A day at the archives… Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir

Ylenia Olibet, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

15 November 2019


Sitting in one of the biggest writing rooms of Concordia University’s library in Montreal, where I spend most of my days doing research as a doctoral student — a Proustian trick of memory takes me back to the two months I spent in Paris this past spring. In a state of scholarly reverie, I think back, reflecting and re-elaborating on the archival research conducted in May and June at the Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir (CASdB).

The CASdB is a feminist audio-visual archive, located in a small apartment of the elegant 28 Place Saint-Georges in Paris, right at the foot of Montmartre. 19th century buildings circle the quaint place, with a fountain laying at its centre. All of this, and the Theatre St-Georges, where Truffaut shot some of the sequences of Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980), constitute the Parisian urban background in which the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir currently finds itself. However, with the bobo[i] atmosphere of the square, the role and meaning of the feminist archive is ironically enhanced, as its vault of subversive material is tucked away in a historic building within a trending hotbed of Paris. The existence of this archive is known mostly to the people who work there and or to feminist locals and tourists, queering Place St. Georges by means of the center’s mission to challenge a canonical and dominant history, bringing forth a counter-history of the feminist struggle, encased by this archive. The collection of feminist and LGBTQ militant videos preserved at the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir plays a crucial role in documenting and sustaining the cultural memory of the women’s movement and of feminist struggles, thus helping to institutionalize and integrate feminist historiography in France.

Figure 1: 28, Place St George, Paris. The Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir is located on the fourth floor of the mansion that was the residence of the famous French courtesan La Paiva in the XIX century.

The origins of the center are a part of the same media history as that of the 1970s, which saw women and feminist militants able to take on video technology in order to document the activities of the feminist movement and to create experimental work. This largely became possible given the flexibility of the new filmic medium. Instead of the heavier, outdated film equipment, the ease of video-taping allowed for these projects to emerge despite the lack of solid infrastructure available throughout the transition from film to video in the industry, especially for women (Jeanjean 2011). In 1982, Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig, and Ioana Wieder, founders of the video collective Les Muses s’amusent in 1974, spawned the CASdB in collaboration with and thanks to the support of both grassroot feminist collectives as well as institutionalized feminist groups. The mission of the Centre was to archive, and support the production and dissemination of feminist and queer militant films and videos. In practice, since 1982, the centre has been active in promoting feminist works, as well as devising and instituting a distribution infrastructure built to circulate such work.[ii] Moreover, the center’s distribution and exhibition practices, which take place mainly through community-based screenings, expands the archival function of the CASdB beyond one solely of preservation. Similarly, CASdB organizes educational activities in schools and prisons, using the resources of its catalogue to inform of the necessity to deconstruct gender stereotypes in media. Finally, today, the center has established a partnership with Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the official French state archive, to digitize the videos of its collection. Through these operations of “remediation” and “recontextualization,” which Brunow finds characterizing contemporary archival practices across several European film archives (2017:98), CASdB creates a collective audiovisual memory, a testament to the feminist cultural and political militant experiences from the late 1960s onward.

The main collection of the archive is made up of feminist and LGBTQ videos made in France, including Sois belle et tais-toi ! (Delphine Seyrig, 1976) and more recent No Gravity (Silvia Casalino, 2011). The archive also stores books, distribution catalogues, programs of feminist film festivals and cultural events, journals on feminist film theory, like the Sorcieres and Les Cahiers du GRIF, film paratexts (such as posters and catalogues featuring said films), as well as dossiers on feminist filmmakers. Furthermore, the CASdB houses a special “metatextual” collection of documents that together reassemble the origin story and overall history of the center. This variety of collections, thus, provides a reservoir of primary sources that not only allow for historiographic research on the women’s movement in France, but also, more importantly, helps retrace the very establishment of feminist film culture. The audiovisual texts, indexed in their digital database, remain the primary focus of the centre, with digitization fast becoming the CASdB’s leading task. Through its collection of militant videos, contemporary documentaries and experimental videos, the centre plays a crucial role in substantiating the legacy of women’s and queer cinema. Archival research at the CASdB enables one to get to know the formal strategies involved in video-making within militant feminist media production as well as the ability to retrace the work of women in the film and video industry at large.

Seeing as my doctoral research tackles the genealogy of transnational feminist film culture, when conducting my field work at the CASdB, I was particularly interested in looking for the paper trail of exchanges, collaborations, and correspondences between different locally-situated feminist groups and artists that were active in fostering the engagement of women with media technologies and providing platforms for the circulation and exhibition of women’s films and videos. Thus, I divided my archival research between looking through boxes of feminist journals and film paratexts as well as watching videos catalogued in the database of the Centre. The militant practices documented and archived at the CASdB bring to light the complexity and the variety of experiences that characterize the women’s movement and practices around feminist film- and video-making.

The documentary videos I encountered demonstrate the establishment of feminist circuits of solidarity — both at the level of grassroots politics and of theoretical conversations, since the 1960s. For example, the documentary Manifestation à Hendaye-5 octobre (Anne-Marie Faure-Fraisse & Isabelle Fraisse, 1975) exposes the experience of a march organized by French feminists to support Spanish women protesting the Francoist dictatorship. The film lingers on the moments of discussions among the participants after the march, who reflect and make explicit the links between the feminist movements and antifascist struggles. On the other hand, footage from American Feminism (Beauvoir et les Québecoises) (Luce Guilbeault, year unknown) and Flo Kennedy, portrait d’une féministe americaine (Carole Roussoupoulos and Ioana Wider, 1982), captures the commitment of militants from various contexts to create feminist theory through conversations with other feminists from different contexts, foregrounding what Adrienne Rich would call “politics of location” (1989), instead of a universal feminist discourse.

During my residency at the Centre, I was given a desk and access to a hard disk that stores most of the digitized videos of the catalogue. As I was watching videos at the computer or browsing amidst the boxes containing posters, brochures, and catalogues — I was sharing the work space with Anna, the person in charge of distribution, Annette, the accountant, and the interns, Aliénor and Peggy. Nicole, the director of the center, would sometimes join us, too, if she was not giving educational workshops on gender stereotypes or travelling the film festival circuit. My conversations and exchanges with these archivists and administrators about feminism, film, theatre, and feminist queer spaces around Paris became as important as the archival objects and audiovisual texts that I was studying. In this respect, conducting research at a small archive like the CASdB allows for the researcher to work tête-à-tête with varying feminist media practitionners. In this way, it becomes clear that the archive is not monolithic, static, nor neutral, but an active assemblage — performatively brought about by the work of people (Ghani). Especially if considering the case of a feminist (counter-)archive, the collaborative methods of working as well as horizontal decision-making across the collective at the CASdB points at the affective labour involved and required in the functionality and maintenance of the archive. Immersing into archival research at CASdB gave me access to substantial historiographical media, but also functioned as a training session for developing feminist methodologies of labour, research, and collaborations.

Link to Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir website: http://www.centre-simone-de-beauvoir.com


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Nicole Fernandez Ferrer, Anna Dzhangiryan, Annette Gourdon, Aliénor Grancher, and Peggy Préau for all their assistance and lovely conversations! Thanks in particular to Nicole and Anna for re-reading the piece.


[i] In the young and colloquial register of French, this term designates the French Parisians “hipsters”. The term is a portmanteau of the words bourgeois and bohemian.

[ii] A very accurate reconstruction of the history of the centre was written by Joelle Bolloch. Her Historique du centre, from which factual information in this paragraph is drawn on, is available online at: http://www.centre-simone-de-beauvoir.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/HistoriqueCASdB-Mai2017.pdf .


References:

Brunow, Dagmar. 2017. “Curating Access to Audiovisual Heritage: Cultural Memory and Diversity in European Film Archives.” Image & Narrative 18 (1): 97-110.

Ghani, Miriam. 2015. “What We Left Unfinished. The Artist and the Archive” in Dissonant Archives. Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, ed. Anthony Downey. London: British Academic Press. 78-120.

Jeanjean, Stephanie. 2011. “Disobedient Video in France in the 1970s: Video production by women’s collectives”. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 27: 5-16.

Rich, Adrienne. 1989. “Notes toward a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry. New York: Norton. 210-231.


Ylenia Olibet is a PhD candidate at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on contemporary feminist film culture in Quebec from a transnational perspective, under the supervision of Professor Rosanna Maule. Her research is funded by the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Societé et Culture. She is the co-editor in chief of Synoptique – An Online Journal of Film and Moving Images Studies. She is also affiliated to the Global Emergent Media Lab where she currently curates the Works-In-Progress workshops series.


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