girlfriends: the feminist coming of age film you haven't heard of

How Claudia Weill’s cult classic inspired a generation of feminist filmmakers.

by Stevie Mackenzie-Smith
04 September 2015, 4:35am

This summer on-screen depictions of female friendships and burgeoning female sexuality have felt refreshingly present with the release of films like Diary of A Teenage Girl, Mistress America and Trainwreck.

These complex, relatable depictions highlight an intense craving amongst female viewers for a greater variety of films about women within mainstream cinema. Stevie Mackenzie-Smith speaks about this need with Jemma Desai, a film programmer at BFI and founder of film project I Am Dora, a London-based curatorial project exploring how women relate to each other through film screenings, discussions and publications. The 'Dora' in I Am Dora comes from the pseudonym given to Ida Bauer, one of Freud's first case studies in female hysteria. I Am Dora has hosted events at ICA, BFI Southbank, and in collaboration with Josephine Decker, Romola Garai and Rania Stephan. The latest event is a screening of Claudia Weill's 1978 cult classic Girlfriends, the film about female friendship and single-living in New York City which was the pre-cursor to films like Frances Ha and Lena Dunham's TV series Girls. Stevie and Jemma caught up over Skype to talk Girlfriends, the problem of categorising all films about women under the same umbrella and what it means to see yourself represented on-screen.

Somebody once described Frances Ha to me as "a massive rip-off of Girlfriends", which made me very curious to watch it…
I came across Claudia Weill's Girlfriends through a friend. I'd been watching Girls, which at the time felt like a discovery, that you could be lost in your late twenties, and have dysfunctional relationships and that somebody else felt the same. I saw Frances Ha, and felt like I was watching the last year of my life. Adam told me, "If you like those two things, you should watch Girlfriends."

It was made in 1978 but much of Girlfriends feel timelessly familiar; in one scene Susan is aimless in her flat at night. She phones a friend to invite them to the cinema but they have plans with their boyfriend. She puts on a record, paces, and records a stupid answering phone message. It's one of those nights when staying in with yourself for company feels like second-best. Then she has a power-cut. 'Fuck.' She whispers. 'I hate it.'
The themes explored in Girlfriends, of not knowing what you're supposed to want or who you're supposed to be haven't changed. They're relatable to Greta Gerwig's problems in Frances Ha, or Lena Dunham's in Girls. I think it's even more confusing now because there's a conflict about what you're allowed to desire and value in your life and for the future. It's really hard to grow up now. It's been said to death but there aren't clear milestones, and if you do anything creative there's no real path to financial security.

You describe I Am Dora as a 'curatorial initiative exploring how women relate to one another through film.' What was the starting point for the project?
I am Dora started as a way to talk about things that weren't being talked about. I'd worked at the BFI's London Film Festival and most of the films shown were academic, yet people weren't discussing how they made them feel. At the time the films I was watching were making me feel a lot and this wasn't expressed in any other curation I was seeing. The project takes a conceptual art approach, hosting screenings and creating publications with designer Claire Huss. The I Am Dora blog charts the moments when it feels like a film was destined to come into your life; when they speak to the things happening to you right now.

If you're in the UK, Girlfriends is notoriously hard to get hold of. I've tried for over a year and my knowledge is patched from trailers and clips online. Why is it so hard to watch?
It's an issue of access; you can watch it on DVD in the US, but not in the UK. There are two 16mm prints of the film available in the UK, which is a tricky format for most cinemas to play. I think at a certain point after Claudia Weill made the film it wasn't "cool" any more, so Girlfriends wasn't seen to have the same cultural importance as other American films being made by male directors. There's a sense that it's cool again at the moment.

I've spoken to the owners to the UK rights of Girlfriends about making a Digital Cinema Package which would allow more cinemas to show it again, but they're reluctant to do it. There's a demand; when we screened Girlfriends at BFI Southbank last year (the first UK showing since the film's 1978 release) the entire 450-seat theatre sold out. It's hard to understand why someone won't digitise this film. If Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture is on Criterion, Girlfriends should be too.

Excitingly, there are a couple of rare UK screenings of Girlfriends taking place as part of this month's Scalarama Festival. You're hosting one in London; what are you planning?
We're showing Girlfriends at Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley alongside a short film called Latifah and Himli's Nomadic Uncle. Made in the 90s, it's about two Muslim girls talking and walking around Southall. There's lots of great hair, humour, puffa jackets, and an amazing New York Jazz-influenced soundtrack. It has references to a film like Girlfriends but it's rooted in a completely different way.

What does it mean to find on-screen depictions that speak to you? I'm interested in the value of having a truism to take home when you leave the cinema, and learning more about oneself through journeys in film.
I felt really sad when Diary of a Teenage Girl was certified 18, because seeing that when you are 15 would be amazing. To see a girl behaving in a way generally perceived as 'slutty' and see burgeoning sexuality that isn't motivated by a deep trauma would be brilliant. When I was a kid I got very excited if there was somebody Asian on TV, but I didn't feel like I found myself on-screen when I was younger. Something I love about film is the journey they can send you on; of discovering books, poetry, art and other thinkers and writers. One of the first films I went crazy over was The Hours. I loved all three women in it, and it led me onto Mrs Dalloway.

Demeaning on-screen depictions of women can be upsetting because we are all different; people react in multiple ways within the same hour. You could have one opinion at the beginning of the day that completely changes by the end. I love films with no resolution or with crazily unlikeable characters. You might not understand why you've watched them for two hours, because that feels real to me.

It's easy to be excited by the simultaneous release of big films about women this summer, but it also feels lazy to lump them together, as if "films about women" are hot fodder, or a marketing gimmick?
I've just finished a project with (director) Josephine Decker, which involved bringing writers and critics of colour together to respond to her work. I spoke to Chardine Taylor-Stone -- a brilliant activist -- who said "we need to be careful that our artistic drive and need to make work isn't driven by market trends." That's especially important when you're making work around representation and identity. We screened Girlfriends last year, and I had an argument with the copywriter because they wanted to describe Girlfriends as "if Woody Allen had directed Frances Ha." I fundamentally disagreed with comparing Claudia Weill's film to these two male directors.

It's very important to get your work out there, but there's something to be said for keeping control of the way it is presented via film marketing and the trends that drive listicles and digital content. The message should stay pure to the meaning it had to you.

Girlfriends screens as partat Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley on Sunday 6 September 2015, 2pm. It is part of Phoenix Cinema's Directed by Women strand and is presented in association with I Am Dora and Scalarama.

Girlfriends will also screen in Bristol at the Cube Cinema on Sunday 13 September 2015, 8.30pm. It is presented by Female Trouble, a regular night celebrating non-confirmist representations of women in cinema.


Text Stevie Mackenzie-Smith

claudia weill
i am dora