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“The Heretics”: Women of the Heresies Collective

The author interviews the maker of a documentary that captures a prolific period of feminist art, focusing on the collective as, according to the film web site, “a microcosm of the larger international women’s movement, in which thousands of small, private groups of women met together in forms unique to their own settings.”

Video artist and filmmaker Joan Braderman, who teaches at Hampshire College, moved to New York in 1971 to become an artist. She joined a women’s art collective that from 1977 to 1992 published a ground breaking journal, Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics.

Braderman, whose work is in such permanent collections as MoMA and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, thinks without that group of women she might not have become a filmmaker. She decided to make a documentary about the group, “The Heretics,” which was the closing night film for the San Francisco Women’s Film Festival on April 11. Through interviews and digital motion graphics, Braderman tells the story of the art collective and their determination to change things for women. She said the idea came to her while she was on a monument in Mexico in 2006.

“I was depressed about the political situation,” she said. “I was able to get away enough from my life, and I was looking at the clouds, and I thought I don’t have to have my head in Bush World. It would be wonderful to visit this time when things seemed optimistic.”

Braderman traveled around looking up her colleagues, with whom she had spent six years going to meetings. The women are now dispersed from Spain to New Mexico to Maine and all of them are still in the arts—painting, writing, designing, or making movies.

Braderman said the response to the movie has been encouraging, especially from young women who get inspired seeing determined women doing what they set out to do.

“There has been a lot of laughing and crying at the screenings and so much warmth and enthusiasm,” she said. “A lot of the young women want to go out and start a group the next day.”

The women who started the Heresies Collective were quite a group. The fact that all of them are still making art says a lot about the collective and what drove the women to join it 30 years ago, Braderman said.

“We were all pissed off,” she said. “Everybody was realizing all the internalizing self doubt women had and that we had to struggle to make ourselves strong, and we couldn’t necessarily do that without support.”

Braderman wanted to make the film because some of the women were in their 80s, and she felt the story was important to tell. Not a lot has been written about Heresies, she said.

“We were suspicious of leaders, so we didn’t do media work or project any image of ourselves,” she said. “So it was left to people who hated us or were threatened by us to define us, and they thought we were these hairy women who needed to get laid.”

In the movie, the women recall how no one did the same job on any two issues of the journal, and how they refused to have a budget or a business plan. Braderman laughed at the memory.

“People think you have to use the old models that are in place and don’t work,” she said. “We wanted to try something new. It was democracy at its most basic level and we were just committed to making that work.”

Crescent Diamond, a former student of Braderman’s and the producer on “The Heretics,” says this kind of commitment is rare.

“The most impressive thing to me is that they actually put out 27 issues,” she said. “I’ve worked in collectives and to even get one magazine out is a miracle.”

Distributing the magazine was also done in a collective style.

“Some of this is inconceivable to younger women,” Braderman said. “Someone said to me, ‘I’m sure the first place you went to distribute was to women’s studies and gender departments.’ I said, ‘Honey, we didn’t even have female professors!’ We loaded up an old van and dropped it off at newsstands.”

All the women involved were excited to do the documentary, Braderman said, and she was glad to put them in a film.

“I work in media and teach film and video, and I’m so sick of seeing male movie stars getting younger and younger girlfriends,” she said. “I want to have women on screen who just don’t care what they look like because they’re busy. I wanted to make looking at older faces less scary. You never see an older face in this medium unless it’s grandmothers or people dying of cancer or something, not just regular, busy, active human beings.”

Braderman said making the movie gave her and her colleagues a chance to reflect on what has been accomplished—and what’s still left to do.

“A friend of mine calls it enlightened sexism,” she said. “Everybody is pretending it’s all over and all the battles have been won. But different generations are going to have to take this on again and again and again and each generation is going to have to come to own conclusions.”

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