Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski needs to schedule her next dental cleaning, oil change, and consciousness raising.
"Can you name three woman artists?"
The sad fact that many people are stumped by the above question—asked to random folks on the street in the film—provides the implicit impetus for Lynn Hershman Leeson's excellent documentary !Women Art Revolution. By the end of it, you'll be able to name more than three, and raising awareness of these interesting artists is certainly one goal of the project.
Hershman Leeson is herself an important figure in the feminist art movement and began recording interviews back in the '60s with her friends and colleagues about their work and the barriers they faced. She's been accumulating more and more interviews ever since and decided to finally edit them into a documentary that would tell the story of feminist artists and their struggle for recognition from the '60s through the present. Along that journey, Hershman Leeson covers a lot, from the big moments some viewers might already be familiar with—such as the controversy surrounding Judy Chicago's expansive piece, The Dinner Party—to the movement's behind-the-scenes friendships and squabbles. There are lots of fun moments that communicate some of the excitement and energy of the movement, such as the woman being interviewed about her experience in '70s consciousness raising groups who quips, "Naturally, as a result, I had to leave my husband," or the segments on the brash and effective feminist art activists The Guerrilla Girls. Using humor, startling statistics, and a bunch of furry gorilla masks to get their points across, the Girls took on patriarchal art institutions with pieces like this one:
Hershman Leeson makes this trip through feminist history a very engaging one, both through these fun moments, the quality of the interviews she has collected, and her wise choice to narrate the film using a somewhat poetic and personal register, rather than the supposedly objective "voice of God" style that seems so against what feminist art is all about. That being said, I'm also glad that !Women Art Revolution didn't turn into anything too experimental, in that radical-content-demands-radical-form sense. There's a strong case to be made for that idea in a lot of circumstances, but here I believe it was more important to give audiences—present and future—a really crisp, clear look at this history that is so often and so willfully neglected.
There's a wonderful, triumphant moment late in the film when Hershman Leeson talks about her own experiences trying to become a successful artist in the '70s. Someone finally bought some of her work and then returned it to her demanding a refund when they found out it was made by a woman; not a good investment, the buyer said. Decades later, Hershman Leeson proved him wrong by selling some of her '70s work for a sizable sum—a sum that became the base of financing for !Women Art Revolution.
In terms of tech specs and features, !Women Art Revolution is inevitably inconsistent in its picture and sound quality because of the long period over which its footage was shot. The narration from Hershman Leeson and the sleek, well-made graphics that crop up in between segments help smooth the transitions, though. My one complaint here is that the treat of music done by Carrie Brownstein (formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney, now of Portlandia) gets spoiled by a mix that pipes it in too quietly compared to interviews and other sounds.
Extras include 13 minutes of additional interviews with Spain Rodriguez, illustrator of the project's graphic novel, Elizabeth A. Sackler, a philanthropist working with women's art, and Hershman Leeson herself. Rodriguez comes off as oddly flippant about gender issues, but the Sackler interview provides both a nice epilogue to the story of The Dinner Party and some good insights about the behind-the-scenes contributions of those who support rather than produce women's art. As Sackler rightly claims, her work is "funding a revolution." The second extra, "RAWWAR," is a two-minute featurette that lets the viewer know about other facets of Hershman Leeson's project: an art installation, a website, a graphic novel, and the online archive hosted by Stanford University of many, many hours of additional interviews she filmed since the '60s (see link to the archive in The Accomplices section of this review). There are also two theatrical trailers for the documentary itself.
Hershman Leeson's !Women Art Revolution is Important-with-a-capital-I and fun to watch; a must-see for feminists—of any gender.
Not guilty. Future generations will thank their lucky stars that someone as talented and well-connected as Leeson took on this project of preserving women's history.
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