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Delphine and Carole: Pioneering Video Activists

Delphine and Carole directed by Callisto Mc Nulty documents the pioneering French/Swiss feminist video collective Les Insoumuses (the name is a combination of "insoumise," translates as disobedient and "muses") focusing on the friendship of two of the founding members; actress Delphine Seyrig (some of you may be familiar with Seyrig as the star of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) and director Carole Roussopoulos. As legend goes, when the video camera first came on sale in France, Roussopoulos was the second owner of one behind Jean Luc-Goddard. She began running video workshops teaching other women how to use video and from this realised video was a way for women to tell their own stories; as Roussopoulos says "it hadn't yet been colonised by men." Les Insoumuses addressed a wide variety of issues with their radical and humourous videos such as sex worker's rights, factory worker's rights, abortion, sexism in the film industry and the representation of women in the media. Whilst this documentary portrays the activist efforts of feminists in the 1970s; the work of Les Insoumuses has a DIY feel to it due to their boundless creativity and accessible methods, reminiscent of contemporary feminist tools such as zines and social media. This film is a vital record of feminist activism that generations to come can reference for inspiration. It is also a vital reminder of the importance of friendships within activism; fighting for change takes a great deal of resilience and energy and a support network is necessary. One of the most beautiful aspects of the film is seeing the fun these women had together; Roussopoulos remarks "We had a great time together...we went dancing, we ate out at restaurants, we laughed."

We spoke to Mc Nulty (who is also Carole's Granddaughter) about how she came to make Delphine and Carole and feminist movements past and present...

Delphine Seyrig and Carole Roussopoulos

Amy Watts: At the beginning of this film it's stated that Carole was making a documentary and that was the starting point for your film, were you around at the time she was making the documentary, did you have discussions about it or...?

Callisto Mc Nulty: Well at the time not at all actually because I was very young when she was making it. I was 18 when she was working on it so I could see her work on it, saw that she started a couple of years before her death in 2009. It wasn't really about the video collectives of the time, it was more about Delphine Seyrig and her political commitments as a feminist, so quite chronological and she had started editing a series of archives around that. So then from 2009 to more or less 2016, with the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir and her children, we started talking about doing something with this prototype, this unfinished project and it didn't really make much sense to complete her film. On the other hand I started doing some research and I discovered really interesting interviews by Carole, filmed interviews - research I did in the framework of her thesis as well as other documents and I suddenly felt I really wanted to include Carole's voice in this story to tell their encounter, their collective use of video not just Delphine Seyrig.

AW: And Carole says in the film, how difficult it was to conserve the video tapes, I was just wondering if you had a lot resource material or were a lot of things lost that they had created together?

CM: I think no, there's still quite a lot of material. Some of the copies of the video tapes have disappeared I think, the initial ones you know, the master copies but then the copies of the copies are still there and they're all gathered at the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir in Paris so that was really helpful because if I wanted to view something or to incorporate an archive into the film, I just had to contact them and they would send me all the material. It was already digitalised so I didn't have any digitisation to do so that was very helpful!

Les Insoumuses at Centre Audiovisual Simone de Beauvoir

AW: Obviously film and feminism are in your DNA from Carole but what was it that made you want to go into film because I read that you studied Culture, Criticism and Curation at St. Martins and Gender Studies at Goldsmiths...

CM: Film, I don't know if you could say it was in my DNA but of course when I grew up I saw Carole working on her films. I spent a lot of time with her growing up because my parents were artists, they had me very young so every time they had an opportunity to send me with Carole, they did! I was in contact with editing, I saw her work a lot but we never really discussed a lot about her films, I think it was much more natural as a relationship. I saw more when I studied at Goldsmiths and before at St.Martins, I started really looking at her work...Film-making kind of arrived accidentally in a way because I did my first film in 2016, 2017 and I co-directed it with Anne Destival. At the time I was working as a translator and this translating project evolved into a film, a documentary investigation so I started doing that and then suddenly when we started talking about the potentiality of doing something using Carole's unfinished project, it made sense that I would take over the project. At first I was a bit, not scared, but you know it's not easy to work with my Grandmother's work, she was such an amazing director so it took a bit of time as well for me to find my way with this material and to find another route to tell that story so it's a project that took a couple of years to develop really.

Carole Roussopoulos

AW: With your first film you mentioned, Eric's Tape, I couldn't find what it was about, I was just wondering if you could fill me in on that?

CM: Yeah, so it's about a cassette, an audio tape that's almost inaudible and it's an artist that I know who is based in Paris who found it in quite mysterious circumstances in Rome in the 70s and has kept it preciously since and he asked me a couple of years ago to translate the content of it because he doesn't speak English and because it's quite inaudible. So I spent weeks trying to get what they were saying and after a while there's a man and there's Andy Warhol talking and a woman and I discovered the identity of the two other characters. So we embarked on a kind of investigation with my co-director Anne Destival and we went looking for information about this cassette so I'm in the film, I'm kind of a detective, it's kind of a hybrid film, it's fictional as well - we dramatised parts of it because we discovered that when I translated the cassette, Eric the owner, wasn't really excited, he was actually quite disappointed with the content so we added these kind of fictional things where we ask him to do strange things with the cassette - progressively he loses interest, a metaphor for desire that fades away once you don't fetishize the object anymore. So it's very different from this film Delphine and Carole, it's really a film about almost nothing but they both do involve an archive in a way because with Delphine and Carole it was the work of my Grandmother and with the cassette, this 1970s tape, it's the same period...

AW: Something that struck me about this documentary was how much humour there was between all the activists and how they used that humour in getting their message across as well and I think kind of a mainstream narrative around Second Wave Feminists, especially from men, is that they were very serious and you wouldn't really want to hang out with them, was it important to you to counter the stereotype of Second Wave Feminists?

CM: Yeah, completely. Really it wasn't hard because there's so much humour anyway in the way of doing video and actually most of the feminists are quite funny, I mean it wasn't hard to do that. I thought it was important to kind of dismantle the image of the feminist killjoy that's always around and as a result of which many women don't want to identity with feminism. I mean I'm really surprised even now when I'm in Paris or in Switzerland, protests or things like that around women's issues, very few women say that they're feminists - it's still a bad word so that's something I really liked in their [Les Insoumuses] films and actions, there's humour, very creative and in a way humble - they don't use very complicated scholarly words to say things, it's quite simple and I think that's it speaks so much. I mean we've shown the film more or less around the world and it's amazing, it really speaks not only to a French crowd. Recently in Tapei, I just came back today, there it really resonates. I think there's, yeah, something quite universal about humour and about their [Les Insoumuses] approach.

Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels

AW: Yeah, absolutely, everything they were doing seemed accessible. I just wondered what you thought because I think a lot feminists today disregard Second Wave Feminism for all the problems it had for example with inclusion, it was a very white movement and today's feminism seems to be learning from those mistakes but was it important for you to document all the sacrifices feminists involved then made and the strides they made because maybe sometimes those things are forgotten?

CM: Yeah, well there was a question actually - at one point when I edited the sequence about legalising abortion in France, I was reading at the time about the fact that in the French colonies, while women were fighting for free and legal abortion in France, there was enforced sterilisation happening in certain French colonies so I was looking, trying to find, to incorporate some archives to show that and it was impossible to find it. In some ways it's true that it's also a limit in a way of showing a friendship, an encounter of two white, upper, middle class women - of course they had a certain privilege but they used it in a way and I think that probably, I know for Carole anyway, that her privilege was also one of the reasons why she felt angry and she really identified with other women. You see her do that for example, that's why it was important to show these images, the workers strike in LIP where there's many white women of course but working class white women as well as working class Arab women and also the work they [Les Insoumuses] did with sex workers. That's something that has been persistent with her [Carole's] work as a director, she has always given, I don't like the phrase to give a voice but she speaks to and she listens to women who are from very different backgrounds...And yeah of course the beginning of the women's liberation movement was quite white and middle class but I think in a way Carole's work is very distant from that because very early on she had class consciousness and when she learnt how to do video and she started working, she taught many movements for liberation for example the Black Panthers and liberation movements in Vietnam...

AW: Yeah, like you say it definitely comes across in the film that this collective of women were interested in engaging with women from different backgrounds and listening. I just wondered what you thought the main differences are between Second Wave Feminism and the feminism we have now and what we can learn from Second Wave Feminism?

CM: I find it hard to because I don't really know what Second Wave Feminism means because if you look at writings - video, it's so different, they're such different mediums, very different approaches even in the 70s but I think that when it comes to their [Les Insoumuses] feminist video works, it is very radical I find and I think that maybe we could use some of that radicality and that humour because I really think it's a weapon. We tend today I think to deconstruct a lot which is very important of course but not really to create and construct is what I notice. I also got that when I was studying at Goldsmiths, I thought it was fascinating, I loved doing that but after a while it's always criticising, critiquing, deconstructing and what I find quite refreshing with what they [Les Insoumuses] did is they did all that but then they also found very creative ways to make the ideas accessible and to approach as well, in maybe a more accessible way, women. I mean it's important, we still need to write essays and texts but it is also important there's other ways and I think they're [Les Insoumuses] quite inspiring in that way because there's really a kind of energy, it gives me energy! When I saw the images and I was editing and when I'm showing the film, other people say when they come out that they want to do things so I think that's something positive!

Carole Roussopoulos videoing the occupation of a church by sex workers

AW: Definitely...whilst there is darkness in the film from the individual testimonies from the various women interviewed, I thought overall it is very uplifting to see the collective efforts between all the women involved.

CM: Yeah, I think that's something that was quite powerful - the filming between Carole and the Insoumuses Collective - I think they really created a space where women felt really confident and open to speak because when you see Anne Marie being filmed having her abortion then talking about her experience of sexuality - it's rare we have these kinds of testimonies today - I rarely see that - there's kind of freedom so I think it's probably due to the listening environment that Carole and Delphine allowed. It's not that easy to find, to create a space where you feel confident enough to be able to express that.

AW: When I was watching the film and the abortion scene came up, I was quite taken aback because I've never seen a real life abortion onscreen before, it's such a radical thing, was that really important for you to include?

CM: Yeah it was really important. I think also because that's one of the things we can learn from the 70s - first of all abortion is still really taboo today - and the other thing, it always happens in a hospital environment - sometimes it can be quite hostile and in this case we see that she's surrounded by other women, some of which are nurses or doctors but she's quite active in the process and I think it's good - a very important image because it doesn't happen today and the idea that we could possibly do these kinds of operations surrounded by, of course professionals, but in your home is something that should be thought about.

AW: This is probably hard for you to answer but obviously I thought about what Delphine and Carole would think about the Me Too movement today - what do you think your Grandmother would make of it?

CM: It's hard to speak for them but yeah I think they would have been really in favour of it because in a way...maybe we could even compare the space created by social media and how individually women speak out and express what they have to say and the space offered by video because they [Les Insoumuses] filmed women often individually but then something collective arises and I think it's the same with social media because it's quite private and then it becomes something public so it echoes. Even though you can be critical of some parts of the Me Too movement in a way by saying it's the law that should be doing its job and things like that but I do think that it raises these questions and makes feminism accessible again and I think people are actually debating so it's always a good thing and they would have been of course in favour of that.

Carole and Delphine

Delphine and Carole has been selected for a European Film Award and you can see the film in Glasgow on the 7th November - hopefully it will be screening more in the UK soon!

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