As a lady-spectator who can reliably be found at Metrograph on a weekend afternoon, I cried publicly (happy tears!) when the press release from “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories” appeared in my Twitter feed some months ago. Guest programmed by Nellie Killian, “Tell Me” centers on intimate nonfiction films by and about women—and complicates the question of how, exactly, womanhood is understood and defined. I had the privilege of speaking to Nellie about the process of programming what has lately revealed itself to be such an urgent, timely series.

Double Exposure: When did you start working on “Tell Me”? Has the public discourse about women in the film industry, which I suppose has been especially strong over the course of these past few months, informed the plans you initially had in mind?

Nellie Killian: I initially thought of doing a program like this like four years ago when I saw the restoration of Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction at the New York Film Festival. I had an interest in political documentary, in feminist filmmaking and experimental documentary, and that movie brought so many of those things together, so I started thinking about doing a series that could focus on women telling their stories, this sort of intimate type of documentary filmmaking. But it was kind of on the back-burner, because I thought I needed to refine the points a little—there needed to be more of a thesis, it wasn’t fully formed enough yet. And then, this summer and fall, reading all of these women’s stories and seeing the discourse around it, I realized, it’s time to do this, and it doesn’t need to have some super nuanced thesis. It’s just time. I felt like there was this refrain of “listen to women” that almost made it sound like it was a burden, or something, like a bummer. It’s not as if women are just starting to talk. They’ve been talking about all sorts of things, and no one’s been listening, and it’s really unfair [for men] to suddenly say, “Hey, I know I wasn’t interested when you had an idea in the meeting last week, but if you’d care to reveal your most traumatic memories, I’m all ears now.” There’s something so undeveloped about it, and so unempathetic. Yes, a lot of women [in the series] do talk about trauma, but also about all sorts of things. They talk about their jobs, they talk about motherhood, they talk about friendship, they talk about their childhood, political situations, Selena. It’s about having that fully-formed spectrum of female experience that allows you to be able to understand these things, so when a woman does end up talking about an abuse-of-power situation that she was in, it’s not in a vacuum.

DE: Sometimes, it feels extremely difficult to find out about the kinds of lesser-known female directors that “Tell Me” features so prominently, given the number of films out there in the world and discourse. For instance, although she’s not included in the program, I just learned about Ulrike Ottinger like a month ago, and I so regret not having been made aware of her work much earlier. Do you ever have the impulse to never program work by men ever again, and dedicate your career to uplifting these kinds of underrated women?

NK: I have broad taste for sure. I love doing a research project like this where you get to find stuff that hasn’t been seen. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to also show John Carpenter movies. I think there’s value in contextualizing things sometimes. It’s not as if these women were ever working in a system where they weren’t marginalized. There can be something interesting in saying, this woman was making movies at the same time as these men, and she deserves to be shown in this program with them, and she hasn’t been. It’s about integrating this work into the conversation and acknowledging that it’s not like other work isn’t good, it’s that there’s a lot of good work. So, I don’t have an impulse to go full separatist, but I do feel like it’s lazy not to be constantly expanding your knowledge. I think that if you’re doing a series and you find that it’s full of revered white male directors, maybe you haven’t done enough research.

DE: Had you seen every film in the series before you started programming it? How were you first exposed to some of these more obscure works, and how can other people who are interested in discovering less-known or underrated female directors go about finding them?

NK: I was familiar with a number of the movies through other interests. I was familiar with a lot of the work of Third World Newsreel through various programs I’d done in my previous job, or through programs I’d attended. I made a list of movies I was interested in for the program, and that was a jumping-off point. I sent my initial list to a librarian at the New York Public Library—they have a really incredible collection of a lot of personal filmmaking and these types of documentaries. A few years ago, I had done a series on black women filmmakers who were working in the 70s and 80s, and after that, the librarian there told me that she had made a list of different films in the library catalogue that were “feminist films.” So that was hugely important. I also reached out to a number of filmmakers and people who I knew were interested in this type of work to see if they had suggestions for me. I went to websites for distributors like Women Make Movies, EAI and VDB. Also, just researching. I’d find a movie that I hadn’t heard of and google a bunch of information about it. Once, I ended up on this article from a film journal in the ‘70s talking about how feminists were using the emergent technology of PortaPak to capture these political documentaries, and listing some major feminist PortaPak work—things I’d never heard of. That’s how I came across Always Love Your Man, which ended up being in the series. There are really good resources.

DE: As you sort of just alluded to, there’s a particular emphasis in Tell Me on work from the 1970s and ‘80s. Do you think there are specific conversations and issues from those decades that are especially pertinent again today? What can we learn from watching these films in 2018?

NK: Just as you said that, I realized that the ‘90s are kind of underrepresented. It wasn’t super conscious. Maybe because Soft Fiction was a touchstone for developing the series, that timeframe ended up feeling really rife with possibilities for it. One thing that I really respond to in a lot of these movies—one of the moments when I decided it was time to do the series—was reading that New Yorker article that had the accounts of 24 different women. One of the things that made it so painful to read was the similarity between their experiences—this repetition where all these different women have the same thing happen to them and then say, like, “and then I called my mother.” And then they talk about processing these things, with this idea that they were all doing it alone and all having the same self-doubt. I felt like, people have been sharing these stories for so long and it’s so upsetting that people still go through these experiences alone. You should be able to know about these other stories that are out there that can help you process your own trauma. One thing that I think I find specifically interesting in a lot of these movies from the ‘70s is that it’s like they’re summoning the words to describe it. I grew up having a lot of that language already to talk about certain things. Even words like “feminist.” Everyone’s a feminist in the milieu I grew up in—the language was there. Watching these women describe things, looking at the world and what their role in the world can be, and how much agency they had, it all feels so immediate. I think there was something in a lot of those stories I was reading that connected me to these movies [from the ‘70s], feeling this moment when everyone is getting a language to describe things and making sense of what happened to them.

DE: Conversely, though, by virtue of being older, some of these films—I’m thinking specifically here of Women Replyspeak to conversations about gender and womanhood in a way that, to me, reads as quite distinctly second-wave. They kind of date themselves by placing such a prominent focus on biological womanhood, or the binary opposition between men and women. Do you think those films still might have a useful place in the more nuanced conversations about gender that we’re having in 2018?

NK: One thing about these films that I find really generative is how, especially in something like The Women’s Film or Janie’s Janie, there’s this way in which [the filmmakers] show the process of gaining empathy for themselves and for other women. A lot of them were made in “consciousness-raising groups,” which is another super retrograde word that no one uses anymore. But there’s something really great about the idea that there isn’t a binary where you’re either “woke” or you’re not. It’s that you’re working on empathy, you’re working on these interconnected problems, and being open to having your mind changed. People want rules, and they want to be on the right side of things, but they just want that information to be handed to them, like a guidebook. That’s not the way it works. It’s a constant process of being open to new ideas. While I agree that, since some of these movies are almost 50 years old, that [dated] part exists, I also feel like they’re not TERFS or anything. They display an openness to other people’s experience that gives you the feeling that they’d get there.
“Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories” runs at Metrograph from February 2nd-11th.