Russian Feminism: Twenty Years Forward and We Want Roses Too have very little in common in their style, form, and approach to the question of women’s movements and feminist politics in Europe. While the first film aims at locating contemporary Russian feminism in the context of ongoing East-West debates, the second offers a reflexive and personal take on the profound political and cultural changes brought about by the Italian feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, when used simultaneously in a class these two documentaries can provoke an interesting discussion about the identity, definitions, and geographical and intellectual boundaries of European feminism, a concept that is rarely critically explored within the space of the feminist classroom.
Russian Feminism (35 min.), directed by Igor Sopronenko and produced by Beth Holmgren, is a much-needed addition to feminist scholarship on re-emerging Eastern European feminisms. The film consists of eighteen interviews with Russian and U.S. feminists who offer their assessments of the successes and failures of the efforts to create and maintain transatlantic networks for scholarship and activism. Put together, these narratives represent a unique perspective on transnational feminism, one that centers the second world, that is often inconspicuously absent from the feminist debates, and that challenges some existing assumptions about Russian and, more generally, Eastern European women's mobilizations. The title, Russian Feminism: Twenty Years Forward, itself—intentionally or not—suggests a shift away from the well-established representation of post-state socialist feminisms as twenty years behind their Western counterparts. The film demonstrates that transnational academic networks were established in the early 1980s, long before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and reminds us that the pre-Soviet tradition of grassroots women's mobilizing existed before the arrival of Western donors. In this context it is unfortunate that the authors shied away from reconceptualizing the period of state socialism; the film represents it as entirely antifeminist, although some scholars have already challenged such an approach.1
Unlike much of the existing scholarship, Russian Feminism does not idealize Eastern European feminisms' relationship with the West, instead delineating challenges of the chasing-the-donors model of institutionalized, Western-funded activism. And although the film does little to dispute either existing representations of second world women as inactive or the well-known mantra claiming that “there is no feminism after socialism,” it captures subtle, often unspoken tensions between feminists from East and West. From the paternalistic belief expressed by U.S. scholars that the “real” problem of Russian feminism is that American feminist books are not available there, to Russian activists’ straightforward emphasis on the necessity of keeping relationships between both sides in balance, complex and multilayered dynamics of power and interdependence unravel before the audience's eyes, giving us a rare peek into the politics of representation and location within the second world.
It is very telling that whereas Russian Feminism's narrative is rooted in the broader context of an ongoing relationship with the West, We Want Roses Too (84 min.) focuses on a very personal, individualized story that differs significantly from the existing narratives of the profound social and cultural transformations brought by women’s movements. The film, directed by Alina Marazzi, is a collage, a cinematographic jigsaw of found footage, television advertisements, and oral history that offers an affective approach to the Italian second wave of feminism. Emotionally charged and dark at times, the film captures a wide range of feelings and responses to social change: from empowerment and hope to anxiety, doubt, cynicism, and depression. Through visual glimpses of everyday reality, its gendered aesthetic, and fashion, the film gives us an insight into a vernacular of the 1960s and 1970s Italian feminist revolution. Oral histories, such as Anita's (1967) about growing up in a patriarchal Italian family, Teresa's (1975) on facing a decision about illegal abortion, and Valentina's (1979) of being torn between her commitment to the waning women's movement and a personal relations crisis, help retrace the subjectivity formation process of feminist activists in this place and time.
Thanks to its intertextuality We Want Roses Too is less a typical documentary than a reflexive journey that intentionally counters existing grand narratives of feminism through its form and content. The innovative form can pose a challenge to the film's audiences, especially if the viewer is not familiar with the language of visual and conceptual arts or willing to work against the linear text. At the same time, while revolutionary in its form, the film can disappoint in terms of the innovativeness of the analysis that it offers. The director, who takes a postmodern approach to the Italian feminist movement, fails to address some of the not-so-recent critiques of subjectivity proposed by postmodern—including Italian—feminist scholars themselves.2 While reiterating some of the stereotypical representations of Italian women as Catholic, white, and heterosexual, the film, produced in 2007, fails to speak to the multidimensionality of Italian women's subjectivity and leaves the experiences of certain groups, such as nonwhite and immigrant women, behind.
As it is too frequently represented as a monolith and often—particularly within postcolonial studies—equated with the colonizing force, the concept of “European feminism” needs to be critically assessed and deconstructed. The two films reviewed here can provide a starting point for a class discussion about the diversity of women's mobilizations in Europe, various narrative tools to represent them, and the multiple positionalities of European women's movement vis-à-vis U.S. and postcolonial feminisms.
Magda Grabowska is an assistant professor at the Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology Institute at Warsaw University. She is currently working on the European Union–funded project Bits of Freedom: Women's Agency in State Socialist Georgia and Poland.
1 Alexandra Hryckak, “From Mothers' Rights to Equal Rights: Post-Soviet Grassroots Women's Associations,” in Women's Activism And Globalization: Linking Local Struggles and Transnational Politics, ed. Manisha Desai and Nancy A. Naples (New York: Routledge, 2002), 62-79; Basia Nowak, “'Where Do You Think I Learned How to Style My Own Hair?' Gender and Everyday Lives of Women Activists in Poland's League of Women,” in Gender Politics and Everyday Life in State Socialist Eastern and Central Europe, ed. Shana Penn and Jill Massino (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 45-58.
2 See Paola Bonifazio, “Feminism, Postmodernism, Intertextuality: We Want Roses Too (2007),” Literature-Film Quarterly 38, no. 3 (2007): 171-82 (available online at
We+Want+Roses+Too+%282007%29.-a0234720445) and Rosi Braidotti, “On Becoming Europeans,” in Women Migrants from East to West: Gender, Mobility, and Belonging in Contemporary Europe, ed. Luisa Passerini, Dawn Lyon, Enrica Capussotti, and Ioanna Laliotou (New York: Berghahn, 2007), 23-44.