Reflections from London Feminist Film Festival 2016

Melissa Chaplin


Doing a PhD that focuses upon creative art, I’m often asked: ‘What’s the point?’ In a world of terrifying injustice, in the face of unbearable pain, what good is art? This question rumbled under the surface at this year’s London Feminist Film Festival, where organisers themed evenings around topics such as: the experiences of refugee women; the right to choose; and women’s bodies as sites.  Throughout the film screenings and following discussion, the value of art as activism was clear.  Where facts might tell you a truth, art takes you by the hand and draws you into it.  Facts can make you think: art can make you feel.

The London Feminist Film Festival has been running annually since 2012, with the goal of supporting women filmmakers, as well as sparking discussion and activism. This year, it took place from 18 to 21 August at the Rio Cinema in Dalston.  I was honoured to be invited to speak at their event centred on issues surrounding Refugee Women on 19 August, connected to the work of the Researching Multilingually at Borders project, of which my doctorate is one part.

There were three films screened that evening: Set Her Free; Women Speak Out! Ntombi; and The Ambassador’s Wife.  Although all three films explored the difficulties faces by refugee women, they took very different approaches. Set Her Free is a short animation, using highly stylised artwork to create a first person view of one woman’s journey, including her detention.  It was produced by the charity Women for Refugee Women. Women Speak Out! Ntombi is part of a series of films by the Women’s Resource Centre, bringing the voices and narratives of refugee women to the forefront, using short interviews.  Finally, The Ambassador’s Wife is a longer film, directed by Dina Zvi-Riklis of Israel, telling the story of an Eritrean woman who, following political events that threaten her life, flees her country to Tel-Aviv.

Set Her Free was remarkable for its use of animation to draw the viewer into the world of the protagonist, Margaret. We see through her eyes the horrors of abuse, rape and detention.  It is almost impossible to cover such intense themes in a film under five minutes long, but the animated piece manages to create a world and story within that time.

The Ambassador’s Wife was controversial amongst the audience, with some questioning the central character’s lack of agency in events that unfolded. The situation of the protagonist was, however, sympathetic, and the film successfully highlighted the way that even someone with every possible ‘advantage’ (education, social standing, wealth) could find themselves in an impossible situation.  The cinematography was beautiful, and it certainly sparked lively debate in the discussion that followed.

Although all of the films were very powerful, I was particularly struck by Women Speak Out! Ntombi. I had the honour of sitting beside Ntombi, who was one of my fellow panelists, during the screening.  Her words, both in the film and in the discussion afterwards, were incredibly moving.  Her testimony about her experiences affected clearly the audience deeply, and I’m sure anyone who watches the interview will feel similarly.  The evening was a potent reminder of the strength of individual narratives to call for social justice.

In addition to Ntombi, I was joined on stage by Sarah Graham, a freelance journalist and communications manager, and the discussion was chaired by Vivienne Hayes MBE, the CEO of the Women’s Resource Centre. The audience members asked some excellent questions, and some of the conversations that developed are available on the festival’s YouTube channel.

It was notable that two of the three films screened were clearly designed with a social media audience in mind. Where people feel some media outlets are failing them, they are increasingly turning to other means of dissemination.  The evening ended with a call for action: to raise awareness; to donate money; and to protest detention.  To take our feelings of horror and sadness and turn them into a force for change.  What good is art?  Watch the films, and you tell me.


Researching Multilingually at Borders

Women Speak Out!

Set Her Free

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