of Intimacy, Clio Barnard, 1999
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Fuck You, Anette Sidor, 2018
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#Familiar #Touch #Lost #Figures, Katayoun Jalilipour, 2017
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The Birth Of Valerie Venus, Sarah Clift, 2020