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Journal Issue 2.supplement
An Interview with Barbara Hammer
By Deanna Utroske and the Films for the Feminist Classroom editorial collective
Barbara Hammer is a lesbian feminist filmmaker whose extensive filmography reaches back to the 1960s. Her work is held in the permanent collections of museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Film Archive in Brussels, and the Taiwan National Film Library in Taipei. She received her Bachelors degree from the University of California Los Angeles and two Masters degrees from San Francisco State University. Her memoir Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life (2010) is available from the Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
Hammer: My name’s Barbara Hammer, and I’m an independent filmmaker. I’ve been working for 40 years, making about 80 experimental films, documentary films, lesbian feminist films—really, a wide variety of material in that time.
Utroske: One goal of Films for the Feminist Classroom is to be a service to instructors, librarians, and scholars looking to use film in the classroom, whether as a primary text or as a supplement to other texts that they might be more familiar with.
I know that you’ve taught community-level classes as well as university-level classes. Your films and essays are being taught in classrooms. Could you talk about how film might make the feminist classroom a more productive place?
Hammer: That’s a wonderful question. I find that using film in the classroom is a way of engaging the student body, and that people are very excited. We live in a media culture. If you put the means of production, the camera, in the hands of students, and give them some guidance but allow them to find their inner voice, you are going to have an attentive class: students will get there on time, students will be motivated and complete the work, and I think that is the key to education. It’s about tapping into the passion, and the students aren’t going to have passion if the faculty doesn’t have passion.
If you’re showing work to give the students an idea of what they might want to make or at least to educate them, we want to hear from the teachers exactly how they feel, why they’re committed, and why this is an exciting genre. And I really hope that faculty everywhere show three genres of film: the narrative, which is the story film and is the most well-known; the documentary, the “reality documentary,” not necessarily true, but one that looks at an event or place or a person; and then the genre that’s most maligned and least shown and most important I feel, the experimental film, film that plays with form as well as content. And all three of these genres need to be introduced and named so as to clarify the differences between them. Then the teacher can work from that base and show the experimental documentary, the experimental narrative, the cross-genre film, which is so popular today. By seeing and understanding the differences in film, the student is empowered. Empowering the students, that’s a feminist ideal.
In feminist therapy, where you didn’t lie out on the couch with Freud listening to everything you said and probably saying nothing back, the feminist therapist engaged with the client so to speak and was in an equal power relationship with the client. That’s what you want to have in the classroom. By letting the students, or encouraging them I should say, to come up with their own ideas and make their own work, you’re empowering them. You become a guide rather than, well, an authority figure that they might rail against. Although, everyone involved knows you still are an authority figure because of the structure of a classroom, because you’ve studied the subject extensively.
Utroske: Thank you. My next question conceives of the classroom as a screening venue. You’ve talked elsewhere about how the circumstances of your film screenings or the audience makeup at film screenings mediate how a film is received, the sort of work it can do.
How do you suggest an instructor show a film in class? How might instructors take what you’ve learned from screening your films to audiences worldwide and apply it in the classroom?
Hammer: Well, the traditional approach is to have a nice, quiet room with a projection booth, but probably most teachers won’t have that. So the projector might be a digital projector today, which would be inside the classroom. One thing you could do is have a student in charge of running the projector. That student’s trained before the class begins so that she knows how to run the machine. And that’s another thing you’d do, probably have a woman run the machine because of the bias that continues of men having the mechanical knowledge and women not having it. You would want to have the room dark and the sound nice and loud but not overwhelming. You’d want to follow the screening with a discussion while everything is fresh in the mind. You’d want to have some lead-in questions or statements about the film that might provoke the students; you might play devil’s advocate.
Once the students are used to a routine, you could show a more challenging film like my film, Available Space (1979). It could be projected on different places in the classroom. Use architectural space for projection. What would it be like to project on the ceiling? And talk to the students about what it feels like to be active when they watch it because they have to go like this [Hammer tips her head back to look at the ceiling]. Or maybe the projector could move to several places, and the students would have to move while they’re watching. Then you could ask, “How does that make you feel rather than just sitting straight in your seat?” I would use experimental approaches if I were showing experimental film especially. I would feel like I had the liberty to do that.
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